Washington, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser Just Did the Right Thing for D.C. Public Schools

Washington, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser just vetoed her first bill in the three years she has served as mayor of the nation’s capital.

Washington, D.C.’s public schools are under mayoral control.  Earlier this year, a scandal was exposed in which the school district—under pressure to show rapid improvement—had been allowing thousands of students who had been missing weeks of school to graduate. Then last month, the City Council passed an emergency law to allow some of this year’s high school seniors who have missed more than six weeks of class—unexcused—to receive their diplomas.

Last week, Mayor Bowser vetoed the emergency law which applied to approximately 26 of this year’s high school seniors— as the District continues to address a major graduation crisis. The new law would have permitted the students to graduate from D.C. high schools in August, despite their poor school attendance.

In her veto statement, Mayor Bowser explains: “The Chancellor has worked diligently over the past several months to ensure that our students are attending school… D.C. Public Schools has invested substantial time and resources to ensure that all students who are off track have pathways to graduation or promotion through summer school, credit recovery, or competency-based courses at its Opportunity Academies.  Ultimately, we believe that mastering the content through one of those alternatives will set students up for long-term success in college or career, and this legislation undercuts individualized graduation plans created for each student.”

Writing for the Washington Post, Fenit Nirappil explains the significance of the legislation Bowser just vetoed: “The measure, passed by the D.C. Council on a 12-to-1 vote last month, came as the school system started enforcing long-ignored attendance policies following a graduation scandal.  Lawmakers said it was unfair to punish students by changing the rules during the school year. The legislation applied only to seniors who satisfied all other academic requirements to graduate. The measure also would have allowed students in lower grades with significant numbers of absences to advance to the next grade. At the time the measure passed, it was believed 26 seniors would be affected by the legislation… Leaders of the District’s public schools had sharply criticized the emergency reprieve.”

During the past decade, there has been enormous pressure on school principals and teachers to demonstrate rapid school improvement. District leaders have sought to make Washington, D.C.’s public schools appear to be a national model.  You’ll remember that under Michelle Rhee and her successor Kaya Henderson, teachers’ and principals’ evaluations depended on educators’ capacity to produce metrics-driven deliverables—higher test scores at first, and later an ever-rising high school graduation rate. You’ll remember that under Michelle Rhee, principals and teachers were fired if they couldn’t quickly raise test scores.

More recently, teachers report they have been instructed not to fail students, no matter what. They have been asked to ensure that students have enough credits for the District to keep on raising its graduation rate. Last winter the press discovered that many students across Washington, D.C.’s high schools were being given passing marks despite missing so much school that the District’s rules said they had been chronically absent and must be failed in their classes.  Many of last year’s high school graduates were reported to have missed so much school they were not qualified to have graduated.

The new emergency rules passed by the City Council in June—the rules Mayor Bowser just vetoed—appeared  to be designed to satisfy concerns by members of the Council about acute challenges posed for students by extreme poverty.  In June, the Washington Post’s Perry Stein reported: “(T)he proposed regulations come in the wake of a city-commissioned report that found that 1 in 3 high school graduates in 2017 received their diplomas despite accruing too many absences or improperly enrolling in makeup classes… Following the release of the city-ordered report in January, teachers and community members said that students have lives complicated by unstable homes, jobs and responsibilities for taking siblings to schools. In such an environment, attending school each day, in full, can prove challenging… The introduction of the updated rules Friday… suggests that school leaders are acknowledging the obstacles confronting students… The regulations allow schools to decide if they want to alter their academic days, including adding periods to the day to accommodate students who struggle to attend school during standard hours.”

In her veto statement, Mayor Bowser reinforces her intention to end the lax attendance policies that have plagued the District’s public schools. But at the same time, she reinforces the need for the school district to maintain consistent requirements for students.  While school leaders have created individualized assistance for students with personal challenges, Bowser declares that students’ personal needs neither diminish nor undermine the expectation that, to graduate from high school, students need to complete a full academic program.

D.C.’s New Emergency Attendance Policy: A Compassionate Plan or Just a Way to Get Kids Over?

The Washington Post‘s Perry Stein reports that the Washington D.C. Public School District has instituted a new, emergency attendance policy to cope with chronic absence by many students—a policy that will also allow some students to graduate this year even though they missed many days of school. The District’s creation of this emergency policy surfaces some serious issues about what it means to go to school, what it means to graduate, and how schools can work with masses of students experiencing the disruptions caused by deep poverty.

It’s an important debate to have, but a graduation crisis is probably not the right context for a thoughtful resolution.

You’ll remember that in Washington, D.C., under Michelle Rhee and her successor Kaya Henderson, teachers’ and principals’ evaluations depended on educators’ capacity to produce metrics-driven deliverables—higher test scores at first, and later an ever-rising high school graduation rate. You’ll remember that under Michelle Rhee, principals and teachers were fired if they couldn’t quickly raise test scores. More recently, teachers report they have been instructed not to fail students, no matter what.  They have been asked to ensure that students have enough credits for the District to keep on raising the graduation rate.

You’ll also remember that last winter the press discovered that many students across Washington, D.C.’s high schools were being given passing marks despite missing so much school that the District’s rules said they had been chronically absent and must be failed in their classes.  Many of last year’s high school graduates were reported to have missed so much school they were not qualified to have graduated. There had also been lots of emphasis on superficial projects that had been assigned for so-called credit recovery.

Earlier this month, Perry Stein reported, that as the 2018 school year ended, the Washington, D.C. City Council passed a law permitting chronically absent students to graduate: “High school seniors who missed more than six weeks of class would still receive their diplomas under an emergency measure approved by the D.C. Council, even as the city remains mired in a graduation scandal… The vote set up a potential showdown between the council and Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D), whose signature is necessary for the reprieve to go into effect. Bowser’s administration has said it opposes the measure….” By mid-June, Bowser still had not decided whether to sign the emergency law.

The school district’s new emergency rules announced last week would appear to be designed to appease members of the Council without Bowser’s having to sign the law. The new rules appear to be designed to satisfy concerns by members of the Council about acute challenges posed for students by extreme poverty: “(T)he proposed regulations come in the wake of a city-commissioned report that found that 1 in 3 high school graduates in 2017 received their diplomas despite accruing too many absences or improperly enrolling in makeup classes… Following the release of the city-ordered report in January, teachers and community members said that students have lives complicated by unstable homes, jobs and responsibilities for taking siblings to schools. In such an environment, attending school each day, in full, can prove challenging… The introduction of the updated rules Friday… suggests that school leaders are acknowledging the obstacles confronting students… The regulations allow schools to decide if they want to alter their academic days, including adding periods to the day to accommodate students who struggle to attend school during standard hours.” The new rules would still fail students with more than 30 unexcused absences during the school year.

Here are some questions that occur to me as I read about this new policy:

  • Should there be different expectations for students who cut school because they don’t care and students who cut school because they have to be responsible for a younger sibling or who cut school because they accompany their mother to eviction court?
  • If students are working jobs during school hours, can they be said in any way to be attending school?
  • Does it matter if students come to class regularly?
  • How does chronic absence by a large number of students affect the work of teachers and the dynamics of any classroom?
  • How can a school accommodate a large number of chronically absent students coming and going on different schedules?
  • What sort of makeup projects or exams can be designed that require the same sort of understanding of a subject that students regularly participating in class would likely gain?

