Why do I still have hopes for Michelle Rhee, the leading symbol of education reform in America? It’s because of a call from her two years ago telling me she had said something stupid.
In March 2011, USA Today reported startling numbers of wrong-to-right erasures on the annual D.C. Comprehensive Assessment System tests in the three years Rhee served as D.C. schools chancellor. The evidence suggested educators had tampered with the answer sheets to inflate student proficiency rates, a crucial measure of school success
On the Tavis Smiley talk show that day, Rhee said the story meant “the enemies of school reform once again are trying to argue . . . there is no way test scores could have improved . . . unless someone cheated.” My cell phone rang at 7:30 a.m. two days later. “What I said was stupid,” Rhee said. She said she was glad the possible cheating was being investigated by her successor, Kaya Henderson. I thought it was a brave move, a reflection of Rhee’s candor, flexibility and commitment to kids.
But in her new role as head of Students First, a movement to improve schools through political action, she has taken a wrong turn. She has dismissed a mountain of evidence in Atlanta, Baltimore, the District and other cities that some principals and teachers are faking achievement test results.
Last week, she released a statement concluding there was “no evidence of widespread cheating” on D.C. tests from 2008 to 2010. Her proof? A series of superficial investigations, the parameters controlled by D.C. school brass, that never called on the expertise of psychometricians, never dug into the data, and lacked any reasonable explanations of how such erasures could have been made by anyone but adults.
Rhee is known for being tough-minded. So why not insist that investigators go deep even if it tarnishes her reputation or Henderson’s a bit? Rhee could have, but did not, congratulate Adell Cotherne, a D.C. principal she hired in the summer of 2010, for revealing signs of large-scale tampering at Noyes Education Campus.
On a PBS Frontline documentary, Rhee conceded there might be isolated cases of cheating in D.C., “but I can point to dozens and dozens of schools where they saw very steady gains over the course of the years we were there or even saw some dramatic gains that were maintained.” That’s not true. I examined the year-by-year test results at 115 D.C. schools from 2008 to 2012 and found only 13 with gains like that.
In 1997, Rhee created a nonprofit organization now called TNTP that among other things studied major school districts. She noted that more than 90 percent of teachers in some school systems were rated satisfactory while fewer than 40 percent of their students were proficient in reading and math. But in D.C., where fraudulently high test scores have kept students from getting the extra classroom help they need, she is backing adults trying to save their jobs over children who need her support.
Why not do the kind of studies she did at TNTP? She could turn to the experts who examined tampering in Atlanta, where 178 educators were found to have cheated. They could analyze financial incentives like the TEAM awards that Rhee sponsored as chancellor but have been so misapplied that five of the winning schools are now among the 40 lowest-achieving schools in city. One of them was Noyes. The school’s reading proficiency rate fell more than 50 percentage points from its peak after Cothorne changed the locks on the office where answer sheets were scored so staffers could no longer erase the kids’ answers.
Smart corrections of dumb moves were once a Rhee trademark. She still has a chance to help give the D.C. students she loves the honest educators they need.