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 which “call 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.”