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Daily Howler: The local press seems to be taking a pass on DC's new school poobah
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RHEE BREEZES! The local press seems to be taking a pass on DC’s new school poobah: // link // print // previous // next //
MONDAY, JULY 9, 2007

KRUGMAN REACTS: As we said, we’d love to see some health care experts flesh out the portrait offered in Michael Moore’s superlative Sicko. Last week, a New York Times editorial writer may just as well have called in sick (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 7/5/07). This morning, Paul Krugman does better:
KRUGMAN (7/9/07): Now, every wealthy country except the United States already has some form of universal care. Citizens of these countries pay extra taxes as a result—but they make up for that through savings on insurance premiums and out-of-pocket medical costs. The overall cost of health care in countries with universal coverage is much lower than it is here.

Meanwhile, every available indicator says that in terms of quality, access to needed care and health outcomes, the U.S. health care system does worse, not better, than other advanced countries—even Britain, which spends only about 40 percent as much per person as we do.

Yes, Canadians wait longer than insured Americans for elective surgery. But over all, the average Canadian's access to health care is as good as that of the average insured American—and much better than that of uninsured Americans, many of whom never receive needed care at all.

And the French manage to provide arguably the best health care in the world, without significant waiting lists of any kind. There's a scene in ''Sicko'' in which expatriate Americans in Paris praise the French system. According to the hard data they're not romanticizing. It really is that good.
You’re right—the Times should do much more, in news reports. But this is a very good start. The single line which we have highlighted never gets less amazing.

RHEE BREEZES: For our money, Colbert King’s weekly op-ed column is the Washington Post’s best. Typically, King concentrates on DC issues; this Saturday, he wrote about the challenges facing DC mayor Adrian Fenty as he assumes control of the district’s public schools.

“Racial integration” is impossible in a system that is 84 percent black, King writes. “Fenty's immediate challenge is to get District children the schooling necessary for them to make it in this competitive world.” Is there any sign that Fenty can accomplish that with his new superintendent of schools, Michelle Rhee? (Sorry—with his new “chancellor?”) We wrote about Rhee several times last week. We thought we should finish that discussion.

Can the young, inexperienced Rhee improve the DC schools? We don’t have the slightest idea. We assume that Rhee is a capable person—but we lack a crystal ball. We can’t peer into the future.

But we will say this about Rhee: The gentle-lady is full of bold talk. Indeed, that became a part of the problem when questions were raised about certain claims Rhee has long made on her resume (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 7/3/07). Rhee’s teaching experience runs to all of three years, at Baltimore’s Harlem Park elementary school. Question: Did Rhee really produce the miracle cure in her third-grade class that she has claimed on her resume? We’ve sorted that out as best we can. Today, we share what we’ve learned.

By way of review, Nikita Stewart quoted Rhee’s claim in the Washington Post:
STEWART (6/30/07): Rhee's résumé asserts that the students made a dramatic gain [when she taught them at Harlem Park]: "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.”
Everything’s theoretically possible, of course. But scores like that, at a school like Harlem Park, would be astounding—an educational revolution. In our view, competent people should always be suspicious of claims as remarkable as that. Yes, it’s always possible that such claims are true—but over the course of the past forty years, such claims have often turned out to be bogus. Just as a simple technical matter, someone like Rhee should understand how implausible her claim actually is. It’s amazing that this claim has sat on her resume, unchallenged, up to this late date.

But alas! By now, it seems fairly clear that the Washington Post and the Washington Times plan to take a pass on Rhee’s claim. Questions have been raised about the claim—but the city’s two biggest newspapers don’t seem eager to learn if it’s accurate. That said, let’s look at what may have happened during Rhee’s three-year teaching career. Then, let’s look at other improbable claims Rhee has made as she has climbed this particular ladder—as she climbed on the backs of the low-income kids King worried about this weekend.

What happened during Rhee’s three-year career? Absent actual test results, that question is quite hard to answer. But in late June, the Washington Times’ Gary Emerling offered some information that helped place Rhee’s claims in perspective. Again, for background, here is his summary of Rhee’s short teaching career:
EMERLING (6/28/07): Mrs. Rhee, 37, began her three-year teaching career at Harlem Park Community School in the 1992-93 school year through the Teach for America program.
In the 1993-94 school year, when she taught second-graders at the inner-city school, those students had scored at the 13th percentile on standardized tests.

By the end of the 1994-95 year, after Mrs. Rhee had taught the same students as third-graders, 90 percent of them scored at the 90th percentile, according to her resume.

