01/15/2013 05:55 pm ET Updated Mar 17, 2013

Was Michelle Rhee a Cheater?

Earlier this week PBS's Frontline broadcast The Education of Michelle Rhee sifted through old Rhee controversies and raised new issues. Was cheating in the schools worse than what was admitted and was that cheating triggered by Rhee's reforms?

Important questions, and worthy of a re-look at Rhee's legacy. Will Rhee be remembered as a cheat?

That would be the case if any investigators -- news reporters, the U.S. Department of Education, the Office of the State Superintendent, or the firm hired to investigate the cheating -- had found that Rhee or top deputies encouraged cheating. That happened in in Atlanta. But to date, that's not what was found in D.C.

Most likely, Rhee wasn't aggressive enough in investigating cheating. But think back to the Rhee years. Her biggest controversies arose from being too tough on teachers. Would her detractors have applauded yet another attack on teachers -- this time for cheating? Not likely.

The Rhee critics trying to make the sins of some teachers the sins of Rhee merely illustrate how polarizing Rhee was, and still is. There are plenty of reasons to judge Rhee harshly for her time here, but cheating doesn't even make the top ten.

Most of the press coverage over cheating ignores something fundamental (that steps on their story line): The controversy is over cheating on the local test, the CAS (Comprehensive Assessment System), the exam that rewards or punishes teachers and principals.

This is a test that has nothing to do with the federal exam used to compare progress made by D.C. students to similar urban students around the country. That test, the so-called "gold standard" of testing, the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), shows that D.C. students made unique progress during the Rhee years.

It is almost impossible to cheat on the NAEP, which is administered by the federal government. In fact, there has never been any evidence of cheating on the NAEP test. Besides, there's no motive to cheat on the NAEP -- no jobs are at stake.

That's not to say that Rhee did nothing wrong during her time at the helm of D.C. school. Rhee did several things wrong. Actually, more than several.

Rhee and former Mayor Adrian Fenty failed to get buy-in for her reforms from African American parents. She failed to give teachers the tools they needed to succeed, such as proven online lesson plans proven effective by master teachers. She succumbed to the fame of the national spotlight, which bred resentment locally, especially with the local press coverage that turned against her. She picked fights that backfired, such as trying to force changes at Hardy Middle School, a school middle class African American families had picked out has their turf. The list goes on.

But was holding teachers accountable for making sure their students learned (which, as the theory goes, encouraged cheating) one of her mistakes? To weigh that question let's translate this into a journalistic equivalent. Imagine an aggressive editor launching a new magazine. The editor relentlessly presses the young writers to produce unique articles on a crazy-fast deadline. One day, a writer gets exposed for taking a shortcut via plagiarism. Who's at fault, the cheating writer or the aggressive editor?

In the real world, the writer gets blamed. It's insulting to teachers to suggest that a whiff of accountability turns them into cheaters. Even fry cooks at McDonald's face accountability.
This rush to diminish Rhee's legacy sidesteps the question of how that legacy should be defined. I decided to write about Rhee because I thought her reforms might answer this question: Is it possible to take an urban school district designed almost solely for adults, wrestle it to the ground, and re-focus the system on kids?

At first, Rhee's reforms appeared to be working. Low income black kids really did start to do better. As it turns out the many D.C. teachers who for years blamed the shortcomings of their students entirely on their impoverished home lives were only partly right. Schools, at least schools that know how to promote effective teaching, can make a difference.

That "difference" may not come close to overcoming the entire impact of poverty, but it is important enough to matter on the only "index" that truly matters -- more students graduating from high school ready for some kind of post-high school education or training.

But in the end, the pushback against the Rhee reforms was too much. Rhee helped drag Adrian Fenty into defeat, which in turn led to her ejection. Does that mean Rhee lost the wrestling match? Not necessarily. The re-focus on kids continues under Chancellor Kaya Henderson.
The more urgent question about D.C. schools involves speed. Can the Rhee/Henderson improvements keep up with a D.C. charter district better equipped to ramp up quality quickly? I used to think D.C. schools could hold its own. These days, I'm not so sure.
Richard Whitmire is the author of The Bee Eater: Michelle Rhee Takes on the Nation's Worst School District.

(A version of this ran in The Washington Post.)