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Posted at 5:30 AM ET, 02/ 4/2011

What Wendy Kopp doesn't say about Rhee

By Jay Mathews

It is rare that a social movement can be traced to one person, but it is hard for me to see how the excitement, distress and ferment revolving around public school innovation these days could have occurred without Wendy Kopp.

Her creation of the Teach For America program in 1989 led to an extraordinary and unexpected growth in interest in teaching among recent college graduates. That in turn filled thousands of urban and rural classrooms with eager and energetic teachers with only limited training, something those schools had not seen before in such large numbers.

The most ambitious of those Teach For America corps members sparked an explosion in public charter schools and innovative regular public schools in the same low-income neighborhoods. That brought to public attention the unexpected success of some schools and teachers in raising student achievement, and inspired several civic and political leaders, including George W. Bush and Barack Obama, to adopt the charter school movement and organizations such as Teach For America as a cause.

All of that activity inspired a great debate, played out in conferences and the media every day. As just one example, consider how much has been said and written, both positive and negative, about the documentary "Waiting For 'Superman,’ ” full of people influenced by Wendy Kopp.

Kopp's new book written with Steven Farr, "A Chance to Make History: What Works and What Doesn't in Providing an Education for All," offers an intriguing summary and analysis of all she has wrought. She doesn't take credit. She says the heroes are great teachers and principals who shared her vision and took their ideas in the classrooms where Kopp, she acknowledges, has been a visitor, not a teacher.

I think Kopp would agree that someone who has been so successful so young (she started Teach For America at age 21, and is still only 43) must keep doing the unfinished work she started. So she won't mind if I skip her book's many virtues and focus instead on its one flaw.

She makes a strong case for promoting leadership skills in both classroom teachers and in principals. But having set that as a key goal, she never discusses the failure of her most famous protégé, former D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee, to find, place and support enough great principals in the nation's capital.

Rhee has been refreshingly honest about this lapse. Candor is a vital by-product of Kopp's pragmatic approach to school innovation. Most of the Teach For America veterans I know, including Rhee, have it.

Bill Turque pointed out to Rhee last summer that of the 91 D.C. principals she had appointed, 39 were no longer in those jobs. Her initial choices in 2007 were necessarily rushed and based on a new and untested recruiting system, but of the 46 new principals she assembled for the 2008-2009 school year, 22 did not last. Not all were failures. Some left on their own or were promoted to bigger jobs, but significant numbers flamed out. I personally know of at least three that were bad at their jobs, particularly in motivating teachers. Rhee was slow in replacing two of them, and the third is still at the same school.

"It's not ideal," Rhee told Turque. "I'd love to have a higher batting average. … We have some who have been great and some who have not panned out." She said much the same to me when I interviewed her last fall shortly before she left the district.

Here is a key lesson of Kopp's book. She printed it in boldface, all caps: "LEADERSHIP, LEADERSHIP, LEADERSHIP: SUCCESS WILL TAKE TRANSFORMATIONAL LEADERSHIP AT EVERY LEVEL." She mentions Rhee often. She describes leadership successes, but readers would have learned more from her analysis of failures, particularly those of someone as smart and as close to her as Rhee has been. Whatever you think of the former D.C. chancellor, star of “Waiting For ‘Superman’ ” and founder of the new political advocacy group StudentsFirst, Rhee was surprisingly successful streamlining central administration and closing underused schools. That cleared the way for improvements in achievement, although the gains were not as great as she and her admirers, including me, hoped.

What went wrong with Rhee's recruiting, selection and support of principals? Kopp doesn't say. Rhee told me she was working on getting more and better information on applicants, going deeper than résumés and recommendations from mutual friends. Given the fact that the failed Rhee principals were often clumsy with teachers, interviews with people who worked for principal applicants might be in order in the future.

Improvements could also be made in the use of assistant superintendents. When teachers complained about bad decisions by the principal at Spingarn High, Rhee was quick to investigate and make a change. But nobody explained why the assistant superintendent overseeing that school didn't address the problem earlier.

I suspect Kopp will get to this issue. She does not hide flaws. In the book she tells a story that may have caused gasps in some Teach For America offices. She quotes her son Benjamin, then 8, after he had interviewed her about her life's work for a school project. His final question was: "If this is such a big problem -- you know, kids not having the chance to have a good education -- why would you ask people with no experience right out of college to solve it?"