Our nation’s school accountability policies under No Child Left Behind and its replacement, the Every Student Succeeds Act evaluate and rate schools and teachers by the test scores of their students and school graduation rates. What does this year’s Washington, D.C. graduation scandal—reflecting outrageous rates of chronic absence—expose about a national policy that judges school improvement by factors that are not a reflection of what is happening in school? Washington, D.C. is not the only school district that has struggled with chronic absence. Other districts are coping with this challenge by creating incentives and outreach programs to try to increase the number of students who are in school.

It seems important that Washington, D.C. is being forced to acknowledge publicly the kind of challenges students bring to school—family issues we pretend do not exist as we assume that all schools address the same sort of student needs. A wealthy suburban school district can set rules for students whose primary life responsibility during adolescence is attending school. But what about school serving students with a mass of other challenges?  If the D.C. Public Schools can meet students’ needs with more flexible scheduling and other accommodations to help students participate fully and do the work, that would be a welcome innovation other school districts could consider. But surely flexibility and accommodation should not reduce or replace academic rigor.

While we might understand why D.C. Council members sympathize with students who, due to their family challenges, cannot get to school, aren’t there good reasons for expecting students to be in school—especially if we expect to award a diploma to mark each student’s accomplishment of finishing high school?  Doesn’t society have a responsibility to set a better economic foundation for families so that students can comfortably fulfill their responsibility to be in school?  If that were the case, we could assume that students’ cutting school ought to be an infraction with clear cut consequences.

Rright now in the Washington, D.C. Public Schools—a school district that has made raising the graduation rate the single metric by which the District can tout itself as a national model—it will be important to ensure this emergency plan isn’t just a way to get students over and brag about raising the District’s graduation rate. The District will need to study carefully the reasons for seemingly outrageous rates of chronic absence among adolescents and announce clear rules for student attendance.

Most important, the District will need to demonstrate that any new policies designed to accommodate students’ personal needs neither diminish nor undermine the expectation that, to graduate from high school, students will complete a full academic program.

Fine “Washington Post” Piece Traces Collapse of Michelle Rhee’s D.C. Legacy

In January of 2002, the No Child Left Behind Act was signed into law, establishing a high stakes testing regime with all children tested in grades 3-8 and once in high school. Test-and-punish school accountability meant annual testing and also a set of punishments for so-called failing schools and their staffs. The punishments eventually put in place were closing schools, firing teachers and principals, and privatizing or charterizing schools. States were eventually required to use students’ standardized test scores as a significant percentage of their formal evaluation process for teachers. The assumption behind all this was that incentives and punishments would make educators work harder and that standardized test scores would rise and achievement gaps would close. But test scores didn’t rise and achievement gaps didn’t close.

No school district epitomized this sort of data-driven, standardized test-based school reform like Washington, D.C.  In 2007, Michelle Rhee was brought in as appointed schools chancellor by Adrian Fenty, a new mayor who was given authorization for mayoral control of the school district. Fenty and his appointed chancellor created the grand illusion of success through mayoral governance and data-driven school reform. Washington, D.C. was said to be the symbol of school district turnaround.  Now we know most of it was a mere illusion.

Last weekend, three reporters for the Washington Post collaborated to trace the history of the supposed Washington, D.C. school miracle and summarize the tragic results: “In the decade after the city dissolved its elected local school board and turned management of the schools over to the mayor, Rhee and her successor, Kaya Henderson, created a system that demanded ever-higher accomplishments—higher test scores, higher graduation rates. They used money as an incentive: Principals and teachers were rewarded financially if they hit certain numbers. And with only weak oversight from the D.C. Council and other city education agencies—which report to the same mayor who is politically liable for the schools—there was no strong check on any impulse to gloss over shortcomings and pump up numbers. City lawmakers repeatedly boasted that the District’s schools had become the fastest-improving in the nation. Philanthropic dollars poured in… And one of the most dysfunctional school systems in America became known as a model for education reform efforts nationwide.”

Here is what the Post‘s reporters conclude: “If there is any simple truth about urban school reform, it may be this: It’s really hard. There are no miracles. The District’s scores have risen faster on national math and reading tests than anywhere else, but the improvements were driven in part by an influx of affluent families who enrolled children in the schools, helping boost scores. City officials invested billions of dollars to construct gleaming buildings, but that did not help close what remains the largest achievement gap between black and white students in a major U.S. city.”

The latest scandal, a subject this blog has previously covered, is a massive graduation rate crisis, where students in the city’s poorest high schools have been pushed toward graduation despite a pattern of chronic absence and teachers allowing students to make up work through short extra-credit assignments and superficial credit recovery programs. Now that officials have begun investigating and enforcing attendance and course completion requirements, it has become clear that the District’s graduation rate will plummet this year.

But there have been earlier warning signs.

Last weekend’s Washington Post report describes a history of practices aimed at improving the district’s appearance, if not the reality for its students:

  • “The District claimed a dramatic decline in suspensions, but a Washington Post investigation last summer showed that many city high schools were suspending students off the books, kicking students out without documentation—and in some cases even marking them present.”
  • Then there was the recent firing of the District’s newest Chancellor, Antwan Wilson, when he jumped a lottery waiting list to get his own daughter into the District’s highest scoring high school. Wilson had himself created some of the rules to tighten up on what had been a practice of letting powerful parents use their influence to secure special admissions for their own children.
  • A 2015 report by the National Research Council found that, “Eight years after Rhee’s arrival, and five years after her departure, poor and minority students were still far less likely to have an effective teacher in their classroom and perform at grade level.  Achievement gaps were as wide as ever.  About 60 percent of poor black students were below proficient in math and reading and had made only marginal gains since the changes were made.”
  • The reporters gloss over a significant cheating scandal under Michelle Rhee; it was difficult for reporters to conclusively document it because Rhee herself controlled the investigation.  The retired PBS reporter, John Merrow has amassed the evidence, however.

The Washington, D.C. public schools have been the nation’s poster child for the idea that schools themselves can change the trajectory of children’s lives, and that test scores are the mark of a school’s success or failure.  In his new book, The Testing Charade: Pretending to Make Schools Better, Harvard’s Daniel Koretz demonstrates the problem with that assumption:

“One aspect of the great inequity of the American educational system is that disadvantaged kids tend to be clustered in the same schools. The causes are complex, but the result is simple: some schools have far lower average scores—and, particularly important in this system, more kids who aren’t ‘proficient’—than others. Therefore, if one requires that all students must hit the proficient target by a certain date, these low-scoring schools will face far more demanding targets for gains than other schools do. This was not an accidental byproduct of the notion that ‘all children can learn to a high level.’ It was a deliberate and prominent part of many of the test-based accountability reforms… Unfortunately… it seems that no one asked for evidence that these ambitious targets for gains were realistic. The specific targets were often an automatic consequence of where the Proficient standard was placed and the length of time schools were given to bring all students to that standard, which are both arbitrary… (T)his decision backfired. The result was, in many cases, unrealistic expectations that teachers simply couldn’t meet by any legitimate means.” (pp. 129-134)

Challenging another of Michelle Rhee’s assumptions—the one about driving school reform through punishment, firing, and merit bonuses— Daniel Koretz attributes the kind of deception that has happened in Washington, D.C. to a well-known principle in the social sciences:  “The more any quantitative social indicator is used for social decision making the more subject it will be to corruption pressures and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it is intended to monitor.” (p. 38)

Michelle Rhee set up a system in which educators were incentivized almost exclusively through carrots and sticks to meet ever rising demands. Rhee created a teacher evaluation process that either rewarded or fired teachers and principals according to the test score and graduation rate increases they produced.  Last weekend’s Washington Post evaluation of the past decade’s D.C. school reform depicts the details of the kind of pressure that Rhee and her successors have put on the District’s educators: “The District’s teachers are among the highest paid in the nation and can earn merit bonuses. In exchange, they also are more vulnerable to losing their jobs than teachers just about anywhere else.  Since 2007, hundreds have been fired.  Dozens of schools have been closed.  Other struggling schools have been ‘reconstituted,’ meaning everyone had to reapply for their jobs and many were not rehired.”  The reporters describe the annual “goal meeting” every principal was required attend. Each year principals, meeting with their own superiors, were forced to promise they and their teachers would meet goals set by higher-ups, goals that leaders at individual schools knew were not realistic. “The focus on data carried the promise of a scientific approach to improvement.  But it came with fierce pressure to produce gains that critics said failed to take into account the influences on a child’s life outside of school.”

