RHEE BREEZES! The local press seems to be taking a pass on DCs new school poobah: // link // print // previous // next //
MONDAY, JULY 9, 2007
KRUGMAN REACTS: As we said, wed love to see some health care experts flesh out the portrait offered in Michael Moores superlative Sicko. Last week, a New York Times editorial writer may just as well have called in sick (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 7/5/07). This morning, Paul Krugman does better:
KRUGMAN (7/9/07): Now, every wealthy country except the United States already has some form of universal care. Citizens of these countries pay extra taxes as a result—but they make up for that through savings on insurance premiums and out-of-pocket medical costs. The overall cost of health care in countries with universal coverage is much lower than it is here.Youre right—the Times should do much more, in news reports. But this is a very good start. The single line which we have highlighted never gets less amazing.
RHEE BREEZES: For our money, Colbert Kings weekly op-ed column is the Washington Posts best. Typically, King concentrates on DC issues; this Saturday, he wrote about the challenges facing DC mayor Adrian Fenty as he assumes control of the districts public schools.
Racial integration is impossible in a system that is 84 percent black, King writes. Fenty's immediate challenge is to get District children the schooling necessary for them to make it in this competitive world. Is there any sign that Fenty can accomplish that with his new superintendent of schools, Michelle Rhee? (Sorry—with his new chancellor?) We wrote about Rhee several times last week. We thought we should finish that discussion.
Can the young, inexperienced Rhee improve the DC schools? We dont have the slightest idea. We assume that Rhee is a capable person—but we lack a crystal ball. We cant peer into the future.
But we will say this about Rhee: The gentle-lady is full of bold talk. Indeed, that became a part of the problem when questions were raised about certain claims Rhee has long made on her resume (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 7/3/07). Rhees teaching experience runs to all of three years, at Baltimores Harlem Park elementary school. Question: Did Rhee really produce the miracle cure in her third-grade class that she has claimed on her resume? Weve sorted that out as best we can. Today, we share what weve learned.
By way of review, Nikita Stewart quoted Rhees claim in the Washington Post:
STEWART (6/30/07): Rhee's résumé asserts that the students made a dramatic gain [when she taught them at Harlem Park]: "Over a two-year period, moved students scoring on average at the 13th percentile on national standardized tests to 90 percent of students scoring at the 90th percentile or higher.Everythings theoretically possible, of course. But scores like that, at a school like Harlem Park, would be astounding—an educational revolution. In our view, competent people should always be suspicious of claims as remarkable as that. Yes, its always possible that such claims are true—but over the course of the past forty years, such claims have often turned out to be bogus. Just as a simple technical matter, someone like Rhee should understand how implausible her claim actually is. Its amazing that this claim has sat on her resume, unchallenged, up to this late date.
But alas! By now, it seems fairly clear that the Washington Post and the Washington Times plan to take a pass on Rhees claim. Questions have been raised about the claim—but the citys two biggest newspapers dont seem eager to learn if its accurate. That said, lets look at what may have happened during Rhees three-year teaching career. Then, lets look at other improbable claims Rhee has made as she has climbed this particular ladder—as she climbed on the backs of the low-income kids King worried about this weekend.
What happened during Rhees three-year career? Absent actual test results, that question is quite hard to answer. But in late June, the Washington Times Gary Emerling offered some information that helped place Rhees claims in perspective. Again, for background, here is his summary of Rhees short teaching career:
EMERLING (6/28/07): Mrs. Rhee, 37, began her three-year teaching career at Harlem Park Community School in the 1992-93 school year through the Teach for America program.Again, this would be an astounding achievement at a low-income school like Harlem Park. But did Rhees students record such remarkable scores? Baltimores testing director, Ben Feldman, has declined to produce the relevant data. But Emerling did obtain some basic data for Harlem Parks 1995 third graders. The schools enrollment figures may be relevant, for reasons well cite below:
EMERLING: Mr. Feldman said retrieving data from a decade ago is hard because his office changed its information storage systems for the year 2000.Rhee seems to remember remarkably little about the kids on whose backs she has risen. But if Emerlings data are accurate, Rhees claim of astounding success would seem somewhat harder to credit.
According to Emerlings data, Harlem Park enrolled 440 kids in 1994-95. In a PreK-Grade 5 school, that would suggest that the school had two third grade classes in 1994-95, the year in question.
But uh-oh! As has been widely reported, Rhee taught her students as part of a team during her last two years at Harlem Park (Emerling). As with almost every part of this story, the reporting on this point has been murky. But it seems that Rhee team-taught with Michelle Jacobs, another young teacher, during that two-year period. Presumably, that would mean that Rhee and Jacobs, as a team, were teaching a pair of third grade classes; at this time, that may have been Harlem Parks entire third-grade population. But, according to Emerlings data, Harlem Parks third-graders achieved a score of 45 in reading and 51 in math in 1994-95. Those scores would be roughly average for the nation. That would have been a solid achievement at a struggling, low-income school like Harlem Park. But it would be nothing like the astounding success claimed on Rhees resume.
Or did Harlem Park have more than two third-grade classes in 1995? At the DC city council meeting last week, Rhees former principal, Linda Carter, and Jacobs, her former teaching partner, seemed to say that there were four third-grade classes at Harlem Park that year. Its hard to know why a school that small would have had four classes in one grade. But the questioning of Carter and Jacobs was inexpert, and the question of Rhees miracle cure was allowed to slide.
But then, Rhee and her supporters have fudged and back-slid all through this embarrassing process. Rhee herself has made an assortment of unlikely statements about her knowledge of these students test scores. Meanwhile, Carter and Jacobs offered downsized claims before the city council. Again, a chunk from Emerling:
EMERLING (7/3/07): Mrs. Rhee repeated yesterday that she did not have documents to support the increase but that she was told by the school's principal that her students had achieved such a gain.In Emerlings paraphrase (which is almost word-for-word accurate), Carter says she saw gains of more than 50 percent in at least the third and fifth grades at Harlem Park. Its impossible to know what such vague language means, but it doesnt seem to describe anything like the miracle claimed on Rhees resume. Meanwhile, Jacobs was pleasing but vague—the kids came a mighty long way, she said—and Rhee played semi-dumb for the millionth time, seeming to say that she, a crackerjack teacher, never saw the actual test scores recorded by her students. We watched the full testimony of Carter and Jacobs at the DC city councils web site. Lets just say this: Its hard to believe that such an achievement would be recalled in such vague and fuzzy ways. Meanwhile, its inexcusable that Rhee has built her career on a claim like this—a claim she has never been able to verify, despite her multiple efforts.
But then, these are the kinds of claims that have routinely been made, in the past forty years, by those who would build their reputations (and their bank-books) on the backs of low-income black kids. Over and over, claims like this have turned out to be false—but the society always seems happy to believe such claims the next time around. In this way, we see the way the wider society acts when the lives of black kids are at issue.
Lets speak frankly: If youre part of a well-connected elite—and if youre talking about black children—there is no claim you can make, no matter how improbable, that anyone will bother to fact-check or challenge. In this society, no one cares if your statements are true—if your statements concern black kids. Go ahead—make any claim you please! You will rise through the system on the strength of your claim—and when the moment of truth finally comes, big newspapers will duck the search for the truth. So will city councils.
What happens when connected players makes improbable claims about black kids? Lets review what happened here:
Does Rhee have anything to offer the district? We dont have the slightest idea. But Rhee has waltzed into office in the standard way; she has offered pleasing but implausible claims, while saying next to nothing about educational policy. But then, it has worked this way for a very long time. For more than forty years, the Narrative of the Miracle Cure has substituted for real discussion about the way low-income schools really work.
People like Rhee claim miracle cures—and say they can do it again, system-wide. City councils roll over and die. So do the nations big newspapers.
HAPPY-TALK YES, REAL DISCUSSION NO: We dont know Rhee, but she seems to be a master of the happy-talk which substitutes for real discussion when the lives of black kids are concerned. We wanted to show you the statement she offered about how she knows that all our children can succeed at the very highest levels. But wouldnt you know it? The web site of the DC schools has been down for the past two days, and that was where the pleasing statement was available. Rhee said virtually nothing about educational policy during her testimony to the city council.
PRINCIPALS SAY THE DARNDEST THINGS: Perhaps the most laughable moment in this drama was authored by former principal Taylor. Heres a chunk from the Posts most detailed profile of Rhee, written by Dion Haynes:
HAYNES (7/2/07): The two-story red brick Harlem Park Elementary School is in a section of Baltimore's west side that was marred by boarded-up rowhouses. The neighborhood was so dangerous with shootings and drug dealing that teachers, including Rhee, were required to walk students home after school, said Linda Carter, who was principal at the time.For the record, those DC Council members rolled over and died. But here at THE HOWLER, we just had to laugh when Taylor described the brilliant ideas Rhee was full of during Year 2. After-school tutoring! Homework at night! Why, she even broke the class into groups! To state the obvious, these brilliant ideas had been widely employed, all over the nation, for decades before Rhee began teaching. Who knows? Maybe she even told the students to get a good rest every night!
It would be hard to overstate the absurdity of that paragraph is as an explanation of miracle scores. Well assume that Rhee was a hard-working, dedicated teacher (for three years); and yes, she may have been quite successful. But if those miracle scores did occur, what might the explanation be? Breaking her class into groups aint the answer. If the miracle really happened, its fairly clear that no one made the slightest attempt to figure out why.
In our society, you get to clown like that about one group. Perhaps you know who that group is.
IN SEARCH OF THOSE CLAIMS OF ACCLAIM: Rhees resume makes other claims about her brilliance—claims which may be bogus. Here was Rhees official bio at The New Teacher Project, the non-profit organization she founded, from which she was hired to run DCs schools:
OFFICIAL BIO: Michelle Rhees commitment to excellence in education began in 1992, when she joined Teach For America after earning her Bachelors degree in Government from Cornell University. Her teaching career started at Harlem Park Community School in Baltimore, MD, where her outstanding success in the classroom earned her acclaim on Good Morning America and The Home Show, as well as in the Wall Street Journal and the Hartford Courant. Upon completing her service with Teach For America, she entered Harvard Universitys Kennedy School of Government and graduated with a Master's degree in public policy...But the highlighted statement seems hard to back up. In the mid-1990s, Harlem Park Elementary was run by a private company, Educational Alternatives (EAI); this nine-school experiment got a lot of media attention in Baltimore, and a bit of attention in the national press. For the record, EAIs five-year contract was terminated in December 1995, a year early, in part because of unimpressive test scores.
So heres the question: Did Rhees outstanding success in the classroom really earn her acclaim from the news orgs she named? Lets start with the Hartford Courant.
In March 1994 and June 1994—long before her outstanding success had been recorded—Rhee was quoted as part of two news reports in the Courant. (EAI would soon be taking over Hartfords schools, and the paper was examining the companys effort in Baltimore.) But Rhee wasnt the focus of either report, nor was there any claim of any outstanding success—on her part, or by EAI generally. Unless something is missing from the Nexis archives, Rhees claim about the Courant is simply a bald-faced misstatement.
How about Good Morning America? In the Nexis archives, transcripts of the program only date back to July 1996. (There is no report on Rhee, or on Harlem Park, in the archives after that date.) However, program summaries exist before that date; they show that Good Morning America aired a report on EAI and Harlem Park on October 24, 1993, at the start of Rhees second year of teaching. The detailed summary doesnt say that Rhee was included in the program (although she may have been). But at this point, her alleged outstanding success in the classroom hadnt occurred. We can find no sign that the program reported on Rhee, or on Harlem Park, at any later point.
Did Rhee win acclaim in the Wall Street Journal? The paper isnt part of Nexis, and we havent been able to navigate its maddeningly ill-explained search capacities. Regarding the antique Home Show, we simply cant tell you.
Is it true? Did Rhees outstanding success in the classroom really earn her acclaim from the news orgs she listed? Rhee has pushed these claims for the past dozen years. By any normal standard, the Post and the Times should find out.
SAID TOO MUCH: Did Rhees third-graders record those miracle scores? We dont have the slightest idea. But a second question would arise if they did—were such scores legitimate? For our taste, Rhees teaching assistant may have said a bit too much when she spoke with the Post:
STEWART (6/30/07): Harlem Park's school-level standardized test scores, although not proving or disproving Rhee's assertions, show significant gains collectively among all three second-grade classes in 1993-94 and the three third-grade classes in 1994-95, the years she taught those grades. Three people who worked closely with her at the school and a student say the scores rose in the range Rhee suggested.Uh-oh! For the record, Medley seemed to tell the city council that she worked with Rhee in 1992-93 only. Meanwhile, that highlighted statement may be perfectly innocent—or it may suggest that Rhee was engaged in improper test prep. If they really occurred, Rhees miracle scores should have been carefully checked by her principal.
But there is no sign that anyone tried to check to see if the scores were really legit. Last week, Rhees principal sang Harlem Parks school song for the city council—but said nothing about such concerns. But so it has gone for the past forty years as we pretend to give a fig about the interests of low-income children.
HAPPY ENDING: Happy ending! As it turns out, Rhee and her top assistants will be paid unusually high salaries. In this news report, council member Carol Schwartz seemed to utter a low, mordant chuckle:
EMERLING (7/7/07): Carol Schwartz, at-large Republican, cautioned Mrs. Rhee at her confirmation hearing before the council on Monday about bringing in employees at too high of a salary level.But then, when music men have magic trombones, they deserve to be paid for their magic.