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FROM TALL TALE TO REFORM! Michelle Rhee’s miracle tale isn’t true. But it shaped our ideas of “reform:” // link // print // previous // next //
FRIDAY, FEBRUARY 18, 2011

Two stories can be one too many: It doesn’t take much to create confusion in our national discourse. Consider a headline which appears in today’s New York Times:

NEW YORK TIMES HEADLINE (2/18/11): Facing Vote on Cuts, Wisconsin Democrats Vanish

That’s the headline, as it appears in our hard-copy Times. Unfortunately, that isn’t why those Democrats vanished, to judge from the text of Monica Davey’s news report:

DAVEY (2/18/11): The fury among thousands of workers, students and union supporters rose to a boil on Thursday, as state lawmakers prepared to vote on landmark legislation that would slash collective bargaining rights for public workers. Protesters blocked a door to the Senate chambers. They sat down, body against body, filling a corridor. They chanted “Freedom, democracy, unions!” in the stately gallery as the senators convened.

Then the surprising drama in Madison this week added a new twist: the Democrats disappeared.

According to Davey’s report, the point at interest was the fact that this state legislation would “slash collective bargaining rights for public workers.” She stresses that point again, a bit later. But up in the headline, readers were told it was really about (spending) cuts.

As you may know if you’ve followed this story, there are two basic parts to this unfolding story. This has proved to be one too many for many national journalists.

Yes, the legislation in question does involve spending cuts. But it also involves the matter with which Davey led her report—an attempt to restrict collective bargaining rights for many Wisconsin state workers. Davey led with the bargaining rights, as most Wisconsin activists have. But a headline writer ran back to the “cuts,” which does in fact have fewer letters.

Are two topics one too many? At the start of today’s Morning Joe, five journalists struggled and strained with this story; they seemed to have no idea that this matter involves that attempt on those bargaining rights. Midway through a hapless discussion, Joe Scarborough did interject this fact, rather suddenly—though we got the idea that he may have heard this through his ear piece, whispered to by a producer.

Mika and Joe and The Parson Meacham seemed quite clueless this morning. Barnicle seemed hazy too—although he seemed upset to think that legislators would leave the state because of a few spending cuts. But then, we’ve been struck by Ed Schultz’s failure to explain these stories this week as he has thundered about this unfolding story. On Tuesday and Wednesday evenings, Schultz seemed to have little real information about the two topics involved in this story, although he built his program around the Wisconsin struggle each night. On Tuesday night, we thought he made a Republican state senator from Wisconsin seem like the world’s most balanced and best-informed man. The Republican seemed calm, and he seemed to know some facts, which set him apart from Big Eddie.

This morning, Joe and Mika and the others seemed unprepared and uncomprehending. But then, there are two major parts to this unfolding story—and given the press corps’ attention span, that will often be one too many.

Special report: Michelle Rhee’s sacred story!

PART 4—FROM TALL TALE TO REFORM (permalink): In 1994 and 1995, did Michelle Rhee (and a second teacher) create an educational miracle? That’s what Rhee has always said—and her inspiring, self-glorying tale has shaped an entire generation’s idea of “education reform.”

That said, is it actually true? Did Rhee produce a large number of kids who were scoring at the highest levels? She has often said she taught seventy students for two straight years—and that 90 percent of these low-income kids ended up scoring at the 90th percentile or higher! But did anything like that really occur? Consider what happened in August 1995, just six weeks after Rhee completed her three-year teaching career.

Uh-oh! On August 1, 1995, a study of seven Baltimore schools was released to the public. This was the now-famous UMBC report—a $207,000 effort commissioned by the Baltimore City school system. In the report, a team of researchers examined the progress made by seven privatized elementary schools over the prior three years. One of these schools was Harlem Park Elementary, the school at which Rhee had taught—the school at which she had just fashioned her now-famous miracle.

But had that miracle really occurred? Had anything like that happened? The UMBC study was released on August 1, 1995. The next day, Jean Thompson reported the story in the Baltimore Sun—and it’s clear that no miracle had been discovered. So you’ll know: “Tesseract” was the name given to those seven privatized schools by their corporate manager, EAI:

THOMPSON (8/2/95): Baltimore's privately managed public schools show little difference from comparable city-run schools on test results, attendance, parent involvement—or even cleanliness, an evaluation released yesterday found.