In Washington, D.C., each school’s accomplishments in raising test scores and each high school’s progress in raising graduation rates have been tracked by data. Merit bonuses have been tied to records of raising scores and raising graduation rates, but principals and teachers have been fired if they couldn’t raise test scores and graduation rates.  People under pressure found ways to meet the targets.

Now, as the Washington Post reporters conclude: “The revelations—coupled with the resignation of the chancellor after his own personal scandal and separately, allegations of enrollment fraud at one of the city’s most sought-after selective high schools—have shattered the simple narrative of success. Now, there is a groundswell of skepticism among parents, taxpayers and elected officials who are questioning how much of the touted progress is real.  It is the most prominent surge of such skepticism since 2008, when Rhee appeared on the cover of Time magazine with a broom to sweep away the old culture of failure and low expectations.”  Many are now questioning the wisdom of mayoral control of schools, a system that lacks the checks and balances provided by an elected school board.

D.C. Schools Chancellor Resigns After Jumping Daughter over 639 Students in High School Lottery

Antwan Wilson, the Chancellor of the Washington, D.C. Public Schools, resigned yesterday afternoon after a scandal caused when he jumped his daughter over 639 other students in a competitive lottery for the exclusive Wilson High School.  His family chose not to send her to her neighborhood’s zoned high school, Paul Lawrence Dunbar High School, one of Washington, D.C.’s lowest performing schools. Chancellor Wilson himself had created the policy that governed enrollment lotteries for the city’s selective schools to clean up cheating by the city’s powerful who have previously received the spaces they demanded in selective schools.

In their article last night reporting on Chancellor Wilson’s resignation, The Washington Post‘s Perry Stein, Peter Jamison and Fenit Nirappil describe the enrollment lottery policy for which Chancellor Wilson set new regulations early in his tenure: “The citywide lottery system allows families who are unhappy with their neighborhood schools to win a seat at a different D.C. public school or charter school, if there is excess capacity in that school.  But demand is great for the best-performing schools, where hundreds of families might compete for a handful of seats.  The notoriously competitive lottery system has been a long standing source of tension, and was mired in scandal not even a ear ago when investigators discovered that a previous chancellor allowed well-connected parents and government officials to evade lottery rules.”

Here is the Washington Post‘s editorial last Friday after Wilson’s action to privilege his daughter over others in the lottery became known: “SERIOUSLY? THAT has to be every Washingtonian’s reaction to the revelation that D.C. Schools Chancellor Antwan Wilson bypassed the city’s competitive lottery process to place his daughter in one of the city’s most desirable public high schools. Did he forget the scandal—less than a year ago!—that surrounded his predecessor’s use of discretionary transfers to circumvent the lottery for parents with influence? Did he not read the regulation he himself signed in response to that scandal prohibiting D.C. officials from requesting special treatment for their children?”

This week’s scandal merely compounds an ongoing high school graduation scandal and builds upon the record of a test cheating scandal under former Chancellor Michelle Rhee, a scandal whose full investigation Rhee prevented that has been confirmed by now-retired PBS NewsHour education reporter John Merrow.

After Michelle Rhee and Kaya Henderson, Wilson is the third in a string of corporate-reformer chancellors promising to raise school achievement and high school graduation in Washington, D.C., where the public and charter schools are managed as a “portfolio” under mayoral control.  Wilson, taught for a year in Raleigh, NC before serving as assistant principal or principal in Wichita, Kansas, Lincoln, Nebraska, and Denver,Colorado before earning a superintendent’s certificate from the unaccredited Broad Superintendents’ Academy.  He served as school superintendent in Oakland, California from July, 2014 until coming to Washington, D.C. on February 1, 2017.  As the Washington Post‘s Perry Stein reported on Saturday, “Wilson—who comes from the same education circle as Henderson and her predecessor as chancellor, Michelle Rhee—believes in testing and graduation metrics and supports the controversial evaluation system enacted by Rhee,which ties teacher bonuses and job security to the educator’s annual assessments. When he took over the school system last year, Wilson pledged to boost the four-year graduation rate to 85 percent by 2022, an ambitious goal he still stands by. The graduation rate—its validity thrown into doubt after the city-commissioned investigation—stood at 73 percent in 2017.”

After WAMU and NPR exposed a graduation scandal at the District’s Ballou High School last November, a situation in which students were being permitted to make up for sometimes weeks-long unexcused absences by doing an extra project and the school’s instituting slick and insufficient credit-recovery sessions after school, a study of graduation practices was undertaken across the District to determine if what had happened at Ballou might be widespread.  The Post‘s Perry Stein and Moriah Balingit describe findings of a report released on January 29: “Out of 2,758 students who graduated from D.C. public schools last year, more than 900 missed too many classes or improperly took makeup classes.” Perry Stein adds: “At Anacostia High School in Southeast Washington, nearly 70 percent of the 106 graduates last year received their diplomas despite violating some aspect of city policy—the worst violation rate among comprehensive schools in the city. At Ballou, the school whose mispractices spurred the investigation, 63 percent of graduates missed more classes than typically allowed , or inappropriately completed credit recovery… One of the most damning findings came from Dunbar High School in Northwest Washington. Teacher-centered attendance records at the school were modified from absent to present more than 4,000 times for the senior class, which numbered fewer than 200.” As the scale of the scandal has unfolded, Chancellor Wilson fired the District’s Chief of Secondary Schools and the principal and two assistant principals at Ballou High School.

The latest crisis in the D.C. Public Schools leadership is certainly a matter of poor judgement by Chancellor Antwan Wilson. The alarming and much broader high school graduation crisis—ramping up the graduation rate by pushing students through graduation when then have not met the requirements or have missed weeks or months of the senior year of high school—is far more indicative of deep problems.  With their annual IMPACT evaluations and their jobs at stake, teachers have systematically been pressured to make it look as though the D.C. Public Schools are a school district miracle.  In the title of his new book, Harvard’s Daniel Koretz captures the reality of what’s been happening in D.C. and other places when miracles are proclaimed: The Testing Charade: Pretending to Make Schools Better.

John Merrow and Thomas Toch Debate Michelle Rhee’s Strategy for Running Urban Schools

A debate about school reform has been raging on the pages of The Washington Monthly—between Thomas Toch, a defender of what is frequently called “corporate school reform” and John Merrow, the retired education reporter for the PBS NewsHour.  The subject: Washington, D.C. school reform as launched by Michelle Rhee and further evolved during the tenure of Kaya Henderson and others whom Henderson hired.  This now-old story about the D.C. public schools still matters, because the theories and practices introduced by Michelle Rhee a decade ago in the nation’s capital continue to drive the operation of urban school districts across the United States.

