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Michelle Rhee keeps the beehive buzzing in Minneapolis speech

No actual bees were harmed yesterday when Michelle Rhee appeared at the Minneapolis Convention Center yesterday, but a number of hornets’ nests got thwacked wide open.

Michelle Rhee
Michelle Rhee

As a young Teach for America recruit many years ago in Baltimore, Rhee famously swallowed a bee in a desperate attempt to shock her unruly class into silence. The ensuing two decades have been characterized by the same audacity, just displayed on larger stages.

Yesterday, as the featured speaker at a luncheon organized by the Economic Club of Minnesota, Rhee kept an entire ballroom full of politicians, business moguls and educators wholly engaged, exhorting them to simultaneously become more political and cast off partisan orthodoxy when it comes to running schools.

“If we look outside of our parties and just make decisions about kids the way we do for our own kids, it would be a very different agenda,” she said. “It would be an agenda that would put kids first.”

During 20 short minutes, Rhee told funny, trenchant stories about cold-calling classrooms during her tenure as chancellor of the Washington, D.C., public schools, made fun of her own cosseted daughters’ motivation gap and likely left pretty much everyone in attendance flummoxed in terms of where to place her on the traditional ideological grid.

Declaring herself a “lifelong, card-carrying, dyed-in-the-wool Democrat,” Rhee lamented the party’s ties to teachers unions, insisted that more money won’t fix education, and endorsed vouchers.

A walking Rorschach test
In case you are among the 1 percent who follow education news but haven’t yet decided whether she’s more Goofus or Galant, here’s the skinny: Rhee is a walking Rorschach test for most people’s public-policy views, slight in the corporeal sense but outsized in reputation.

In 2007, then-D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty appointed Rhee to head the city’s 47,000-student district, which was performing so abysmally that its board had been dissolved and the schools placed under direct mayoral control.

“We had the opportunity to do more than had ever been seen,” Rhee said yesterday. “We made a lot of very necessary, but very controversial decisions.”

Many of which — Rhee’s status as lightning rod notwithstanding — are now on education-reform agendas being pushed by both parties throughout the country.

At the time, there was a 70-point academic proficiency gap between D.C.’s white students and African-Americans. Just 8 percent of ninth-graders were proficient in math. And a student entering ninth grade had a 9 percent chance of going on to graduate from high school and college.

Under Rhee’s leadership, the district closed more than 30 schools, replaced two-thirds of its principals and cut central administration from 1,000 staffers to some 400. Over three years, D.C. seventh-, eighth- and  10th-graders posted double-digit growth on test scores and graduation rates rose.

(And yes, as Learning Curve’s loyal comment-thread critics will surely point out .14 seconds after this piece is posted, a controversy involving allegations of cheating on standardized tests by teachers has yet to be resolved. And yes, there are other good reasons to be skeptical of Rhee, who does seem to do an awful lot of apologizing, but let’s just listen quietly for a moment, shall we?)

‘People cared more about the processes’
“I thought at the time that if we produced outsized results, people would want us to continue,” Rhee said. “I was absolutely wrong. People cared more about the processes.”

Among the antidotes, she told those in attendance at the Convention Center: “Get out of partisan decision-making.”

Easier said than done.

The Rhee legacy that perhaps looms largest since her resignation in the wake of Fenty’s 2010 primary loss is her attempt to fundamentally alter teacher tenure. Rhee proposed to fire teachers whose student test scores betrayed ineptitude, and to pay their effective peers six figures.

The union local famously refused to put the proposal to a member vote, and Rhee and American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten have been portrayed — far too simplistically — as antagonists ever since.

It’s easy to forget that four years is a lifetime in terms of the education-reform movement. If tenure reform and using student outcomes as one measure of teacher effectiveness were as rare as bee-gobbling in 2007, they are ideas many teachers unions are currently engaged in refining.

At the same time, in the year since Rhee launched her own education-reform effort, StudentsFirst, she has given critics plenty of fodder to suggest that she would not mind getting rid of organized teacher labor. For starters, she refuses to name the nonprofit’s major donors — a disclosure the tax code will eventually force.

Awkward political bedfellows
And then there’s her willingness to acquire awkward political bedfellows. Last spring, Rhee spoke in favor of school choice alongside Wisconsin Republican Gov. Scott Walker at an event hosted by an organization founded and funded by Michigan Republican activist and voucher proponent Betsy DeVos.

And then this fall, StudentsFirst campaigned against the recall of union foe Michigan state Rep. Paul Scott.

The AFT swung back, creating an anonymous “Rhee First” website depicting Rhee with a giant crown. devilish horns.

