A friend told me she signed an online petition on Change.org for some cause to make the world a better place, and promptly received an email from Michelle Rhee of Students First thanking her for joining. She was astonished to discover that she was a member of Students First, because she never signed anything that identified the group. This is apparently standard practice for Rhee’s group, as demonstrated by this blog by a teacher who also found herself to be a “member” of a group she had not joined.
When Rhee arrives in a state to demand an end to teachers’ job protections, she says that she has thousands and thousands of members in that state. That supposedly gives her more political clout, in addition to the hundreds of millions of dollars she can spend to elect candidates who want to crack down hard on teachers. Apparently a significant part of her “membership” consists of people who unwittingly signed up by agreeing to support something completely unrelated to Rhee and her cause of turning teachers into employees with no job protections.
Even more disturbing than the deceptive way that she garners members, however, is the deceptive message that she sends to her new “members.” She claims that only one in three fourth graders “can read at grade level.” This is demonstrably false. She is confusing NAEP’s rigorous proficiency level—equivalent to a solid A—with “grade level,” which is a floating mean (at any given moment, half of all students are “above grade level”).
One-third of our fourth-graders meet NAEP’s rigorous standard of “proficient”; two-third are above basic; one-third are “below basic.” We should worry about that one-third who are “below basic,” not distort the statistics to generate a make-believe crisis.
Rhee should tell her “members” about the genuinely desperate situation in the District of Columbia, where she was in charge for four years. There, an appalling 56% of fourth-graders were below basic in 2011, far more than the national rate of 34%. I am citing federal data from NAEP here. How can she presume to tell other districts and states how to fix their schools if she was unable to do it in D.C.?
The District of Columbia has the largest black-white achievement gap and the largest Hispanic-white gap of any urban district tested by the federal government. For America’s urban districts, the black-white gap in fourth-grade reading is 30 points; in D.C., it is a staggering 64 points. The Hispanic-white gap nationally in this grade is 29 points; in D.C., it is a huge 51 points. No other district comes close to D.C. when it comes to achievement gaps.
She says in her letter that “…studies have shown that in just one year, students with an effective teacher are able to improve by one and a half grade levels. These effects are so significant that the “achievement gap” between low-income or minority students and their wealthier or white peers can effectively be erased by only three consecutive years of highly effective teachers.” Readers of this blog recognize this as the same claim made by Melinda Gates.
Reminder: It didn’t happen in D.C. on Rhee’s watch. Also, it has not happened in any other district. Not in New York City under Joel Klein’s control nor in New Orleans, the district often held up as the model for the nation because of having wiped out public education and the teacher’s union.
And as blogger and TFA alum Gary Rubinstein has demonstrated, the study on which this claim is based is 20 years old and the findings are not all that strong, nor has anyone figured out how to fill an entire school district with teachers who get a gain of eighteen months in twelve months of instruction. Certainly Michelle Rhee has not.
Last August, I was on a panel with Rhee at Martha’s Vineyard at an event sponsored by the W.E.B. DuBois Institute at Harvard University. Rhee began reciting her well-worn complaints about “bad teachers” and her dubious claims about how effective teachers could overcome any obstacles. One of the panelists, Professor Lawrence Bobo of Harvard University, abruptly asked her why she thought that any teacher, no matter how “effective,” was sufficient to level the playing field for a child of 14 who was growing up in desperate poverty. With his great authority, he literally silenced Rhee, whose claims suddenly seemed like empty rhetoric.
It will take many years to clear away the empty claims about miracle-workers and miraculous transformations. And not until then will public policy begin to address wisely and realistically the needs of children who are falling behind and need help.