Thomas Toch formerly led the think tank Education Sector and now serves as the director of FutureEd, an education think tank at Georgetown University. The July-August, Washington Monthly published Toch’s  Hot for Teachers, a paean to what he believes is a decade of public school improvement between 2007 and 2016 in the nation’s capital. Toch is careful to point out that his subject is broader than Michelle Rhee’s tenure that ended with her resignation in October of 2010. As Toch describes the elevation of test scores across the District, however, and as he celebrates a crackdown on “bad teaching,” improved recruitment and retention of teachers, and broad-scale, data-driven school management, Toch’s rhetoric betrays a pro-corporate-school-reform bias, which must filtered as one reads his story:

Toch appreciates charter schools: “Some 43 percent of D.C. students were enrolled in charters in 2013, up from less than 15 percent a decade earlier.  Many of these schools, with names like DC Prep, KIPP DC, and Achievement Prep, were earning attention for their innovative strategies and strong results.  Foundations heaped money onto them, and the young talent entering teaching through prestigious pipelines like Teach for America were keen to work in the schools.” He also celebrates Michelle Rhee and Kaya Henderson’s strategy for working with school teachers: “Rhee’s successors at DCPS have redesigned teaching through some of the very policies that teachers’ unions and other Rhee adversaries opposed most strongly: comprehensive teacher evaluations, the abandonment of seniority-based staffing, and performance-based promotions and compensation.”  Before Rhee resigned, “Kaya Henderson, who had been Teach for America’s D.C. director and then managed Rhee’s New Teacher Project work in the city, supervised the project as the new chancellor’s chief of human capital.  She worked with Jason Kamras, a Princeton graduate who had arrived in Washington a decade earlier through Teach for America…. At the beginning of the 2009-10 school year, Henderson and Kamras launched the most comprehensive teacher measurement system ever implemented in public education.  It set citywide teaching standards for the first time ever… Under the new system, every teacher would be observed five times a year—three times by the administrators in their schools and twice by ‘master educators’ from the central office who would provide an independent check on principals’ ratings.”  Toch believes that fear is a useful strategy for making people work harder: “Rhee’s team deepened teachers’ angst…. Henderson ordered that student test scores make up 50 percent of teachers’ ratings if they taught tested subjects and grades. That turned out to be only 15 percent of the school system’s teaching force, but the move stoked anxiety and resentment throughout the city’s teaching ranks.”

Toch’s analysis continues beyond the transition from Chancellor Rhee to Chancellor Henderson. Noting that Henderson learned from Rhee’s mistakes, Toch emphasizes that after Rhee’s exit, Henderson introduced more support for good teaching—career ladders, for example, and collaboration among grade-level teams of teachers.  Toch does betray the top-down reformer’s bias, however: “There’s no doubt that the school reform stars aligned in Washington over the past decade: There was a rare infusion of talent in the central office; stable leadership enabled by mayoral control of city schools; freedom from key collective bargaining obstacles, and substantial funding, first from grants, then from savings from improvements in the city’s special education system.”

John Merrow, the retired PBS NewsHour reporter who has repeatedly investigated Michelle Rhee’s contentious tenure as the D.C. Chancellor, collaborated with Mary Levy to publish, in the September-October Washington Monthly, a rebuttal to Toch’s story.  Merrow has also expanded this story on his personal blog.  Merrow’s response to Toch centers on the Rhee years, because that is the subject Merrow knows best and because Merrow believes Toch’s distorted portrayal of a D.C. school improvement miracle is grounded in a biased understanding of Rhee’s troubled tenure.

Merrow points to gentrification as the source of much of the test score improvement in Washington, D.C.  He documents that achievement gaps by race, ethnicity and income have not closed: “Those results, however, stop looking so good once we disaggregate data about different groups of students.  Despite small overall increases, minority and low-income scores lag far behind the NAEP’s big-city average, and the already huge achievement gaps have actually widened.  From 2007 to 2015, the NAEP reading scores of low income eighth graders increased just 1 point, from 232 to 233, while scores of non-low-income students (called ‘others’ in NAEP-speak) climbed 31 points, from 250-282.  Over that same time period, the percentage of low-income students scoring at the ‘proficient’ level remained an embarrassingly low 8 percent, while proficiency among ‘others’ climbed from 22 to 53 percent.  An analysis of the data by race between 2007 and 2015 is also discouraging: black proficiency increased 3 points, from 8 percent to 11 percent, while Hispanic proficiency actually declined from 18 percent to 17 percent.  In 2007 the white student population was not large enough to be reported, but in 2015, white proficiency was at 75 percent.”

Merrow describes what he calls “central office bloat”: “Many of these highly paid non-teachers spend their days watching over teachers in scheduled and unscheduled classroom observations, generally lasting about thirty minutes…. Why so many of these teacher watchers?  Because those who subscribe to top-down management do not trust teachers.” Merrow bemoans the result: a collapse of morale along with widespread resignations of teachers and school leaders.  Some of this is because staff are being moved among schools, enhancing disruptive change, but he notes: “Unfortunately, the greatest upheavals are in schools serving large numbers of low-income children, kids who need stability wherever they can find it.”

As he re-posts his Washington Monthly article on his personal blog, Merrow adds several pages of what he has documented over the years in his investigation of a years’ long cheating scandal in Washington DC, a scandal exposed by U.S.A. Today in March of 2011, but, as Merrow has documented repeatedly, never investigated.  He castigates Toch for (in his July-August article) dismissing the extent of the pressure Rhee was placing on school principals and the widespread reach of the cheating.

Here is some of Merrow’s rebuttal: “Contrary to Toch’s assertions, cheating—in the form of suspiciously high rates of erasures of wrong answers and filling in the right ones—occurred in more than half of DCPS schools.  The changes were never thoroughly investigated beyond an initial analysis by the agency that had corrected the exams in the first place, CTB/McGraw-Hill.  Deep erasure analysis was never ordered by Rhee, her then deputy Henderson, or the mayor.  The ‘investigations’ Toch refers to were either controlled by Rhee and, later Henderson or conducted by inept investigators—and sometimes both… Rhee, and subsequently Henderson, tightly controlled the inquiries, limiting the number of schools that could be visited, the number of interviews that could be conducted, and even the questions, that could be asked.”

Merrow poses the essential question: “Why would so many schools be driven to cheat?  In her one-on-one meetings with all her principals, Rhee insisted that they guarantee test score increases and made it clear that failing to ‘make the numbers’ would have consequences.  The adults who subsequently changed answers, coached students during testing, and shared exams before the tests were intent on keeping their jobs, which depended on higher scores… The rookie Chancellor met one-on-one with all her principals and, in these meetings, made them guarantee test score increases. We filmed a number of these sessions, and saw firsthand how Rhee relentlessly negotiated the numbers up, while also making it clear that failing to ‘make the numbers’ would have consequences.”

Merrow dismisses Toch’s piece as corporate-school-reform hot air: “To remain aloft, a hot air balloon must be fed regular bursts of hot air.  Without hot air, the balloon falls to earth.  That seems to be the appropriate analogy for the District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS) during the ten-year regime (2007-2016) of Chancellors Michelle Rhee and Kaya Henderson.  Their top-down approach to school reform might not have lasted but for the unstinting praise provided by influential supporters from the center left and right—their hot air.  The list includes the editorial page of the Washington Post, (and) former U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan….”

Merrow dubs Toch’s article this summer as merely another draft of hot air.  He blasts Toch’s argument “that Rhee and Henderson revolutionized the teaching profession in D.C. schools, to the benefit of students. ”  And he calls Toch a cheerleader who, “obscures a harsh truth: on most relevant measures, Washington’s public schools have either regressed or made minimal progress under their leadership.  Schools in upper-middle-class neighborhoods seem to be thriving, but outcomes for low-income minority students—the great majority of enrollment—are pitifully low.”