Yet yesterday, Rhee’s chief message was that it is time for the United States to “recognize, reward and honor teachers for the exceptionally difficult job they do.”

“We have to acknowledge the fact that teaching is a really, really hard job and not everyone is cut out for it,” she said.

The remarks that drew Rhee the most applause involved her feelings about vouchers. When she assumed the chancellorship, a voucher program in operation in D.C. was up for renewal. She started out dead-set against them, only to enrage supporters by changing her mind.

Affected by young mothers
“I met with young [black] mothers who did exactly what we would want them to do,” she said. They researched their neighborhood school, learned that it was a dropout factory and filled out D.C.’s equivalent of an open-enrollment application for a seat in another, most likely white neighborhood. All but a few lost.

Talking to those parents, she said, gave her pause. “If I don’t have a space in a D.C. public school, how can I deny a $7,500 voucher — which, by the way, is less than [the $17,000-plus] we spend,” she said. “What am I supposed to say, ‘Just suck it up for a little while, give me five years?’ ”

An end to the city’s voucher scheme, she concluded, would damage children of color: “In this day and age, we are still allowing the color of a child’s skin to dictate the quality of the education they receive.”

In the end, it’s unlikely anyone in the Economic Club’s decidedly multipartisan audience heard their worldview endorsed by the speaker. But arguably, that’s not Rhee’s role in the world. No, better she keep the hive buzzing.

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Comments (18)

  1. Anonymous Submitted by Anonymous on 11/16/2011 - 10:37 am.

    Rhee’s organization is a 501(c)(4), which doesn’t require disclosure of donors…

  2. Submitted by Bill Gleason on 11/16/2011 - 12:57 pm.

    This whole Michelle Ree business is kind of a puzzle.

    Her claims on test scores have been thoroughly debunked. See for example:

    Michelle Rhee’s early test scores challenged
    link: http://wapo.st/fKrCy2

    I’d suggest that the Economic Club of Minnesota – in fairness – invite Diane Ravitch to give a presentation.

    Ms. Ravitch has done a masterful job in debunking the myth of Superman.

  3. Submitted by first rhee on 11/16/2011 - 01:54 pm.

    Please research your assertions more thoroughly.

    RheeFirst’s logo depicts Michelle Rhee with a humongous crown on her head in the fine tradition of satire. It is not, as you write,”devilish horns.” Hmmm, or perhaps I should fire our graphic designer for bad drawing.

  4. Submitted by Alec Timmerman on 11/16/2011 - 08:21 pm.

    Every RTTP grant, every NCLB waiver request, require that collaboration with all parties be part of the process. Reform can’t happen if there is no buy in at all levels. Good superintendents understand this.

    Rhee is very, very clear that teachers are irrelevant in the conversation. This is beyond dysfunctional. Quite Frankly, your article on Carol Johnson was a story of someone who has been in the trenches and gets it. You can act tough and smart, like Johnson, or you can just act tough. Rhee is a lone gun cowboy. We don’t need that.

    “Collaboration and consensus-building are quite frankly overrated in my mind,” she said. “None of you CEOs run your companies by committee, so why should we run a school district by committee?”

  5. Submitted by Dan Hintz on 11/17/2011 - 10:05 am.

    The news this past week has been dominated by the Penn State Scandal. Longtime coach Joe Paterno and a number of other University officials lost their jobs not because they sexually abused children, but because they allegedly failed to intervene to stop the sexual abuse. Instead of trying to protect vulnerable children, it seems they worked to protect themselves and their football program. For this they have been unverally vilified to the point where people are losing their jobs (i.e. Franco Harris) for merely sticking up for Paterno.

    Several years ago Michelle Rhee was on the board of St. Hope charter school, which was started by former NBA player and now Sacramento mayor Kevin Johnson. Johnson is now Rhee’s husband. In 2007, several (minor) teenage girls accused Johnson of making sexual advances. This is not the first time this has happened with Johnson. In the 1990s he was accused of making sexual advances toward a minor teenage girl, and although he was not prosecuted and denied the accusation, he paid her $230,000. In her role as a board member, Rhee was allegedly in charge of the investigation on behalf of the school. The students involved were allegedly offered settlements and teachers were allegedly threatened to keep quiet, and ultimately no charges were brought and the scandal went away.

    You have to wonder why Rhee was (allegedly) in charge of the investigation when the accused was someone she was seeing, and is now married to. Does anyone really think that she was looking out for the best interest of the children here, or was she trying to protect her to-be husband? Maybe people see things differenly when the victims are 16 year old girls instead of 10 year old boys, but both Johnson and Sandusky were people in positions of power over these children and were (alleged) to have abused that power.

