This brings us to our topic today: The way Amanda Ripley profiled Rhee on the cover of last week’s Time.
Let’s be clear: Rhee may turn out to be an excellent superintendent of schools in DC. In our view, it’s OK that she’s inclined to bang heads (though she may be inclined to overdo it a tad); we think you should probably err on that side if you’re running a big urban system. But Rhee is a darling of press corps elites, who often know nothing about urban schools. That has led to some unfortunate journalism—as in this important passage from Ripley’s profile of Rhee:RIPLEY (12/8/08): After Rhee graduated from Cornell University in 1992, she joined Teach for America. She spent three years teaching at Harlem Park Elementary, one of the lowest-performing schools in Baltimore. Her parents visited and were stunned by the conditions of the neighborhood. "The area where the kids lived reminded me of a scene after the Korean War," says her father Shang Rhee.Including its gratuitous slam at those bad fourth-grade teachers, that’s the classic foundational tale of the “Rhee is a Miracle Worker” myth. Except for one small fact: The miracle claims attributed to Rhee have been vastly downsized here. In Ripley’s telling, Rhee “started out with second-graders who were scoring in the bottom percentile on standardized tests”—but after two years of miraculous work, “the majority were at or above grade level.” But that is not what Rhee has said all through her flashy public career. Last year, the Washington Post’s Nikita Stewart actually quoted her long-standing, undocumented, boast:
Rhee suffered during that first year, and so did her students. She could not control the class. Her father remembers her returning home to visit and telling him she didn't want to go back. She had hives on her face from the stress.
The second year, Rhee got better. She and another teacher started out with second-graders who were scoring in the bottom percentile on standardized tests. They held on to those kids for two years, and by the end of third grade, the majority were at or above grade level, she says. (Baltimore does not have good test data going back that far, a problem that plagues many districts, so this assertion cannot be checked. But Rhee's principal at the time has confirmed the claim.) The experience gave Rhee faith in the power of good teaching. Yet what happened afterward broke her heart. "What was most disappointing was to watch these kids go off into the fourth grade and just lose everything," Rhee says, "because they were in classrooms with teachers who weren't engaging them.”STEWART (6/30/07): Rhee’s résumé asserts that the students made a dramatic gain: "Over a two-year period, moved students scoring on average at the 13th percentile on national standardized tests to 90 percent of students scoring at the 90th percentile or higher.”On balance, that is a much more dramatic claim than the one Ripley described in Time. According to Rhee’s long-standing claim, she worked so major a miracle that ninety percent of her floundering students ended up “scoring at the 90th percentile or higher.” That is a truly astonishing claim—and, in Ripley’s profile of Rhee, that claim has been massively downsized.
That’s right, readers! “A majority” of kids “at or above grade level” is a much more modest claim than the claim which helped Rhee get where she is. So how about it? Has Rhee actually changed her claim? Twice last week, we e-mailed Ripley through the “Contact” mechanism on her web site, hoping we could find out:E-MAIL: I'm wondering about the following passage from your Time profile of Michelle Rhee:We don’t know if Ripley got our request. But we got no reply.
"The second year, Rhee got better. She and another teacher started out with second-graders who were scoring in the bottom percentile on standardized tests. They held on to those kids for two years, and by the end of third grade, the majority were at or above grade level, she says."
I'm wondering if that is an accurate account of something Rhee said in your interviews with her. I ask because Rhee has made much stronger claims about her students' achievement in the past. For example, on her resume, Rhee was still saying this in 2007: “Over a two-year period, moved students scoring on average at the 13th percentile on national standardized tests to 90 percent of students scoring at the 90th percentile or higher." That is a much stronger claim than the one you report.
I realize that you don't quote Rhee in that part of your profile, but I'm wondering if that was an accurate account of something Rhee said about her students' test scores. This would be for further treatment at my web site, The Daily Howler.
With thanks for any help you can give, [etc. and so forth and so on.]
Does this question actually matter? Yes, it does. Here’s why:
Dionne’s “reformers” build their world around the idea of improving the stock of public school teachers. This is a perfectly valid objective—although, in some hands, it can quickly devolve into brainless, old-school union-bashing.
To these heroic “reformers,” Rhee is a leading figure. And if you believe her self-glorying tales, you might start thinking that the only problem in low-income schools involves those lazy teachers. According to Rhee (and others like her), when teachers roll up and their sleeves and get to work, even the lowest-scoring kids end up in the top ten percent. If you really believe such inspiring tales, it’s hard to see why we should waste our time with all those other types of “reform.” We should just send high-minded Princeton kids into the schools and let the miracles happen.
Rhee may turn out to be a good superintendent—but no, we don’t believe her tale. And we think Wendy Kopp should go to jail for that crap she told Charlie Rose last summer (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 7/16/08). But Charlie just sat there and let her blab, with nothing resembling a real question asked. And this morning, Dionne restricts the use of the loaded term “reform” to Kopp and her tellers of tales.
It matters if Rhee’s hero tale is correct. Tales like that have created bogus ideas about low-income schools for the past forty years now. Unfortunately, Time sent an unschooled scribe to profile Rhee, and through some process or another, she vastly downsized Rhee’s long-standing claim—perhaps without even realizing. Last week, we asked her how this change had occurred. But in the world the Dionnes and Roses have built, you don’t really question “reformers.”
Meanwhile, low-income kids can go hang in the yard; our journalistic world is built around pleasing tales, not the real search for “reform.” Press elites have always found it pretty to believe pleasing tales like Rhee’s. For ourselves, we don’t believe her inspiring tale—and we think the search for real success will surely be hard, and quite long.
This just in from the ivory tower: Uh-oh! Both camps in Dionne’s column have valid objectives. But read back through the two sets of reforms. Neither group mentions instructional practice! Such fluff isn’t mentioned at all.
Michelle Rhee: Liar? It Sure Looks Like It!
I want to thank The Daily Howler for all his work exposing Rhee for what she apparently is--a resume padding, story embellishing, misrepresenting, KJ loving, liar who is framing the whole conversation about education to the detriment of students, teachers, districts, and research: