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Posted at 10:10 AM ET, 01/25/2010

Rhee D.C.’s person of the year?

By Valerie Strauss

Congratulations to D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee for being named the Federal City Council’s Person of the Year.

Now let’s look at the rationale behind the decision, explained in an advertisement in yesterday’s Washington Post on page B2 (the second page of the Outlook section) and see whether it holds together. It was signed by Frank Keating, president of the Federal City Council and former governor of Oklahoma.

For those who don’t know, the Federal City Council is an organization of business and professional leaders who take on specific projects to help local and federal agencies meet community needs in the nation’s capital. (Disclosure: Donald Graham, chairman of the board of The Washington Post Co., and my boss, is a vice president of the council.)

Ordinarily, it works quietly, and, as its Web site says, it “works without seeking publicity.”

The quarter-page ad, though, clearly explains why council members think Rhee deserves the designation. It talks about her background and what it suggests are her accomplishments since she was appointed chancellor three years ago by Mayor Adrian Fenty.

“I know that if we let Chancellor Rhee keep at it, she might make ours the best public school system in America,” the ad says. “Thank goodness for Mayor Adrian Fenty’s selection of Michelle Rhee to lead reform here in D.C.”

The ad was published a day after a story by my colleague Bill Turque about the controversy surrounding comments Rhee made in a national business magazine in which she alleges that some of the teachers laid off in October had had sex with students or had hit them. Critics asked if that were true why she waited until a layoff to get rid of them. Perhaps there is a good answer. We’d like to hear it.

The real questions lie in the Federal City Council’s own endorsement, which I think fails to give a completely accurate picture of what has and is happening. Giving credit where it is not due paints a false record and can encourage the wrong behavior.

Regarding her background as a teacher, the ad said, “Michelle Rhee steeled her focus as an idealistic Teach For America second grade instructor in the urban Baltimore school system. ... Her own experience with seventy children proved that, with the right classroom leadership and high expectations, every child could learn and be successful.”

Well, what we know about her three years in a Baltimore school--one of nine that were run by a private company, Education Alternatives--was what she put on her resume:

"Over a two-year period, moved students scoring on average at the 13th percentile on national standardized tests to 90 percent of students scoring at the 90th percentile or higher."

When asked about documentation by the D.C. Council, she said she had none, though several people said they remembered that she did improve standardized test scores in her class after teaching the same group of kids for two straight years.

Let’s say she did move those test scores as she said she did. In fact, I believe that kids who have no idea how to take a standardized test can dramatically improve their scores in a relatively short time when trained how to take it.

But that doesn’t mean they learned all that much, and, besides, teaching kids to pass standardized tests should never be the sole measure of success for anyone. Here, prominent researcher and educational psychologist David Berliner of Arizona State University explains why using a standardized test score as a single measure of academic achievement is nonsensical.

The real problem with the Federal City Council argument, however, is when it talks about the recent bump in D.C. scores in the National Assessment of Educational Progress, sometimes called “the nation’s report card” because it is the only test given in selected school systems across the country.

Indeed, my colleagues Nick Anderson and Turque wrote another story last month reporting that the D.C. system was the only one of 11 studied in 2007 and 2009 to make significant strides in fourth and eighth grade math scores. The analysis excluded charter school scores, but said that gains in fourth grade since 2003 were triple those found in the nation as a whole and roughly double those for all large cities.

The Federal City Council says this proves “that something transformational is happening in D.C.”

Let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

Surely the NAEP scores are good news. But they are only for math, not for reading, and in any case, Rhee isn’t really responsible for them. The report shows that the upward trend started before Rhee arrived, and even the chancellor felt it necessary to publicly give a nod to her predecessor, Clifford B. Janey.

It was Janey who changed the system’s math program--which emphasizes calculators and written responses that are aligned with the NAEP math test-- as well as academic standards and curriculum. Janey, however, was essentially run out of town by Fenty, and is now superintendent in the Newark public school system.

Besides, as Turque pointed out in this story, the rise in scores was noted in every student population, the biggest jump was in white students. The achievement gap between white and black students barely budged.

Change is hard and change takes time. It seems only fair to applaud Rhee her successes and point out when she falls short.

Giving her credit for things she hasn’t done doesn’t help anyone or anything, except, perhaps, her resume.

