Broad Foundation Charter Schools Corporate Reform District of Columbia Education Reform Michelle Rhee StudentsFirst Vouchers

John Merrow and Mary Levy: The D.C. “School Reform” Fiasco: A Complete History

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I intended to make this the only post of the day, but late last night I learned of the lawsuit in Florida challenging the disastrous HB 7069, a gift to charter operators.

So this is the last post you will see today. I want you to read it in full. The post was written by veteran journalist John Merrow with Mary Levy, a civil rights and education finance lawyer, and an education finance and policy analyst.

One of the key episodes in the short and divisive history of the corporate reform movement was the appointment of Michelle Rhee as Chancellor of the D.C. public school system. Rhee became the public face of the movement. Rhee was idolized by the media because of her take-no-prisoners style and her evident contempt for teachers and unions. Amanda Ripley wrote a cover story about Rhee for TIME magazine, which suggested that Rhee knew how to fix America’s schools. The cover showed her scowling and wielding a broom, ready to sweep out the bad teachers in D.C. Newsweek put her on its cover. I wrote a chapter about her in my book, Reign of Error, describing the adulation she received and the cheating scandal that broke on her watch. As it happened, Rhee identified one elementary school principal as exactly the kind of relentless, data-driven, no-excuses sort of person that she wanted more of. He received bonuses because of the incredible improvement of test scores. Incredible indeed, because his school was at the nexus of the cheating scandal, identified by the unusual number of erasures from wrong-to-right on standardized tests. He was soon gone. Immediately after Mayor Adrian Fenton was defeated in 2010, Rhee resigned, vowing to create a group called StudentsFirst, which would raise $1 Billion and enlist one million members. The name of the group typified Rhee’s divisive approach: education works best when students, teachers, parents, and the community work together. She never raised $1 Billion or one million members, but she actively supported vouchers and charters and gave substantial funding to candidates who would vote in the state legislature for privatization and against unions. She married the mayor of Sacramento, where she lives now. StudentsFirst merged with another anti-public school group.

But the myth of the transformation of the D.C. schools under Rhee and her successor Kaya Henderson lives on, Because to acknowledge the failure of teacher-bashing would harm the movement.

John Merrow contributed to the myth of Michelle Rhee, in a major way. To understand his credibility now, it is necessary to recognize his role in building that myth. As the PBS education correspondent, he featured her work in D.C. about a dozen times. He was a believer. But when he was doing his last show, a full hour about Rhee, he had an epiphany. Was it because she invited him to film her firing a principal? Was it the cheating scandal? Was it the effort to cover up the cheating? I don’t know. What I do know is that Merrow had the courage to change his mind. His admiration changed to doubt then to skepticism then to criticism. I understand his transformation because I have been there. I too once believed in what is deceptively called “Reform.” I saw the light. So did Merrow.

Merrow and Levy call this post “A Complete History” of Rhee’s reforms. It is one part of the history, but it is not THE Complete History. “The Complete History” would be a job of deep investigative research that would determine why Rhee, who had never been a principal or a superintendent and had taught only briefly in a privately-run contract school in Baltimore, was chosen to lead the D.C. system. It would examine the claims she made about the spectacular score gains in her classes (which G.F. Brandenburg debunked on his blog). It would investigate the negotiations among funders like Gates and Broad, who let it be known that their money would be cut off if Rhee left the district. It would delve into the district’s relations with the reactionary Walton Family Foundation, which targeted D.C. for charter saturation.

John Merrow’s knowledgeable perspective is important. The story is not all bad. He calls attention to the positive changes that occurred on Rhee’s watch. But where he comes down hard is on the mistaken idea that the route to success requires administrators who “crack down” on teachers, who offer rewards and punishments for teachers based on test scores. That strategy produces teaching to the test, score inflation, gaming the system, and narrowing the curriculum.

That is why this is the only post you are likely to see today. It is long, and it deserves your full attention.

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