Many people still ask that question. Kopp's book makes many valid if counter-intuitive points about why Teach For America makes sense.

So I await her next book, which I hope goes deeper into the issue of how to find and support great principals. Rhee would make a fine co-author. So would Kopp's husband, Richard Barth, chief executive of the nation's most successful charter school network, KIPP.

KIPP has a splendid training program for principals, but it is trying to do more. In Houston, it is attempting to create new charter schools at a pace never seen before. That means putting many promising but inexperienced principals in place. I saw KIPP co-founder Mike Feinberg, who runs KIPP's Houston schools, meet this challenge by staying in daily contact with his newest school leaders. I heard him dictate to one of them exactly what she should say to a coach who had cursed in class.

Perhaps, following Feinberg's example, Kopp and Rhee will encourage the hiring of assistant superintendents capable of being mentors and not just supervisors. Her book is full of useful details on what works in building leadership in schools, but it whets my appetite for much more.

Read Jay's blog every day, and follow all of The Post's Education coverage on Twitter, Facebook and our Education Web page.

By Jay Mathews  | February 4, 2011; 5:30 AM ET
Categories:  Trends  | Tags:  DC failed to find enough good principals, Kopp created a social movement, Michelle A. Rhee, Mike Feinberg, Rhee admits to making some bad picks, Richard Barth, Steven Farr, Wendy Kopp  
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Rhee has not been successful in her choice of principals because they frequently mirror her contempt for teaching staff. This certainly seems to be a recurring theme. Now KIPP trains and retains some very dedicated principals. How are they with teaching staff? I find it very hard to believe that they don't have faith in their employees and demonstrate respect. Of course, their employees willingly sign on to KIPP knowing that they will be asked to sacrifice their personal lives for the school. That works for a while, at least until the teacher quits. It really helps to have people on the same page in a given organization. I haven't yet mentioned parents in this equation and I think this really bears examination. Some of Rhee's picks had pretty poor community support as well.

Posted by: Nikki1231 | February 4, 2011 6:23 AM | Report abuse

Rhee hired often condescending, contemptuous and egotistical people, put them in almost impossible situations and gave them no support. That about sums up why she failed. Having enthusiasm and desire to see change does not make up for lacking a bona fide battle plan nor for lacking real management skills.

Posted by: adcteacher1 | February 4, 2011 7:51 AM | Report abuse

"Rhee hired often condescending, contemptuous and egotistical people, put them in almost impossible situations and gave them no support"

Right - and some of them are still principals.

Regarding good principals, I've heard teachers switch to hushed tones while looking around furtively when they talk about their supportive principals. It's as if they fear if they say it too loudly, downtown will find out and take the principal away from them.

Teachers know from talking with their peers that the bad principals are often the ones most supported by Central office and teachers fear that the good principals will be removed quickly if they don't toe the line.

Posted by: efavorite | February 4, 2011 8:23 AM | Report abuse

Rhee hired a number of principals who don't know much about curriculum and instruction. She scared away a number of good ones who do.

We knew this already.

Posted by: dcparent | February 4, 2011 9:44 AM | Report abuse

"Not all were failures. Some left on their own or were promoted to bigger jobs"

Are you serious??? A principal quit in two years for bigger job? Is he/she there for children? Is he/she the kind of people that should lead at-risk schools?

And promotion? You move people around so often and how do you expect them to achieve anything???

These again tell you what kind of leader Michelle Rhee is. She has no experience in school administration. She had no idea how to be a leader. Yet she thought everything she did was right and she never listened to anyone's advice.

So many people still think she's a hero. Give me a break...

Posted by: washingtonian2011 | February 4, 2011 11:18 AM | Report abuse

As Bill Turque reported in Oct 2009, Miss Rhee hired a number of people (true believers) whose main characteristic seemed to be fidelity to her.

Posted by: edlharris | February 4, 2011 11:30 AM | Report abuse

Excellent comments.