Thomas Toch responds to Merrow’s allegations.  His response is printed by The Washington Monthly at the end of Merrow and Mary Levy’s report, Has D.C. Teacher Reform Been Successful?

Developments at StudentsFirst and Teach for America

There is some shifting and changing of the guard in the world of corporatized education reform.

StudentsFirst and 50CAN

I thought about Michelle Rhee and her organization StudentsFirst earlier this week as I sat for three hours at a huge meeting in my own school district, where our dedicated teachers demonstrated over and over again that they understand the needs of our community’s young people and where parents and a long list of students spoke about an art teacher, an English teacher, a drama teacher, a Chinese teacher or a coach who had made them feel welcome and engaged. Rhee—the woman featured on Time Magazine‘s cover with the broom to sweep out “bad” teachers—said she founded StudentsFirst to promote the interests of children and to protect us all from what she said was the practice in public schools of putting the needs of adults before the needs of students.

Michelle Rhee launched StudentsFirst in 2010, after she was ousted from the D.C. public schools. Rhee promised she would raise $1 billion to support the organization’s in its first year, though in reality she was able to raise only $7.6 million that year.  Rhee resigned as the organization’s director in 2014.  Now StudentsFirst is being subsumed into another far-right organization, 50CAN.

Here is Caitlin Emma from Politico Morning Education: “What will remain of Students First? Sources tell Morning Education that the 50CAN and StudentsFirst marriage announced last week is not so much a merger as it is an acquisition—and it’s unclear how many StudentsFirst staffers will be left when all the wedding cake is eaten… 50CAN CEO Marc Porter Magee said there will be some layoffs as a result of the merger.”

So what is 50CAN?  Diane Ravitch provides some background: “The latter organization is funded by hedge fund managers and the Sackler family of Connecticut, whose fortune was made from pharmaceuticals, specifically the opioid drug Oxycontin, that is now causing so much addiction and death across the nation.  Forbes says they are the 16th richest family in America.  Jonathan Sackler’s daughter Madeleine made a documentary about Eva Moskowitz’s Success Academy charter chain called ‘The Lottery.’ It gave viewers the impression that these were the world’s most magical schools and any child lucky enough to win the lottery would have a blessed life.  Never having attended a public school, she bought into the myth that they are horrid places that one must escape… and that charter schools are sort of like the private school she attended in Greenwich.”

50CAN began as ConnCAN in the state of Connecticut and Sackler and his partners have expanded it to other states and created a national organization.  Here is Jon Lender for the Hartford Courant: “Jonathan Sackler is a leading proponent of charter schools in Connecticut, the region and the nation.  He is… operator of about 20 charter schools in New York and Connecticut with thousands of students.  He was the founding chairman and still a director of ConnCAN, the Connecticut Coalition for Achievement Now, and serves as director of other education groups such as 50CAN….”

While 50CAN clearly intends to operate across the 50 states, according to the organization’s website, today it has seven state affiliates in addition to ConnCAN: RI-CAN, MinnCAN, NYCAN, MarylandCAN, CarolinaCAN, JerseyCAN, and PennCAN.  Although 50CAN’s website proclaims a commitment to developing local leadership for excellence in education (“We believe that the most successful local education advocacy efforts follow a bottom-up approach by finding, connecting and supporting a diverse group of entrepreneurial leaders.”), 50CAN is an Astroturf organization—a national organization that merely pretends to be locally supported at the grassroots.  Here is a description of its work in Minnesota: “While the name “Minneapolis Progressive Education Fund” lends the group an air of boots-on-the-ground campaigning — chairman Daniel Sellers describes himself as a ‘Minneapolis resident and parent’ — there is nothing grassroots about it. In fact, the Progressive Education Fund, as reported by MinnPost, is an offshoot of 50CAN, the right-wing education group founded by Connecticut hedge fund managers and heavily bankrolled by school privatization interests, such as the Walton Family Foundation. Sellers is the chair of the Minneapolis Progressive Education Fund and also the executive director of MinnCAN.”

Caitlin Emma for Politico describes the merger of StudentsFirst with 50CAN in a bit more detail: “50CAN, unlike StudentsFirst, has a growing budget and a growing number of funders.  50CAN’s current operating budget is about $8 million, up from $2 million in 2010 when the organization was started.”  50CAN’s Porter Magee says “the merger combines the two best aspects of both organizations.  StudentFirst’s ability to influence the passage of legislation—like parent trigger laws that allow parents to intervene in low performing public schools and turn them into charter schools—and 50CAN’s broader advocacy work.”  One must correct the assumptions here: although parent trigger laws have been passed by several states with support from StudentsFirst and ALEC, there have been virtually no successful, sustained parent takeovers of public schools.

Teach for America

New college graduates are no longer flocking to become alternatively certified over the summer and sign up for a two year stint at Teach for America.  Diane Ravitch announced on her blog: “Despite the flashy celebration at TFA’s 25th Anniversary Summit held in Washington, D.C. last month, TFA did not meet its recruiting target for the second year in a row.  2015 was the first time in its history that TFA laid off employees, and now it’s happening again.”  “CEO Elisa Villaneuva Beard announced on February 29 that 250 TFA staff positions will be eliminated….  She said 100 new positions will also be created, leaving the net job loss at 150.”

Emma Brown, reporting for the Washington Post, explains: “The downsizing comes after a previous round of reductions in which TFA’s national staff shrank by more than 200 positions.  The two shake-ups will leave Teach for America with approximately 930 national staff members in fiscal year 2017, 410 fewer than it employed in fiscal year 2015, according to the organization.”

TFA’s model is controversial.  Instead of sending well-trained and credentialed college graduates, who have experienced extensive student teaching and mentoring, into the nation’s poorest schools, TFA has run a 5-week alternative certification program over the summer and sent graduates from elite colleges into our nation’s poorest cities for two year assignments, a practice that has created rapid turnover of staff in schools that need stability.

Last month Science Newsline reported on a study from the University of Illinois confirming that, “Teach for America has reaped millions of dollars in nonrefundable finder’s fees from school systems in the U.S. through lucrative contracts that require schools to hire designated numbers of the organization’s corps members—whether or not its teachers meet districts’ specific content or grade-level needs….  Five major U.S. school systems—in Atlanta, Chicago, eastern North Carolina, New Orleans and New York—paid finder’s fees that ranged from $2,000 to $5,000 per TFA corps member per contract year…. The financially troubled Chicago Public Schools paid TFA nearly $7.5 million in finder’s fees between 2000 and 2014—a time period when the school system also underwent significant budget cuts, closed numerous schools and laid off thousands of teachers….”

States have continued to pay fees to bring TFA into their school districts, most recently Arkansas, where in January Governor Asa Hutchinson announced he will invest $3 million of state discretionary funds to bring in TFA over three years.  And at the federal level, according to Diane Ravitch, “The U.S. Department of Education has given TFA hundreds of millions of dollars in federal grants since 2008.  Government funding (at all levels) comprised 38% of TFA’s budget in 2015, totaling $69.7 million that year alone, according to TFA’s 2015 annual report.”

Who Is Campbell Brown and Why Is She Trying to Discredit Teachers (and Their Unions)?

Time Magazine‘s November 3, 2014 cover that scapegoats teachers by implying that the profession protects a whole lot of “bad apples” has brought the California Vergara court decision back into the news and once again brought us Campbell Brown, whose face is familiar as a former CNN news anchor.  Her new mission is represented by her new organization, the Partnership for Educational Justice, that has begun bringing Vergara-like lawsuits across the states to oppose due process for teachers.  Yesterday in a post, It’s Not OK to Hate Teachers, this blog explored how wrong it is that Time (on its magazine cover) is attacking a whole profession of people in this country—about 5 million school teachers.  Today we’ll review what has become a far-right attack on public school teachers, and why outlawing due process for teachers is probably not a very good idea—not only from the point of view of the teachers but also from the perspective of the students in their classes.

