The Battle to Defame Michelle Rhee; Critics' Charges Are Desperate Attempt to Derail School Reform across the Country

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), May 25, 2011 | Go to article overview

The Battle to Defame Michelle Rhee; Critics' Charges Are Desperate Attempt to Derail School Reform across the Country


Byline: Richard Whitmire, SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES

Granted, school reform is not a sporting event, but generals and politicians routinely twin sports and public policy. In that spirit, I offer this suggestion: With last week's greatly downgraded assessment of cheating in D.C. schools, we need a referee to call a strike count on the campaign to smear former schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee.

There appear to be two driving motives behind the movement to discredit Miss Rhee. First, she draws media attention that makes her the most visible of the national reformers who, in recent months, have pushed through dramatic school reforms.

Almost overnight, it seems, states such as Indiana, Colorado, Illinois, Ohio, Florida, Idaho and others have ushered in major education reforms at a rate thought impossible only a year ago: real teacher evaluations, test scores used as part of those evaluations, an end to seniority-based layoff policies, the disruption of forced placement of teachers, in which unwanted teachers are shoehorned into guaranteed jobs.

Miss Rhee is not responsible for those reforms; governors and legislatures pushed them through. And Miss Rhee's new school-reform advocacy group, Students First, is not the only national education-reform group pushing those officials for change. Portland, Ore.-based Stand for Children fights for the same changes, as do Democrats for Education Reform and American Federation of Children.

What makes Miss Rhee a special target is that as D.C. chancellor, she did all those things in a big hurry, demonstrating to others that not only can important reforms happen, they can happen in the near term. That wasn't a take-home message the teachers unions wanted governors absorbing from Miss Rhee's time in the District.

Second, and perhaps most important, Miss Rhee achieved her school gains in the District not by reducing class size, shrinking poverty, teaching parents to be better parents or purchasing slicker curricula - all the reforms deemed acceptable by the unions. Rather, the gains were achieved by sweeping out principals and teachers who totally blamed poverty for academic failures, had low expectations for their students' abilities, were weak in teaching abilities or all three. Their replacements weren't always perfect, or even that much better, but they were good enough to scrape the District off the bottom of national education rankings.

That message - that getting rid of ineffective principals and teachers produces gains - is a nightmare message for some. Miss Rhee's success story had to be disrupted, leading to a three-pronged campaign, which has proceeded in this order:

1. Miss Rhee faked her success as a Teach for America teacher in Baltimore: This charge starts with a kernel of truth. In 2007, when Miss Rhee presented her credentials before the D.C. Council, she made the rookie mistake of including outsized student gains in Baltimore, passed along verbally by her principal at the time. Big mistake. What can't be documented should never be uttered.

Miss Rhee paid for that mistake when amateur sleuths dug up testing data purporting to show that she could never have made those gains. It sounded convincing, but the amateurs could never pinpoint Miss Rhee's students. Plus, the critics never contacted the Baltimore principal, Miss Rhee's teaching aides or her fellow Teacher for America teachers. …

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