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Daily Howler: A reader can't find Rhee in the Journal--but she tells an inspiring tale
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UP FROM MEDIOCRITY! A reader can’t find Rhee in the Journal—but she tells an inspiring tale: // link // print // previous // next //

COMING TOMORROW: Marcus tells all about merit pay.

COMING FRIDAY: Moore meets Gupta. Where's the fudge?

DELAYED: We’re delaying our work on that Times health care piece (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 7/10/07). We expect to speed-read it on Friday.

RHEE FAILS TO SHOW: A reader has tried to help us solve The Case of Rhee and the Wall Street Journal. As you may recall, the problem began with Michelle Rhee’s official biography—the one which helped the inexperienced ex-teacher get hired to run DC’s schools:
OFFICIAL RHEE BIOGRAPHY: Michelle Rhee’s commitment to excellence in education began in 1992, when she joined Teach For America after earning her Bachelor’s 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 University’s Kennedy School of Government and graduated with a Master's degree in public policy...
It sounded good—and it helped its author win a very important job. But is the highlighted statement true? Did Michelle Rhee’s “outstanding success in the classroom” really “earn her acclaim” from those major news orgs? Using Nexis, we found reports about Rhee’s former school, Harlem Park Elementary, in the Hartford Courant and on Good Morning America (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 7/9/07). But in no case could we find any sign that Rhee had been praised in those news orgs’ reports. Yes, there’s always room for doubt. But he claim didn’t seem to compute.

But how about the Wall Street Journal? Did Rhee “earn acclaim” from the famous newspaper for her “outstanding success in the classroom?” Our reader has access to the Journal’s Factiva search engine. And again, the answer seems to be: No.

After searching the Journal’s archives, our reader sent us two news reports from the mid-1990s, reports which mentioned Harlem Park Elementary. As we’ve noted, the school was part of a nine-school privatization experiment in Baltimore, run by Education Alternatives (EAI); the effort got some national coverage until its demise in December 1995. But the Journal’s first article on this subject appeared in September 1992, at the start of Rhee’s first year as a teacher. Rhee wasn’t mentioned in the report—and the Journal’s Gary Putka seemed to have found little success at the school, outstanding or otherwise. (“The start [of the project] has been less than auspicious,” he wrote, “leading to some dire predictions about the initiative's chances.”)

But that was just the project’s first year. The Journal checked back in June 1994, after Rhee’s second year of teaching. Steve Stecklow authored a news report about EAI’s schools in Miami and Baltimore. Here’s the full passage where he quoted staff at Harlem Park:
STECKLOW (6/8/94): In Baltimore, where EAI is managing or consulting to 12 public schools, school officials say the company deserves praise for cleaning up the hallways, removing graffiti and landscaping the grounds. "People say all they've done is clean up the place," says Walter G. Amprey, Baltimore's school superintendent. But, he adds, that sentiment reflects ignorance of "how important it is to go to a place where it looks like people care about learning."

At Harlem Park elementary school, which draws 626 children from a run-down, crime-ridden neighborhood marked by boarded-up row houses, the first year under EAI management [1992-93] did not go easy. By the time it was over last June, 14 of the school's 21 teachers had asked to go to non-EAI schools, and the principal was transferred. "I would have done the transition differently," says Linda Carter, who now heads the school. "I don't think there was enough planning time to get the teachers acclimated."

Robin Shorter, a fifth-grade teacher who stayed at Harlem Park, says that after an initial adjustment, she likes the program and her students' attitudes have improved. "They want to do, they want to learn," she says. "And that in it itself will get you better results in the end."

Harlem Park also has had difficulty applying some of [EAI’s] core principles, such as portfolios and parental involvement. Ms. Shorter says she hasn't had enough time to work on the portfolios. Less than half of parents have taken part in devising their children's educational plans. Only 20 to 30 attend monthly PTA meetings. Nevertheless, Mrs. Carter calls the parental participation so far "super great."

"I'm going to be honest with you," she adds. "I have not made that parental involvement a focus...I didn't plan on doing everything at one time. The main focus is achievement."
Stecklow made no real attempt to evaluate Harlem Park’s success. And once again, Rhee wasn’t mentioned.

No, Rhee wasn’t mentioned in either report—and no big success was mentioned either. Our reader says there are no other Journal cites for Harlem Park—and he says Rhee’s name appears in the Journal’s archive just once, in a short report in 2001 about the non-profit she founded after leaving Harlem Park. (He also sent us that short report; her three-year teaching career wasn’t mentioned.) In short, unless something is wrong with all three searches, we can find no sign that Rhee’s claim of “earning acclaim” from these major news orgs has the advantage of being accurate. If we were a scribe at a big DC paper, we’d be inclined to tell Rhee: Prove your claim.

For years, Rhee has been telling a pleasing story. She performed an educational miracle at Harlem Park—and she “earned acclaim” in the national media for this brilliant success. Our reaction? Speaking frankly, her claim about test scores is so extreme that we would regard it as suspect on its face. Now, there also seem to be a question about the “acclaim” which she says she earned. But once again, the big problem here is the Narrative of the Miracle Cure—the pleasing tale that routinely takes the place of serious talk about low-income schools.

Let’s get serious for a minute; if you know much about standardized test scores, Rhee’s claim about those miracle scores should invite healthy skepticism. It’s amazing that DC’s city council—and Washington’s newspapers—have allowed that claim to stand without evidence. But let’s just say it: That’s what happens, quite routinely, when the interests of black kids are at stake.