The report, prepared by the Center for Educational Research at University of Maryland Baltimore County, represents the first outside evaluation of the closely watched Education Alternatives Inc. experiment.

While reporting few positive results in achievement, the report said, "Change takes time and there has been an investment in the first three years that can be recouped by continuation."

[…]

In scholarly terms, the study lays out EAI's academic struggle: Only in the past year has the Minnesota-based management firm improved test scores to near the levels recorded at its schools before EAI assumed control in 1991.

Researchers said that with 11.2 percent more money, with new computers and with college-educated interns in its classrooms, the firm's schools don't do significantly better than seven comparable elementary schools run by the city.

"The evaluation team found Tesseract and comparison schools more alike than different," the study says.

It adds, "The promise that EAI could improve instruction without spending more than Baltimore City was spending on schools has been discredited."

Intensely watched nationally as the largest experiment in school privatization so far, the company's "Tesseract" program—the name comes from a children's book about time travel—has spent $106 million in public funds since 1992.

Oof! According to Thompson, the EAI effort had been “intensely watched nationally as the largest experiment in school privatization so far.” But the UMBC study found “few positive results in achievement,” Thompson was now reporting. The privately managed EAI schools “show little difference from comparable city-run schools on test results,” the Sun scribe said. Despite a barrel of extra spending, “the firm's schools don't do significantly better than seven comparable elementary schools run by the city.”

This was reported in real time, as the UMBC study was released to the public. On August 8, long-time education writer Mike Bowler discussed the UMBC report in a column in the Sun. The EAI schools’ failure to improve on those standardized tests was “surprising,” Bowler wrote, “given the intense pressure felt in the schools this spring to get those test scores up.” Bowler described the emphasis the EAI schools had placed on test preparation:

BOWLER (8/8/95): Students were drilled on a daily basis. First-graders learned how to fill in the bubbles on the CTBS multiple-choice test form. Students studied booklets giving sample questions. Teachers were cheered on at their Wednesday staff-development sessions. Test tips were posted on hallway bulletin boards.

"[We] found too much instructional time devoted to testing and, particularly, to test preparation," the UMBC evaluators said.

Obviously, the findings of this high-profile report were a blow to the EAI project. (Seven months later, the plug was pulled.) And here’s where a paradox enters the picture:

According to Rhee’s much-ballyhooed tale, an educational miracle had just occurred in one of those EAI schools! Over at Harlem Park Elementary, Rhee had just produced 63 third-graders who had scored at the top of the nation on the very same standardized tests reviewed in the UMBC study! But by some second-order miracle, news of this amazing event had escaped the notice of the UMBC researchers; their test score data for Harlem Park included nothing resembling the story Rhee later told (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 2/17/11). And not only that: At no point in the months which followed did EAI attempt to bolster its position by calling attention to the miracle one of its schools had authored.

According to Rhee’s later story, her principal called her up at this time, telling her that 90 percent of her third-graders had scored at the 90th percentile or higher on the nationally-normed standardized test involved in the UMBC report. But how strange! To all appearances, the principal never told EAI about this, and she never told the UMBC team. Nothing in the UMBC study suggested that any such thing had occurred at Rhee’s school—and EAI sank beneath the waves without ever citing this massive success, achieved in its program’s third year.

Some years later, Rhee began pimping her unlikely tale all around, and the nation’s collection of millionaire/billionaire rubes began to fall at her feet. They were joined by a very large share of the nation’s upper-end “journalists.” Everyone loved the Rhee miracle tale, in which she had turned two classrooms around. Many agreed to pretend that this unlikely tale made good sense, even after reports of that UMBC study made her tale seem quite unlikely.

As we noted yesterday, those reports appeared in June 2007. “Journalists” knew to ignore them.

Did Rhee believe her miracle tale? We have no way of knowing. Did she believe that second tall tale, in which “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?” We can’t answer that question either. (That tale also was false.)

But one thing is abundantly clear, and it was clear in 2007: It’s very, very hard to believe that Michelle Rhee’s miracle tale is actually true—that anything like her ballyhooed miracle occurred at Harlem Park. And something else is abundantly clear, which explains why this nonsense matters:

Rhee’s tale has played a leading role in shaping current notions of “educational reform.” The “reform” ideas which our “journalists” pimp derive from Rhee’s sacred, false tale.

No, Rhee didn’t produce the miracle about which she has bragged, bellowed and boasted as she has climbed the corporate ladder, stuffing barrels of bucks in her pants and becoming a big, famous player. This may reflect somewhat badly on Rhee as a person—but many climbers “embellish” their resumes, as we all surely know.

But the more significant part of this tale is the way Rhee’s miracle tale has helped shape current ideas of “reform.” To understand the way this has worked, let’s look again at the miracle tale as it was told it to poor Evan Thomas, a big major press corps insider.

In September 2008, Thomas profiled Rhee for Newsweek. Here’s how Rhee had laid out the tale:

THOMAS (9/1/08): Over the next two years, working with another teacher, she took a group of 70 kids who had been scoring "at almost rock bottom on standardized tests" to "absolutely at the top," she says. (Baltimore does not keep records by classroom, so NEWSWEEK was unable to confirm this assertion.) The key to success was, in her word, "sweat," on the part of the teacher and the students. "I wouldn't say I was a great teacher. I've seen great. I worked hard," says Rhee.

She had an epiphany of sorts. In the demoralized world of inner-city schools, it is easy to become resigned to poor results—and to blame the environment, not the schools themselves. Broken families, crime, drugs, all conspire against academic achievement. But Rhee discovered that teachers could make the critical difference. "It drives me nuts when people say that two thirds of a kid's academic achievement is based on their environment. That is B.S.," says Rhee. She points to her second graders in Baltimore whose scores rose from worst to best. "Those kids, where they lived didn't change. Their parents didn't change. Their diets didn't change. The violence in the community didn't change. The only thing that changed for those 70 kids was the adults who were in front of them every single day teaching them.”

In that telling of Rhee’s tale, you see the germ of the current idea of “educational reform” which has been pimped by our billionaire and “journalist” classes.

Note what Rhee said about the reason for her vast success. She didn’t engineer that miracle because she was super-smart. More specifically, she didn’t engineer that miracle because she was “a great teacher.” She didn’t succeed because “she found unconventional but effective ways to teach reading and math,” the explanation Jay Mathews offered when he told Rhee’s miracle tale one month later. Sorry! In the tale that was told to Thomas, Rhee had produced her astounding results because she was willing to work hard. The key to Rhee’s success was “sweat,” Thomas quoted her saying.

The inexperienced teacher had simply worked hard! She had stood in front of those children “every single day;” while there, she’d been willing to “teach them!” This of course implies the claim—the ugly, simple-minded, remarkable claim—which lies at the heart of Rhee’s “reform” ideas:

Why do lovely, deserving, low-income kids lag behind national norms in the classroom? It happens because their teachers are lazy—too lazy to stand up and teach them! Because their teachers—who are “shitty,” as Rhee told Mathews—refuse to do their jobs!

Truly, that’s a remarkable claim, but the claim has a long provenance. For whatever reason, elites have always been drawn to this claim; this dates at least to the 1960s, when the nation’s movers and shakers began to wonder what could be done to improve inner-city schools. On Monday, we’ll offer a quick review of this history. For today, let’s reflect on the way this remarkable claim has affected ideas of “reform.”

Why don’t poverty children meet national norms? It’s because their teachers are lazy! This idea is remarkably simple-minded—but it makes life remarkably easy for a big public figure like Rhee. How sweet it is! As educational reformers, she and her colleagues don’t have to come up with “effective ways to teach reading and math;” they simply have to threaten the teachers! After all, those teachers would produce huge success if they’d simply get off their asses and teach, the way Rhee did, back in the day.

If public school teachers would just get to work, they’d produce miracles too!

What a life! Michelle Rhee’s simple-minded idea makes life easy for “educational experts” and for “education reformers.” The teachers already know what to do! All the “reformers” have to do is threaten them, fire and bribe them! This approach has lay at the heart of Rhee’s ministry, in which she has produced almost no ideas about how to succeed in the classroom.

America’s teachers just won’t do their jobs! Has a major movement ever been built on such a simple-minded idea? But Michelle Rhee’s simple-minded idea of reform has always been built on her miracle tale—a miracle tale in which she worked amazingly hard, a tale which never happened.

No, she didn’t produce those results. Why then have so many elites worked so hard to believe her?

Monday—part 5: The history of an idea