The review must begin with Michelle Rhee, however, because she launched the attack on teachers long before Campbell Brown left her position at CNN.  Michelle Rhee made her mark as the Washington, D.C. schools chancellor who, according to Rhee herself, set out to put the interests of “students first” over the interests of the adults who worked for the D.C. schools.  Rhee portrayed teachers—through their union—as protecting their own “adult”  interests above the needs of the children.  The adult interests Rhee was talking about were things like their salaries, their health insurance, and their job protection.  Rhee surely didn’t believe in job protection; she became famous for firing lots of teachers and school administrators.  She fired one principal publicly during a video being filmed by John Merrow for the PBS News Hour.  It was later shown that any test score gains during Rhee’s tenure were the result of gentrification, that the racial achievement gap widened during Rhee’s years, and that she left the District under the cloud of allegations of a massive test score cheating scandal that was never fully investigated. She went on to found StudentsFirst, a national PAC that has attacked teachers unions, supported corporate school reformers for positions on local school boards and state legislatures, and supported vouchers.  Just months ago, however, StudentsFirst closed state affiliates in Minnesota, Florida, Maine, Indiana and Iowa.  Michelle Rhee has resigned as its executive director, while she has remained on its board.  She has also joined the board of Scotts MiracleGro.

As Rhee’s star has been falling as the leader of the attack on school teachers, Campbell Brown has stepped in to lead a series of lawsuits to destroy due process protection for teachers. According to the NY Times, Campbell Brown is married to Dan Senor, who was a foreign affairs advisor to presidential candidate Mitt Romney.  Senor has also served on the board of Michelle Rhee’s StudentsFirst. In June we learned from Stephanie Simon at Politico that Brown and her campaign, the Partnership for Educational Justice, had joined with a politically connected  Washington, D.C. public relations firm, the Incite Agency, where Robert Gibbs, President Obama’s former press secretary, and former Obama campaign spokesman Ben LaBolt have been hired to create a national public relations drive to promote Campbell Brown’s lawsuits.  You will note that Brown has been working to make her organization bi-partisan.  She has made David Boies a member of her board.  He is the high profile attorney who represented Al Gore back in 2000 at the U.S. Supreme Court when the presidential election was in question, and he represented gay couples seeking to protect their right to marry when the U.S. Supreme Court overturned California Proposition 8.

The other primary character in the attack on tenure is David Welch, who launched the original Vergara case in California.  He is a Silicon Valley telecommunications entrepreneur whose not-for-profit organization, Students Matter and its chosen student plaintiffs alleged that tenure protects bad teachers, and that tenure, therefore, violates the civil rights of students living in poor school districts. Welch and Students Matter hired as plaintiff attorneys former U.S. Solicitor General Ted Olson and Theodore Boutrous, Jr., a corporate attorney who represents Walmart and who represented George W. Bush against Al Gore in 2000, when the Florida recount reached the U.S. Supreme Court. Peter Schrag, retired editorial page editor for the Sacramento Bee, has noted that in Vergara,  “Welch is seconded by groups such as Ben Austin’s Parent Revolution and Michelle Rhee’s StudentsFirst, with funding help from Eli Broad and the Walton Family Foundation, all of which have battled teachers unions and supported charter schools and ‘transformational’ change in public education.”  In June,  Judge Rolf True found for the plaintiffs. The case is being appealed, and many have questioned whether a firm case can be made that tenure is a civil rights matter.

Last Thursday, in a fine article published by the New York Daily News, Erwin Chemerinsky, the dean and Raymond Pryke Professor of First Amendment Law at the University of California, Irvine School of Law analyzed the contentions made by attorneys for the plaintiffs in Vergara.  Chemerinsky writes: “American public education desperately needs to be improved, especially for the most disadvantaged children.  But eliminating teachers’ job security and due-process rights is not going to attract better educators—or do much to improve school quality…  The reality is that job security and protection against arbitrary treatment are terms and conditions of employment that, like higher wages, attract good people into teaching and keep them in the classroom…  It should be noted that teachers in the United States work more hours and are paid less than their counterparts in almost every other developed country—and their salaries have fallen dramatically relative to pay for comparable jobs in our economy since 1940.”

Chemerinsky continues, “The causal relationship alleged by the plaintiffs in these lawsuits—that teachers’ rights cause minority students to receive substandard educations—is belied by readily available empirical evidence.  If the plaintiffs were correct, similarly situated students in states with weak protection of teachers—such as Texas, Alabama and Mississippi—would have higher levels of achievement and the racial achievement gap would be smaller in those states. But…. every year, the states with the highest student performance are those with robust protections for teachers—places like Maryland and Massachusetts.”

He concludes: “The plaintiffs who are bringing these lawsuits have misappropriated the soaring rhetoric and fundamental principles of the civil rights movement… Cloaking the attack on teachers’ rights in the rhetoric of the civil rights movement is misleading.  Lessening the legal protections for teachers will not advance civil rights or improve education.” “The problem of inner-city schools is not that the dedicated teachers who work in them have too many rights, but that the students who go to them are disadvantaged in many ways, the schools have inadequate resources and the schools are surrounded by communities that are dangerous, lack essential services and are largely segregated by both race and class.  Taking the modest job security accorded by tenure away from teachers will address none of these problems.”

It’s Not OK to Hate Teachers

“It’s not OK to hate teachers.”  Those are the words of the Rev. John Thomas back in 2010, four years ago, right after he retired as General Minister and President of the United Church of Christ, joined the staff at Chicago Theological Seminary and started a blog.

“What’s going on here?” asked Thomas. “Certainly union busting is part of what’s going on.  Public officials see a rare opportunity to diminish the power of teachers’ unions in this climate and are doing what they can to discredit organizations that have done much to ensure that teachers are rewarded and protected at a level commensurate with other professions… And let’s be honest, for most people passionate interest in public schools begins when the first child enters kindergarten and ends when the last child graduates from high school.  How many of us know much of anything about what’s going on in our public schools when we don’t have our own children or grandchildren attending them?”

Well… on the cover of its November 3, 2014 issue, Time Magazine is trying to develop some passionate interest.  Or maybe that is not what’s happening.  What is Time really trying to accomplish on the cover of its new issue?  Here is what the text says: “Rotten Apples: It’s nearly impossible to fire a bad teacher. Some tech millionaires have found a way to change that.”  The picture that accompanies this text is of a judge’s gavel poised above an apple.  That’s a hint.  This must have something to do with former CNN anchor Campbell Brown’s new cause: to file Vergara-type lawsuits across the states to outlaw due process job protection for school teachers.  This blog has covered the California Vergara lawsuit here.  It has covered Campbell Brown’s new endeavor to organize a legal attack on teachers unions here and  here.

This is actually the second time that Time Magazine has attacked teachers with a picture on its cover.  Valerie Strauss, in the Washington Post, reminds us that back in December of 2008, Time pictured Michelle Rhee—then chancellor of the schools in Washington, D.C.—poised to sweep out bad teachers with the broom she was holding.  “Rhee was,” according to Strauss, “the vanguard of a wave of ‘corporate school reform’ that has used standardized test scores as the chief metric for school ‘accountability,’ promoted charter schools and vouchers, and sought to minimize or eliminate the power of teachers unions and change the way teachers are trained.  Rhee was chancellor from 2007-2010, during which she fired hundreds of teachers and principals and started a program that used test scores to evaluate every adult in the building—including, for several years, the custodians.  She also collected enormous sums of donations from private philanthropists to start a merit pay system for teachers (even though merit pay systems in education have a long history of failure).”  Any test score gains during Rhee’s tenure were later shown to be related to gentrification; the racial achievement gap widened during Rhee’s years; and she left the District under the cloud of allegations of a massive test score cheating scandal that was never fully investigated.

