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Are we speaking the same language on D.C. school policy?

Some time ago a faithful reader and commenter on this blog, dccitizen1, asked me a good question about the School Without Walls. It was a small issue, but concerned how D.C. schools really work, a favorite topic of mine.

The question was why Rhee "abruptly and unilaterally dropped the Senior Research Paper from the School Without Walls curriculum."

When I contacted Rhee about this, she quickly replied: "I am not involved in decisions like that. They are made at the school level. Do you want me to connect you with the principal?"

I forgot to pass that on right away to dccitizen1. It was Thanksgiving week and I was in California. But dccitizen1 asked the question again recently and I finally sent dccitizen1 Rhee's two-month-old response.

Dccitizen1 said Rhee's account was different from one in the The Examiner, and her response was a lie.

I said I would check the story with the principal at Walls, as the school is commonly called. His name is Richard Trogisch, and he has been very successful in sustaining Walls' long tradition of excellence.

Here is what I found, after hearing from Trogisch, from D.C. instructional superintendent of high schools John Davis, who is Trogisch's supervisor, and more from Rhee. I know this seems like a small issue, but I think it illustrates the problem we have had lately of accusing each other, and the Chancellor, of lying, when a careful look at the facts shows something less clear and more interesting.

Let me know what you think:

Trogisch said that in November 2007, in her first year as chancellor, Rhee turned up at a parent meeting at the school without prior notice. It was a time when she often dropped in on school events, to meet people and get a sense of what was happening.

The issue they were discussing was the Senior Project. Trogisch was telling some parents that their kids had to do it. Some of the parents were resistant. Rhee spoke up, according to Trogisch, and said he could not require such a project for graduation, although he could certainly urge kids to do it. [Shortly after this post went up, Trogisch corrected my recollection of our conversation. From the beginning, he said, the project was not scheduled to be required for graduation until 2010. What he was telling the parents in 2007 was that all seniors had to take the Senior Project course, and he heard Rhee say at the meeting that the course could not be mandatory.]

Trogisch said he did not speak to Rhee about this later. He waited to see what would happen. Participation dropped, he said. Only 22 of the 100 seniors took the course and did the project. Many of those who participated told him later it helped them in college. Trogisch persevered and asked his superintendent, Davis, for permission to require the course the next year. Permission was granted. The course and project are now required and Trogisch says it is working well.

When I asked Rhee about Trogisch's account, she said:

"Yes, there's a huge difference between 'dropping the senior project' and that decision and making it a graduation requirement. In order to make something a graduation requirement, there's a process that you have to go through. However, implementing the project is the principal's decision. Therefore, my statement stands that I didn't and wouldn't make those kinds of decisions. If the school wanted to make it a graduation requirement, the principal would have to initiate the process."

She asked Davis to give me his thoughts. He said:

"The senior project was definitely not dropped from the SWW curriculum as the writer stated. It was clear that there was a lack of communication regarding the class. It was also clear that an accurate, timely process was not taken to ensure that students and parents knew of the requirement much earlier, preferably before they enrolled in SWW. With that, the principal and I never dropped the senior project, but gave students the option of taking that class or other offerings at the school. We then ensured that following classes of students and their parents knew of the requirement in a timely basis."

I also asked Rhee if she had any memory of the Walls meeting two years before I asked her about it last November. She said: "I didn’t realize that’s what you were referring to until later."

My conclusion: Rhee didn't lie. She didn't remember the meeting in 2007 when I first asked her about it, and didn't believe she was shutting down the program when she said then that the principal could not require every student to take the course. She recalls saying what Davis said, that such programs need more time to set up before they became a requirement. That is exactly what happened.

It is interesting to me that the instructional superintendent has so much influence on these decisions. I didn't know Davis, or his job, until this issue came up.

He and Trogisch made the right decision. Senior projects are a wonderful idea. I wish more schools had them.

If anyone else has interesting cases like this to investigate about any of our area schools, send them to me here, or at mathewsj@washpost.com.

Read Jay's blog every day at http://washingtonpost.com/class-struggle.

Follow all the Post's Education coverage on Twitter, Facebook and our Education web page, http://washingtonpost.com/education.

By Jay Mathews  | February 3, 2010; 11:30 AM ET
Categories:  Jay on the Web  | Tags:  D.C. schools, John Davis, Michelle A. Rhee, Richard Trogisch, School Without Walls, dccitizen1, did Rhee lie  
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Comments

It is interesting to me that the instructional superintendent has so much influence on these decisions. I didn't know Davis, or his job, until this issue came up.