Mrs. Rhee said the test results were achieved on the Comprehensive Test of Basic Skills (CTBS).
Again, this would be an astounding achievement at a low-income school like Harlem Park. But did Rhee’s students record such remarkable scores? Baltimore’s testing director, Ben Feldman, has declined to produce the relevant data. But Emerling did obtain some basic data for Harlem Park’s 1995 third graders. The school’s enrollment figures may be relevant, for reasons we’ll cite below:
EMERLING: Mr. Feldman said retrieving data from a decade ago is hard because his office changed its information storage systems for the year 2000.

Still, the normal curve equivalent score (which is similar to a percentile) on the CTBS for Harlem Park second-graders was 27 in reading and 43 in math in the 1993-94 school year, according to a 1995 report published by the University of Maryland-Baltimore County.

The report also shows that third-graders at the school for two years achieved a score of 45 in reading and 51 in math in 1994-95. The report does not break down scores by specific class and excludes some students from the totals, including those who received special-education services....

Figures contained in the university study also show that Harlem Park's elementary enrollment fell from 523 in 1992-93 to 440 in 1994-95.

Mrs. Rhee, who was in her early 20s while at the school, said she did not remember the size of her class.
Rhee seems to remember remarkably little about the kids on whose backs she has risen. But if Emerling’s data are accurate, Rhee’s claim of astounding success would seem somewhat harder to credit.

According to Emerling’s data, Harlem Park enrolled 440 kids in 1994-95. In a PreK-Grade 5 school, that would suggest that the school had two third grade classes in 1994-95, the year in question.

But uh-oh! As has been widely reported, Rhee “taught her students as part of a team” during her last two years at Harlem Park (Emerling). As with almost every part of this story, the reporting on this point has been murky. But it seems that Rhee “team-taught” with Michelle Jacobs, another young teacher, during that two-year period. Presumably, that would mean that Rhee and Jacobs, as a team, were teaching a pair of third grade classes; at this time, that may have been Harlem Park’s entire third-grade population. But, according to Emerling’s data, Harlem Park’s third-graders “achieved a score of 45 in reading and 51 in math in 1994-95.” Those scores would be roughly average for the nation. That would have been a solid achievement at a struggling, low-income school like Harlem Park. But it would be nothing like the astounding success claimed on Rhee’s resume.

Or did Harlem Park have more than two third-grade classes in 1995? At the DC city council meeting last week, Rhee’s former principal, Linda Carter, and Jacobs, her former teaching partner, seemed to say that there were four third-grade classes at Harlem Park that year. It’s hard to know why a school that small would have had four classes in one grade. But the questioning of Carter and Jacobs was inexpert, and the question of Rhee’s miracle cure was allowed to slide.

But then, Rhee and her supporters have fudged and back-slid all through this embarrassing process. Rhee herself has made an assortment of unlikely statements about her knowledge of these students’ test scores. Meanwhile, Carter and Jacobs offered downsized claims before the city council. Again, a chunk from Emerling:
EMERLING (7/3/07): Mrs. Rhee repeated yesterday that she did not have documents to support the increase but that she was told by the school's principal that her students had achieved such a gain.

“We did not actually have documentation at that time,” Mrs. Rhee said in response to a question about the test scores from Muriel Bowser, Ward 4 Democrat. "Since then, I've actually...looked into multiple times if that information was available from the Baltimore school system and they repeatedly told me it was not."

Mrs. Rhee said she would like to create a system that provides teachers with documentation of students' progress. Several of her former colleagues at the Baltimore school also vouched for her success in the classroom before the council.

"I was in the classroom, so I know that the children came from a mighty long way," said Michele Jacobs, who co-taught with Mrs. Rhee at Harlem Park.

Linda Carter, Harlem Park's former principal, said after her testimony that she at one time had a document that listed Harlem Park test scores by grade level and school comparison. Those scores showed significant gains, Ms. Carter said, and she told the council that she had seen documentation showing gains of more than 50 percent in at least the third and fifth grades at Harlem Park.
In Emerling’s paraphrase (which is almost word-for-word accurate), Carter says she saw “gains of more than 50 percent in at least the third and fifth grades at Harlem Park.” It’s impossible to know what such vague language means, but it doesn’t seem to describe anything like the miracle claimed on Rhee’s resume. Meanwhile, Jacobs was pleasing but vague—the kids came “a mighty long way,” she said—and Rhee played semi-dumb for the millionth time, seeming to say that she, a crackerjack teacher, never saw the actual test scores recorded by her students. We watched the full testimony of Carter and Jacobs at the DC city council’s web site. Let’s just say this: It’s hard to believe that such an achievement would be recalled in such vague and fuzzy ways. Meanwhile, it’s inexcusable that Rhee has built her career on a claim like this—a claim she has never been able to verify, despite her “multiple” efforts.

