Sunday, November 20, 2016

Next U. S. Secretary of Education: Michelle Rhee????

Okay. Time to face reality. Mr. Donald J. Trump is going to be the 45th  president of these great United States. 

If nothing else, we know the KKK is happy. “Make American Great Again!” Overturn Roe v. Wade! Also, maybe: overturn Brown v. Board of Education.

Now we hear that Michelle Rhee might be in line to become the next U. S. Secretary of Education. If you have forgotten who Rhee is, or was, a brief refresher course will be offered momentarily.

First, let’s consider two more Trump choices who have said they are not interested. Dr. Ben Carson said no thanks—but would have been a “perfect choice” in a bi-partisan list of “perfect choices” to head the Department of Education. That is: presidents from Jimmy Carter to George W. Bush to Barrack Obama have seemed constitutionally obligated to select individuals who lack all experience in education. 

I think Mr. Trump should make me Surgeon General. I mean, I watch a lot of TV shows about doctors and hospitals.

Anyway, it could be worse. I wonder if America’s four million front line educators were really ready for Ms. Eva Moskowitz to head the Department. Moskowitz was also under consideration, but informed the president-elect that she had no interest in the cabinet position. This is true even though Mr. Trump wants to push school choice even farther and even though Moskowitz believes every child should be allowed to attend an elite charter school—unless that child has serious behavior issues or crippling handicaps.

Those kinds of children, if they manage to get through the doors of Success Academy at all, should all return to the regular public schools.

Meanwhile, like so many leading advocates of school reform, who only care about the children, Moskowitz piles up the dough. I can’t find current figures; but she made $567,500 for the 2012-2013 school year, running Success Academy Charter Schools, an operation serving 11,000 students. Not bad, considering school superintendents in  large urban, public school districts with a hundred times as many students make half as much.

Then again, what did anyone expect when American education has been turned into a get-rich-quick, money-making scheme? Didn’t we realize shady operators would focus only on the money?

Exhibit A: Trump University!

Our normally litigious president-elect settled a series of fraud cases this week, aimed at his famous university, first denying fraud had been perpetrated in his name, and then coughing up $25 million to pay the claims of thousands of students who were prepared to argue in court that they had in fact been…um…defrauded. I realize many Trump fans don’t believe anything they read except what can be found on the backs of cereal boxes; but even Fox News couldn’t help reporting the Trump University debacle.

And if you haven’t noticed, you can pretty much shake any for-profit education tree and money-grubbers and even outright crooks will rain down round your ears. I’ve previously highlighted K-12, Inc., another stellar charter operation, where five top executives paid themselves a total of $35.4 million in salary and bonuses for 2013 and 2014. I’ve focused on Corinthian College. There, too, five top college officers took $22 million in salaries and bonuses over a two-year period. Sadly, once the U. S. Department of Education started investigating—citing high pressure recruiting tactics to juice enrollment—the Corinthian enterprise came unraveled and the school went belly up.  

(The money continues to roll in for the top officials at K-12, Inc. This chart shows compensation for Fiscal 2016.)

Too bad students, lacking preparation to do real college-level work, had been tricked into enrolling. 

To bad they had to borrow 86% of all money used to attend Corinthian. 

Too bad they agreed to pay interest rates as high as 17.9% for those very loans, nicely set up for them and payable to...Corinthian.

Good news? 

The profiteers profited. 

Now thousands of young Americans are stuck with those loans—and stuck with college credits from Corinthian of such dubious value that reputable institutions of higher learning won’t accept them for transfer.

And now, speaking of money, we come to the matter at hand: the potential elevation of Michelle Rhee to head up the U. S. Department of Education. 

Perhaps the most famous graduate of Teach for American, Rhee labored three long years in a real classroom, at which point she realized she knew everything there was to know about fixing the nation’s schools. Quickly, she rose through the ranks of educational bureaucracy and took control of the Washington, D. C. Public Schools. As chancellor, Ms. Rhee stressed improving math and reading scores in keeping with dictates of No Child Left Behind.