For Nikki, it is good to emphasize the point you know but didn't mention. KIPP principals get to handpick their teachers, and also get to fire them, pretty quickly, if they struggle and fail to respond to help to make them better. That is a big difference. As we said here before, the reverse example in the Rhee years is the principal at Sousa who got rid of most of his teachers AFTER he had a great gain in scores. Unbelievable.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | February 4, 2011 2:22 PM | Report abuse

"Candor is a vital by-product of Kopp's pragmatic approach to school innovation."
I prefer to call it "arrogance" rather than "candor."

I agree with Kopp's statement about transformational leadership. The unfortunate thing is that Kopp and her proteges don't seem to know the first thing about leading. Effective leaders RESPECT and VALUE their employees. They include their employees in decision-making. They make their employees feel as though they are a valued and essential part of the organization. They empower their employees to be agents of change rather than objects of change. In sum, they know how to MOTIVATE employees by building them up, not tearing them down. Effective leaders are also confident enough to admit they don't have all the answers, are willing to listen to others and aren't afraid to admit they make mistakes. That garners the utmost respect from their employees. Kopp, Rhee and the new breed of young "leaders" in this country have absolutely NO CLUE as to what real leadership is all about.

Furthermore, for all the turmoil, chaos and damage Rhee inflicted on DCPS, do you think the modest gains and the drop in scores last spring in elementary DC CAS scores was really worth it, Jay? Much of what she did was already planned out under Janey and she even admitted that the gains during her first year were a result of Janey's reforms.

Really, Jay, please get over your "love affair" with Michelle Rhee and see her for what she was/is: a totally incompetent leader who inflicted misery and chaos in DCPS. We're now cleaning up in her wake and it's no fun.

Stop holding on to what never was.

Posted by: UrbanDweller | February 4, 2011 3:42 PM | Report abuse

Jay - think seriously about Urbandweller's advice.

You have no trouble being appalled by Dwan Jordan's behavior - and Rhee let him exist! and elevated him!

Posted by: efavorite | February 4, 2011 4:02 PM | Report abuse

Kopp has all the leaderships skills and integrity of Dan Snyder, as does her protégé. TFA has used the backing of corporate miscreants, and now taxpayer dollars, to foist her cult on unsuspecting inner-city kids, while also making segregation "neat" again. Only in America, Inc.

Posted by: mcstowy | February 4, 2011 4:12 PM | Report abuse

"If this is such a big problem - you know, kids not having the chance to have a good education - why would you ask people with no experience right out of college to solve it?"

Out of the mouth of babes. To me this is the proof that this movement is not about the children. I remember when Wendy started TFA. I approved at that time because urban schools were having a terrible time finding qualified teachers for their students. Many of these kids had to make do with substitutes for the entire year.

However, times have changed. With the recession TFA could have recruited the very best teachers, people with experience and histories of success, but instead they chose recent college grads, many of whom had no intention of staying beyond the two year commitment. In DC we see the results of this type of reform: many (most?) of these new teachers and principals are already gone. Worse, once this recession is over, who will agree to work there?

Jay is right about the fact that Ms. Kopp started a movement, though. It is a movement to privatize education, so that many corporate types can siphon off public school money without having to teach a singe young person. Since we've had higher education privatization for many years, it's easy to see where we are headed. Just as affluent kids go to UC Berkeley and poor kids go to Pay-and-Pass Technical Institute so the K-12 rich kids will continue to go to Beverly Hills Elementary while the poor are herded into all minority storefront "academies." By keeping teacher salaries low these charter school "managers" will continue to make much, much more than anyone who actually works with the children.

Fortunately the citizens of DC, as well as civil rights groups, know what is going on and stopped it in DCPS. There are indications it's happening in New York City too. Let's hope people wake up before one of our greatest institutions is weakened and (horrors!) destroyed.

Posted by: Linda/RetiredTeacher | February 4, 2011 6:28 PM | Report abuse

Jay, I am perplexed as to why you and others talk about increased test scores. To what are you referring?

On tests that are more or less reliable, such as the SAT, scores have been either flat or declining in the past twenty years. State tests, such as the SAT-9 in California, can't be trusted because they are not professionally proctored. Almost all experts agree that inflated scores are attributable to frenzied test prep and other methods for gaming the system. At one highly touted charter school, the students did very well on the state test but got the usual low scores on another test (sight unseen).

