Archives for category: Michelle Rhee

This is a remarkable exchange of correspondence about the PBS program “The Education of Michelle Rhee.”

Many readers on this blog thought the documentary was too favorable towards Rhee, recycling a lot of old footage in which she is shown as a courageous upstart who did it all “for the kids.” They thought it provided far too rosy a portrait of a woman who provided lessons in how NOT to be a leader, not only because she used pressure tactics to demand higher scores, but because she repeatedly showed herself to be heartless, callous and indifferent to other human beings.

Others, however, thought it was unfair to Rhee.

Chancellor Kaya Henderson wrote a statement to the PBS ombudsman to complain about the program’s portrayal of the (alleged) cheating scandal. She believes that the investigation by the D.C. Inspector General cleared the district of any suspicion.

Someone who describes herself as a DC parent also wrote to the PBS ombudsman to complain that the program harped on a non-existent cheating scandal.

As you will see, both the statement and the letter attack the credibility of former principal Adell Cothorne, who told John Merrow that she witnessed staff changing test sheets.

PBS stands by the documentary. The exchange is well worth reading.

Lyndsey Layton of the Washington Post has written a comprehensive review of Michelle Rhee’s moment on the national stage, presenting a balanced portrait.

Rhee is still pretending to be a liberal Democrat, even though–as Layton points out–she has allied herself with the nation’s most rightwing governors and advocates for the privatization of public education.

The only thing I read that I had not seen before is that StudentsFirst has raised only $7.6 million, despite the claim by Rhee that she would raise $1 billion.

Otherwise, there is nothing new. Nothing new about the cheating scandal. Somehow I think the public is going to tire of her routine. The only unanswered question is whether, when, and how the D.C. cheating scandal will finally be cracked open. What did she know, when did she know it, or was she totally in the dark?

Apparently, she is now promoting her book but the question I have as a writer is whether she wrote any of it since she has been traveling nonstop promoting the full ALEC package of charters, vouchers, anti-union, and anti-teacher legislation. The minimal requirement for writing a book is a sustained period of time in which you can write. She has not had that time in the past two years. Why didn’t she just say, “as told to,” as other celebrity authors do?

The D.C. Inspector General is satisfied that there was no systemwide cheating. The office investigated Noyes campus and found that maybe there was a teacher or two who might have cheated.

The U.S. Department of Education seconded the nearly clean bill of health offered up by the DC IG.

But here are the actual scores of the Noyes school, compiled by retired DC teacher Erich Martel and posted on G.F. Brandenburg’s blog. Those retired DC teachers are plenty smart.

Look at those scores: First they soar up, then they plummet down.

Nothing suspicious there, right?

And apparently that is not the only school in D.C. where scores rose and fall in ways that suggest systematic tampering.

This is a scandal that will not die. There is too much evidence left on the table.


In case you wondered what Adell Cothorne, the star of the PBS Frontline special about Michelle Rhee’s cheating scandal, is doing now, she is very happy making gourmet cupcakes. Thanks to reader Linda of Connecticut for finding her on the web. I wish we lived close to Ellicott City, Maryland, so we could sample her cupcakes.

Adell is in business with Bill Kerlina, another ex-principal from D.C.

As you know from reading the posts on this blog, Adell filed a whistleblower complaint against the leadership of the D.C. school system. Chancellor Kaya Henderson denies that there was widespread cheating, denies that Cothorne complained about cheating, denies that Cothorne met with administrative staff, believes that the cheating scandal never happened, and alleges that Cothorne is pursuing her claim for financial gain.

So, we must rely on John Merrow to follow up this story. It matters for Adell Cothorne, but it also matters for the children of D.C. and for educators across the nation, who are sick of being bullied by administrators who tell them to produce higher test scores or get out.

The Daily Howler is a tough marker.

He reports on how the media reports on events.

He was not happy with the PBS show about Rhee.

He thought it was dated and failed to ask important questions.

By the way, if you haven’t seen The Daily Howler reports on how the media fumbled the latest international test scores, you should. See here. And here. And here.

There is a connection. Rhee loves to carry on about how horrible American schools are, how dreadful our teachers are, how far down we are in international tests. But if you read the links above, you will learn that our scores on international tests are not so bad. StudentsFirst will have to rewrite a lot of its documents, maybe even retire that insulting video where SF showed a US athlete in the Olympics who pranced around and stumbled pathetically, a man doing a female-only sport. When I recall that awful commercial (shown on national television), it makes my blood boil. What is it with this woman? Why does she want to humiliate the U.S. in the eyes of the world? Why does she have such contempt for our teachers, our schools, and our students?