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By Valerie Strauss  | January 25, 2010; 10:10 AM ET
Categories:  D.C. Schools  | Tags:  d.c. public schools, michelle rhee, school reform  
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Dear Ms. Strauss,
Regarding Miss Rhee's "Baltimore Miracle", the contract with Education Alternatives was cancelled the December after Miss Rhee quit due to the failure to show test score improvements.
Also, her resume asserted that she received acclaim fro the Hartford Courant, The Wall Street Journal, The Home Show and Good Morning America. As can be seen here, one would be hard-pressed to describe the Courant article as "acclaim."

And her "success" begs the questions:
Why hasn't the tale of her miraculous teaching been repeated to TFA trainees to encourage and inspire them?
("See, if Michelle can do this, so can you!")
Why hasn't such similar success occurred to to the teachers she trained in her New Teachers Project.

One other aspect to the NAEP scores is that the performance of the low income 8th graders stayed the same.

Posted by: edlharris | January 25, 2010 11:06 AM | Report abuse

She is one tough smart woman! Mayor of DC was very brave in appointing her.

She is finally doing something in the nations capital's public education- starting with the mayor!

Congrats D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee!

Posted by: sasha2008 | January 25, 2010 11:09 AM | Report abuse

Congratulations to Chancellor Rhee!

It's going to be a long uphill battle to shake out the deadwood, but the changes I've seen in the DC school system have been for the better!

Reminds me of the child who begs and begs and begs not to get a flu shot but then stays healthy the entire school year while their friends miss school.

The WTU and a minority of fake-teachers are begging and begging not to get that vaccination but when it happens suddenly the students and parents respect the schools more because the teachers are engaging the students effectively.

Posted by: bbcrock | January 25, 2010 11:17 AM | Report abuse

“I know that if we let Chancellor Rhee keep at it, she might make ours the best public school system in America,” the ad says.
I fell off my chair laughing at this one. Yeah, DC will have the best public school system in America. And pigs will fly. By far the funniest thing in today's WaPo. Bwaaaaaahaaaaaaa

Posted by: checkered1 | January 25, 2010 11:47 AM | Report abuse

"The WTU and a minority of fake-teachers are begging and begging not to get that vaccination but when it happens suddenly the students and parents respect the schools more because the teachers are engaging the students effectively."

They already respect the schools.
Didn't you see the satisfaction survey from 2008-2009 school year?
If not, go to DCPS/Press Releases and Announcements/Press Releases/DCPS Releases Results of the 2008-2009 Stakeholder Surveys

83% of the parents agree/strongly agree that SCHOOL is on the right track.
Up 5 percentage points from just before Rhee took over.
DCPS parents seem to know more than you.

And as for "WTU and fake teachers begging" , read Filthy Teaching, who just quit.
Especially read how the admin at that school acted.

Posted by: phillipmarlowe | January 25, 2010 12:12 PM | Report abuse

Great article! Keep at it!

Posted by: resc | January 25, 2010 1:10 PM | Report abuse

great peice

Posted by: Darrellfb | January 25, 2010 3:21 PM | Report abuse

It seems like a lot of her "success" stories are actually not true. I am a DC voter and will vote against Fenty in the primary election for one reason alone--Rhee.

Posted by: reality7 | January 25, 2010 3:41 PM | Report abuse

Thank you Valerie - this is everything I've been saying in messages on Post blogs like this for months, and it’s all backed by official data, as you make clear. I’m glad it’s out of the message section and into the hands of an able journalist, but when are we going to see this in the print edition?

And while you’re investigating, could you tell us about the timing of that FCC ad? Was it planned in advance like most advertising, or was it rush job stuck in after Rhee’s unfortunate “sex with children” quote? I really think Post readers deserve to know this. It seemed like a way of giving Rhee a boost without putting the ed board in the awkward position of supporting Rhee before she made her own statement on the matter.

After seeing the ad on Sunday, I did a little research of my own: Three pages (the total number of hits) googling “person of the year" “federal city council” showed no previous nominations or awards for person of the year made by the Federal City Council. Also, I couldn’t find anything on their website that features current or past honorees. I just checked again and found nothing. Valerie, could you go to the site, talk to some people there and let us know about it?

I’m not so sure Rhee has been “named” by the council. Read the ad carefully – it doesn’t say that. It implies it, sure, but that what ads are all about. Why isn’t the ad on the website, instead of just in the newspaper? The most recent press release on the site is from 2007. Why is the Rhee piece only a print ad and not also a FCC press release? Currently, there’s no electronic version of this supposed honor bestowed on Rhee. And if she’s the first to be so honored, why not mention that?

That’s a lot of questions, but not hard ones for a good journalist with the right contacts.