    I have used allegedly repeatedly to describe what happened here, because my first attempt to write about this was deemed to have characterized allegations as fact. So let me be clear – everything I have said about Rhee’s conduct with regard to the sexual abuse allegations is just an allegation, and that isn’t going to change because no one is still investigating. Then again, the allegations against Sandusdky and Paterno are just allegations at this point, and they lost their jobs.

    Maybe I’m off base here, and what Paterno and Rhee did is completely different. But I see this as a double standard. Its easy to throw away an old, out of touch football coach, but when a rising star like Rhee is involved, suddenly protecting children isn’t as important.

  6. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 11/17/2011 - 10:12 am.

    Michelle proposed treating teachers like the professionals they claim to be. Why is that controversial?

    When I ran for school board some 10 years ago, I spoke with lots of teachers. Almost to a person, young teachers enthusiastically endorsed the idea of being recognized as professionals, with the all rewards and responsibilities that entails, while the older ones defiantly wrapped themselves in the NEA’s flag.

    There are a lot of things wrong with public education in this country. Ridding it of the blue collar trade labor union that controls it will not, in and of itself fix it…but that is a necessary first step.

  7. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 11/17/2011 - 10:26 am.

    I mostly disagree with Ms. Rhee, but I like the fact that she keeps stirring the pot, whacking the hornet’s nest, or whatever metaphor works for you. It’s too easy to get complacent in almost any human endeavor, and education is no exception. In that context, Rhee provides a useful pitchfork-to-the-behind kind of prodding, and one of the things she seems to be sincere about is that getting partisan politics out of education would be a good thing. I tend to lean that way myself.

    Too many political figures on both sides of the aisle are in positions to play disastrous havoc with education when they truly have absolutely no idea how schools work, how teacher-student interaction works, or any other aspect of what is arguably the society’s most important responsibility. The fact that you went to school makes you an expert on education in much the same way that being a passenger on airline flights from MSP to NYC makes you a pilot.

    I do like Bill Gleason’s suggestion: I’d like to see Diane Ravitch invited to the same forum. A genuine scholar, who’s been studying what works and what doesn’t in education throughout a distinguished career, she’d surely have a different take than Rhee about many issues, but perhaps not as many as some might think.

    Meanwhile, I have a hard time reconciling Rhee’s statement about the difficulty and importance of teaching with the statement that Alec Timmerman quotes at the end of his comment, though Alec does us all a service by including that quote, which accurately reflects the political culture in virtually every big corporate board room.

    The political model followed by most corporations is, literally, Medieval, and about as close to a dictatorship as one can get without formally adopting “1984” as the company operations manual. It’s one of several reasons why I tend to be skeptical of CEOs who run for political office, no matter what their views might be on specific issues. They basically have no experience with democracy, and Rhee seems to be suggesting that superintendents, because of… divine revelation?… trump school boards, staff and communities.

    Perhaps Ms. Rhee should talk to Melissa Krull, formerly of Eden Prairie…

  8. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 11/17/2011 - 01:48 pm.

    Yes, Michelle is a bit of a fraud. I never quite believed the bee eating story either.

  9. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 11/17/2011 - 03:35 pm.

    Re: Gleason’s link…the article says her gain scores may have been inflated, but they did exist.

    Her Principal also backed-up her claims of success.

    Diminished? A bit. Debunked? Not a bit.

  10. Submitted by Dan Hintz on 11/17/2011 - 04:21 pm.

    If I apply for a job and tell the employer my GPA was a 4.0 when it was really 3.5, is that ok since 3.5 is still pretty good? If I tell the employer that I was the manager at my last job when I was really an assistant manager, is that ok because the actual manager really liked me?

    The criticism of Rhee in Mr. Gleeson’s link isn’t about her performance as a teacher. It’s that Rhee lied about her performance as a teacher – she made very specific claims about the test scores of the students she taught, and those test scores she was claiming were later determined to be false. (note to editors: there is no “alleged” used here because the claimed scores and the actual scores are verifiable) I bring up the employment scenarios above because the claimed test scores were part of the resume that got Rhee hired by the D.C. school system.

    An inflated resume alone may be forgiveable, but Rhee’s lies about the test score gains under her teaching played a big role in how she did her job as the D.C. school chief. And sure enough, the test score gains she claimed to have acheived in D.C. also turned out to be inflated. The cheating scandal, which occurred at a school Rhee focused on and prominently highlighted, involved tests where wrong answers were erased and replaced with right answers. Rhee claimed that an investigation showed that there was no evidence of cheating – that kids simply fixed their answers. When the test information was reviewed by statisticians, it was determined that it was statistically impossible (or less likely than winning the lottery) that there was not cheating. There is simply no way that such a high percentage of changed answers on the tests were changes from wrong to right. Rhee either knew this, or as someone well versed in how testing works, should have known this, but has continued to claim that there was no cheating.


    The D.C. school system has already had to pay out millions of dollars to teachers illegally fired by Rhee, and once the test score cheating scandals have been resolved, there will be certainly be many more. When teachers are fired because of test scores, and the testing system isn’t fair – that is, teachers get fired because they don’t benefit from cheating, teachers are essentially being fired at random.


  11. Submitted by Beth Hawkins on 11/17/2011 - 05:11 pm.

    I’ve been resisting chiming in here because I find it impossible to write about Rhee without feeling like it turns into a referendum on my own personal feelings and beliefs about her. I think Ray (#7) and I may be the two people in the entire universe who find her place on the black-and-white continuum to be an interesting grey spot.

    And I think Bill (#2) has a crackerjack suggestion. Let’s keep the pot stirred.

    But Dan (#s 5 & 10), I can’t let your last comment go unrebutted. I lost the better part of a week to trying to parse the D.C. “Erasergate” flap and the Rhee resume business a number of months ago when I wrote something else about her. And I have to say, I would not feel comfortable asserting that either of those are settled, condemnatory cases. If I weren’t busy preparing far less incendiary copy for tomorrow, I might muster some counter-links. But I will just note that Rhee herself called for a federal investigation into the D.C. controversy which has yet to be completed.

    Nor do I think you can yet argue causation. If cheating on tests does turn out to be widespread, I don’t know that we are able to prove Rhee turned a blind eye or condoned it, like in other districts that are living through test scandals.

    And you can’t link the 75 reinstated teachers to Erasergate in any case. They were probationary teachers who were not given any reason for their dismissal, which *preceded* the controversial testing program.

    Rhee may, of course, ultimately find herself on The Island of Disgraced Superintendents, but ultimately what I find most interesting here is the unending puzzle of how this one woman inspires such visceral reactions in people.

  12. Submitted by Alec Timmerman on 11/17/2011 - 05:49 pm.

    She may not have been complicit in erasuregate, but it shows that her methods were not, in the least, transformative in a good way.

    Why is her reaction visceral? She elicits spasms of joy because she is condescending towards teachers and treats them like children. This is the same reason she elicits contempt.

    Every good CEO, Officer, and leader knows you need the troops on board to do anything great.

    Ask yourself why the very people she was supposed to be helping in D.C. threw her out by proxy? She’s supposed to be the savior of our achievement gap, but that constituency threw her out. Why?

  13. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 11/17/2011 - 06:26 pm.

    “The criticism of Rhee in Mr. Gleeson’s link isn’t about her performance as a teacher. It’s that Rhee lied about her performance as a teacher..”

    No it wasn’t, Gleason was clear; he thought the reduced scores were “proof” that her success had been “debunked” (no surprise; he’s wrong, as usual)…not that I wouldn’t expect him to take up your suggestion as salt for the wound…he’s that kind of guy.

    As to your point about using inflated numbers an a resume, I agree with you; not very commendable. But you cannot deny (the article certianly doesn’t) that Rhee *did* bring up test scores…which is something we have seen precious little of around here.

  14. Submitted by Dan Hintz on 11/17/2011 - 07:05 pm.

    Beth, I wasn’t trying to link the 75 teachers to erasergate. My point was that once this scandal was resolved that MORE money would be paid out for wrongfully fired teachers. Let me be clear here: erasergate is not the only alleged wrongdoing by Rhee as D.C.’s school chief. There is actually a pretty long list.

    As far as saying that erasergate isn’t settled, I hope that you aren’t implying that there wasn’t cheating. The analysis of the test answer changes shows that it is statistically impossible that there was anything but cheating. The ratio of changes from right to wrong was too great to be anything but deliberate. Rhee has falsely claimed that there is still a question about this – whether she is lying to take advantage of the math-challenged public or doesn’t understand the math herself, I don’t know – but she’s wrong – there is no question that cheating occurred.

    As far as whether she was behind the cheating, there is no evidence of that and I’m not claiming there is. But because there was cheating, which may be the result of the high-stakes testing, honest teachers got fired because their honest scores couldn’t compete with the cheaters. Rhee fired teachers all right, but she didn’t necessarily fire the “bad” ones. That may not be all Rhee’s fault, but it is the result of the system she put in place. As I noted above, though, the cheating took place at a school that Rhee prominently featured as one of her successes. Not only was this school not a success (and the district’s numbers as a whole less successful then she claims) but the fact it was her featured school at least raises some suspicion about her possible involvement in the cheating.