Paul Thomas taught high school in rural South Carolina for nearly twenty years. Now he teaches at Furman University in Greenville, South Carolina.

He writes here about what it means to have a life of service, in contrast to a life devoted to self-service in a celebrity culture, a life adorned with press conferences, self-promotion and photo ops.

Last night, I posted the commentary that I wrote after seeing a preview of the PBS Frontline show on Michelle Rhee.

This morning, I realized that my favorite paragraph was deleted, presumably to save space. It was this:

” She leads by threats and coercion, never by inspiration or example. She personifies the Ice Queen, a woman who is charming but cold, cruel, and heartless, even proud that she lacks even an ounce of compassion for those whose careers she is terminating. She is doing it all ‘for the children.'”

I am sorry this was cut. I think this is important because it goes to the heart of Rhee’s education policies. She believes that a good leader must be cold and hard and that leadership consists of making hard decisions with no regrets. She thinks that those who work for her can be frightened into compliance and, acting in fear, will produce the right results.

When the camera shows her firing a principal, we see a cruel, affectless face, a person utterly lacking in empathy. Yes, sometimes people must be fired, but should there not be some expression of regret? One should feel some regret about terminating another person’s career, cutting off their livelihood, sending them away without a job. Is kindness really such an obsolete character trait?

This is a poor model for leadership. Great leaders inspire, not coerce. It is also a poor model for educators, who can’t fire the children who don’t measure up.

G.F. Brandenburg was disappointed by John Merrow’s profile of Michelle Rhee. Like many others, he had expected that it old be an exposé of the cheating scandal in DC during her tenure. Merrow tried, but no one other than the principal who took over the school at the center of the scandal would agree to be interviewed. She knew bad things had happened, although neither the DC Inspector General nor the US DOE wanted to know. One is left with a sense that the whitewash has succeeded.

I was invited by Frontline to offer reactions to the documentary about Michelle Rhee. I was disappointed that the documentary did not mention that Rhee is now working on behalf of a far-right agenda of privatization; that Washington Teachers Union President George Parker now works for StudentsFirst; that Rhee’s “miraculous gains” as a teacher in Baltimore have been discredited. But I had space limitations. So this was my commentary:

I watched John Merrow’s documentary on “The Education of Michelle Rhee” with high anticipation. I wanted to see what she had learned from her experience, and what lessons there might be for the nation.

The documentary emphasizes her steely determination to do whatever she thought necessary to turn around the Washington, D.C. school system. She fired principals; she fired teachers; she closed schools. She told every principal that he or she must set a target for raising test scores. If they met it, their schools would win thousands of dollars; if they didn’t, they risked termination. She tied teachers’ evaluation to student test scores.

Rhee assumes that better test scores equal better education. She never once mentions literature or history or science or civics or foreign languages; she doesn’t talk about curriculum or instruction. She never calls out a teacher for poor instruction or a principal for a weak curriculum; she is interested only in the bottom line, and that is the scores.

The problem, of course, is that focusing obsessively on test scores has predictable results: narrowing the curriculum (some districts and schools have dropped the arts and other subjects to make more time for testing); cheating; teaching to the tests; and distorting the whole education system for the sake of scores. Our best public and private schools would never dream of making test scores their goal. They know that a real education includes the arts, history, science, literature, foreign languages and physical education. Their parents expect nothing less.

Unfortunately, Rhee cared only about test scores, not a balanced curriculum. By the end of the documentary we learn that the public schools in D.C. improved “slightly” on national tests but “are still among the worst in the nation,” and its high school graduation rate is dead last. We learn that her relentless focus on test scores produced allegations of widespread cheating, not better education. Her policy of firing teachers and principals did not turn around the schools; it created turmoil. Every year, about 20% of the teachers (including those she hired) leave, and most of the principals she hired have moved on.

The only logical conclusion from this documentary is that states and districts should not do what Michelle Rhee did. It didn’t work. It failed. Rhee, however, remains unfazed. She’s taken her reform agenda to the national stage and is now urging states to follow her lead.

True educational leadership involves a commitment to children and to education (not just test scores), a dedication to improving curriculum and instruction, and the ability to recruit and develop a strongstaff. That is the kind of leadership I saw when I visited Finland, a nation whose students never take standardized tests yet do very well on international assessments.

Thankfully, such leadership is hardly absent in the U.S. In schools all across the nation, I have come across countless unsung educators who build teamwork and a culture of professionalism. They create a climate of respect built on wisdom and judgment, not carrots and sticks.


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