So when you talk about "improvements" in education, to what are you referring?

Posted by: Linda/RetiredTeacher | February 4, 2011 6:45 PM | Report abuse

Waiting for Superman, The Sequel

After viewing the documentary "Waiting for Superman," I got the feeling that it is happening all over again, but in this case, it isn't students hoping to go to a better school for a better future, but rather applicants for the TFA program hoping that it can propel them into a job for a better career.

With 44,000 applicants for only 4,000 positions, a greater than 10-1 odds, what does it say about applicants that don't make it? Are they relegated to mediocre education programs at college? Are they also relegated to substandard teaching futures?

4,000 teachers dispersed around the country is just a small drop in the bucket of the number of teachers nationwide.

Let's hope they take their own advice, and philosophy and give as many applicants that seriously want to teach, the ability to do so. Otherwise, the organization just becomes a self-serving economic and political machine with its own corporate interests rather than the public of teacher applicants that it should serve.

Posted by: ericpollock | February 5, 2011 2:16 AM | Report abuse


I thought that firings needed no mention. After all, how much impact could that have on a school where all staff is handpicked by the administrator? If the admin can't hire properly, then he/she needs to be replaced, not just the teaching staff.

KIPP does something that many inner city schools struggle to accomplish: create a team of supportive teachers, parents and admin. As an educator and as a parent, I expect that in any good school and I would expect most other parents and teachers to agree with that. However, Rhee clearly isn't one of them. That just underscores how little Rhee really understands about what makes good schools.

Posted by: Nikki1231 | February 5, 2011 7:00 AM | Report abuse

"With 44,000 applicants for only 4,000 positions, a greater than 10-1 odds, what does it say about applicants that don't make it?”

I think the real question is what does it say about those who DO make it into TFA? It says "you are the elite of the elite."

The program is thus mainly focused on improving the resumes and professional prospects of the elite few, and not on helping the kids.

Imagine the time and money and personnel that go into culling down the 44,000 to 4,000. It's an industry unto itself.

Is this to ensure the best teachers for kids? Of course not, when they get only 5 weeks of summer training and the teaching commitment of these elite few is only two years.

The focus is on the adults - young adults who are already winners in life by virtue of having a fine education and multiple career opportunities.

Now they get another entry on their resumes and another meaningful life experience, while the children are left behind, waiting for the next group of elite, temporary inexperienced teachers.

Posted by: efavorite | February 5, 2011 7:50 AM | Report abuse

Demagogues can be counted upon to minimize or completely ignore any fact or evidence contrary to their doctrinaire pronouncements. Kopp and Rhee are dishonest to the core of their being and worthy only of contempt and derision.

Posted by: buckbuck11 | February 5, 2011 8:51 AM | Report abuse

A close friend referred to his 10+ years of teaching as "service" and I blew a gasket. Teaching is a job like any other job, and like any other job, there are people who are able to do it well, people who struggle to attain mediocrity, and others who are downright awful.

Creating recruitment and reform strategies around the fatuous notion that those selected have been chosen to change the world, as Teach for America purports to do, is ridiculous on its face. Teachers are hired to teach subject matter, to educate children so that they can become productive members of society--not so they can "go to college," not so they can claim bogus degrees, not so they can hold their heads up high. No ! It's so they actually know something and can perform their jobs well at whatever level and live their lives with dignity.

And I would agree with Linda -- and, Jay, this is a very important point -- since the radical "reforms" of the past 20 years, meaningful test scores have been flat or declining. Please, focus on curriculum! What is being taught in our nation's classrooms? When my son comes home full of wonder and enthusiasm about super fluids (a topic in his 9th grade physics class), then I know something is happening. When he is reading low-level PC-approved "literature" with limited vocabulary, uninspired writing, and trite observation in place of challenging, thought-provoking books (as was the case throughout elementary and middle school), then I'm worried.

Posted by: Jennifer88 | February 5, 2011 10:34 AM | Report abuse


Well said on every point!

Posted by: aed3 | February 5, 2011 11:33 AM | Report abuse

Jennifer88 -- I agree with all you say, except the "teaching as service" part.

I believe some jobs are a form of service as well as a job and a source of income.

