Opinion
School & District Management Commentary

What Is Behind the Discrediting of Michelle Rhee?

By Richard Whitmire — February 28, 2011 6 min read

There’s one issue you won’t find in the 270 pages I wrote in my new book about Michelle A. Rhee, who spent 3½ turbulent and controversial years upending the District of Columbia public schools. Why, I kept asking myself during months of research, does Rhee draw such virulent responses from a select group of extreme detractors?

At the time I was writing, I wasn’t sure I had a good answer. But now is the time to take a shot at that question, given that the copycat criticism from her tenure in Washington is following Rhee to her new organization, StudentsFirst, as it spreads to other states.

While researching my book, The Bee Eater, I often shook my head in amazement after reading some of the online comments posted after a Washington Post story about Rhee. Wow, I would say to myself, some people really, really dislike her.

It’s not that Rhee didn’t, and still does, have many supporters. You don’t launch a new organization like StudentsFirst and declare a one-year goal of enlisting 1 million members and raising $1 billion without having more than a few backers.

But why, I kept asking myself, do some of these detractors go to such extremes? This core group of critics—well represented in any online discussion of Rhee and usually writing under disguised identities—seems to have limited interest in debating the school reform decisions Rhee made.

Rather, their goal is “proving” Rhee is a flat-out fraud. The most popular path toward that goal appears to be claiming that Rhee invented her success story as a Teach For America teacher at Harlem Park Elementary School in Baltimore. (Rhee says she started out as an awful teacher disrespected by her students, but eventually evolved into a highly effective teacher.)

From a book-writing perspective, that flap is a relatively minor issue. On the resumé Rhee handed out when nominated to be the Washington schools chancellor, she listed some startling test-score gains her students experienced after she figured out how to teach them. Her claims, she said, were based on what the principal told her.

I interviewed Rhee’s former principal, her teaching colleagues, and her TFA roommates, and came away confident that Rhee did, in fact, turn into a highly effective teacher. Today, with the benefit of hindsight, would Rhee cite exact test-score gains when, in actuality, the records don’t exist to prove them? No way. That was a rookie mistake.

The issue flared again in the last few weeks when a former District of Columbia math teacher produced test scores that he claimed proved conclusively that Rhee couldn’t possibly have achieved significant test-score gains. Those scores, however, can’t isolate Rhee’s actual students. To believe that Rhee pulled off a test-score-scam requires believing that her then-principal, Linda Carter, conspired in the scam. And that’s just the beginning.

The real nut of this is the threat to the pride of thousands of teachers, especially those in low-performing school districts."

Also required to be in on the conspiracy are Deonne Medley, Rhee’s teaching intern, who witnessed both the initial chaos in her class and the dramatic turnaround, plus Andrea Derrien, a student-teacher at the time who is now assistant principal at Scotts Branch Elementary School outside Baltimore.

“A year of working with Michelle has left me forever changed,” said Derrien in an e-mail interview, astonished by the flap over test scores. “Michelle proved to me over the course of that school year that regardless of environmental factors, socioeconomic status, parental involvement, or resources, ... effective, consistent, and high-quality instruction [can] provide every child the opportunity to successfully access the curriculum.”

Given that Education Alternatives Inc., the Minnesota company hired by then-Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schomke to take the academic reins at failing schools, chose Rhee to act as a mentor/demonstrator for other teachers, the “conspiracy” also requires believing the company deliberately chose a failing teacher to serve as its model. “Her class became the showcase class,” said Medley. “She became the go-to teacher.”

I like a good conspiracy theory as much as the next person, but ...

Rhee’s track record in Washington is ripe with data, both local and national. Why not judge her on that and her actual reforms, or her lengthy record building the New Teacher Project? Who cares what happened back in Baltimore?

It took a while, but eventually I heard a familiar tone in these attacks. It was an approach similar to the one the “birthers” have used to discredit Barack Obama. This particular fringe of protesters has no interest in debating President Obama’s policies. They need to deny him at a more fundamental level. They need to expose him as a fraud by proving he wasn’t born in the United States. If birthers can just prove that one fraud, then all the other “bad” stuff, especially the possibility that the nation’s first African-American president might succeed, would go up in smoke.

One difference is that the extreme Rhee critics come from left-wing, not right-wing, politics. The nexus of their issue with her appears to be that there’s something about Rhee’s school reforms that is uniquely threatening.

Rhee raises existential threats not presented by voucher conservatives. Rhee wants to curb teacher tenure; overturn “last hired, first fired” layoff policies; and impose teacher evaluations with teeth. Most important, these are not just think-tanky proposals. Rhee actually did all these things in Washington. The threat, now embraced by several governors, is real and internalized by unions. If teachers’ unions can’t guarantee quick tenure, preserve the last-hired, first-fired rule, and protect members from firings, why pay dues?

But we’re still not at the core of solving this mystery. This is not just about unions. The real nut of this is the threat to the pride of thousands of teachers, especially those in low-performing school districts. For years, they have argued that poverty and single-parent families explain the low performance of their students. Rhee is saying maybe, maybe not.

What struck me about the backlash Rhee experienced in Washington was the cloak of protection everyone afforded the city’s teachers. Politicians, parents, Washington Post columnists—they were all quick to rush to the defense of beloved teachers, citing their dedication and years of loyal service. The fact that the District of Columbia ranked as the worst school district in the nation and that similarly poor, African-American children fared far better in other urban districts (as much as two years ahead in learning) seemed not to warrant a mention. What mattered was that Rhee was questioning their life’s work.

Whether you’re a union leader or classroom teacher, threats just don’t penetrate any deeper. Teachers everywhere in Washington, whether highly effective or plainly awful, thought Rhee’s (poorly aimed, in my opinion) criticisms were targeting them. And that was more than enough to launch the birther-style rhetoric about Rhee.

See Also

Pat Santeramo, the president of the Broward Teachers Union and a vice president of the American Federation of Teachers, wrote a letter to Education Week reacting to this commentary: “ ‘We Must Work Together to Dispel Myths,’ ” March 9, 2011.

Today, that rhetoric has spread far beyond the question of what Michelle Rhee did or didn’t do in Baltimore. An anecdote intended to be funny that she passed on to new Washington teachers about placing tiny slivers of masking tape on kids’ lips as reminders to be quiet has now become: Rhee taped shut the mouths of small black children! (Read all about it in a recent op-ed published in The Miami Herald by Pat Santeramo, the president of the Broward Teachers Union and a vice president of the American Federation of Teachers, objecting to new Florida Gov. Rick Scott’s alignment with StudentsFirst.) A comment she made amid the “tiger mom” debates about not overly praising children (including her own on their so-so soccer skills) becomes: Rhee’s a terrible mother!

As StudentsFirst reaches more states, the birther-like rhetoric is likely to travel along. And it’s not likely to abate unless Rhee and her organization make no headway and therefore present no threat.

A version of this article appeared in the March 02, 2011 edition of Education Week as What Is Behind the Discrediting of Michelle Rhee?

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