That law is now defunct; but raising scores in accord with that law was, according to Rhee at the time, really important.

What happened when Rhee pushed administrators and staff to improve test scores? As anyone could have predicted, successful schools raised their scores! If scores didn’t rise, Rhee fired staff and administrators. Typically, she fired one principal while cameras were rolling, filming a documentary about the wonders of Michelle Rhee. In just three years as head of Washington schools, Rhee managed to terminate hundreds of educators because scores on standardized tests mattered—as long as those particular tests were being pedaled by politicians and school reformers.

All the while, Ms. Rhee was making her name in education. She gave speeches and charged colleges $35,000 to impart her wisdom. She wrote books about how to fix education and they sold wonderfully. Even Oprah gave her love on her program. But Rhee’s abrasive style was also rubbing people the wrong way. 

True. There were educators who loved her. Those who raised test scores (and many did so with great gusto) got fat on bonuses. 

Unfortunately, for Rhee, reporters also started digging. 

At one school, Crosby S. Noyes Education Campus, test score improvements were stunning. In 2006 only 10% of students at Noyes scored “proficient” or “advanced” in math. Two years later 58% did. It was amazing; and Rhee basked in the admiration of the leading school reformers. In 2009, Noyes was one of 264 schools nationwide to win a prestigious National Blue Ribbon School award. Twice, in 2008 and 2010, Ms. Rhee awarded teachers at Noyes (which served preschoolers through eighth grade) $8,000 bonuses. Wayne Ryan, principal at the school, was awarded $10,000 on both occasions.

Unfortunately, a 2011 report by 
USA Today revealed that high-performing schools in Rhee’s district had “extraordinarily high numbers of erasures on standardized tests. The consistent pattern was that wrong answers were erased and changed to right ones.” The pattern showed up in 103 schools, more than half of all buildings in the D. C. district. 

In 2009 seventh-graders in one class at Noyes averaged 12.7 wrong-to-right erasures on the reading test. 

The average, citywide, was less than 1. 

What transpired in the meantime? The D. C. schools won another $75 million in the “Race to the Top” program run by Arne Duncan, then U. S. Secretary of Education, because Duncan also loved standardized testing. Principal Ryan was featured in a series of recruiting advertisements, calling him “one of the shining stars of DCPS” and a man known for his “unapologetic focus on instruction.” 

The Office of State Superintendent of Education also began to notice all the fishy smells and ordered an investigation. Top D. C. school officials dragged their bureaucratic feet. The State Superintendent’s office asked McGraw-Hill to examine test results at 96 D. C. schools, including 8 of 10 buildings which won TEAM awards from Rhee “to recognize, reward and retain high-performing educators and support staff.” Based on rising scores in 2007 and 2008, more than $1.5 million in bonuses had been paid. Now McGraw-Hill found that three award-winning schools had wrong-to-right erasure rates that raised red flags in 85% of classrooms. After 2009, the district hired an outside investigator to examine eight schools, including Noyes. Just like that, test scores plunged in 2010. A second investigation, after tests were completed that year, found 41 schools, including Noyes again, had at least one classroom with unusually high numbers of erasures. 

When Rhee was reached by phone in 2011 she reminded reporters she was no longer chancellor of the D. C. schools and passed on chance to comment. D. C. officials also refused to comment at the time—refused to let reporters visit schools—refused to let them talk to principals, including Adell Cothorne, the new leader at Crosby S. Noyes Education Campus. 

And now we discover that Michelle Rhee might be our next U. S. Secretary of Education.

I can’t say where we’re headed in the future; but I am ready to make one bold prediction. If President Trump selects Rhee—and the Senate confirms her—we can expect one dramatic change in U. S. education. 

Test scores are surely going to rise!

(Eraser sales will also skyrocket.)

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