Daily Howler logo
A SAVAGE STORY! Michelle Rhee likes to tell that story. And she likes telling it rough: // link // print // previous // next //
WEDNESDAY, FEBRUARY 16, 2011

Do you understand how he did it: So how about it? Do you understand how Obama did it?

In yesterday’s New York Times, we were told that he had “reduced the risk of a fiscal crisis” with this week’s budget proposal; he had prevented “an uncontrolled explosion of debt” (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 2/15/11). More specifically, Obama’s proposal was “enough to prevent an uncontrolled explosion of debt in the next decade.”

We were glad to hear that he’d done all this. But we were puzzled by how he had done it.

How the heck did Obama do it? According to the Times, his plan would only “reduce the total projected deficits over the next decade by $1.1 trillion, or about 10 percent.” (That’s projected deficits—not projected spending.) We didn’t see how such a relatively minor amount of deficit reduction could prevent the “uncontrolled explosion of debt” about which the whole world has been screaming. Beyond that, we were surprised to see projected deficits dropping rather quickly, to just three percent of GDP—a level of deficit spending which is widely described as “sustainable.”

How the heck did Obama did it? Needless to say, the Times made no attempt to explain, and we still don’t know for certain. But we would assume it has something to do with the assumptions built into those budget projections. More specifically: Do those projections assume that we will return to the tax rates of the Clinton years? Unless we’re mistaken, that’s what will happen “under current law,” unless Obama and the Congress agree to extend the current lower rates. And budget projections are usually done in accord with current law.

Is that why those projected deficits drop so far, so fast? On Monday, Kevin Drum offered this post about Obama’s budget—a post in which he urged us to recall a little-discussed, basic fact:

DRUM (2/14/11): [I]f we simply let the Bush tax cuts expire in 2012—all of them—and went back to the Clinton tax rates of the 90s, our medium-term deficit problem would be reduced to 3 percent of GDP in a stroke. That's pretty manageable. And we could do it, too: it's not as if the 90s were a hellscape of jackbooted IRS thugs confiscating all your money and driving the economy into the ditch, after all.

This is hardly new. But in the gong-show discussion our nation’s been having, very few people are ever told that a return to the Clinton tax rates would transform our budget outlook. This would involve raising taxes, you see. And by the rules of the current game, we’re supposed to talk about spending cuts—spending cuts, nothing else.

Liberals encourage this gong-show, of course, obsessing on rates “for the top two percent” and pretending that’s the whole ball game. In that passage, Kevin talks about letting all the Bush tax rates expire.

Did those projections in the New York Times assume a return to the Clinton tax rates? We don’t know, but we do know this; in the small print of one Times graph, you can see that those budget projections only assume an AMT fix in the next three years. (Alternate Minimum Tax.) The AMT gets fixed every year, of course, by full bipartisan agreement; in recent years, this has subtracted roughly $70 billion from projected revenue in any given year. But the projections which appeared in the Times assume that the annual AMT fix won’t occur in the last seven years of the decade. This is part of the reason why those deficit projections start to look so good.

You’d think the Times would explain such things, but that would be against all the rules. By the way—here’s a letter in which a worried high school student shows that she has ingested an ongoing novel:

LETTER TO THE NEW YORK TIMES (2/16/11): The mere mention of the deficit gives me a headache. As a 17-year-old, I have no control over how politicians spend my money (that is, the money I have yet to earn) since I cannot yet vote. All I can do is sit and watch as politicians “eat the future,” because they are afraid to make the tough political decision to actually cut spending, since it could jeopardize their chances for re-election.

Stop borrowing from the future. We might not be able to stop you now, but we do turn 18 eventually.

That girl has every right to worry—but she has ingested a norm of her culture. She only thinks about spending cuts. Quite likely, no one has told her what would occur if we returned to the Clinton tax rates—if we raised everybody’s taxes. The chances are good that she has never so much as considered this possibility—that she’s never seen it discussed.

One last note on the way the Times works:

Read this news report, in this morning’s paper. From its headline on down, the report asserts that Chicago is now “less black,” according to new census figures. Incredibly, the report never says how much “less black” the city is.

They don’t need no stinking numbers at the glorious Times!

Special report: Michelle Rhee’s sacred story!

PART 2—A SAVAGE STORY (permalink): Michelle Rhee has never been shy and retiring, especially when it comes to the basic task of tooting her own giant horn.

Rhee has never been self-effacing—but might she have a “problem with the truth?”

