Opinion
Federal Opinion

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

By Anthony Cody — April 16, 2013 4 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

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.


Commenting has been disabled on edweek.org effective Sept. 8. Please visit our FAQ section for more details. To get in touch with us visit our contact page, follow us on social media, or submit a Letter to the Editor.


Events

This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Teaching Webinar
6 Key Trends in Teaching and Learning
As we enter the third school year affected by the pandemic—and a return to the classroom for many—we come better prepared, but questions remain. How will the last year impact teaching and learning this school
Content provided by Instructure
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Student Well-Being Webinar
Attendance Awareness Month: The Research Behind Effective Interventions
More than a year has passed since American schools were abruptly closed to halt the spread of COVID-19. Many children have been out of regular school for most, or even all, of that time. Some
Content provided by AllHere
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
School & District Management Webinar
Ensuring Continuity of Learning: How to Prepare for the Next Disruption
Across the country, K-12 schools and districts are, again, considering how to ensure effective continuity of learning in the face of emerging COVID variants, politicized debates, and more. Learn from Alexandria City Public Schools superintendent
Content provided by Class

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Federal Feds to Probe Whether Texas Ban on School Mask Mandates Violates Disability Rights Laws
The Education Department has already opened investigations in six other states that ban universal school mask requirements.
2 min read
A staff member holds the door open for kids on the first day of school at Goodwin Frazier Elementary School in New Braunfels, Texas on Tuesday, Aug. 25, 2020.
A staff member holds the door open at Goodwin Frazier Elementary School in New Braunfels, Texas in 2020. This year, Texas has prohibited school districts from requiring all students to wear masks.
Mikala Compton/Herald-Zeitung via AP
Federal New Federal Team to Work on Puerto Rico School Improvement, Oversight
The Puerto Rico Education Sustainability Team will focus on creating better learning environments and improving financial management.
3 min read
Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona visits the Emilio Delgado School in Corozal on June 30, 2021 during a visit to Puerto Rico.
Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona visits the Emilio Delgado School in Corozal on June 30, 2021 during a visit to Puerto Rico.
Teresa Canino Rivera/GDA via AP
Federal Pandemic Tests Limits of Cardona's Collaborative Approach as Education Secretary
He's sought the image of a veteran educator among former peers, but COVID has forced him to take a tough stance toward some state leaders.
10 min read
Education Secretary Miguel Cardona and Schools Chancellor Meisha Porter speak to Mia Arias, 10, during their visit to P.S. 5 Port Morris, a Bronx elementary school, Tuesday, Aug. 17, 2021 in New York.
U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona and Schools Chancellor Meisha Porter speak to Mia Arias, 10, during a visit to P.S. 5 Port Morris, a Bronx elementary school, last month.
Brittainy Newman/AP
Federal White House Launches Hispanic Education Initiative Led by Miguel Cardona
President Joe Biden said his administration intends to address the "systemic causes" of educational disparities faced by Hispanic students.
2 min read
Education Secretary Miguel Cardona writes down and draws positive affirmations on poster board with students during his visit to P.S. 5 Port Morris, a Bronx elementary school, Tuesday, Aug. 17, 2021 in New York.
U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona visits students in New York City at P.S. 5 Port Morris, a Bronx elementary school in the Bronx last month.
Brittainy Newman/AP