How much about school operations do you really understand? A school district is a fairly big operation, this position is standard. Perhaps with a better understanding you might gain perspective on what is really going on.

Posted by: mamoore1 | February 3, 2010 12:37 PM | Report abuse

Mathews, how many blogs have you posted relating to Chancelor Rhee?

It almost becoming an obsession that you have over this individual.

Are there no other worthy school system Superintendants, school leaders, etc. to write about or give focus upon?

I have a thought, why don't you give good ole John Deasy (whom you supported) a call and ask why he left PGCPS holding the bag.

Posted by: TwoSons | February 3, 2010 1:12 PM | Report abuse

I would like to add (or revise)...

How many blogs within the past month alone have you written or created on Chancellor Rhee and why so many so often?

Posted by: TwoSons | February 3, 2010 1:13 PM | Report abuse

Did Rhee _________? I don't think so.

The template for articles by Jay Mathews regarding Ms. Rhee.

Posted by: bsallamack | February 3, 2010 1:55 PM | Report abuse

Twosons – I think Jay provided the answer to your question in a recent post of his: “For an education reporter, there is no better story than Michelle Rhee.”

Regardless of Rhee’s effect on the DC schools, Jay will get a book out of it and the more he writes about it now, the faster he’ll have something to publish when she leaves.

Posted by: efavorite | February 3, 2010 2:16 PM | Report abuse

Anyone remember the old Saturday Night Life sketches where the late. great Chris Farley would play a fawning TV interviewer, talking to whichever star was hosting the show and asking questions like "Remember when you starred in that awesome movie and killed all the bad guys? Yeah. That was so great!"

That's what I have in my head now every time Jay writes about Michelle Rhee. Regardless of what she does, I trust that Jay will find something positive to say about her. "Remember when you talked to Fast Company Magazine and called the teachers you fired sex offenders and abusers? Yeah. Wasn't that great!"

At one point, wasn't it the media's job to do something other than parrot back the views of officials? Could the Post columnists possibly get back to those days at some point? Because really, what is Jay Matthews these days if not a de facto PR firm for Rhee?

Posted by: bermanator34 | February 3, 2010 2:20 PM | Report abuse

Speaking of old television, Miss Rhee's battlecry that she's doing what she's doing on behalf of the kids reminds me of Captain 20, Dick Dysel (sp), from Channel 20 afternoon TV back in the 70's
Captain 20 kept telling his boss that he
"must protect the children here on earth."

Oh, I came across this old quote from Jason Kamras:
"But he says teachers need better resources and more freedom to produce results. "I want to see those test scores at the end of the year and see that they've made gains. That's really important to me. But I think if you have that as the goal, you need to get out of the way and let teachers teach."

Teachers need higher salaries, better working conditions, better training and mentoring and clearer administrative rules, he says. The law's requirements, which say all students must read and do math proficiently by 2014, are noble, he says, but if teachers don't get what they need, the demands are unreasonable."

Posted by: edlharris | February 3, 2010 2:40 PM | Report abuse

bermanator34: “Regardless of what she does, I trust that Jay will find something positive to say about her.”

“Rhee didn’t lie” is positive, but the bar is now set pretty low.

Posted by: achachi | February 3, 2010 2:50 PM | Report abuse

Here in the new era of journalism, we have closer contact with readers and try harder to write about what interests them. The last few Rhee posts have attracted many readers, and comments. That doesn't necessarily mean I will write much more about Rhee. She is some distance from my favorite topics, like AP and IB and successful low income schools. She is also a school chancellor, and I try to avoid reporting on school headquarters stuff, because I think it is usually boring and trivial, hence my ignorance of Davis's role. But when I have something I think is interesting and useful, like the attempt to answer dccitizen's good question, I will post it. If anyone is to blame, it is dccitizen for keeping at me until I saw that what he (i'm guessing, forgive me) was asking was worthy of some detailed reporting.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | February 3, 2010 2:50 PM | Report abuse

Hi, Jay - how about acknowledging that the title to this piece changed from "Did Rhee Lie? I don't think so" to "Are we speaking the same language on DC school policy?"

just as the (current) link reveals: http://voices.washingtonpost.com/class-struggle/2010/02/did_rhee_lie_i_dont_think_so.html