But then, these are the kinds of claims that have routinely been made, in the past forty years, by those who would build their reputations (and their bank-books) on the backs of low-income black kids. Over and over, claims like this have turned out to be false—but the society always seems happy to believe such claims the next time around. In this way, we see the way the wider society acts when the lives of black kids are at issue.

Let’s speak frankly: If you’re part of a well-connected elite—and if you’re talking about black children—there is no claim you can make, no matter how improbable, that anyone will bother to fact-check or challenge. In this society, no one cares if your statements are true—if your statements concern black kids. Go ahead—make any claim you please! You will rise through the system on the strength of your claim—and when the moment of truth finally comes, big newspapers will duck the search for the truth. So will city councils.

What happens when connected players makes improbable claims about black kids? Let’s review what happened here:
  • Major newspapers will (apparently) back away from an effort to get at the facts.
  • City councils will raise a small fuss—then will back-pedal rapidly.
  • A range of upper-class supporters will fly in to testify to your brilliance. (Some day, you will return the favor.)
  • Educational “experts” will stare into space, refusing to offer comment.
In the process, a damaging narrative will ride high again—the Narrative of the Miracle Cure. Once again, upper-class society will agree to pretend that stories like Rhee’s make perfect sense. It’s a pretty tale, and it makes us feel good—and the nation’s black kids can go hang! After telling her magical narrative, Rhee will waltz straight into office, pretending to carry some magic elixir. And guess what? A few years down the road, the Washington Post will thunder again about the need for real reform in our schools.

Does Rhee have anything to offer the district? We don’t have the slightest idea. But Rhee has waltzed into office in the standard way; she has offered pleasing but implausible claims, while saying next to nothing about educational policy. But then, it has worked this way for a very long time. For more than forty years, the Narrative of the Miracle Cure has substituted for real discussion about the way low-income schools really work.

People like Rhee claim miracle cures—and say they can do it again, system-wide. City councils roll over and die. So do the nation’s big newspapers.

HAPPY-TALK YES, REAL DISCUSSION NO: We don’t know Rhee, but she seems to be a master of the happy-talk which substitutes for real discussion when the lives of black kids are concerned. We wanted to show you the statement she offered about how she knows that all our children can succeed at the very highest levels. But wouldn’t you know it? The web site of the DC schools has been down for the past two days, and that was where the pleasing statement was available. Rhee said virtually nothing about educational policy during her testimony to the city council.

PRINCIPALS SAY THE DARNDEST THINGS: Perhaps the most laughable moment in this drama was authored by former principal Taylor. Here’s a chunk from the Post’s most detailed profile of Rhee, written by Dion Haynes:
HAYNES (7/2/07): The two-story red brick Harlem Park Elementary School is in a section of Baltimore's west side that was marred by boarded-up rowhouses. The neighborhood was so dangerous with shootings and drug dealing that teachers, including Rhee, were required to walk students home after school, said Linda Carter, who was principal at the time.

Rhee's class consisted of more than 35 students, many with academic and behavior problems, who would hit one another and ignore her efforts to restore order. She tried introducing a hands-on math program using blocks, but the students ended up throwing them at one another.

But during Rhee's second year, Carter said, she was full of ideas about how to help the students: more hands-on learning, using team teachers who stick with the same students for two years, after-school and weekend tutoring, two hours of homework a night, breaking up the class into smaller groups based on ability levels.

"You knew she was teaching from the soul, getting down to the gut of it," Carter said. "She was putting everything she had into it."

Rhee said the students improved dramatically, and that claim has been backed up by Carter and two others who worked with her. But Rhee has no documentation of the test scores. Some D.C. Council members said they would question her carefully on that point because she has used it as evidence of her qualifications to head the schools.
For the record, those “DC Council members” rolled over and died. But here at THE HOWLER, we just had to laugh when Taylor described the brilliant ideas Rhee was “full of” during Year 2. After-school tutoring! Homework at night! Why, she even broke the class into groups! To state the obvious, these brilliant “ideas” had been widely employed, all over the nation, for decades before Rhee began teaching. Who knows? Maybe she even told the students to get a good rest every night!

It would be hard to overstate the absurdity of that paragraph is as an explanation of miracle scores. We’ll assume that Rhee was a hard-working, dedicated teacher (for three years); and yes, she may have been quite successful. But if those miracle scores did occur, what might the explanation be? Breaking her class into groups ain’t the answer. If the miracle really happened, it’s fairly clear that no one made the slightest attempt to figure out why.

In our society, you get to clown like that about one group. Perhaps you know who that group is.