For instance, nursing, social work, ministry, some forms of medicine and law practice - and teaching.

These jobs involve using specific skills and directly helping people. Jobs that directly help people qualify as service, according to me. People often go into these fields specifically to help people, with money being a secondary factor.

Posted by: efavorite | February 5, 2011 11:38 AM | Report abuse

Another opportunity for recent graduates.

A year ago, when I read that the highly successful Teach for America program had only 4500 openings for approximately 40,000 applicants, I recognized that many of today’s top graduates were looking for a meaningful transition period after college. Because of this new, “cool thing you can do after college”, at the Chinquapin School, ( located outside Houston, Texas, we created our own “after graduation” teaching fellowship program, The Chinquapin Urban Teaching Fellowship. We too had many applicants.
This year we have four recent college graduates teaching and learning through their fellowship work at our remarkable school. These four aspiring teachers come to us from University of Dayton, Williams College, and two from Harvard.

These talented graduates are attracted to our school because over the past 41 years The Chinquapin School has a 100% college acceptance rate from our students and over the years, 85% of our graduates have graduated from college. This is an amazing success record when you consider that the school’s mission is to serve economically disadvantaged student. It is even more amazing when you realize that for 41 years, the greater Houston community has raised millions of dollars so that ALL our excellent students all attend Chinquapin on scholarships. Thank you Wendy Kopp and Teach for America for creating a program that inspires remarkable and talented young graduates to teach.

Posted by: rgriffin4 | February 5, 2011 11:50 AM | Report abuse

rgriffin - your school sounds very nice, but its success is hardly amazing when you consider this (from Q&A on the website):

Q: How many students apply to Chinquapin?

A: It is not unusual to have 200-275 applicants for roughly 30 openings. Plan to spend a few hours at the recruiting meeting.

Also, it's a boarding school for the boys in grades 7-12

Shame on you for misleading readers this way and for appealing to youthful idealism attract cheap labor.

I suggest that you avoid this tactic in the future --there's likely to be someone like me right behind you, checking the facts behind the hype.

Posted by: efavorite | February 5, 2011 12:08 PM | Report abuse

Could it be the way we chose our Principal's and other school leaders?

When I first started teaching, coaching was the fast track to moving up to a leadership position in just about every school division I was familar with.

Now it is who is the biggest "suck-up." And when sucking-up is the measurement which determines the strength of your leadership skills...then it will be a lose/lose for everyone.

When Superintendent's and/or School Boards are not teacher-friendly and assume they are always Principal's will always be the weakest link in the school division hierarchy.

Posted by: ilcn | February 5, 2011 12:45 PM | Report abuse

Rgriffin –

Something else – your post above is not only dishonest, it’s insulting and self-aggrandizing.

You must think people are so stupid they’ll believe your amazing claims without checking.

Also, it’s not enough that your school offers a wonderful opportunity to already “able and motivated” low-income kids (according to the website), you make it sound like it’s only because of your school that they are able to achieve as well as they do, when in fact, they’re screened for ability before they arrive.

Would it be “amazing” for a low-income student who qualified for a Harvard scholarship to finish college and go on to grad school? No – it’s wonderful that deserving kids got the opportunity, but there’s nothing amazing about it at all. They were already “able and motivated” -- which is why they got the scholarship in the first place.

Posted by: efavorite | February 5, 2011 6:20 PM | Report abuse


Please step back and get some perspective. I don't understand how you could write this article and not see how your Rhee-bias is affecting your narrative.


Posted by: mrpozzi | February 5, 2011 6:28 PM | Report abuse


Please step back and get some perspective. I don't understand how you could write this article and not see how your Rhee-bias is affecting your narrative.


Posted by: mrpozzi | February 5, 2011 6:29 PM | Report abuse

As a person who spent many years as a teacher in a low-income school, I'd like to make an important point (again):

In even the poorest schools, at least one-third of any class is composed of students who are at grade level or above. These children would do well anywhere.

Private, parochial, magnet and charter schools all know this and they also know that the parents of these students are usually the ones who seek something better for their children. Most of these schools are honest about their selective population, but many are disingenuous about it, saying something like Rgriffin above: "We take these poor children and do wonderful things with them because our teachers are better, etc." If these schools do better, it's most often because of the students that they have admitted. I'd be the last to complain about this because my own sons spent at least half of their school years in Catholic schools. What I'm objecting to is the dishonesty: "Oh, St. Joseph School is so much better than P.S. 122." No, the school is probably not "better" but there's a good chance the families are more invested in their children's education.

