Michelle Rhee, the Chancellor of Education for Washington D.C. will appear on the Oprah show today, along with Bill Gates, and Davis Guggenheim, the director of “Waiting for Superman.” In anticipation of the broadcast, I have decided to take a look at the life and times of Michelle Rhee.
Rhee’s career in education began in 1992 when she joined Teach for America after graduating from Cornell University. She taught second (and perhaps third?) grade at Harlem Park Elementary in Baltimore, MD. Rhee has claimed that she was able to take her students, who had been performing, on average, in the 13th percentile on national standardized tests, to 90% of the students scoring in the 90th percentile. However, as reported by The Washington Times, those facts have not been verified. A quote from Rhee at the end of the article suggests she would be open to having those records released. But high turn over of students in the school from one year to the next and the fact her second two years at the school were taught, not by her individually, but as part of a team of two teachers, might in any event render such an inquiry inconclusive.
After three years, she left teaching to pursue a master’s degree in public policy from the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard. She obtained her degree in 1997 and that same year established The New Teacher Project in New York. The aim of TNTP was to train mid-career professionals in teaching and provide an alternate route to certification, similar to TFA. TNTP has established large and well-known multi-year teaching fellowship programs in several states around the country.
In 2006, Adrian Fenty campaigned for the mayoral election on a platform of reform across several areas, including education. Before the election, Fenty met with Mayor Bloomberg and Chancellor Joel Klein who advised Fenty to secure mayoral control over the D.C. education system. Fenty won the D.C. mayoral election that Fall and took control of its schools in June 2007. Immediately upon taking control of the school, he named Michelle Rhee to serve as the district’s Chancellor of Education. Vincent Gray, the democratic chairman of the City Council who beat Fenty last week in the democratic primary election for this year’s mayoral race, raised questions regarding Rhee’s claims of having produced significant improvement in her students at Harlem Park. The uncertainty was not enough to hinder the confirmation process and she took her post in Summer 2007. Indeed, immediately upon her taking office, media outlets began to report on the Harlem Park student success figures without any qualifying language, or with ambiguous qualifying language, as though her confirmation as chancellor were a prima facie absolution of the uncertainty surrounding the numbers.
As chancellor, Rhee has established a reputation as a hard-nosed no-excuses leader. She has fired teachers and principals, including, perhaps most audaciously, the principal of her own eight and five-year-old daughters’ elementary school because she found the homework assigned to them to be “sporadic and unchallenging.” Questions have been raised, and a lawsuit filed a week and a half ago, regarding a teacher Rhee actually declined to fire. The teacher at issue is Robert Weismiller, a former D.C. special education teacher at Shadd Transition Academy. Shadd itself, established under Rhee, apparently as a school specifically for emotionally disturbed students, has faced scrutiny as a failed project. There are reports the school was poorly planned, is plagued with bureaucracy, under-staffed, and has ultimately become a “disaster.” The lawsuit however, has nothing to do with the viability of Shadd as a school, but instead that staff at Shadd and Rhee, allowed Weismiller to engage in the continued sexual abuse of one of its special needs students, the plaintiff, Ayanna Blue. The suit stems from a D.C. Public Schools investigation into the matter that ultimately found Weimiller not guilty of “grave misconduct.” The suit indicates that although Weismiller was in fact ultimately terminated, the termination was part of the school system’s October 2009 reduction in force, and not as a result of any sexual charges. Blue gave birth to a daughter in November 2009, paternity tests revealed a 99.9% probability that Weismiller is the biological father. Early this year, Rhee seems to have made a slip of the tongue where she implied that a terminated teacher at Shadd academy had been having “sex with children,” which would indicate that she was cognizant of the fact that such sexual abuse occurred, and begs the question, whether she arrived at that knowledge before the conclusion of the investigation.
Unfortunately, there is yet another sex scandal in the chronology. It is of allegations that Rhee’s new husband, Kevin Johnson, the Mayor of Sacramento and a former player with the NBA Phoenix Suns, sexually harassed at least one student volunteering through a charter school he was operating, St. Hope Academy. However, Rhee’s involvement in the scandal seems unclear. Reports have surfaced indicating that she attempted to do “damage control,” but all I could find to substantiate that assertion was a simple quote from a St. Hope employee claiming as much. This more thorough outline of the events tying Rhee to the controversy also seems to suggests that her connection to any actual cover-up or mitigation of the charges is tenuous at best.
In July, Rhee released numbers indicating 241 teachers were to be fired between then and August. And that 165 of those teachers had received low scores on the newly-implemented teacher evaluation system, IMPACT. The IMPACT system, launched in Fall 2009, is meant to serve as a value-add analysis of teacher effectiveness. That is, it aims to gauge each teacher’s effectiveness on the basis of changes in student assessment scores; is the teacher adding value? As with virtually every other fact in this piece, the number of teachers subjected to termination on the basis of IMPACT scores also came into controversy. Last month, the Washington Teacher’s Union took issue with Rhee’s numbers indicating they were over-inflated perhaps to maintain her “take-no-prisoners” image. It appears that of those 165 teachers said to have been fired on the basis of IMPACT performance, only 76 were actually deemed “ineffective” in those evaluations. Of the total 241 terminations, 75 were reported to have been over mere licensing issues. The majority of the 165 low-IMPACT-score teachers, were deemed “minimally effective.” However, their terminations were also not a direct result of their IMPACT scores, those teachers were simply excessed, which appears to be no more than school lay offs. Those excessed teachers are in fact still qualified to find work in other D.C. public schools if there is room for them on another staff. Essentially, it appears just 76 teachers have lost their jobs for being ineffective teachers as measured by a formal district-wide system of teacher evaluation, in the three years Rhee has been chancellor.
Ultimately, there has been some evidence of improvement among student scores in D.C. schools under Rhee however, the findings usually come with a caveat. It seems clear that improving schools and school systems will simply take time. The IMPACT system itself just finished its first full year of implementation. One year would yield only one subject in a study on IMPACT’s ability to effect student improvement in D.C. Even that would require the presumption that the student evaluations used by IMPACT are a good measure of student learning. I hope that Oprah’s hosting Rhee will not serve as a tacit endorsement of Rhee’s fitness to hold her position, or worse, to intrinsically serve as proof that education reform, and certainly the slash-and-burn education reform measures advocated by Rhee and others, are conclusively working.