But the Post keeps shilling along: Michelle Rhee has published a book about her career.
Sunday, the Washington Post started shilling. Atop page one of the Outlook section, Jennifer Howard penned a 1600-word piece about Rhee’s book.
A large color photo helped sell Howard’s piece. Three more photos appeared inside.
In the hard-copy Post, the headline said this: NO REGRETS.
Presumably, the headline referred to Rhee’s attitude about her three years in the DC schools. But it might have referred to the Post’s attitude about its own endless shilling.
Rhee’s new book is called “Radical,” a flagrant bit of self-flattery. According to Howard, Rhee is still advancing the idea that mediocrity can’t be allowed in the schools—a somewhat ironic battle cry, given the rank mediocrity which characterized Rhee’s work in DC.
But first, an amusing anecdote! Early in her piece, Howard presents this story from Rhee’s education-first childhood. Howard reads the story one way. We would read it another:
HOWARD (2/10/13): Before Rhee gets into all that, she revisits her first-generation childhood in Toledo as the daughter of strict Korean parents. Respect for teaching ran in the family; close relatives were educators in Korea, a country Rhee's father calls "education crazy."Rhee’s younger brother was having problems—so Rhee’s mother grounded Rhee!
The family emphasis on education sometimes went a little far. Rhee remembers when her little brother, Brian, came home with a lackluster grade. "My mother immediately grounded me," Rhee writes. Why? "It is your responsibility to make sure that he is doing what he needs to do."
She tells the story to get at the imbalance of gender roles she grew up with, but it's tempting to see in that moment the beginnings of her insistence that schools and teachers be held accountable for how their students perform.
For our money, Howard misses the way this story connects to Rhee’s time in DC. For our money, this peculiar conduct by Rhee’s mother is very much like Rhee’s approach to her work in DC. Here’s why:
As best we know, Rhee never introduced new approaches to instruction when she found the DC schools in extremely bad shape. Instead, she simply threatened the teachers. She insisted that they fix the mess!
There’s nothing wrong with putting pressure on teachers. There’s nothing wrong with firing slackers—quite the contrary.
But in our view, Rhee was highly mediocre in the realm of instructional practice. Alas! Rhee’s mother pushed the onus onto Rhee—then Rhee did the same with the teachers!
That strikes us as mediocre performance. But it seldom seems to occur to Rhee that she might have been one of the low performers in DC’s schools—and you’ll never encounter such a thought in the Washington Post.
Rhee brought a ton of energy to DC—but how much else? Early on, Howard describes the obstacles Rhee confronted. We’d like to record our reaction:
HOWARD: I'll leave it to others to argue whether Rhee did the right thing here in Washington. But even the fiercest Rhee-haters among my friends and neighbors agreed with her that DCPS needed help. Some schools, especially in the richer parts of town, enjoyed good test scores and high graduation rates. Elsewhere, in my Southeast neighborhood and in other wards, students trailed far behind their peers nationally in math and reading. Many kids didn't stay in school at all.We don’t doubt that this picture is basically accurate. DC’s test scores certainly suggest that the system was in very bad shape—that Rhee was faced with a genuine mess when she entered the system.
"The dropout rate was above 50 percent," Rhee writes. "The achievement gap was a canyon." Teachers weren't sure they'd have the textbooks and other materials they needed. School buildings suffered from a lack of maintenance and repairs. The system was a mess—"a whole different level of bad," Rhee calls it.
But as we read that passage, our own experience from teaching in Baltimore led us to focus on one statement: “Teachers weren't sure they'd have the textbooks and other materials they needed.” Our reaction?
If DC’s kids were as far behind as test scores seemed to suggest, it’s very hard for teachers to get appropriate textbooks and other materials.
It’s hard to get textbooks the students can read—textbooks whose instructional programming meet the students where they are. This very much isn’t the fault of the teachers. If such materials aren’t available, it’s the ultimate responsibility of the superintendent!
We never got the slightest sense that Rhee had any sense of that. But then, we taught for a dozen years in Baltimore’s schools. Rhee fled for Harvard after three, trailing bogus tales about her own vast genius behind her.
This brings us to the most striking part of Howard’s piece—the way it buries the bodies. The piece runs 1600 words, encompassing 22 paragraphs. But it isn’t until the final paragraph that this little birdie peeps:
HOWARD: Rhee started something the city is still playing out. Kaya Henderson , Rhee's deputy, succeeded her as chancellor under the current mayor, Vincent Gray. Henderson has a quieter style than Rhee did. Although debates still rage over individual schools, charter alternatives, test scores and the occasional cheating scandal, fewer feathers seem ruffled these days. But the new chancellor seems just as willing as the old one to close schools and hold accountable a system that for too long let too many Washington students and their parents down.“And the occasional cheating scandal!” Incredibly, that represents Howard’s full discussion of the cheating scandal which afflicted Rhee in DC—an echo of the manifest bullshit she constantly spread about her own teaching career.
When Rhee arrived in DC, she was still spouting highly improbable claims about the amazing test scores attained by her students in Baltimore. Rhee understood standardized testing so poorly that she didn’t seem to realize that her grandiose claims were essentially absurd on their face.
It soon became clear that her claims were false—although anyone with an ounce of sense would always have assumed that. Not Rhee—and not the Washington Post! Having told ridiculous tales about those brilliant Baltimore scores, Rhee was soon dogged by ridiculous scores in DC.
As it turned out, those DC scores were bogus too! Howard buries this massive mediocrity deep inside her last paragraph.
That said, Rhee has tidied her game. When she arrived in DC, she was making highly specific claims about the test scores her Baltimore kids had attained. Those claims were ludicrous on their face, but journalists at the Post couldn’t tell.
In her new book, Rhee has finally enacted a bit of reform. This is the way she now describes her vast success in Baltimore:
RHEE (page 53): By the end of my time at Harlem Park [Elementary School], my kids who had been with me for the second and third grades were soaring. I would have put them up against kids from any private school in Baltimore...These were children who had life stories couldn’t even imagine. Despite all that they came to school every day. They’d come early, and stay late. They came on the weekends. They worked hard. They fought through all the noise and the people telling them, “Don’t do what that Chinese lady is telling you to—come out and play instead.” They’d do their two hours of homework. And they went from being at the bottom to being at the top academically.Rhee has learned one lesson. She no longer makes specific claims about the test scores her students achieved. For decades, she made specific claims which were absurd on their face. In this way, she rode to the top on the backs of those kids who had those hard “life stories.”
By now, the data are gone! Rhee no longer uses numbers when she makes her grandiose claims. That said, there is still no evidence that Rhee achieved the type of success she describes. Given the overall test scores at Harlem Park during those years, it’s hard to see how Rhee’s claim that her students “soared” could be possible.
We admire the energy Rhee brought to DC. We admire the way she spoke up for deserving urban kids. In fairness, she never could have gotten far without the massive gullibility of our modern “elites.”
But Rhee was always mediocre. At the Post, mediocre journalists still don’t seem to know that.