Posted by: efavorite | February 3, 2010 3:19 PM | Report abuse

Jay

The reason I highlighted that part was not to point out any ignorance, but to try to make a far larger point. I appreciate your willingness to report on what is part of the defining issue in school reform today. The Washington experiment with MS Rhee is very important on many levels. I think that our views differ far more concerning the mechanics of making that happen then on the desired outcome. To change the system you have to have a sufficient understanding about how it works. A great general must understand a lot more than how to fight if the war is going to be won. I bet there are a lot of details in running an army. You do seem to defend MS Rhee, but I am sure it is because you feel that she will make the best decisions for DCPS. My concern is that for either out of desperation of political needs a 2nd lieutenant was promoted to 4 star general. I think her professional immaturity showed rather clearly in the comments that started this whole thing off, as well as in her subsequent responses. The desire of some to place a national spotlight on her as part of reform is dangerous. It's not about liking or disliking, name calling, or being a true believer. It's about having the leadership skills, the maturity, and the technical knowledge to do the job right.

Posted by: mamoore1 | February 3, 2010 3:24 PM | Report abuse

Obsession: a persistent disturbing preoccupation with an often unreasonable idea or feeling.

(sooner before later, Webster will place in italics as examples of obsession, "ex. Jay Mathews/Michelle Rhee"

I'm just kidding with you Jay. We all know you love the Evil Queen of Education...

she can do no wrong and when she's wrong other things caused her to be wrong,

yet she doesn't feel that she's wronged anyone enough to say "hey, I was wrong" ....yep...she's wrong...still.


Mathews, I'm being very presumptious, your writing about Rhee because you receive higher hits on your blogs and (I'm presuming) that's what is important to your bosses and she's one of your safety nets regarding your column.

Hmmmmm...what will happen when she's gone? Her replacement will become your new favorite Human Educational Bauble of Choice??

C'mon Jay...you can do better and look forward to reading more of your insightful columns regarding education within the DMV area.

Posted by: TwoSons | February 3, 2010 4:06 PM | Report abuse

Glad to see you followed up on dccitizen1's question/concerns.

please answer this too (asked in your other recent blog on Rhee): did you ask Rhee why she waited until the budget firings to fire teachers who hit or sexually abused students. Why weren't they fired separately and/or at the time they were convicted/accused?
If she does things "for the children" timely firings in abuse cases are merited. Waiting until you have around 260 other teachers fired during a budget process isn't "for the children"

Posted by: researcher2 | February 3, 2010 4:12 PM | Report abuse

Dear Jay,

Thank you very much for following up on the question I had posed to you about Chancellor Rhee's decision to reverse the SWW's principal's decision to make the Senior Project mandatory. The Washington Examiner headline for the story in September of 2007 was: "Rhee changes graduation terms for School Without Walls seniors", and the beginning of the article is:

"D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee has ruled that students at School Without Walls won’t have to take a senior project course to graduate this school year, reversing a principal’s decision that provoked parental complaints over scheduling problems." Mind you, this was in September of the school year, so "scheduling problems" don't seem to be valid.

The parents who complained to Rhee about the Senior Project have also complained to her about Patrick Pope, the principal at Hardy Middle School, and look what is happening to that poor fellow.

I agree that Chancellor Rhee and the SWW's principal, with your help, have made this seem much less benign that I believe the situation was. I never said that the course was dropped---just that Chancellor Rhee had gone against what the principal had decided for his school when he said the course would be mandatory and Rhee said it wouldn't. Please remember that principals serve on a year to year basis and are "at will" employees. Now, it wouldn't behoove the SWW's principal to paint a bad picture of Chancellor Rhee, would it? Oh, but she's not the vindictive type, is she? Only when it's "in the children's best interest" I suppose.

Be that as it may, I will let this (small, but indicative) matter drop and focus more on the larger issue of how decisions are made in DCPS.

Again, I really appreciate your following up with my question, even if I don't quite buy the "benign" version.

I guess a burning question that I still have about DCPS is what, exactly, if any, is Victor Reinoso's role?

Posted by: dccitizen1 | February 3, 2010 4:57 PM | Report abuse

OOOOPS----I meant "much MORE benign" instead of "much less benign"!

Posted by: dccitizen1 | February 3, 2010 4:58 PM | Report abuse

"My concern is that for either out of desperation of political needs a 2nd lieutenant was promoted to 4 star general. I think her professional immaturity showed rather clearly in the comments that started this whole thing off, as well as in her subsequent responses. The desire of some to place a national spotlight on her as part of reform is dangerous. It's not about liking or disliking, name calling, or being a true believer. It's about having the leadership skills, the maturity, and the technical knowledge to do the job right."