IN SEARCH OF THOSE CLAIMS OF ACCLAIM: Rhee’s resume makes other claims about her brilliance—claims which may be bogus. Here was Rhee’s official bio at The New Teacher Project, the non-profit organization she founded, from which she was hired to run DC’s schools:
OFFICIAL BIO: 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...
But the highlighted statement seems hard to back up. In the mid-1990s, Harlem Park Elementary was run by a private company, Educational Alternatives (EAI); this nine-school experiment got a lot of media attention in Baltimore, and a bit of attention in the national press. For the record, EAI’s five-year contract was terminated in December 1995, a year early, in part because of unimpressive test scores.

So here’s the question: Did Rhee’s “outstanding success in the classroom” really “earn her acclaim” from the news orgs she named? Let’s start with the Hartford Courant.

In March 1994 and June 1994—long before her “outstanding success” had been recorded—Rhee was quoted as part of two news reports in the Courant. (EAI would soon be taking over Hartford’s schools, and the paper was examining the company’s effort in Baltimore.) But Rhee wasn’t the focus of either report, nor was there any claim of any outstanding success—on her part, or by EAI generally. Unless something is missing from the Nexis archives, Rhee’s claim about the Courant is simply a bald-faced misstatement.

How about Good Morning America? In the Nexis archives, transcripts of the program only date back to July 1996. (There is no report on Rhee, or on Harlem Park, in the archives after that date.) However, program summaries exist before that date; they show that Good Morning America aired a report on EAI and Harlem Park on October 24, 1993, at the start of Rhee’s second year of teaching. The detailed summary doesn’t say that Rhee was included in the program (although she may have been). But at this point, her alleged “outstanding success in the classroom” hadn’t occurred. We can find no sign that the program reported on Rhee, or on Harlem Park, at any later point.

Did Rhee win acclaim in the Wall Street Journal? The paper isn’t part of Nexis, and we haven’t been able to navigate its maddeningly ill-explained search capacities. Regarding the antique Home Show, we simply can’t tell you.

Is it true? Did Rhee’s “outstanding success in the classroom” really “earn her acclaim” from the news orgs she listed? Rhee has pushed these claims for the past dozen years. By any normal standard, the Post and the Times should find out.

SAID TOO MUCH: Did Rhee’s third-graders record those miracle scores? We don’t have the slightest idea. But a second question would arise if they did—were such scores legitimate? For our taste, Rhee’s teaching assistant may have said a bit too much when she spoke with the Post:
STEWART (6/30/07): Harlem Park's school-level standardized test scores, although not proving or disproving Rhee's assertions, show significant gains collectively among all three second-grade classes in 1993-94 and the three third-grade classes in 1994-95, the years she taught those grades. Three people who worked closely with her at the school and a student say the scores rose in the range Rhee suggested.

Linda Carter, who served as principal of Harlem Park when Rhee was there, said the jump in the achievement level was "dramatic" and the scores were "pretty high."

"We were proud of the third-graders then," said Carter, who couldn't recall the exact figures.

Michele Jacobs, 38, who taught in a combined third-grade class with Rhee in 1994-95, said: "I honestly would go with what [Rhee] says. . . . She probably is correct. I know it was high gains. It definitely was high gains."

Deonne Medley, who was Rhee's teaching intern, recalled students' scores increasing from roughly the 15th percentile to about the 80th or 90th percentile. "I remember her looking at a lot of the indicators for this testing and using that to design some of her lessons," said Medley, 36. "She tried to get her kids to maximize their results on the test."
Uh-oh! For the record, Medley seemed to tell the city council that she worked with Rhee in 1992-93 only. Meanwhile, that highlighted statement may be perfectly innocent—or it may suggest that Rhee was engaged in improper test prep. If they really occurred, Rhee’s miracle scores should have been carefully checked by her principal.

But there is no sign that anyone tried to check to see if the scores were really legit. Last week, Rhee’s principal sang Harlem Park’s school song for the city council—but said nothing about such concerns. But so it has gone for the past forty years as we pretend to give a fig about the interests of low-income children.

HAPPY ENDING: Happy ending! As it turns out, Rhee and her top assistants will be paid unusually high salaries. In this news report, council member Carol Schwartz seemed to utter a low, mordant chuckle:
EMERLING (7/7/07): Carol Schwartz, at-large Republican, cautioned Mrs. Rhee at her confirmation hearing before the council on Monday about bringing in employees at too high of a salary level.

"Oftentimes people that work for nonprofits or governments do so out of love for what they're doing and not because of salaries," Mrs. Schwartz said later this week. "However, I've noticed both in terms of the nonprofit that she ran and the kinds of salaries that these individuals are going to be paid by our government that they don't seem to be making much of a sacrifice."
But then, when music men have magic trombones, they deserve to be paid for their magic.