Consider what Rhee’s resume said when she hit DC in June 2007, nominated to serve as head of the city’s public schools. Needless to say, the nominee was making those grandiose claims about her students’ astonishing progress when she was a teacher in Baltimore (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 2/15/11). But as the Washington Times was noting (just click here), her official bio at The Teacher Project was making an additional claim:

OFFICIAL RHEE BIOGRAPHY (6/07): 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.

According to Rhee, her “outstanding success” had “earned her acclaim” from several major organs—“on Good Morning America and The Home Show, as well as in the Wall Street Journal and the Hartford Courant.” But uh-oh! As we noted at the time, these self-glorying claims had a minor flaw; they didn’t seem to be accurate (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 7/11/07). It’s true: The Baltimore school where Rhee taught for three years had been discussed by those national organs; it lay at the heart of an early experiment in public school privatization. Beyond that, Rhee had been quoted in some of those news reports. But none of those organs ever reported that Rhee had achieved outstanding success; nor had any of their reports showered any sort of “acclaim” on the self-impressed teacher. Despite these unfortunate facts, Mayor Fenty’s official statement introducing Rhee repeated these impressive claims (word for word)—and Rhee’s inaccurate language would continue to be cut-and-pasted in the months that followed. Among many examples: To see the Center for American Progress repeat this claim in August 2007, just click here. In January 2008, the DC Cornell Club did the same, describing the wondrous grad-made-good who would soon be addressing the club.

Can we talk? Many people inflate their resumes, as Rhee apparently did in this instinctive act of self-glorification. Sometimes, such people say things which are blatantly false, as Rhee seems to have done. But when it comes to this ballyhooed star, the acts of embellishment just don’t seem to end. Just yesterday, Albert Shanker tried to make sense of self-flattering claims found at Rhee’s current site, the site for her new org, Students First. At one point, Shanker tried to figure out what Rhee could mean by this:

OFFICIAL RHEE BIOGRAPHY (2/11): Under her leadership, the worst performing school district in the country became the only major city system to see double-digit growth in both their state reading and state math scores in seventh, eighth and tenth grades over three years.

What does Rhee mean when she says DC was “the worst performing school district in the country” when she arrived on the scene? Because it would make so little sense, Shanker said he assumed she couldn’t be talking about the district’s performance on the NAEP (the National Assessment of Educational Progress). But Shanker is playing by outdated rules—rules which look for rational conduct from people of Rhee’s public stature. In fact, that is plainly what Rhee means by that claim about DC’s schools; she has explicitly made this gimmicked-up claim many times in the past. (For one very high-profile example, see THE DAILY HOWLER, 10/18/10.)

Was DC “the worst performing school district in the country” when this self-glorying star hit the scene? There’s no way to tell—but it makes a good tale. So Rhee fluffs herself, then says it.

With Rhee, the embellishment never seems to end—but as we’ve noted, her most significant claim is the sacred story she has always told about her own brilliant teaching career, a sacred story which lays at the heart of her “reform” agenda. According to Rhee, she engineered an education miracle in the last two years of her three-year career at Baltimore’s Harlem Park Elementary. Back in 2007, Rhee’s resume described the miracle: “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.” Right to this day, the sacred tale of this miracle cure drives Rhee’s picture of reform, with various millionaire/billionaire rubes swallowing her claims down whole. If Rhee could achieve this miracle, anyone can—if those lazy teachers would just work harder! This sacred story thus drives a whole movement, in which know-nothings in High Gotham blame America’s teachers, and their infernal unions, for all that is wrong with the world.

Did Rhee really produce that success—the vast success about which she has bragged? Tomorrow, we’ll start to look at the 16-year-old study which helps cast doubt on this claim, which was always highly improbable. For today, let’s consider another part of the Rhee’s game—the vehemence with which she has pimped this improbable, now withdrawn, story. (In the past week, Rhee told the Washington Post that she would now say something less grandiose about her students’ performance.) This unfortunate lady has walked away from the glory tale which defined her career. In walking away, she has made it clear that this story should never have done told.

With that in mind, just consider the way she has told this sacred tale in the past. In particular, consider the savagery with which she has used these now-renounced claims to denounce all others around her.

Rhee has never stopped telling the tale about her success in the classroom. Just last November, she told the tale to the Washingtonian’s Harry Jaffe. Jaffe presented the transcript of an interview with Rhee. In this part of the session, Rhee told her sacred tale:

RHEE: The experience I had in Baltimore was I went into one of the poorest, most segregated communities in Baltimore. I taught at a school with 100 percent African-American kids, most all of them on free and reduced lunch. I was in the neighborhood where they later filmed The Wire.

