No Guns, But A Lawyer and Plenty of Money: The Increasingly Strange Saga of Michelle Rhee

A think piece for a winter weekend day. - promoted by Bob_Neer

In educational reform circles, Michelle Rhee is royalty. Her controversial career sprung from Teach for America, the quintessential ed reform project. Kevin Huffman, her first husband, was also a TFA alum. She divorced him for a second Kevin and is now married to former NBA star and now Mayor of Sacramento Kevin Johnson. She played her questionable tenure as Chancellor of Washington, DC into a multi-million dollar non-profit called Students First. (It’s not that hard if you know the right people). According to the AFT-run website Rheefirst!, she receives a $50,000 for a speaker fee. (Creative Artists represents her). She’s probably also a serial liar.

Rhee’s reputation rests on her tenure in Washington, DC where former Mayor Adrian Fenty stripped the school board of its authority and installed Rhee as Chancellor in spite of the fact of having no experience running a school system. She fired principals, eliminated administrative positions, and closed schools. When asked about the 266 teachers she laid off, she responded, “I got rid of teachers who had hit children, who had had sex with children, who had missed 78 days of school. Why wouldn’t we take those things into consideration?”

Under Rhee’s tenure, standardized test scores went up as dramatically as democratic input went down. She offered cash bonuses for test scores and pushed principals to say how much they would raise tests.   Test scores went up. And led to an investigation. The testing company found statistically rare erasure rates on answer sheets. There was an investigation, but it extraordinarily limited in scope, which Rhee blamed on the people hired to investigate.When Rhee lost her job as chancellor (when Fenty lost his re-election bid), she landed on her feet, founding StudentsFirst, paying herself a hefty salary, and collecting a lot more with speaking engagements.

The story of Michelle Rhee isn’t important for its dubiousness. It shines a light on the entire education reform movement, which is itself based on the idea that the only serious problem with student achievement is a lack of proper incentives. If teachers weren’t protected by unions, if they were paid for increasing test scores, and if you put some Ivy League people in charge of things, students would learn. Regardless of their socio-economic status, their home lives, or their innate ability, students will achieve. It only takes the right incentives. This is all wishful thinking, of course. More specifically, it is neo-liberal thinking applied to education. And that’s why Michelle Rhee’s test scores matter. If paying principals, teachers, and support staff based on test scores works, if punishing them for poor test scores works, then professional educators and mountains of research are wrong. Improving education is simply a matter of adopting a business model and letting improvement take its course. Like everything else, education would work on an economic model. Run it like a business. Problem solved. Michelle Rhee’s story is important because she’s a poster child for the neo-liberal education policy we refer to as ed reform. Her case doesn’t disprove the entire policy, but it’s a big nail in its coffin.

There are some interesting developments in the Rhee story. Earlier this month, BMGer Angela posted about a Frontline episode called The Education of Michelle Rhee. It’s remarkable that Frontline bothered with a story about her. Also remarkable that Rhee has hired Attorney Reid Weingarten of White-Collar Criminal Defense group for Steptoe & Johnson LLP. Weingarten’s clients have included “Bernie Ebbers, the former WorldCom CEO convicted of securities fraud; Roman Polanski, the film director who has been wanted in the U.S. for decades-old charges involving having sex with a 13-year-old girl; Lauren Stevens, the GlaxoSmithKline attorney cleared of corporate misconduct; Former agriculture secretary Mike Espy, who won acquittal on corruption charges.” Weird.

And education reporter John Merrow–who also did the Frontline episode–is reporting that he’s been getting the run-around by the Washington, DC system. Evidently, there are a series of emails and a memo, all of whichcall into question Rhee’s claims of success as a school leader, her diligence in pursuing testing irregularities, her current claim that she fully cooperated with investigators, and the efficacy of the climate she built around high-stakes testing in the district.”



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5 Comments . Leave a comment below.
  1. Response to The Increasingly Strange Saga of Michelle Rhee

    Michelle Rhee is one of the many ed reform Poverty Pimps on the stroll in urban communities to make a quick and easy buck. Joe and Joanne Citizen might be taken in because she’s not hard on the eye and she is articulate. However, the Frontline Report exposed her for the sociopathic narcissist that she is and I thank them for that. I went and watched the video of Rhee speaking on the RheeFirst! Site. I was only sorry that Frontline didn’t show the video of her admitting to taping the mouths of her 35, 2nd grader’s, causing bleeding and crying when it was removed. Then she took 4 kids on an after-school field trip without their home addresses! Didn’t she have permission slips? Where was her critical thinking? Besides being a sociopathic narcissist is she a magical thinker too!

    Where were the lawyers for these abused children? Why didn’t someone file a “Child in Need of Services” report against Michelle Rhee? Rhee was allowed to do this to 2nd graders and wasn’t told that teaching might not “be the right fit” for her! I was a teacher 18 years ago, this was not common teaching practice, and never would have been tolerated in the Boston Public Schools where I teach!

    Rhee has caused so much damage the Washington DC community and the hardworking teachers, staff, and students of the DC Public Schools. You have to wonder about the organizations and foundations that continue to support and give Rhee money for StudentFirst! Here, I think, there is something be said about guilt by association!

  2. Rhee's first tall tale was about herself

    Rhee made her move from teacher to “reformer” by telling a tall tale about herself: that she had improved her students’ test scores to 90th percentile. That’s the first sign that she is not credible. That’s too good to be true, like every kid in a high school class getting 700 or higher on the SAT Math.
    Here’s the context: in the 80s or early 90s a private outfit name EAI took over some Baltimore elementary schools promising to raise scores. Rhee was a teacher in that venture. This EAI venture was later studied by social scientist number-crunchers at University of Maryland, Baltimore County.
    Bob Somerby’s Daily Howler really dug into the contradictions between Rhee and the facts.

    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.

    Her career was born with false story, and it’s no surprise that her reforms led to cheating on tests, and investigations that didn’t really try to find the truth.
    It’s also worth reading what Charlie Pierce has to say about Rhee.

  3. I cannot stand Michelle Rhee

    I found it very interesting that you referred to it as “neo-liberal thinking applied to education,” because that’s exactly what it is. I turned 17 the year Bill Clinton was elected President, and really came of age during that era. And all this neo-liberal crap, which essentially moved the entire conversation on every issue nine steps to the right, makes my blood just boil.

    Michelle Rhee, to me, is very high on the list of people from that whole movement who should have no credibility. She is a flat-out fraud.

  4. What is it about public education

    that attracts bedbugs like Rhee and Joel Klein and others? Because, as willie Sutton once said, that’s where the money is. Klein left as NYC Chancellor to work for NewsCorp ( because that is also where the money is) and Rhee has promoted herself into consultancy, regardless of her record of destruction.
    Congratulation, people like these two, and many others, have succeded in reducing public education to the level of politics, where the facts don’t matter and things happen based on popularity.

  5. Teachable moment for MLK day

    Thanks, Mark, for bringing this travesty to the attention of BMGers. The Rhee saga, as it continues, is a real teachable moment for progressives. It’s worth pondering the consequences of her “no excuses,” ends-justify-the-means, test-centric, dehumanizing approach to “education reform” for D.C. public schoolchildren. As John Merrow himself said in his blog, Taking Note, “If adults change answers, then the weaknesses are not discovered or remediated. If you believe, as I do, that education is a civil right, then those cheaters are denying children a basic civil right.”

    And lest we stoop to focusing the blame on the teachers, remember that Rhee set the stage for this kind of corruption by making all about the test scores and demanding that principals and teachers deliver, or else.

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