One last time, we’ll restate our view. The Washington Post and the Washington Times should insist on getting those musty old test scores. (They only date back to 1995, for God’s sake.) We know, we know—it’s only black kids! It’s much more pleasing to tell cheerful tales—and let the data sleep with the fishes. But the last time the Post took such matters on faith, it ended up playing the cosmic fool, praising a school at the top of page one—a school which had the second-lowest reading score in the whole state of Virginia! (See THE DAILY HOWLER, 3/17/06.) It’s hard to blunder more thoroughly than that—but when it comes to low-income schools, our big newspapers have played the fool over and over in the past forty years. This time, we think Gary Emerling (Times) and Nikita Stewart (Post) ought to demand those musty old test scores. Those scores will show us, at long last, if Rhee has been telling the truth all these years. Or if she thought it might help her career to dream up more sh*t about black kids—about the world’s most deserving kids, the nicest kids in the world.

You’d think the council would want to find out. But the Post and the Times? Why, they’re all about truth! In our view, it’s time for these major newspapers to act. It’s time the public got a chance to evaluate the Narrative of the Miracle Cure—the pleasing tale that so routinely replaces serious discussion about struggling, low-income schools.

HARLEM PARK, AMONG THE MISSING: EAI’s five-year contract with Baltimore was halted early, in December 1995. (Rhee had ended her three-year teaching career the previous June.) A few weeks later, in the Baltimore Sun, Jean Thompson reported the city’s test scores on the 1995 Maryland School Performance Assessment Program (MSPAP). “[S]cores increased at most schools,” she reported. She closed her report with a rueful passage about the seven EAI schools which had been part of the testing:
THOMPSON (12/18/95): Across town, scores increased in six of the seven tested schools managed by Education Alternatives Inc. In four—Rayner Browne, Mildred D. Monroe, Sarah Roach and Mary E. Rodman—the increase was 5 percent or more. City officials have canceled their contract with the firm, effective March 4.

To EAI officials and educators, the news of increased scores brought a sense of vindication tinged with bitterness.

"We knew this was going to happen," said John Golle, EAI's chief executive officer.
Presumably, Harlem Park would have been one of the seven schools tested. The MSPAPs were given in grades 3, 5 and 8, which would have included this school; in February 1995, Thompson had reported Harlem Park’s scores on the 1994 MSPAPs. (They had slightly declined, she reported.) But 1994-95 was the year when Rhee was producing her educational miracle among Harlem Park’s third graders (supposedly measured on a different test, the nationally-normed CTBS). And remember, Rhee was co-teaching with another young teacher; the miracle she had authored would have affected two third-grade classes. But somehow, despite this educational miracle, Harlem Park seems to be one of the schools that failed to produce even the modest, five-percent gain on the MSPAP which Golle, the EAI chieftain, had hailed. It looks as if the educational miracle failed to show up on this test.

How did Rhee’s third-graders do on the MSPAPs? No doubt, it’s extremely hard—just very difficult—to go back and access those scores! (It’s always hard to access such data when elites close ranks around their own, telling the public—the black public—to stuff it.) But this is another set of data DC’s big papers should be demanding. And by the way: The striving Examiner, and the hip City Paper, should ask for these data too.

UP FROM MEDIOCRITY: The web site for the DC schools is back up and running (and redesigned). At this page, you can access Chancellor Rhee’s most recent “communiqués.” Here’s a key part of her inspiring testimony before the DC city council:
RHEE: My career in education began as a classroom teacher at Harlem Park Elementary School in Baltimore, Maryland. My experience there shaped the rest of my career. I saw that students who were performing far below grade level quickly achieve at the highest levels if they were exposed to a quality academic program. I did three main things as a classroom teacher. First, I had high expectations of all students. Next, I engaged the parents and community in what we were trying to accomplish. And last, we worked hard and long. Seeing the growth of my students showed me that the academic outcomes of our students had nothing to do with their ability and potential (which was endless) and everything to do with the education they were receiving in the schools.

Coming away from my experiences in Baltimore, I knew that in order to significantly change the educational outcomes of students in urban communities, we must focus on the quality of educators.
They quickly achieve at the highest levels! We’ll try hard to keep this polite.

Rhee’s narrative is deeply inspiring—and the things that she learned were highly convenient. It was all about the quality of educators, Rhee was quickly able to see. Driven by this helpful insight, Rhee quit the classroom, set up a non-profit, and paid herself big bucks for a decade, as she peddled this load of bull to a generation of hopeful black parents.

What does Rhee say she learned here in Baltimore? According to Rhee, students performing far below grade level quickly achieve at the highest levels—if they’re exposed to a quality program. In our view, that’s a pleasing, music man’s tale; it has taken the place, in the past forty years, of serious thought about low-income schools. But as we’ve shown you, there is no evidence that this educational miracle ever occurred in Rhee’s classroom. And quite frankly, her pleasing tale about national acclaim has been looking a bit shaky too.

Here at THE HOWLER, we don’t know what happened in Michelle Rhee’s classroom. But in our own thirteen years in the Baltimore schools, we came to regard that pleasing tale as the hallmark of hustlers, con men and do-dos. (For the record, we were inclined to believe it too—before we spent time in the classroom.) It substitutes for serious thought—and wins big pay-days for its adherents. Everyone loves to hear this tale. And no one seems to care if it’s true.

DC’s news orgs can do as they will. But at present, there is no real evidence—none at all—that Rhee’s miracle ever occurred. But here’s the question: Will these newspapers do their job—will they try to check Rhee’s claims? Or will they do what they so often do? Will they decide to serve the elites whose members file into their board rooms?

MUSIC WOMAN: By the way, parents—listen up! The ability and potential of your children is endless!

And not only that! Rhee possesses a magic wand which makes root beer come from the sprinklers.

VISIT OUR INCOMPARABLE ARCHIVES: We first wrote about Rhee at the start of the month. See THE DAILY HOWLER, 7/2/07. The next day, we went into more detail. See THE DAILY HOWLER, 7/3/07.