Federal Opinion

John Thompson: Did Duncan Load the Bullets into Michelle Rhee’s Smoking Gun?

By Anthony Cody — April 16, 2013 4 min read
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Guest post by John Thompson.

The current headline is that John Merrow found “the smoking gun,” or the confidential memo warning Michelle Rhee of the extent of cheating that may have occurred in Washington D.C. schools in response to her draconian “reforms.” Merrow’s “Michelle Rhee’s Reign of Error” summarizes the evidence of an inexcusable failure to investigate the cheating and it recalls the lesson of Watergate - the cover-up is often worse than the original crime. Merrow concludes with the question, “What did Michelle know, and when did she know it?”

Merrow’s report leads to the question of “What did Arne Duncan know and when did he know it?” After all, Duncan and Rhee have earned the title of “the king and queen of data-driven education reform.”

The District of Columbia’s policies were not only due to the kindness of billionaires and their $65 million contribution to Rhee’s test-driven evaluation system. Rhee’s toxicity also was enabled by Duncan’s $75 million Race to the Top (RTTT) grant, and its requirements that bubble-in testing be used to punish schools and individuals. In fact, the announcement that D.C. had won a RTTT grant was coordinated with a last-minute effort by Duncan to save Rhee’s job as chancellor.

We should remember the closing days of Mayor Adrian Fenty’s unsuccessful reelection campaign. The primary had become a referendum on Rhee’s “reforms.” As Duncan’s department awarded RTTT funding, he praised the Fenty-Rhee education record as “absolutely extraordinary.” The Washington Post’s Bill Turque reported, “if any doubt remained about where the Obama Administration’s sympathies are in the District primary, they were eliminated at a morning photo op that preceded the official RTTT announcement.” Duncan’s announcement of the grant on the eve of the election had “the unmistakable feel of a Fenty campaign stop,” as Duncan joined the embattled mayor and his controversial chancellor in a walk with children wearing Fenty campaign stickers. Asked if he was taking sides in the Democratic primary, Duncan said of Fenty, “I’m a big fan.”

Soon afterwards, Duncan phoned the new mayor, Vincent Gray, urging him to retain Rhee as chancellor. He explained the intrusion into local affairs by saying of Rhee that he is a “big fan” of hers.

Duncan subsequently raised eyebrows by joining Rhee in a panel discussion at a time when D.C. schools were under investigation by the Office of the Inspector General. The New York Times’ Michael Winerip noted, “You would think Mr. Duncan would want to keep Ms. Rhee at arm’s length during the investigation. And yet there they were, sitting side by side last month.”

We should also remember that the ongoing D.C. cheating scandal could have unfolded differently. Atlanta also had a district leader who intimidated educators with demands for quick boosts in test scores, and who was decidedly uncurious about whether that pressure contributed to cheating. In Georgia, however, the probe was led by prosecutor Richard Hyde who distanced himself from politics when investigating the cheating. Winerip quoted Hyde, who said of Duncan appearing publicly with Rhee, “I’m shocked that the secretary of education would be fraternizing with someone who could potentially be the target of the investigation. The appearance of a conflict of interest is troubling because it can cause the public to lose faith in the investigation.”

Of course, Rhee deserves the lion’s share of blame for the “reign or error” in the D.C. schools. She was the one who placed unbearable pressure on administrators and thus encouraged cheating, nonstop test prep, and other educational malpractice.

Rhee has not been alone, however, in foisting high-stakes testing on the entire nation. She has done so with the financing of billionaires and Duncan’s D.O.Ed. So all three groups of accountability hawks should be held accountable. Rhee and her team in D.C. should all be subpoenaed. Corporate funders should demand an accounting of Rhee’s StudentsFirst. Above all, they should reveal the what factual basis, if any, the organization has for its teacher-bashing soundbites.

And President Obama should demand that Duncan explain what he knew about the toxic culture he helped fund in D.C. Duncan should then explain when he knew that data-driven “accountability” was driving the joy from teaching and learning. When did he know that high-stakes testing and honest school cultures are mutually incompatible?

What do you think? Should Duncan appoint a surrogate to do what he should have done and launch an impartial investigation of cheating in D.C. schools? Should Arne Duncan resign? Or, should President Obama first conduct an impartial investigation of Duncan’s RTTT and whether it incentivized equally destructive unintended consequences across the nation?

John Thompson was an award winning historian, with a doctorate from Rutgers, and a legislative lobbyist when crack and gangs hit his neighborhood, and he became an inner city teacher. He blogs for This Week in Education, the Huffington Post and other sites. After 18 years in the classroom, he is writing his book, Getting Schooled: Battles Inside and Outside the Urban Classroom.

The opinions expressed in Living in Dialogue are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.