More than anyone else, Michelle Rhee is the face of the corporate reform movement.
When she was appointed to run the D.C. public school system, Michelle Rhee had never run a school system or even a school. In the early 1990s, as a member of Teach for America, she taught for three years in a Baltimore elementary school that was part of a for-profit experiment in privatization, which was terminated by the district after four years. After her teaching stint, she ran a program to recruit teachers for urban schools called the New Teacher Project. When Adrian Fenty selected her to lead the D.C. public schools, she was thirty-seven years old. Joel Klein, chancellor of the New York City public schools, recommended her to Fenty; Klein, too, had come to his position without education credentials.
Rhee became renowned for her candor and toughness. She minced no words in castigating the culture of complacency, inefficiency, and incompetence that she encountered. The D.C. school system, whose students were overwhelmingly black and poor, had a long history of abysmal test scores. Rhee blamed their low academic performance on lazy and indifferent teachers; she often complained about the “crappy education” that students in the D.C. schools were getting.
Rhee enjoyed stepping on toes and kicking people out, but there was a price to be paid for her hard-charging style. What did Michelle Rhee accomplish?
Rhee’s relentless pressure to raise the passing rates on tests brought some early gains, but it produced a major cheating scandal as well. In the spring of 2011, four months after Rhee left the district, USA Today published a report about widespread cheating at more than half the district’s schools. The investigation focused on the Crosby S. Noyes Education Campus, where the passing rates in reading had shot up from 44 percent in 2007 to 84 percent in 2009. The gains were so large that they should have set off alarm bells, but they did not. Instead, the school was recognized in 2009 by the U.S. Department of Education as a National Blue Ribbon School. Michelle Rhee congratulated the principal and “touted the school . . . as an example of how the sweeping changes she championed could transform even the lowest-performing Washington schools. Twice in three years, she rewarded Noyes’ staff for boosting scores: In 2008 and again in 2010, each teacher won an $8,000 bonus, and the principal won $10,000.”
USA Today reported that the erasure rates on the standardized tests at Noyes were unusually high: “On the 2009 reading test, for example, seventh-graders in one Noyes classroom averaged 12.7 wrong-to-right erasures per student on answer sheets; the average for seventh-graders in all D.C. schools on that test was less than 1. The odds are better for winning the Powerball grand prize than having that many erasures by chance, according to statisticians consulted by USA Today.”
Rhee honored Wayne Ryan of Noyes as a model principal. The district featured him and the school in recruitment ads and asked, “Are you the next Wayne Ryan?” Rhee promoted Ryan to the position of instructional superintendent, where he supervised other principals. Noyes’s great success proved to Rhee that her methods worked. She distributed more than $1.5 million in bonuses to teachers, principals, and support staff in schools that saw big test score gains; in three of those schools, USA Today found that “85 percent or more of classrooms were identified as having high erasure rates in 2008.” District officials knew of the high erasure rates before the exposé but did not conduct an investigation. Three months after the story was published, Wayne Ryan abruptly resigned.
The cheating scandal was referred to the office of the D.C. inspector general for investigation. That office concluded that there may have been cheating at one school but nowhere else. It saw “insufficient basis” to investigate any other schools. Similar high-pressure tactics in Atlanta produced another major cheating scandal, which was thoroughly investigated and led to indictments of the superintendent and thirty-four other educators. But no one was held accountable for the mysterious rise and fall of test scores in Washington, D.C.
From 2009 to 2011, the D.C. public schools saw no statistically discernible increases in fourth-grade mathematics scores, but there was a discernible increase in eighth-grade mathematics scores.
In fourth-grade mathematics, the scores of higher-income students, lower-income students, white students, black students, and Hispanic students were flat.
In eighth-grade mathematics, the scores of higher-income students, lower-income students, white students, and Hispanic students were flat, but there was a statistically significant increase in the scores of black students.
From 2009 to 2011, the D.C. public schools saw no significant change in fourth-grade reading scores and no significant increase in eighth-grade reading scores.
In fourth-grade reading, the scores of higher-income students, lower- income students, white students, and Hispanic students were flat. The scores of black students declined by a statistically real margin.
In eighth-grade reading, there was no change in the scores. The scores of higher-income students, lower-income students, white students, and black students were flat. The scores of Hispanic students declined significantly.
Looking at NAEP scores, we know for certain that Rhee did not turn it into the highest-performing urban district in the United States. Its students still have low scores on the no-stakes federal assessment. It remains in the bottom group of urban districts along with Atlanta, Baltimore City, Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit, Fresno, Los Angeles, Milwaukee, and Philadelphia (Atlanta is in the bottom tier in mathematics but not in reading).
Did Rhee reduce the achievement gap between black and white students? No, the achievement gap between black and white students was unchanged from 2007, when she started, to 2011, after she departed.22 Washington, D.C., continues to have the largest black-white gap of any urban district tested by NAEP, because of the extremes of affluence (mostly white) and poverty (mostly black) in the district. The Hispanic-white gap in D.C. in both reading and math is almost as large as the black-white gap, and here, too, D.C. has the biggest gaps among the nation’s urban districts.
At this point, it is impossible to discern a lasting legacy from the Rhee era in the D.C. schools, which continued under the control of her deputy Kaya Henderson. The schools have experienced high levels of instability because of the frequent turnover of teachers and principals. More public schools will close, and more charter schools will open.
Diane Ravitch is a historian of education at New York University who has written numerous books, including the latest bestseller Reign of Error.