Some charters have taken over entire schools as they are (Los Angeles, DC). For the most part, these schools do not do any better than the previous faculty and often they do worse.

But none of this matters to the "reformers" because the real purpose of "reform" is to discredit our public schools for the purpose of privatization. Thankfully many journalists are now taking a closer look at what is happening. If we ever need the press, it is now.

Posted by: Linda/RetiredTeacher | February 5, 2011 7:30 PM | Report abuse

rgriffin4 ... you are a perfect mouthpiece for Rhee, Bloomberg, Klein, Bill Gates and the likes.... but thank god for bloggers like efavorite and linda-retired-teacher as they certainly put you in your place - exposing the lies you espouse when you "selectively" present your case. Expect to see a lot more teachers going after your type of "education" reform in the press and other media platforms! There are a lot of us out there and Diane Ravitch goes after the kind of faulty information you attempt to disseminate as truth. I so especially loved reading efavorite's retort to your "marvelous school" that I want to post it here again lest any readers might have missed it... hats off to you efavorite!

rgriffin - your school sounds very nice, but its success is hardly amazing when you consider this (from Q&A on the website):

Q: How many students apply to Chinquapin?

A: It is not unusual to have 200-275 applicants for roughly 30 openings. Plan to spend a few hours at the recruiting meeting.

Also, it's a boarding school for the boys in grades 7-12

Shame on you for misleading readers this way and for appealing to youthful idealism attract cheap labor.

I suggest that you avoid this tactic in the future --there's likely to be someone like me right behind you, checking the facts behind the hype.

Posted by: efavorite | February 5, 2011 12:08 PM

Posted by: teachermd | February 5, 2011 8:09 PM | Report abuse

Well Jay here goes another effort to help you understand that improving education will not come top down. It will come from the bottom up. I know you'll have a hard time with this but the best administrators I ever had or read etc. had spent a long time in the classroom as a teacher.
The corp of teachers that existed when I first began teaching in the 1970's were far superior to the corp that exists today. They were experienced and dedicated and knew the kids. From those teachers had come the administrators that I first encountered and I'm sad to say that the first superintendent and first principal that I worked for were the best I ever had.
Because....for that time on legislatures across the nation reduced the experienced required for a teacher to become an administrator. People raced through teaching, three years for most, into administration positions and they didn't have the experience necessary to understand what really does happen in the classroom. That's where we are at today. Most experienced teachers know that it takes at least five years to get a handle on the classroom situation. Today's administrators are so in love with redefining curriculum, changing programs and texts, and fixing education that withing five years time a teacher may be asked to learn a new math, reading, science, social studies program two or three times within five years. Who cares? We are probably spending nearly a trillion dollars a year in total for all state & local budgets and the kids are failing worse than ever. Wake up Mathews - it is from the bottom up not top down. Take education out of hands of politicians and put it back into hands of proven educators (teachers) then it will improve.

Posted by: dmyers412 | February 6, 2011 3:30 AM | Report abuse

Thanks, teachermd!

Meanwhile, I implore you and everyone reading here to become sleuths too. It took me less than five minutes to get the info I copied here, just by going to the schools website.

In this case, "Rgriffin" (whose full name is found on the school site) kindly provided the website info, but it can also be found quickly just by googling "chinquapin school."

Whenever you see questionable claims like this, please check them out yourself and report back on them. It will help keep the rgriffin's of the world at bay.

By the way, a little more surfing around the site reveals that the school is not subject to NCLB testing (because it's private) and class size is limited to 10 students per teacher.

Amazing, huh?

Posted by: efavorite | February 6, 2011 9:53 AM | Report abuse

Chinquapin is a non-profit, college-preparatory private school for economically disadvantaged but academically promising Houston-area students in the 6th through 12th grades. As such, we do not admit students with serious disciplinary problems* or learning disabilities. We are looking for students who have a positive attitude, a community spirit, and a work ethic conducive to a successful education both at Chinquapin and at college.
Enough said!!!