Posted by: efavorite | January 25, 2010 4:05 PM | Report abuse

If you mean infamous and notorious person of the year, then yes most definitely. Great article!

Posted by: candycane1 | January 25, 2010 5:10 PM | Report abuse

This love affair between WaPo and Rhee/Fenty is sickening. Rhee's latest comments about the 266 RIF's teachers should be her downfall. The comments are only indicative that we have a person who is immature, lacks leadership skills and is unqualified for the job she possesses.

Posted by: UrbanDweller | January 25, 2010 5:41 PM | Report abuse

To Edlharris - thanks for posting the additional accurate, verifiable info to make it easy for Valerie to follow-up on.

To Valerie - please check Ed's links and write an article in the print edition about this.

To all - over on the Washington teacher blog, there's a discussion of this ad. One person suggested the title should be
"Evil Person of the Year" and someone else suggested "Best Pervert of the Year."

I'm just reporting. See for yourself at:

Posted by: efavorite | January 25, 2010 5:58 PM | Report abuse

Keep up the good work; Rhee cares about only one thing -- the size of her post-DC contracts. And remember she goes all over the City saying that only Fenty can save the schools (with her of course) and that no other elected official in DC cares about them.

Posted by: grclarkdc1 | January 25, 2010 7:31 PM | Report abuse

I have follwed the saga of Ms. Rhee, .. I realize that there are lots of people who want her to succeed, but at what cost. I even tried to reach out to help. I was so rudely turned away. The problems of DC are the problems of the South some of them legacy and some of them caused by the "very special position " that southern schools are in. DC has the worst of all of these problems.

Surely the Post and all of the people who support Rhee are beginning to see the light. Let's follow up on the allegations. Ms. Rhee is sometimes a figment of her own imagination and of the fervent hope for others that one person alone can make the necessary changes that help our students. It would be foolish of us not to purse the allegations and find out the truth about what she rumors. We don't need a McCarthy in education.

Like others, my vote will be against Fenty. Too much power for one person who has little regard for the truth.

Posted by: bbracey | January 26, 2010 12:47 AM | Report abuse

Rhee abused children on behalf of her fiance in Sacramento when he had allegations of sexual allegations for touching multiple young girls. She was a mandatory reporter and did not follow through. In fact, she took over the situation so she could be the fixer. This makes her complicit after the fact with his contact with young girls. DISGUSTING!
Fixer is not a role she can play in this situation.

She should be made the liar of the year because she's very talented with that!

Posted by: southyrndiva | January 26, 2010 7:48 AM | Report abuse

Whoa Boy! Here are some links for anyone interested in this Federal City Council and the thick web of interrelationships between it and the WaPo. Make sure you're sitting down.

First take a look at the Muckety "relationship map" for the Federal City Council. It tells the story that you sure won't find on their website:

Follow the Muckety instructions to double click on the names with the plus-signs in the corners. YOU WILL BE AMAZED at the interconnections between Federal City Council and the WaPo and Washington Post Co.

Here's a link to an 08/2007 WaPo article about the Federal City Council and its machinations. Again YOU WILL BE AMAZED at the content of this article, one which was run in what has to be considered as a "friendly" venue!

The timing and placement of the Federal City Council ad on Page 2 of Sunday's Outlook section will answer ALL your remaining questions after you've checked the above two links.

This is NOTHING but a whitewash perpetrated by, well, guess who. The same paper that selected "Teach For America" Exec VP for Media Affairs Kevin Huffman -- Michelle Rhee's ex-husband. And the same paper to which Rhee has SPECIAL EDITORIAL ENTREE as revealed in this final link:

That's it for now ... words fail me.

Posted by: laboo | January 26, 2010 11:02 AM | Report abuse

Phillip Marlowe, I have no idea what it is you're trying to say in your post directed to me. I am a PTA member and was a former PTA boardmember and am a DPCS parent. Can you rewrite your post because I don't follow your points at all and your links don't work.

Posted by: bbcrock | January 26, 2010 1:34 PM | Report abuse

Very good article, Valerie. Sounds like a lot of people are beginning to see through Rhee's multiple mis-statements of fact.
However, I wonder about the two posters who think that Rhee is doing a good job... What sort of actual contact do they have with DC public schools? Almost all of the teachers I know in DCPS - and that includes plenty of those who have won awards - can't stand Rhee's constant lies and denigration of hard-working teachers. Ditto most of the parents, and plenty of folks who aren't in the classroom but who work with the schools.

Posted by: TexasIke59 | January 26, 2010 3:47 PM | Report abuse

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