    As far as the resume goes, the facts themselves are settled. She made specific claims, and those claims weren’t true. Whether or not her false claims were condemnatory is a matter of opinion.

    Do you really think its a puzzle that people have visceral reactions to Rhee? Are you surpised that people react negatively to (alleged) cheaters and liars, to unfairly firing people, to wasting millions of taxpayer dollars, to people that (allegedly) help cover up sexual abuse of children? Are you surprised that people react negatively to her arrogance? “Collaboration and consensus-building are quite frankly overrated in my mind” (from Alec’s comment at #4) That doesn’t rub you the wrong way at all?

    Obviously, Beth, you are a Rhee fan, and as you make clear in your story, you aren’t really interested in criticism of her. The problem is that you can’t really talk about Rhee without the criticism, because the criticism undermines her credibility. Doesn’t it trouble you that the one commenter you identify with starts his piece by saying he mostly disagrees with Rhee? Or that the only one really defending Rhee here is Swiftee?

  15. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 11/20/2011 - 08:38 am.

    Rhee gets visceral reaction because she takes a confrontational, aggressive approach towards people who are very well equipped to respond in kind. Teachers, even mediocre teachers, are strong willed and aggressive people. It goes with the job. Teachers are smart, and very often think they are smarter than they are. Anyone seeking to lead teachers, either as an administrator or as a union leader, must understand that leadership of teachers is often about persuasion, and respect. The images she chose for herself, for example, the aggressive administrator with a broom for a Time magazine cover, are going to irritate all teachers, the vast majority of whom have much more experience in classrooms than she does.

  16. Submitted by Dale Hoogeveen on 03/04/2012 - 09:45 am.

    Having worked both sides of the union issue in public employment, I can tell you that no union contract fails to include termination or discipline for cause. When you hear gripes about teachers you need to look at how the school is being managed. That is the first place whose shortcomings result in poor teacher performance.

    There is a very good reason tenure and seniority are in place. Prior to them, administrators hired, promoted and fired on personal preference without any need for documentation or proof. Where administrators are careful to maintain the documentation they should be anyway, incompetent teachers are not protected by tenure or seniority in any contract. If managers did the work they were paid the big bucks to do it the first place and managed competently there would be no issue in the first place. If there is a bad teacher in place, someone approved the hiring and someone has not documented the shortcomings to either correct the performance or replace the incompetent.

    BTW the same goes for contracting out any sort of public service. Very large numbers of those are public because either the private sector would not touch needed services or because the contracts in place were themselves corrupt and had to be taken over by the public. A prime example was the State of Hawaii that went public on many of the services for big money savings over the previous contract system. You either dumb down the jobs or increase the cost when public services are contracted out and often they are then political plums given out to cronies of elected officials. We have been down that road before. It always leads eventually to entrenched corruption, and very often begins in it right off the bat. It is only when public employee management vacates their management responsibilities that public operation of services are more expensive than private contractors.

    Don’t blame the unions for governmental shortcomings. In most cases they are there in the first place as results of the abuses of previous systems both in terms of employee treatment and in terms of public outcome. We don’t need to make those same mistakes over again.

    The lessons of history are there very clearly in black and white, over and over again. Public administration protects public interests best, when the public holds its managers to solid performance and ethical standards.

  17. Submitted by cici k on 08/01/2012 - 07:13 am.

    Article on Michelle Rhea’s leadership


  18. Submitted by Ajay Jain on 03/14/2013 - 06:28 pm.

    Voting Rights Act of 1965 and its continued relevance TODAY!

    The Voting Rights Act (VRA) must be upheld by the supreme court:

    The numerous despicable attempts to restrict voting made during the last election cycle are proof of that. Anyone who truly believes the VRA is obsolete needs to recognize, given last year’s voter suppression efforts, the Jim Crowe era is biding its time.

    Now even if you are dumb enough to believe that all is OK with the world and there are no reasons to have the voting rights act on the books. Then why are the the parties at opposite end’s on this? Why are the Republicans in America trying to keep people from the poles ?

    The argument is that VRA is discriminatory against Southern states to require them but not other states to seek pre-clearance for voting laws; I actually agree. The Voting Rights Act should require *ALL* states to seek pre-clearance. After what we’ve seen the GOP try to pass in states all across the nation prior to the last 2012 election, I see no reason this safeguard against voter suppression should be limited to just Southern states as suggested by VRA of 1965 but now should be expanded to apply to ALL 50 states.

    Ajay Jain
    1209 Creekwood Drive
    Garland TX 75044-2421

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