Saturday, March 3, 2012

Michelle Rhee's Perfect Ponzi Scheme

THE BIG BUZZ—or is it the big pile of BS—in education reform today is “accountability.” We are going to hold teachers accountable. We are going to hold their feet to the flames and maybe their grading hands and make them raise standards.

We are going to test students until they’re dizzy. And we are going to fire the bad teachers if pupils score low for any reason whatsoever. Then everything wrong in the schools and the lives of the children will miraculously go away.

That may sound simplistic; but that’s pretty much the message of school reform today. Arne Duncan is for standardized testing and tying teacher pay to test results. Michelle Rhee is for it. President George W. Bush was for it. President Obama thinks it’s sure to help. Governor John Kasich, here in Ohio, is emphatically for testing and merit pay based on high scores.

In fact, everyone seems to think it’s time to hold teachers accountable. Low test scores? It’s the teachers. The increase in teen pregnancy? Yeah, teachers. And don’t forget the sinking of the Titanic. That was no iceberg.

It was teachers.

If you ask me, I think it’s time to start holding reformers accountable. Start with Rhee, the woman who has made herself a brand name in reform circles. There are times when it seems she’s all show and no substance, a fraud really, like an announcer pushing male-enhancement pills on late-night TV. Rhee has made grandiose claims about her success in the classroom but abandoned teaching after three years to climb the bureaucratic ladder.

Eventually, she rose high enough to run the Washington, D. C. schools.

WHAT HAPPENED DURING her three years as chancellor of D. C. city schools? Well, she fired a lot of teachers. Hundreds, actually. Unfortunately, getting rid of those “rejects” at the front of the room proved no magic fix. Student attendance fell from 91% in 2006-07 to 88% by 2008-09. Or, to put it another way: the average D. C. student stayed home from school 21.6 days per year.

Maybe when kids miss that much school we shouldn’t blame teachers if test scores are low. I don’t know, maybe I’m stupid. But try missing 21.6 days at work and see who your boss blames. I’m betting he blames you.

Well, good news for Rhee: Graduation rates rose in her district while she ran the show. And bad news, too: SAT scores for those graduates fell from 1217 (the D. C. web page has a mistake and says 1271) to 1196 in those years. It was decline across the boards: down 9 points in reading to 405, down 7 in math to 392, down 5 in writing to 399.

Apparently, the male-enhancement pills weren’t working.

Then again: maybe they were. While Rhee ran the schools standardized test scores, so beloved by reformers, soared. Crosby S. Noyes Education Campus went from 10% of students “proficient” or “advanced” in math in 2006 to 58% in two years. Amazing success!!! Way to go, Michelle Rhee!!! In 2009, Noyes was one of 264 schools across the country to win a prestigious National Blue Ribbon School award.

Rhee was thrilled and made the school Exhibit A in her campaign for reform. Twice, in 2008 and 2010, she awarded teachers at Noyes (which serves preschoolers through eighth grade) $8,000 bonuses. Wayne Ryan, the principal was awarded $10,000 both times.

Recent investigative reporting by USA Today, however, reveals that many 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 district. In 2009, for instance, 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.

That’s HUGE male-enhancement-type success, and while teachers who were fired for low test scores went looking for new careers, Rhee was busy looking for TV cameras, touting her success, calling for greater reforming zeal.

So what has transpired in the meantime? The D. C. schools won another $75 million in the “Race to the Top” program run by Arne Duncan, because Duncan loves testing. Ryan has been featured in recruitment advertisements by Rhee’s old district, calling him “one of the shining stars of DCPS” and a man known for his “unapologetic focus on instruction.” In fact, applicants for administrative posts are asked, “Are you the next Wayne Ryan?”

Maybe they should be asking, “Are you the next Marvin Webster?” Webster was a shot-blocking NBA star in the late 70s, known in his day as “The Human Eraser.”

EVENTUALLY, THE OFFICE OF STATE SUPERINTENDENT OF EDUCATION began to catch whiffs of fishy smells in D. C. and recommended investigation. Top city school officials balked and dragged their feet. The State Superintendent’s office asked McGraw-Hill to examine test results at 96 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 were paid out. 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. Even parents were growing suspicious.

The head of the teachers’ union called Rhee’s push for testing and linking scores to teacher pay an academic Ponzi scheme. Mary Lord, a member of the board which has power to advise the D. C. schools, puts it succinctly: “You’ve handed out these big bonuses. What are you going to do? Take them back? It’s a bombshell. It’s embarrassing.”

Ryan, himself, declined to speak with USA Today for the story, but has since been promoted to instructional superintendent in the D. C. schools.

When Rhee was reached by phone she told reporters she was no longer chancellor of the D. C. schools and passed on a chance to comment. If you follow Rhee’s career you know what a rarity that is. Usually, she loves to talk.

Her favorite topic: “Michelle Rhee and All Her Great Ideas.”

D. C. officials also refused to comment—to let reporters visit the schools—or talk to principals, including Adell Cothorne, the new leader at Crosby S. Noyes Education Campus.

As for Rhee, she’s still leading the charge in education reform. She’s still an unflinching advocate of testing. She still believes teachers should be held accountable and fired if student test scores are low.

She’s still selling those male-enhancement pills.

Fools believe the road to knowledge is filled with bubble-in tests.


  1. There are a lot of similarities between this phenomenon and what is going on in the college world. With the rising popularity of US News university rankings, colleges realize that students are swayed by this list so much that they're catering their practices only to the specific criteria for moving up the list: research dollars, high school counselor rating, peer assessments, and portion of full time faculty to name a few. University Presidents, among other positions, have performance bonuses and job security tied to many factors that are heavily influenced by that list. So it's part of human nature that they'd cater their management decisions based on that list and not based on the best interests of education and their students. You see this time and time again, and it's a sad story as the US keeps falling in world rankings.

  2. All teachers are experts in their field. They can do no wrong and we should blame the students and their ill-fit parents. Let's ignore this nonsense accountability issue and just let them teach how they please.

    1. Teachers are not "experts", but we do try to tackle the goal of meeting a child's any and every need while following state and federal standards that change more quickly than gas prices. Parents are allowed to raise their children however they choose--teachers are given specific instructions by school boards, state government, federal policies, and testing mandates. Each student is to be treated as an individual and allowed to grow/learn/succeed, but they all must pass the same test on the same day of the year as every other student across the state. Do you see the hypocrisy?

  3. Ah, someone commenting above is having a bad day and missing the obvious point. Ms. Rhee is a cheat and a fraud and her scheme for fixing the schools is a sham.

  4. Is a teacher's ability to relate well with students more important than giving them knowledge?

  5. The problem, Mr. Male, is this: measuring all the knowledge teachers impart is a dicey task. In any case, Rhee is a fraud.