Many have pointed out that Time‘s new article  (which is unfortunately behind a paywall), by Haley Sweetland Edwards, is fairer and far more nuanced than Time‘s cover.  Sweetland analyzes, for example, not only the likely impact of the California Vergara case, but the series of lawsuits anticipated by Campbell Brown and her funders including California’s David Welch (who bankrolled the Vergara litigation): “(Judge) True’s decision (in Vergara) holds no precedent-setting power and won’t affect any California law unless an appeals court upholds the ruling sometime next year.  Both the state and the teachers’ unions have appealed and are waiting a trial date.  But on another level, the Vergara case is a powerful proxy for a broader war over the future of education in this country.  The reform movement today is led not by grassroots activists or union leaders but by Silicon Valley business types and billionaires.  It is fought not through ballot boxes or on the floors of hamstrung state legislatures but in closed-door meetings and at courthouses.  And it will not be won incrementally, through painstaking compromise with multiple stakeholders, but through sweeping decisions—judicial and otherwise—made possible by the tactical application of vast personal fortunes.”

Toward the end of her piece, Sweetland calls into question the very kind of Value Added Measure (VAM) testing on which the Vergara lawsuit was based.  Sweetland lists several  significant pieces of research that challenge the very notion that Value Added formulas based on students’ test scores have validity for evaluating teachers—from the American Statistical Association last April, from the American Educational Research Association last May, and even, in July, from the U.S. Department of Education, whose study, according to Sweetland, “found that VAM scores varied wildly depending on what time of day tests were administered or whether the kids were distracted.”

If you are one of Time Magazine‘s 3,289,377 subscribers, consider carefully the cover of Time‘s November 3 issue.  Why would a major news magazine make an editorial decision to promote the scapegoating of an entire profession?  Why is Time Magazine urging you to fixate on what it calls “the bad apples”?  The American Federation of Teachers urges us all to sign its petition demanding an apology from Time Magazine“Time’s cover doesn’t even reflect its own reporting. The Time article itself looks at the wealthy sponsors of these efforts. And while it looks critically at tenure, it also questions the testing industry’s connections to Silicon Valley and the motives of these players.  The cover is particularly disappointing because the articles inside the magazine present a much more balanced view of the issue. But for millions of Americans, all they’ll see is the cover and a misleading attack on teachers.”

Four years after his column, It’s Not OK to Hate Teachers, Rev. John Thomas just last week published a new column lamenting the corporate attack on public school teachers, on their unions, and on public schools as democratic institutions: “Control and management of our public schools is being systematically removed from parents, teachers, and ordinary citizens, and placed in the hands of mayors, their political allies in state legislatures and governors’ offices, their wealthy donors, the operators of charter schools, and politically well-connected entrepreneurs and vendors eager to make money from contracts for things like technology or maintenance with the charters they themselves have invested in. Local school boards are vanishing and the collective bargaining rights of teachers, one of the few remaining countervailing power bases able to challenge the privatization of our schools, are under assault. Is this what democracy looks like?”

Jeff Bryant Thinks Campbell Brown Is Replacing Michelle Rhee as Face of Attacks on Teachers

In a blockbuster story at Salon.com, Jeff Bryant threads together the two key school “deformer” stories of the past week.  Michelle Rhee’s star seems to be fading even as Campbell Brown, the former CNN anchor who has turned herself into an opponent of job protections for teachers, seems to be rising as the darling of those intent on scapegoating school teachers.

Bryant writes:  “For years, Michelle Rhee the former District of Columbia schools chancellor, has been upheld in the media as someone with the formula and fight required to ‘fix’ public schools.  Others–okay, yours truly—have likened her more to an ‘education Ann Coulter,’ providing lots of attention-getting optics for a movement made up of rich and powerful people who press their belief that what ails public education most is ‘bad teachers.’  Supported by shadowy money and shaky science, these wealthy folks have created a ‘blame teachers first’ campaign that seeks to address education problems rooted in inequality and low investment by attacking teachers’ job protections and professional status.  Their efforts are, of course, ‘for the children.'”

Summing up the ways Rhee’s impact and reputation seem to be fading, Bryant links to reports that show her organization, StudentsFirst, has proven to have neither the members nor the organizing clout Rhee has claimed.  He reports that Rhee carries the stain of a likely, but not fully investigated and therefore unproven, scandal in Washington, DC, where it looks as though teachers and school administrators erased  the answers on hundreds of students’ standardized test answer sheets and and corrected them. He describes Rhee’s boasts of rising scores on the National Assessment of Education Progress during her tenure in Washington, DC,  and then reports that rising scores were about the same as those of her predecessors, that DC’s students’ NAEP scores overall continue to be relatively low, and that the test score gap between poor and wealthier students in Washington, DC widened during her tenure.  Bryant concludes his summary of Rhee’s fade with the news from last week that Rhee’s national organization, StudentsFirst, has quietly closed a number of its statewide offices—first in Minnesota, followed by Florida, Maine, Indiana and Iowa.

At the same time according to Bryant, Campbell Brown, the former CNN anchor, seems to be rising to prominence as the spokesperson for the same causes that have been championed by Rhee and StudentsFirst.  Brown has launched the Partnership for Educational Justice to underwrite legal costs and a public relations campaign for a planned series of Vergara copycat lawsuits like the one in California, bankrolled by David Welch, a Silicon Valley multimillionaire who opposes teachers unions. The first of these copycat lawsuits was filed in New York last week.  (This blog has covered the Vergara decision and Campbell Brown’s involvement in copycat lawsuits here, here, and here.

Bryant points to a strong convergence of interests between Michelle Rhee and Campbell Brown.  Brown’s husband is Dan Senor, an investment banker on the board of StudentsFirst NY.  Brown also seems to be connected with TNTP—formerly The New Teacher Project that was founded by none other than Michelle Rhee.  Like Teach for America, TNTP runs alternative summer certification programs for college graduates who lack training in education.  According to Bryant, “An analysis of the website associated with Brown’s effort to revamp teacher contracts has revealed that much of the site’s content appears to be written by TNTP without any attribution to the group…. Metadata from various documents included in the site list the author as Elizabeth Vidyarthi.  Vidyarthi works for the TNTP communications department.”

Bryant concludes: “With Brown as the new figurehead of the Blame Teachers First campaign, proponents may feel that a fresh face on a stale product is all they need to win over acceptance of their unfounded ideas.  Don’t buy it.”  I urge you to read the material Bryant has compiled here.  You may also want to read the additional article referenced below…

Addendum…   more evidence to undermine the reputation of Michelle Rhee:

In a post just yesterday John Merrow, the reporter for the PBS News Hour, published another of his scathing pieces on Michelle Rhee.  Merrow has criticized Rhee for covering up a cheating scandal while she was chancellor of the schools in Washington, D.C.  In the new piece, Merrow charges:  “Michelle Rhee is smart, talented, hard-working, charismatic and ambitious, but, in the public education arena she is a fraud.  That this truth is not widely acknowledged is a tribute to the PR skills of Anita Dunn of SKDKnickerbocker.”  “In just one year Michelle Rhee spent about $2 million to buy the public relations services of Anita Dunn and SKDKnickerbocker.  It’s a continuing relationship that goes back to early in Rhee’s Chancellorship in Washington….”  (Anita Dunn is the political strategist and public relations executive who served as the White House Communications Director in the first year of President Barack Obama’s first term. This blog has also noted, here, that Anita Dunn’s SKDKnickerbocker has provided hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of public relations services for Eva Moskowitz and her New York Success Academy Charter Schools.)