Hope and change we can believe in? State senator from Illinois? "I am not familiar with the facts but the Boston police acted stupidly." Anyone? Anyone?

Sometimes young, brash and brave are needed to shake us up. Obama = 0 experience. But his shake up can do great things for our country. Does the establishment and old way of doing things like it? No, they hate it and fight it. Rhee = Obama. Thank goodness for their guts to jump in and try...

Posted by: LP59 | February 3, 2010 5:19 PM | Report abuse

"Sometimes young, brash and brave are needed to shake us up."

Interesting that you say that on a blog of an older (sorry, Jay -- but you make the joke yourself too!) columnist at the Post. Bet in this case you're not so eager for young, brash and brave -- because the young, brash and brave journalists at other news outlets are looking at Michelle Rhee with a much more critical eye than we see at the Post.

Posted by: bermanator34 | February 3, 2010 5:26 PM | Report abuse

I think Obama's job is political, and Rhee's is administrative. We don't elect generals for a good reason. I accept your notion that Rhee=Obama when she invites all of the teachers she slandered over to her house for a beer. ( unless her position is so much more important than Obama's that she can't find the time)

Posted by: mamoore1 | February 3, 2010 5:32 PM | Report abuse

Jay:

I can tell Doubt is beginning to form in your mind. Good.

Posted by: Linda/RetiredTeacher | February 3, 2010 5:32 PM | Report abuse

Rhee does not equal Obama:

Rhee, 3/22/09: “If we come to an impasse, we’re going to move forward with our reforms anyway,” Ms. Rhee said. “Then it potentially gets uglier.” http://www.nytimes.com/2009/03/22/opinion/22kristof.html?_r=1

Obama, 3/26/09: "…if we don't have teacher buy-in, if they're not enthusiastic about the reforms that we're initiating, then, ultimately, they're not going to work. So we've got to have teacher participation in developing these approaches." http://www.whitehouse.gov/the_press_office/Remarks-by-the-President-at-Open-for-Questions-Town-Hall/

Rhee, 5/7/09: “And he [the President] actually doesn't say anything different from what I say, which is support people, reward people who are doing a great job, and if you're not and we can't get you there, then you have to go.” (Politics Daily) http://www.politicsdaily.com/2009/05/07/reforming-d-c-schools-changes-challenges-complaints/

Posted by: efavorite | February 3, 2010 8:44 PM | Report abuse

For efavorite---I have been proven wrong by the tepid reaction to the change of that headline. I told my editors we would be roasted, and recommended they not do it. But they felt my headline was over the top, inaccurate, and a deceptive tease---leading readers to think i was talking about Rhee's lying about her dealing with the teacher firings, and not one small incident at Walls. I defended it, but they had a good point, and decided to change it anyway. They promised me they would take the heat if this became another piece in the Citypaper. They are good people. We are still working on how to make changes on the blogs in a transparent way. I think Andy Alexander, our ombudsperson, will address this in his Sunday column.
For dccitizen1, thanks for the thoughtful post. I do think I have filled my Rhee post quota for the time being and will shift to other topics, but as I said, it is an irresistable story for a lot of us.
And for TwoSons, you are right. It does look sometimes like we are page view whores, but I honestly think one of the best things about the new era is that the changed economics of newsgathering force us to be more responsive to readers. This blog, and my exchanges with readers like you, represent one of the most professionally satisfying developments of my life. So go ahead, slap me around since it is good for me, but I think chasing page views is like trying to sell more subscriptions in the old era, a sensible way to keep journalism alive.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | February 4, 2010 11:18 AM | Report abuse

So...Rhee's not lying because her version of events is supported by 2 people she can fire at a moment's notice and without cause. Very credible. At least this time it was not something that could be easily fact-checked; like test scores, her resume, prior published statements, media publications, etc.

Posted by: mcstowy | February 4, 2010 12:32 PM | Report abuse

Jay - I was surprised by the tepid response too, but does the fact that no one commented on it but me (as far as I know) mean it’s acceptable?

To use an exaggerated example, if people just walked by as someone was getting beat up on the sidewalk, would there be no crime and no victim?

If only one person noticed the beating and reported it would that make it a lesser crime? If the person commented to the people around him and was ignored, should he not report it and should the police not respond because only one person contacted them?

Or perhaps this is not perceived as an ethical issue at all. Perhaps it’s just a marketing issue and if customers don’t mind, then anything goes.

Posted by: efavorite | February 4, 2010 1:17 PM | Report abuse

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