Last week, PBS’s “Frontline” broadcast “The Education of Michelle Rhee,” which sifted through old controversies and raised new issues. Was cheating in the D.C. schools worse than what was admitted during Rhee’s tenure as schools chancellor, and was that cheating triggered by her reforms?
Important questions, and worthy of another look at her legacy. Will Rhee be remembered as a cheat?
That would be the case if any investigators — news reporters, the Education Department, D.C.’s Office of the State Superintendent or the firm hired to investigate the cheating — had found that Rhee or top deputies encouraged cheating. That happened in Atlanta. But to date, that has not been found in the District.
More likely, Rhee wasn’t aggressive enough in investigating cheating. But think back to the Rhee years. Her biggest controversies arose from being too tough on teachers. Would her detractors have applauded yet another attack on teachers — this time for cheating? Not likely.
Those trying to make the sins of some teachers into the sins of Rhee merely illustrate how polarizing Rhee was — and still is. There are plenty of reasons to judge her harshly for her time in the District, but cheating doesn’t even make the top 10.
Most of the media coverage over cheating ignores something fundamental: The controversy is over cheating on the D.C. CAS (Comprehensive Assessment System), the local exam whose results are used to reward or punish teachers and principals.
This test has nothing to do with the federal exam used to compare achievement by D.C. students to similar urban students around the country. That test, the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), is the so-called “gold standard” of testing, and it showed that D.C. students made unique progress during the Rhee years.
It is almost impossible to cheat on the NAEP, which is administered by the federal government. In fact, there has never been any evidence of cheating on that test. Besides, there is no motive to cheat on the NAEP: No jobs are at stake.
That’s not to say that Rhee did nothing wrong during her time at the helm of the D.C. schools. She did several things wrong. Actually, more than several.
Rhee and former mayor Adrian Fenty failed to get buy-in for her reforms from African American parents. She failed to give teachers the tools they needed to succeed, such as online lesson plans proven effective by master teachers. She succumbed to the lure of the national spotlight, which bred resentment locally, especially with local news coverage that turned against her. She picked fights that backfired, such as trying to force changes at Hardy Middle School, a school that middle-class African American families had picked out as their turf. The list goes on.
But was holding teachers accountable for their students’ education (which, as the theory goes, encouraged cheating) one of her mistakes? To weigh that question, let’s translate this into a journalistic equivalent. Imagine an aggressive editor launching a new magazine. The editor relentlessly presses her young writers to produce unique articles on a crazy-fast deadline. One day, a writer gets exposed for taking a shortcut via plagiarism. Who’s at fault, the cheating writer or the aggressive editor?
In the real world, the writer gets blamed. It’s insulting to teachers to suggest that a whiff of accountability turns them into cheaters. Even fry cooks at McDonald’s face accountability.
This rush to diminish Rhee’s legacy sidesteps the question of how that legacy should be defined. I decided to write a book about Rhee because I thought her reforms might answer this question: Is it possible to take an urban school district designed almost solely for adults and refocus the system on kids?
At first, Rhee’s reforms appeared to be working. Low-income black students really did start to do better. As it turns out, the many D.C. teachers who for years blamed the shortcomings of their students entirely on their impoverished home lives were only partly right. Schools, at least those that know how to promote effective teaching, can make a difference.
That “difference” may not come close to overcoming the entire impact of poverty, but it is important enough to register on the only index that truly matters — more students graduating from high school ready for some kind of post-secondary education or training.
But in the end, the pushback against the Rhee reforms was too much. Rhee helped drag Adrian Fenty into defeat, which in turn led to her ejection. Does that mean Rhee lost the wrestling match? Not necessarily. The refocus on kids continues under Chancellor Kaya Henderson.
The more urgent question about D.C. schools involves speed. Can the Rhee-Henderson improvements keep up with a D.C. charter district better equipped to ramp up quality quickly? I used to think D.C. schools could hold their own. These days, I’m not so sure.
Richard Whitmire is the author of “The Bee Eater: Michelle Rhee Takes on the Nation’s Worst School District.”