Frontline mails it in about Rhee!


On balance, a large waste of time: Did Frontline decide to get tough on Michelle Rhee?

Alex “Kid” Pareene said they might. But did it actually happen?

We’d have to say no, it did not. On Tuesday evening, Frontline aired a program about Rhee’s three-year reign in the DC schools. But Frontline was late to the scene of the action, and it glossed almost all topics.

For Frontline's preview, just click this. To watch the whole program, click here.

In fairness, you probably can’t cover the relevant topics in a 53-minute report. That said, no one made Frontline report on Rhee at all at this point.

What Frontline did was grossly inadequate. Four areas which were heavily glossed:

Rhee’s claims about her own teaching career: On her way to the DC schools, Rhee built her career around a set of highly specific, self-glorying claims concerning her own teaching career. Rhee’s claims about massive test score gains never really made sense. During her years in DC, it became fairly clear that her claims had simply been wrong.

This matter was glossed in the Frontline report, but it sets the stage for other parts of Rhee’s career. Why would a person make such specific (highly implausible) claims when she herself had never seen the data in question? Since Rhee’s claims never really made sense, did she ever really believe them? Or was she toying with facts about real children’s lives to pimp her high-flying career?

In this area, we think Rhee’s conduct was a disgrace. Frontline gave her a pass.

The history of cheating on standardized tests: Decades of cheating on standardized tests preceded Rhee’s tenure in Washington. Such scandals had occurred all over the country.

Was Rhee somehow unaware of this fact? In the Frontline report, Rhee is shown handing out large cash prizes to principals whose schools showed implausible score gains. Did Rhee understand the checkered history of such score gains? If not, why was she so clueless?

Rhee’s professional background: Frontline is remarkably silent about Rhee’s professional background. The program notes that Rhee wasn’t well-known when she landed the DC job at the tender age of 37.

How did this young, little-known person acquire such an important position? For all we know as Frontline viewers, Mayor Fenty spotted Rhee at some obscure school reform group in the Seattle suburbs.

In fact, Rhee was hired from Manhattan, where she was a favorite of the billionaire-based “education reform” crowd. She landed her job through that very powerful nexus.

Frontline said nothing about this. This is a massive journalistic failure, not to say a dive.

Rhee’s ideas about instruction: For ourselves, we admire Rhee’s loud insistence that urban children deserve better educational outcomes. Unfortunately, we have never seen the slightest sign that she has any ideas, of any kind, about how to improve instruction.

Frontline did illustrate Rhee’s basic belief about teachers: If you threaten them, they will improve! But did Rhee arrive with any ideas about how to improve instruction?

The program did show Rhee insisting that the DC schools distribute more glue and scissors to grade school teachers. Beyond that, did she have any ideas about classroom instruction? Frontline didn’t ask.

Having glossed Rhee’s test score scandal as a teacher, Frontline did spend some time on the test score scandal which occurred when she was chancellor. But the program sped through endless topics. In our view, the program was outdated and a general waste of time.

One last question: What happened to student performance during Rhee’s tenure in DC? Frontline glossed that question too. Here’s where matters stand:

In 2007, 2009 and 2011, DC students took part in the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), the widely-praised “gold standard” of American educational testing. For plausible reasons, it is generally believed that no one cheats on these tests.

(Journalists will get around to examining that question around the year 2100.)

The 2007 testing preceded Rhee’s tenure in DC. The 2011 testing followed her three-year tenure, along with part of the following year. (Rhee arrived in DC in June 2007, resigned in October 2010.)

What happened to DC’s math and reading scores during that four-year period? Frontline thoroughly glossed that question. For ourselves, we’re trying to get clear on some technical adjustments the NAEP has made regarding scores from charter schools, which are numerous in DC.

When we get that sorted out, we’ll report those scores. As with almost everything else, Frontline didn’t much bother.

Frontline’s report was very soft. We think they did a bad job.

They get letters: The Frontline program can be watched here. A pair of early comments:
COMMENTER: As a former resident of DC, whose children attended a high-performing DCPS elementary school for several years, I was disappointed in this program. It was a very cursory look at an extremely complex issue. So much was left unexplored. Did they talk to any principals or teachers who remained supportive of her, or were there none to talk to? What about the high-achieving schools in DCPS (there are several)—how did Rhee interact with the principals and teachers in these schools and what are their opinions of Rhee and her methods?

How are we to judge her performance as chancellor? Were there overall gains in student achievement or is there just no way to know?

COMMENTER: The Michelle Rhee documentary was truly a low point for Frontline and journalism as a whole at PBS. To have an hour of propaganda in the face of mounds of evidence exposing Rhee as an abject fraud is a moral disgrace. To not even have a blurb from GF Brandenberg is the most damning indictment of this fiasco.

Rhee is a creation of Eli Broad, a man whose name was never mentioned in the entire broadcast. To have someone advocate for the exploitation of children for millionaires/billionaires under the guise of reform is quite frankly perverse.
They watched the same program we did.


  1. A lively conversation over on Diane Ravitche's blog about this...
    Several threads.

  2. The program was shamefully shoddy, but I expected that given the tenor of the times on education and teachers.


  3. There was a live chat today with the director and I asked him Bob's question verbatim:

    Comment From Gabriel
    Bob Somerby asks: "The program did show Rhee insisting that the DC schools distribute more glue and scissors to grade school teachers. Beyond that, did she have any ideas about classroom instruction? Frontline didn’t ask."

    JOHN MERROW: We asked Rhee all sorts of questions. Remember that I interviewed her dozens of times over three years plus, and we covered all sorts of topics. She did provide instructional coaches in lots of schools. I don't recall a conversation about her educational philosophy, and in one interview one of her former assistant superintendents told me that he couldn't recall her ever talking philosophy of education. She believed in tests and in test results. See my blog post yesterday on this issue at TakingNote.

    1. LOL. Funny how that never seems to come up! Oh well!

    2. Thanks for asking the question. Having seen the program, I'm not in the least bit surprised he couldn't and didn't answer it.

      Frontline doesn't always knock the ball out of the park, but in all my years of watching it, this is the biggest whiff I've ever seen them take. Very disappointing, and frankly embarrassingly bad for a long-running series of such high standards.

  4. Does it surprise anyone that Frontline took a whiff when it depends on the very same philanthropists who are funding this fake school reform? Frontline can't bite the hand that feeds it...anymore than the rest of us unwashed masses...

  5. Some sharp observations and appropriate criticisms here. I offered my own as well and hope you'll take a look:

  6. Given PBS's funding by Broad and Gates, and Merrow's credulous reporting on so-called education reform over the years, this almost strikes me as an effort to cover themselves - they can point to this toothless report and claim they really looked into the story - while continuing to fundamentally ignore it.

  7. I can't find the comment on Eli Broad ("Rhee is a creature of...") on the PBS site (there is another mention of him in another comment, but pointed in that way).

    Did PBS delete it? That would be another story....

    As for the "educational philosophy" ... pretty simple! It's that of her benefactors'. Enrich testing companies. Destroy the union. Privatize the schools.