MICHELLE RHEES SACRED STORY! A sacred tale helps fuel reform. But is that story accurate? // link // print // previous // next //
TUESDAY, FEBRUARY 15, 2011
Only in America, or no real surprise: No, it doesnt exactly matter. (The next two posts really do.) But on the front page of yesterdays New York Times, Marc Lacey reported the highlighted tidbit about Gabrielle Giffords recovery:
You can pretty much kiss that surprise good-bye, if that passage means what it seems to say. But then again, what does that passage say and imply? Its rather hard to make out.
According to Wikipedia, Mark Kellys birthday is next Monday. It hasnt happened yet.
No, it doesnt really matterand theres no way to tell if surprises were blown. But is any other elite quite as strange, or incoherent, as the gang at the New York Times?
The ten percent solution, or do you understand the budget: Well admit it! We were puzzled by Jackie Calmes report, in todays New York Times, about Obamas budget proposal. By the same newspapers lead editorial, in which they discuss the same topic.
(For the record, were inclined to list Calmes as one of the bright, sane ones.)
Reading both pieces, we were puzzled by the ease with which Obama has apparently addressed the problem of crippling future deficits.
Why were we puzzled? For the moment, set aside your views about the specific spending cuts Obama has proposed. Instead, focus on the amount of deficit reduction involved in his budget proposal. In this early passage from Calmes report, we were struck by the modest amount of reduction Obama has proposedespecially as compared with our current massive deficit:
For the moment, focus on the size of the deficit reduction, not on the specific spending Obama wants to cut.
As everyone knows, weve all heard widespread screaming and yelling about the disaster which looms in those future deficits. But how strange! According to Calmes, Obama is only reducing projected deficits by about ten percentand yet, this would bring down annual deficits to more sustainable levels over the rest of the decade.
Lets be clear: According to Calmes, Obama is reducing future deficits by ten percent, not future spending. We thought it odd that such modest reductions could address our looming disaster. But the editors seem even more sanguine today, offering this as they start:
How weird! According to the editors, current budget projections involve an uncontrolled explosion of debt. But so what? Cutting those deficits by a mere ten percentby a mere $100 billion per yearwill somehow prevent such a crisis! We were even more perplexed when we looked at the first graph below. The graph, which accompanies Calmes report, shows where future deficits go under Obamas proposal.
According to that graph, deficits will be back around three percent of GDP by the second half of the decade. That level of deficit spending is routinely described as sustainable.
Question: Why are we in a tizzy about future deficits if they can be controlled so easily? If reducing them by a modest amount gets things back to sustainable levels? According to Calmes, Obamas proposal only reduces future deficits by about ten percent. And yet, presto! Just like that, those future deficits seem to fall into line!
To us, this would suggest that we dont face a terrible deficit problem in the next ten years. So why do we hear all the screaming and yelling? Do you understand how this works?
Our guess: That chart is accurate, but highly misleading, in a very familiar way. But do you understand how this fandango works? Could you explain this material? Were quoting from our nations most important newspaper, after all. Do you understand these reports?
Do you understand this odd situation? More on this topic tomorrow, with a nod to this post by Kevin Drum, even after its modest revision.
From Kevin, via us via Jay via Loveless: Kevin notes those international test scores from 1964 (click here). If you care about public schools, its important to know such things.
One more important note: Our international performance has held its own, or has improved, even as changing student demographics have made the challenges tougher in our public schools. When corporate hacks insist that our teachers have failed, you ought to remember such things. Yes, these things actually matter.
PART 1THE SHAPE OF A SACRED STORY (permalink): Down through all these glorious years, has Michelle Rhee been making accurate claims about her brilliant teaching career?
Rhee became chancellor of the DC public schools in June 2007. Late last year, she left this post. But she remains a darling of the elites who favor a type of education reform. Rhee is only 41, with plenty of energy and ambition, Jay Mathews writes in this recent post. Few others are likely to have as much influence over where our public schools go from here.
We would assume that Jay is right. That makes her story significant.
Rhees career, and her ongoing ministry, have been built around a sacred storya story of the vast success she says she achieved as a Baltimore teacher in the mid-1990s. But has she been making accurate claims about her brilliant career? This question returned with a vengeance last week, eventually reaching the front page of the Washington Posts Metro section. (Scrutiny of Rhee is renewed. Just click here.) The discussion was built around new information which has been gleaned from an old studya study which appeared in 1995, a study which was reviewed and ignored by Washingtons journalistic organs back in 2007.
So how about it? Based upon the things we now know, has Rhee been making accurate claims about her own brilliant career? In one major way, it doesnt much matter. But if you care about educational policy, the truth of this matter is highly important.
The same is true of you want to understand the way powerful elitesincluding powerful journalistic elitesmake a sick joke of your lives. If you want to understand the level of disregard these organs bring to their coverage of the interests of Americas low-income children
Lets start with Michelle Rhees sacred storythe story which was widely recited when she arrived in Washington.
In June 2007, mayor-elect Adrian Fenty nominated Rhee to run the DC public schools. (Due to her youth and her lack of conventional experience, this was regarded as an unusual choice.) Late that month, the Washington Posts Nikita Stewart described Rhees long-standing sacred story, while noting her inability to document her claims. Stewarts report appeared on page two of the Posts Metro section. Stewart described a problem the Washington Times had been reporting for the previous two days:
Remarkable! For years, Rhee had been climbing the corporate-supported ladder in Manhattan, in part on the strength of a pleasing story about her own brilliant career. According to Rhees self-glorying tale, she had produced amazing academic gains among a group of low-income black kids in Baltimoreacademic gains which she had described in highly precise detail.
For three years in the mid-1990s, Rhee had been a classroom teacher at Baltimores Harlem Park Elementary, one of the poorest, lowest-scoring schools in the Baltimore public school system. But if you were willing to believe Michelle Rhee, Michelle Rhee had slain a passel of educational dragons while at Harlem Park. Later in his report, Stewart filled in the basic details about Rhees short, but brilliant, teaching career. What follows is the sacred story which has defined Rhees careerand the very aggressive reform ministry which she continues to push:
Rhee taught second grade in her first year, the 1992-1993 school year. In the fall of 1993, she began teaching a new group of second gradersa group she would teach for the next two years, in their second and third grade years. It was with this group that Rhee has said that she performed her educational miracle. On average, these children tested at the thirteenth percentile when they finished their first grade year, Rhee has said. But so what? After two years of work with the glorious Rhee, ninety percent of these low-income students were scoring at the 90th percentile or higher.
Or so Rhee had always said.
Had Rhee been making accurate claims about those children down through the years? About her own manifest brilliance? About the laziness of other teachers who didnt and dont create such outcomes? In one way, it doesnt exactly matter. In the present day, Michelle Rhee is offering ideas for reform which should stand or fall on their own merits. (For ourselves, we would tend to agree with some of Rhees ideas and approaches.) Other people offer these same ideasincluding many people who have never taught in low-income schools at all.
If Rhee is offering good ideas, her record as a classroom teacher doesnt exactly matter.
But in several other ways, the truth of Rhees sacred story matters a great deal. Some of Rhees basic reform proposals turn on a very basic idea, an idea which she has endlessly stated, often in ways which are quite harsh. According to Rhee, her experience in Baltimore shows that amazing gains can be achieved in low-income schools if teachers will simply work hard enough. Gullible, high-income rubes in Manhattan have been buying this highly unlikely idea at least since the mid-1960s. This unlikely idea predates Rhee. But in the past decade, it has formed the backbone for a set of reform proposals being pushed by powerful interests.
Is Michelle Rhees sacred story accurate? Did she really achieve that amazing success? Last Tuesday, the Washington Posts Jay Mathews threw in the towel on Rhees famous claimsand Mathews is one of the nations highest-ranking education reporters.
Rhees claims have been shown to be false, Mathews said. Jay may have spoken a bit prematurelybut behind all this, there lies a long tale. This long, ugly tale will matter a lot if you care about low-income children.
In the current pseudo-liberal world, very few people do.
Tomorrowpart 2: About that report