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Why Rhee Remains at the Core of the Controversies

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In a time of multiple wars around the globe and a nuclear meltdown in Japan, you wouldn't expect to see so many front page stories about education policy fights -- but you do. In Florida, Idaho, Minnesota, New York... almost everywhere.

What's happening? And why does former Washington D.C. schools chief, Michelle Rhee, keep popping up in so many of these fights -- even when she's not a player in some of those states? The answer is that two decades of debates over improving public schools are coming to a head. It's time to take sides, so the scramble is on.

In one camp are most teachers, traditional liberals, the teachers unions and the politicians who win their support. To them, school accountability reforms have swerved in a dangerous and unfair direction -- singling out teachers. The real culprits, they say, are not ineffective teachers but the unsolved problems of race and poverty.

In the other camp are liberal reformers, conservatives, charter school operators, some young public school teachers and the politicians who win their support. This camp believes that schools can put a dent in the problems of race and poverty, but only with stiff accountability focused primarily on one target -- singling out teachers.

No wonder Rhee pops up in all these debates. Rhee's rapid-fire school reforms during her three-and-a-half years here focused mostly on teacher quality, the core issue in this current national clash, and the key reform she now pushes nationally through her new advocacy group, Students First.

In D.C., Rhee fired teachers she thought were bad. A few (very few) school chiefs have tried to do that, but not successfully. Rhee, by contrast, pushed 400 teachers out the door. When forced to lay off teachers she refused to dismiss them by last-hired, insisting, rather, that principals choose their lower performing teachers. Most school superintendents stick to last-hired, first-fired. Why ruffle feathers?

Rhee built a rigorous teacher evaluation system that brings master educators into the class to observe teachers at work. Most teacher evaluation systems are flabby and useless -- a perfect match for a traditional teacher compensation system that ignores effectiveness and instead rewards longevity and degrees earned.

Finally, Rhee pushed hard against paying teachers on that lockstep formula. Rather, teachers received bonuses based in part on improvements in student scores.

Add it all up, and you find that Rhee did all the things that governors in Florida, Idaho, New York, etc., are now pushing through legislatures. Obviously, the best way for opponents to blunt those reforms is to prove that Rhee is a fraud, failure or cheat. Preferably, all three.
Let's visit each category:

Cheat: This is the newest allegation, arising from a USA Today investigative piece in late March that revisited an older controversy about the high number of test score erasures at some D.C. schools.

Was that cheating? Education counter-reformer Diane Ravitch immediately concluded that was the case, warning the world to back away from test-heavy reforms. If Ravitch is right, and the erasures an inevitable consequence of Rhee applying too much pressure on principals and teachers to perform, then educators everywhere should be wary of relying on test-proven results demanded by Rhee and other reformers.

Frankly, I can't tell if the erasures were the result of cheating or aggressive test-taking strategies passed along by the teaching staff. But I can observe something far more important: Rhee's track record in D.C. is not based on the D.C. tests. Rather, she is measured by a far higher standard, the so-called "gold standard" of testing known as NAEP, the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

That test, administered by federal experts, has never been comprised. Never even a whiff of controversy. And the NAEP shows that between 2007 and 2009 (when Rhee was chancellor) D.C. students made significant progress not seen in comparable urban districts.

Fraud: Here, the Rhee doubters cite test score data supposedly showing that her Teach for America "success story" in Baltimore was not a success after all. Problem is, their dated data can't isolate her students. And interviews with her fellow teachers and classroom aides, one of whom went on to become a school principal in Maryland, reveal that everyone at the school regarded her as a teaching star.

Failure: The NAEP scores cited above are hard to refute. Based on my book research, the situation in D.C. schools was truly terrible when Rhee arrived in 2007. On the federal comparisons of urban school districts, D.C. was tied for last place with Los Angeles. Plus, only about a third of the teachers had the right stuff to stage a recovery.
The best argument to be made for painting Rhee as a failure is that her reforms were so traumatic and unpopular they got former D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty unelected and Rhee herself forced out as chancellor. True, but on actual school improvement measures, D.C. no longer scrapes the bottom of the barrel.

The prediction for the coming year: Until Rhee's opponents can effectively paint her as a cheat/fraud/failure, it is likely we will see more governors and Republican-controlled legislatures unleash Rhee-style reforms. Which means the education fights will become even more polarized, more bitter -- all because they focus on Rhee's issue, singling out teachers.

Richard Whitmire, former president of the National Education Writers Association, is author of The Bee Eater: Michelle Rhee Takes On the Nation's Worst School District.

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