In this post, Merrow shares the e-mail he wrote that was forwarded by the recipient and ultimately sent to StudentsFirst.  A smear campaign was subsequently launched against Merrow in letters sent to Frontline, the News Hour, PBS, and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.  Merrow was accused of misrepresenting facts, actively digging “dirt” on Michelle Rhee and making false allegations.  Here, he writes, is the e-mail that provided what he calls “the slender thread” for the campaign designed by SKDKnickerbocker to destroy his reputation as a journalist:

“We are editing a powerful documentary about Michelle Rhee, the controversial educator who has become a national figure.  After she left Washington, strong evidence of widespread cheating on standardized tests in roughly two-thirds of her schools emerged, along with a paper trail that indicates that the Chancellor declined to investigate the situation, despite being urged to do so by the official in charge of testing.  When test security was eventually tightened—after three years—scores declined precipitously.  In fact, at half of the schools with the highest erasure rates, where scores had jumped as much as 50%, achievement scores are now below where they were when the Chancellor took office.”

Merrow stands by every word of the statement and writes that he resents the three months he had to spend assembling the evidence to defend himself against the allegations and clear his reputation.

The Truth about StudentsFirst and Why It Matters

Living as I do in Cleveland, Ohio, I remember not long ago when the names of companies told you just what they made: Republic Steel, Youngstown Sheet and Tube, Cleveland Twist Drill, and Timken Roller Bearing.  I suspect we are the town whose public utility has the most delightful and perfectly accurate name: Cleveland Electric Illuminating.  When trees fall on the power lines here in Cleveland, the Illuminating Company comes to get the lights back on.

Nowadays however, company names no longer tell you very much: Halliburton, Archer Daniels Midland, Enron. What does the firm do? Does it make something?  If so, who does the work?  Does it happen in the U.S. or someplace else?  Does the company pay the workers enough? Does it protect them from injuries and toxins? Does it protect the environment?  Does it pay enough taxes?  Any taxes?  Names no longer tell us much, and we aren’t encouraged to ask questions.

Just last week at two social events I found myself in the uncomfortable situation of having to explain how an organization’s name may not really be designed to tell the truth about what the organization does. This time the issue of the name related to a not-for-profit advocacy organization instead of a company.  In both instances well-meaning people brought me the same flyer advertising the local screening of a movie. The flyer which depicted cheerful young children was designed in appealing primary colors.  At the bottom appeared the logo of the sponsoring organization, StudentsFirst.  The flyer provided no information about StudentsFirst, and those who had picked up the flyer—one at a bus stop and the other in a coffee shop— thought it must be a local group, maybe some kind of PTA.  These people wondered if I planned to attend the screening?  They asked if I know anything about StudentsFirst.  Is it new?  Where does it meet?  Which schools does it relate to?

In an article titled, How Michelle Rhee Misled Education Reform, published last May in the New Republic magazine, here is what Nicholas Lemann, the recently retired dean of the Columbia University School of Journalism, wrote about Michelle Rhee’s organization, StudentsFirst:  “StudentsFirst, Rhee’s post-Washington organization, lobbies state legislatures around the country to pass education-reform measures.  Although it began in a series of meetings in Washington among the influential friends Rhee had made as chancellor—the names she drops in telling of its founding include Rahm Emanuel, Eli Broad, the Aspen Institute, the Hoover Institution, and McKinsey, and her initial requests for philanthropic funding are at the $100 million level—she insists that it is a grassroots organization, ‘a movement of everyday people.’  What this really means is that StudentsFirst has used the latest top-of-the-line Internet-marketing technology to generate a notional membership of more than a million.  They do not pay dues and they are not organized into local chapters that hold regular meetings, but when there is an important vote in a state capitol, StudentsFirst can generate turnout to demonstrate that it is engaged in a grand battle between powerless parents and rich unions.”

Writing for Reuters in May of 2012, Stephanie Simon reported, “Rhee has set up StudentsFirst as a network of interlocking lobbying groups, advocacy organizations and political action committees.  By law, she does not have to disclose her donors, and she refuses to discuss her fundraising.  But an adviser to New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg confirms that he provided financial backing for Rhee’s recent push into Connecticut politics. The Laura and John Arnold Foundation, funded by John Arnold, a hedge-fund manager and major Democratic donor, has pledged $20 million over five years.  Other backers: the Charles and Helen Schwab Foundation, the Broad Foundation, and the Walton Family Foundation, funded by heirs to the Wal-Mart fortune, which gave $1 million, according to foundation records.”

In her new book, Reign of Error, education historian Diane Ravitch describes the role of philanthropists to fund the think tanks that develop research and then the role of philanthropists and politicians to fund organizations like StudentsFirst who then promote the policies favored by the same research.  Ravitch concludes: “The issue for the future is whether a small number of very wealthy entrepreneurs, corporations, and individuals will be able to purchase educational policy in this nation, either by funding candidates for local and state school boards, for state legislatures, for governor, and for Congress or by using foundation ‘gifts’ to advance the privatization of public education.” (p. 310)

Even prior to Rhee’s launching of StudentsFirst, it turns out that we all ought to have been asking more questions about Michelle Rhee.  Although she has managed to prevent a major investigation of her tenure as Chancellor of the Washington, D.C. public schools, John Merrow, the reporter for the News Hour on PBS has gone to great lengths to investigate what USA Today exposed as a likely major test-answer-erasure cheating scandal during the period when she led the school district.

In the cover story of the October 10, 2013 New York Review of Books, Andrew Delbanco, the chair of the Department of American Studies at Columbia University, reviews together Michelle Rhee’s recent book, Radical and Diane Ravitch’s new book, Reign of Error. The review, The Two Faces of American Education, inaccurately presents the authors as though they represent two ends of a simple continuum of opinion.  Instead Rhee and Ravitch are as unlike as they can be; Rhee is a shrewd, self-promoting operator and media darling, while the 75-year-old Ravitch, an academic and long published historian of education, has turned herself into a muckraker.  Delbanco would seem to conclude that challenges for our poorest children and their schools can be worked out if the debate can be made less polarized and less shrill: “You would think it possible to take ideas from both sides and put them to work together… One thing that certainly won’t help our children is any ideology convinced of its exclusive possession of the truth.” While Delbanco is correct that the conversation about public education has become angrily ideological, he is wrong to conclude that Rhee’s story and Ravitch’s well documented analysis can be read as any any sort of counterpoint.  And he is naive to assume there is a mere polite middle ground.

All of us need to start paying closer attention, and we must insist that the media help us by more persistently cutting through the rhetoric designed to cloud our understanding. Who is Michelle Rhee?  What is StudentsFirst?  Does this organization have anything to do, as its name implies, with the needs of students?  In what way is this organization’s name a slap at the teachers whom Rhee has made a career of blaming for putting their own interests ahead of the interests of students?  Are not, in most cases, the needs of students and their teachers closely related?  Where is StudentsFirst raising its money?  What kind of ideology is being pushed by those investing in StudentsFirst as a mouthpiece?  What kind of candidates has it been bankrolling as a national organization investing in local school board and state legislative elections?  How have we lost our capacity to discern the difference between a PTA—a real parents’ organization—and an astroturf (fake grassroots) organization like StudentsFirst?