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Test Cheating Scandal Won’t Die for Michelle Rhee

December 3, 2011

Those of you who have been reading my blog for awhile know that I am no fan of Michelle Rhee.  I have never liked how she has been downright hostile to teachers, principals, and unions.

Rhee’s persona strikes me as one who would do anything to enhance her own celebrity, or what she feels is her celebrity.  I have posted before about Rhee where I revealed her speaking contract and all the perks that she demands when she is speaking.  I am still wondering why an organization would pay this woman handsomely when there are still allegations of a massive test cheating scandal that occurred under her watch as the head of Washington, D.C. Public Schools.

To me it seems obvious that Rhee would like the scandal to go away as without it she would probably be raking in much more money on her speaking junkets.  I can only hope that people wise-up and basically don’t give this woman the publicity she seeks in order to book more $$$ generating business for herself.

Speaking along these lines I wanted to pass along a post to you by Rita Beamish over at the Daily Beast.

The darling of education reformers insists she welcomes a probe of student scores during her tenure as D.C. schools chancellor—but admits to no mistake. Rita Beamish on how it’s complicating her legacy.

Isn’t it interesting how nowadays admitting to no mistakes or wrongdoing is the status quo?  I mean corporations, banks, multi-nationals, hedge fund operators, and crooked politicians all do it.  They say they “want to get to the bottom of something.”  Or, “let’s form an independent panel to investigate.”  But, nothing ever happens, frankly: It is genius on their part and it disgusts me.

One distraction that Michelle Rhee could do without as she evangelizes around the country for school reform is any whiff of a cheating scandal in the public-school system she led in Washington, D.C.

But that topic is very much alive, thanks to an ongoing investigation by federal officials and the D.C. inspector general into unusual erasures on tests and student academic gains that seemed too good to be true—but that Rhee insists were real.

Now head of her own advocacy organization, StudentsFirst, Rhee says she welcomes the probe. Investigating the troubling allegations can promote public confidence in standardized testing and prove that kids can make dramatic improvements, she says. That assumes, naturally, the findings support her contention that there was no widespread cheating. She says it can also enhance the national dialogue on education reform, and that’s what she’s all about.

StudentsFirst has been lobbying for state changes in education—notably Rhee’s trademark pursuits of ending teacher-tenure rules, installing high academic standards, and offering parents more school choices. Her cheerleading for dumping the teacher-layoff practice of “last in, first out” has become particularly incendiary as anemic budgets force school cutbacks.

If you are a teacher, especially a veteran teacher, Michelle Rhee is NOT your friend.  I am not all that veteran of a teacher and I have been bitten by the cut-backs in education with a layoff notice last year (it was rescinded) but I recognize the value of veteran teachers.  They have helped me time and again in my teaching…they just know what they are doing because they have had to deal with it on many occasions in the past.  Imagine NOT wanting your doctor to be experienced, or your mechanic…or, you are having legal difficulties and instead of choosing a seasoned veteran attorney you choose some fresh-faced kid just out of law school.  It might work well in a John Grisham novel, but in real life it is insanity.

She remains the darling of reformers and critics of teachers’ unions, and sees herself eventually returning to public education. A flirtation with the state of New Jersey fizzled when her new husband, Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson, “put the kibosh” on a bicoastal relationship, Rhee joked in an interview with The Daily Beast. “New Jersey is even farther from Sacramento than Nashville,” where she commutes to be with her kids, who live with her ex-husband, Kevin Huffman, the Tennessee state schools commissioner.

On the D.C. cheating suspicions, Rhee walks a tricky line: while welcoming the investigation requested by her successor, she admits to no mistake in her own failure to seek that probe when she was chancellor. Rhee departed the District a year ago.

Of course she didn’t seek a probe when she was Chancellor even though it was obvious that one was needed.  Seeking a probe would have let the cat out of the bag much sooner.

“Were there more steps that could have been taken? Sure. But I feel very, very comfortable and confident with the steps we took,” Rhee says.

Rhee offered to speak to The Daily Beast, saying she wants to counter any perceptions that she is ducking questions about the matter. She’s done many interviews. Yet she refuses to be interviewed by the USA Today journalists who ignited a firestorm in March with their investigative story that spotlighted statistically rare improvement at some D.C. schools, and high rates of erasures that corrected wrong answers. The newspaper’s e-mail exchanges with Rhee’s staff reflected her unhappiness with the reporters’ test-centered questions.

The newspaper also raised questions about the depth of an investigation by an outside company that Rhee hired in 2009. That firm found no evidence of cheating.

Everything that this woman does is simply disingenuous.  If she really wanted to clear this up, why not go to the people at USAToday who wrote the original story and come clean with them on what happened and why?

In declining to hire the firm to examine earlier erasure anomalies on the 2008 tests, Rhee said she had sought “clarity” about precisely what was being questioned by the state superintendent’s office, which had flagged many schools in its first-time erasure analysis. The office assumes the role of a state education department over D.C. Public Schools (DCPS). The results were deemed inconclusive, and Rhee moved on to focus on improving security for future tests.

“In hindsight I can tell you that at the time we weren’t thinking that DCPS was going to be under the microscope in the way that we were on the national scale,” she says.

Well, you should have been thinking that because the miracles of under-performing schools to super-performing schools doesn’t happen in one year’s time.

So does that mean she would have stepped up the investigation had she known that USA Today would be poring through documents and conducting interviews? She says only that her actions “totally made sense” at the time. Now, she says, “we should take every step necessary to clear the air on it and make sure people understand there was real progress that happened.”

Rhee rejects the notion that growing pressure on schools to improve their test scores—sometimes tying teacher pay to student gains—can create an environment for cheating. But in Atlanta, state investigators found this year that pressure to meet testing targets was a major factor in cheating by dozens of educators in 44 schools. Rhee insists the vast majority of teachers “would never compromise their personal or professional integrity,” although “you’ll inevitably have some teachers and educators who unfortunately are making the wrong decision.”

StudentsFirst is pushing states to adopt some of Rhee’s signature positions, such as undoing teacher-tenure systems, promoting high expectations for students, and broadening public-school options for families.

She professes to have no aspirations for elective office—“I’ll leave that to my husband”—but says she misses the hands-on work of being superintendent. “I can’t tell you that 10 years from now I wouldn’t get the itch,” she says.

It looks like Rhee is just where she wants to be, ducking tough questions just like a seasoned politician.  I hope USAToday keeps working on this story and keeps revealing what needs to be seen about how DC Public Schools was run under Rhee’s tenure.

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