Posted by: mia_101mail | February 6, 2011 12:33 PM | Report abuse

Reading Jay Matthews can be sickening. It reminds me of an interview I heard this weekend from the author of a new book touting Rhees success in DC. He unashamedly admitted his biases and patrons while the interviewer treated it as a footnote yet it totally compromises this as a legitimate data point.

To me this is a problem in journalism on the reporters' side and a problem with the zealots on the reformers' side.

I admit Matthews is not a journalist in that he writes an opinion piece but his column diminishes to little more than a cheerleader for anti-union, anti-teacher rhetoric. Meanwhile the data shows states such as Massachusetts and countries such as Norway leading the way in advances. Very strong union participation while the so-called right to work states lead the pack of low performers. I would be focusing on a different correlation if I were the opposition.

Ugh! It's hard to go on.

Posted by: zebra22 | February 6, 2011 3:57 PM | Report abuse

There are many obstacles to a teacher trying to get information into a student; The student needs to be fed, clothed, slept, cared for on the Maslow scale, and then brought to school to learn - even though they might be carrying $500 of much more interesting technology on their person at all times; The parent who ideally is on the same page of educating the child, but may be either overbearing, or under nourishing; The administration who communicates that all children must master a topic at the same time regardless of their development, or educational skill set, and discipline is a fluid idea that is changed to fit the goal of graduating students on time. To have these stars alone align is almost impossible - and that is before you even start the class!

These are the issues at every school. The thing that makes teaching in a troubled school district even harder is the lack of infrastructure. There are few computers that work, there are doors that you can't leave open at all and windows that don't shut. Not enough materials, not enough toilet paper, and too many roaches. When I looked at where I wanted to teach, the bugs did me in. I knew a teacher who had to hang her purse from the ceiling so roaches wouldn't get in it. It is much easier to deal with something like that when you are just an incoming two-year explorer that is doing good for mankind, than a mortgage-paying staying-in-for-the-long-haul teacher.

I would imagine that the same is true for principals. It is a HARD job, and twice as hard to do well. And that is before the roaches. A principal in a school with a bad track record gets beaten down by the students and staff in the school, the community, and the people at the top. It would make no sense for someone who did not have an incredible spirit of self-sacrifice to take a job in the District, and even if you found a person like that - with someone like Rhee on top, any candidate would be able to see there is not a lot of support from above, and a really quick road to getting fired.

It is hard to find one person who is willing to sacrifice a feeling of self worth, professional reputation, and environment for the possible rewards that might come eventually from working in the District. But to find more than one? More than ten? That is a talent that even Superman couldn't handle. (And Superman wouldn't do it because you know there is kryptonite holding some of those buildings together...)

Posted by: blahdiblah | February 6, 2011 11:08 PM | Report abuse

blahdiblah - very well stated. I'd like to see your essay get wider notice.

The thoughts aren't new, but they are presented in a way that is very readable and easy to understand.

I do believe that it would be difficult for anyone to read this and still insist with any credibility that "all it takes is a good teacher."

Posted by: efavorite | February 7, 2011 7:42 AM | Report abuse

Part 1

There is so much to address in Jay’s suck-up-to-Wendy-Kopp column and the ensuing comments that it’s almost hard to know where to start.

Lets’ start first with the fact that most commonly-used standardized test scores are not sensitive to instruction, so it’s inappropriate and unfair to use them to rate schools and teachers. Worse, a very high percentage of the questions on these tests are socioeconomic questions that separate students into family income levels. So, guess where the high scores and the low scores generally occur?

For a quick overview on this, see:

[Quick note: the SAT may be the most egregiously misunderstood and abused standardized test in operation. It may be “more or less reliable” but it isn’t very valid; that is, it doesn’t DO well what its advocates say it does. The BEST predictor of SAT score, bar none, is family income. And the SAT only predicts about 17 percent of the variance in freshman-year college grades, and after that noting at all. College enrollment experts say shoe size would work as well.

For more on the SAT, see:

Next, the critical question that Kopp says was posed by her 8-year-old son:

"If this is such a big problem -- you know, kids not having the chance to have a good education -- why would you ask people with no experience right out of college to solve it?"