JAFFE: What was your approach?

RHEE: In my second year of teaching, we took them from the bottom to the top on academics, and what I learned from that experience was these kids were getting screwed because people wanted to blame their low achievement levels on the single-parent households and on the poverty in the community. In that two-year period, none of those things changed. Their parents didn’t change.

JAFFE: What changed?

RHEE: What we were doing with them in school.

Amazing! Despite the fact that Rhee was in the neighborhood where they later filmed The Wire, she took her kids from the bottom to the top in her second year of teaching. Rhee mangles her story just a bit here; she has always claimed that this miracle occurred over a two-year period, in her second and third years of teaching. Whatever! Rhee has never been a stickler for facts when it comes to telling this story. The only rule has always been that the tale must display her full glory.

Often, displaying her own full glory means savaging everyone else. Consider the way she told her tale to Jay Mathews in 2008.

Mathews reported the tale in the Washington Post, embarrassing himself a bit as he did (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 11/26/08). But most significantly, his report showed an ugly side of this self-impressed hustler:

MATHEWS (10/27/08): To understand D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee and the educational insurgency she is part of, you have to know what happened when she taught at Baltimore's Harlem Park Elementary School in the early 1990s.

The Teach for America program threw well-educated young people such as Rhee…into classrooms full of impoverished children after only a summer of training. "It was a zoo, every day," she recalled. Thirty-six children, all poor, suffered under a novice who had no idea what to do.

But within months, for Rhee and other influential educators in her age group, the situation changed. She vowed not "to let 8-year-olds run me out of town." She discovered learning improved when everyone sat in a big U-pattern with her in the middle and she made quick marks on the blackboard for good and bad behavior without ever stopping the lesson. She spent an entire summer making lesson plans and teaching materials, with the help of indulgent aunts visiting from Korea. She found unconventional but effective ways to teach reading and math. She set written goals for each child and enlisted parents in her plans.

Students became calm and engaged. Test scores soared. She kept one group with her for second and third grade. She was convinced that her students, despite their problems, "were the most talented kids ever." Then the real world intruded, a key moment for the entrepreneurial educators Rhee counts as friends. "All of those kids would go on to other teachers and totally lose everything because those teachers were" lousy. (Rhee used an earthier adjective.)

In an interview this month, Rhee said that jarring moment of hope followed by disappointment made her want to change the system.

From that report, you might even think that “test scores soared” because Rhee had come up with such stunning innovations as having her students sit in a semi-circle, while Rhee herself “made quick marks on the blackboard for good and bad behavior—without ever stopping the lesson!” Incredibly, you live in a nation where such monumental nonsense can appear in a very famous newspaper, presented by one of the nation’s best-known education reporters. Just last week, Rhee finally downscaled the claim she has always made about the way those test scores soared. (Specifics tomorrow.) But please note the ugly place where her recollection took her this day.

Poor Rhee! Teaching in the hood where they’d film The Wire, she had learned to sit the kids in a circle—and she’d seen their test scores soar! She even imagined that she had received “acclaim” for this manifest brilliance in the Wall Street Journal! But what had filled Rhee with sheer despair, even as those test scores soared? She just knew that all her work would be lost when her students moved on to all those other teachers! Let’s go ahead and rewrite that passage, inserting the word Rhee employed:

MATHEWS REWRITTEN: Students became calm and engaged. Test scores soared. She kept one group with her for second and third grade. She was convinced that her students, despite their problems, "were the most talented kids ever." Then the real world intruded, a key moment for the entrepreneurial educators Rhee counts as friends. "All of those kids would go on to other teachers and totally lose everything because those teachers were shitty."

Rhee, of course, had been brilliant. She knew this because she had read it in the Wall Street Journal; she also dreamed that she had seen it on Good Morning America. But around her, those other teachers were “shitty,” as she later told Matthews. Of course, those shitty teachers never had to renounce long-standing claims about the gigantic success they attained, as Rhee was forced to do last week. But still, Rhee knew how shitty they were.

For reasons we can’t begin to explain, she knows this deep in her bones.

Rhee has told these ugly, inaccurate tales all through her rise to the top. Millionaire marks in Upper Manhattan have cheered her savage acts on. Last week, she had to walk her sacred tale back, in a way we’ll discuss in more detail tomorrow.

But something is very wrong with this ugly, sacred story. Is it time for Mathews and his colleagues to make some quick marks on the board?

Tomorrow—part 3: Jay to Rhee: “Under the bus!”