For the new Frontline documentary, veteran education journalist John Merrow (Learning Matters) was granted unprecedented access to Michelle Rhee during her turbulent three-year tenure as chancellor of the District of Columbia Public Schools.“The Education of Michelle Rhee” airs Tuesday on PBS, following her as she implemented sweeping changes, closed schools and fired staff. (Amid accusations that student test score gains were tainted and complaints about her heavy-handed management style, Rhee resigned her post in 2010 and has since launched the StudentsFirst advocacy organization.) Merrow spoke with EWA.
1. For an urban superintendent facing the kinds of challenges Michelle Rhee was facing during her tenure, and given the extraordinary reforms she was attempting to implement, was it better to be feared than to be loved?
Being feared is rarely, if ever, an advantage. I’d actually say it’s a false choice between being feared and loved. You need to be respected. That being said, Michelle Rhee is certainly feared. One of the remarkable aspects in reporting this story is the level of fear she produces. The number of people who said “no comment” or hung up when we called was unbelievable. It was absolutely a record for me in my career – I don’t think I’ve ever encountered that level of resistance.
She’s an absolutely fascinating person. She’s charismatic, smart and hardworking. She said to me early on, “I’m going to wear you out.” And she did. I think even if I had been her age she would have worn me out. She wore us out in another way when she became so elusive and didn’t want to answer any questions, particularly about the test-scores scandal. Obviously, this is Michelle Rhee’s story. But in some ways, the hero is the principal you meet at the end who told us about reporting witnessing evidence of cheating.
2. You’re talking about Adell Cothorne, former principal of the Noyes Education Campus, one of the schools USA Today focused on in its investigation into D.C.’s test scores amid evidence that large numbers of wrong answers were erased and replaced with the correct ones. Are her revelations the big surprise here?
What was surprising was that no one in power wanted to know what Adell had to say. She turned down interview requests from USA Today and from the Washington Post. She spoke to us with an attorney present. She was willing to speak to us about what she saw, what she reported to the central office, and what was not investigated when she reported it. Going on the record about Michelle Rhee is a little bit like an adult riding a bicycle with no hands. You can see the downside to it. What’s the upside? Adell is a hero, in my view.
3. Do you think the documentary will change anyone’s opinion of Rhee?
I don’t think people know how strongly she resisted the investigation of the erasures. That might give some people pause. In Atlanta, the lead investigator told me that they considered three or more standard deviations from the norm to be a strong indication that cheating took place. In the district, there were classrooms that were five, six, seven deviations from the norm. That’s staggering. This is of course the evidence that was presented to Michelle Rhee.
The test scores are thought of as numbers, but they really represent children. The DC Comprehensive Assessment System is a diagnostic tool. If adults erase answers in order to keep their jobs, those kids who are struggling are not going to get the help they need. They’ll be judged proficient when they’re really not. Eventually those chickens come home to roost.
4. You’re working on a new piece about New Orleans’ public schools in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, including Paul Vallas’ tenure as chief of the Recovery School District. Could this be seen as a companion piece to your profile of Rhee?
I hope people will look at it as a companion piece. Paul Vallas was in New Orleans around the same time Michelle Rhee was in D.C. The district’s schools started out with an “F” grade. The schools in D.C. are probably still an “F.” The schools in New Orleans started out as an “F-.” They’re now around a “C-.” It’s important to note that “Rebirth” is not “The Paul Vallas Story.” What’s interesting about New Orleans is that it’s a success story where nobody fought to take the credit. This is not a story about charter schools, it’s a story about hard work, integrity, and letting other people take the credit.
5. What would you say is Rhee’s legacy?
The record is pretty clear that D.C. schools are not better because she was there. They’re still at the bottom, with the lowest graduation rate in the country. But with the Impact plan (which required student test scores to be a significant factor in a teacher’s evaluation), Michelle Rhee changed the national conversation about teaching. You can no longer say we’re going to judge teachers on how well prepared they are or how hard they try. You would be laughed out of the room. Michelle Rhee didn’t start that conversation, but she solidified it. That’s the most significant, long-lasting contribution.
The problem is the use of student test scores in teacher evaluations is leading to new abuses. We have widespread cheating – sometimes investigated, as in Atlanta, and sometimes ignored, as in D.C. The stakes have been raised so high. We’re going to have more testing because teachers are going to be judged on test scores. I’m not saying if that’s good or bad, but that’s certainly part of the net impact of Michelle Rhee.