The most chilling episode in Richard Whitmire’s biography of Michelle Rhee occurs near the end, when Rhee says to a PBS camera crew, “I’m going to fire somebody in a little while. Do you want to see that?” Of course they did, and they taped the chancellor of the District of Columbia public schools firing a principal. The victim’s face was not shown, but the episode revealed a woman who relishes humiliating those who have the misfortune to work for her.
“The Bee Eater” is a worshipful portrait of Rhee, who is best known for the Time magazine cover in which she is portrayed broom in hand, ready to sweep clean the filthy stables of the school system. And sweep she did, as nearly half the district’s teaching staff and a third of its principals resigned, retired or were fired during her brief tenure.
Whitmire regrets that she didn’t fire even more teachers, since he feels certain that fully two-thirds were incompetent. Firing so many African Americans may have cost Mayor Adrian Fenty his re-election, Whitmire writes, but it had to be done, and Rhee was the only person tough enough to do it.
Like Rhee, Whitmire believes that students’ academic performance is solely a function of the quality of their teachers. If students have low test scores, it is their teachers’ fault, while students with high scores had great teachers. Neither Whitmire nor Rhee seems aware that social science research has demonstrated for many years that what families do, and the advantages or disadvantages that family income confers, have even more influence on academic performance than what teachers do. Poverty makes a difference: When children start school at age 5, before they ever meet a teacher, there is already a gap in their vocabulary and readiness to learn. But never mind.
Whitmire maintains that Rhee was consistently stymied by the teachers’ union and by racial politics. The union, of course, objected to mass firings. And in his telling, black parents cared more about protecting the jobs of black teachers than about the education of their own children. Rhee alone put the well-being of black children above the “self-interest” of the adults in the system. She was also hobbled, he asserts, by negative reporting in The Washington Post. Careful readers would question that claim, since she received unwavering support from The Post editorial board, as well as from education writer Jay Mathews, and consistently fair treatment from reporter Bill Turque.
Did she succeed? Whitmire insists that she did and points to the District’s test score gains on the National Assessment of Educational Progress from 2007 to 2009. But the gains on the federal reading tests under Rhee were no greater than those under her predecessor Superintendent Clifford Janey, which were achieved without the firings and angst of the Rhee era. From 2005-07, under Janey, black fourth-grade students made a five-point gain in reading, but only a three-point gain under Rhee; Hispanic students made a 13-point gain in reading during Janey’s tenure, but only a one-point gain from 2007-09. Reading scores for eighth graders didn’t budge from 2002-09, regardless of who was running the school system. On the federal math tests for fourth grade students, the gains recorded on Rhee’s watch outpaced Janey’s, but the gains from 2003-05 were larger than those achieved under either Janey or Rhee. In eighth-grade math, D.C. students have made steady gains from 2003-09.
Whitmire, a longtime education writer, describes in reverential terms the dramatic turnarounds at Sousa Middle School and Dunbar High School. At Sousa, Rhee installed a new principal who was as tough and unforgiving as she was, and test scores soared. At Dunbar, she hired a turnaround team called Friends of Bedford from New York City who seemed to have the special magic that flows from cracking a whip over the heads of lazy adults and undisciplined students.
Whitmire paints the turnaround of Dunbar in made-for-Hollywood language. George Leonard, the leader of the group from New York City, is described as a “suave, intense man with a preternaturally soothing voice, a sharp sense of humor, a near-perfect ability to lock eyeballs, and that indefinable, impossible-to-find ability to reason with unruly students.” Leonard discovered a school where chaos reigned, fighting was commonplace, students openly smoked reefer, and the noise was deafening. Leonard swiftly took control, fired the principal, and began to turn the school around.
The reader anticipates the happy ending; we’ve seen it in the movies many times. The new sheriff rides into town, and peace is restored. But soon after Rhee departed, and apparently right before the deadline for the book, Dunbar spun out of control, and Rhee’s successor, Kaya Henderson, ousted the Friends of Bedford and restored the former principal. The miracle that we were led to expect evaporates with no explanation.
Rhee’s most important accomplishment, Whitmire writes, was persuading the teachers’ union to accept performance pay for the teachers considered most successful, defined largely by student test scores. Those teachers who accepted the higher pay would agree to give up their job rights. Whitmire doesn’t mention that 40 percent of those who were eligible for the extra money turned it down, preferring to keep their due-process rights. It does seem strange that a school district would devise a method to identify its “best” teachers and get them to agree to be fired if their students’ scores should drop.
Just last month, a report from the National Research Council suggested that it was too soon to conclude that mayoral control of the schools had led to major improvement in D.C. Nor did the report accept the widely touted idea that test scores alone are a good way to judge school improvement. Yet the belief that test scores are synonymous with school quality has become deeply ingrained in our national consciousness since the passage of No Child Left Behind in 2002. Based on that dubious metric, schools across the nation are closing or being privatized. It would be wonderful if the media and public learned to be immediately skeptical of dramatic score gains produced in a year or two.
A recent news report has revealed evidence of possible cheating in D.C. public schools under Rhee’s tenure. A computer analysis of erasures on standardized tests showed that more than half the schools in the system had an unusual number of answers changed from wrong to right. The investigation looked closely at dramatic rises in scores at the Crosby S. Noyes education campus, a school celebrated by Rhee as a model for her policies. Erasures at Noyes were a dozen times more common than at other schools.Perhaps Rhee did not realize how some educators would respond to her system of rewards and punishments. Yet as I wrote when the scandal broke, it raises questions about her credibility. At some point she ought to reflect on whether a heavy reliance on test scores encourages some desperate educators to get the results by any means necessary.
Michelle Rhee once ate a bee to show her students how tough she is. Now she is advising the nation’s most conservative Republican governors, including Chris Christie of New Jersey and Rick Scott in Florida, encouraging them to get rid of seniority and tenure. She applauded Gov.Scott Walker of Wisconsin as he stripped the public sector unions of their collective bargaining rights. She appeared in Indiana with Gov. Mitch Daniels, cheering the enactment of voucher legislation.
After reading Whitmire’s book, I am almost sorry that Fenty was not re-elected. Rhee should have had more time to demonstrate her ideas before they were foisted on the nation.
THE BEE EATER
Michelle Rhee Takes on the Nation’s Worst School District
By Richard Whitmire
270 pp. $24.95