Jay writes that “Kopp's book makes many valid if counter-intuitive points about why Teach For America makes sense,” but of course, he doesn’t cite any of them. Hmmm. By the way, there’s a substantial amount of research to show exactly why Teach for America does NOT make any sense. One of the better examples of that research is from Linda Darling-Hammon (see link below) who finds that fully certified teachers are more effective than Teach for America teachers. Perhaps that’s why TFA opposed her as Obama’s secretary of Education and supported Arne “corporate reform” Duncan instead.

Posted by: DrDemocracy | February 7, 2011 9:20 AM | Report abuse

Part 2

Anyone who reads Jay on a regular basis knows he’s in the tank for Advanced Placement and KIPP. Not surprisingly, “Kopp's husband” is the “chief executive of the nation's most successful charter school network, KIPP.” I suppose the term “successful” is in the eye of the beholder.

What’s clear is that KIPP wants more charter schools (even though research on them is sketchy) and so does Wendy Kopp and Teach for America. Only a tiny fraction of all schools are charters, and that is unlikely to change, unless.....there are school vouchers.

And there is the crux: Wendy Kopp is in favor of charters (so are her corporate allies, like Goldman Sachs, and JPMorganChase), she just won’t come out and say it, but her vice-president for public relations (Kevin Huffman) recently did so indirectly, and it wasn’t an accident.


I’m surprised that the Huffman piece didn’t come up on this discussion. For those who didn’t see it, Huffman made a poorly-reasoned argument for vouchers based on a case that he deliberate misrepresented.

In his column Huffman describes the case of Kelley Williams-Kolar, convicted of multiple felonies in Ohio for multiple incidences of welfare fraud. Huffman, omitting all the critical data, presents Williams-Kolar as the educational equivalent of civil rights hero Rosa Parks. In Huffman’s picture, all Williams-Kolar did was to “lie” to get her kids into a “better” school district. 

(My comments on Huffman’s lies by omission, and his subsequent failures to answer questions about them, are here: )

Jay argues that KIPP has “a splendid training program for principals” and that it is “attempting to create new charter schools at a pace never seen before.” Generally that means more inexperienced teachers AND more “inexperienced principals in place.” And how many of these newbies will stay around for very long? And if they do, what is their emphasis going to be? We’re right back to test scores.

[Quick note: UrbanDweller writes that “ Effective leaders RESPECT and VALUE their employees. They include their employees in decision-making. They make their employees feel as though they are a valued and essential part of the organization.”

All very true. There are critical differences between what organizational psychologist oouglas McGregor called Theory X and Theory Y management styles. KIPP and Kopp seem to be Theory X-oriented. Michelle Rhee was X on steroids. Genuine, meaningful and sustainable change is far more likely come come from a Theory Y perspective.

A good place to see Theory Y in operation at a private, for-profit company is here: ]

Posted by: DrDemocracy | February 7, 2011 9:22 AM | Report abuse

Part 3

Wendy Kopp employes a “deliberate strategy” to keep her agenda hidden. But she does, indeed, have an agenda and it isn’t one that is public education-friendly. This is a woman, who despite all the anecdotal and empirical evidence on the deleterious effects of high-stakes testing, says that “I have not seen that standardized tests make the profession less attractive.”

In an interview with The Economist Kopp talks about “reform” anad the need for an “internal system to analyze the impact” of teachers in a way that will “compare the student growth” for each teacher. She is talking about “value-added analysis” but she won’t come out and say it in the interview.

Instead Kopp uses phrases like “building systems for accountability” and then slides in the zingere that “offering parents the ability to choose their public schools is the ultimate form” of accountability.

So, a quick summary. According to Wendy Kopp, and Michelle Rhee and KIPP, and Jay Mathews, the purpose of education “reform,” the kind of reform represented by No Child Left Behind, was to make “measurable student achievement...[by] strengthening standards and assessments...[and] implementing better data systems to undergird strong accountability systems...”

It these kinds of top-down “reforms” are implemented then they will “take us forward”

(Kopp interview with The Economist:

The latest iteration of public school reform is directly traceable to Ronald Reagan (“A Nation at Risk”). So too is the declining American standard of living, the bulk of the national debt, the transformation of Wall Street into a publicly-subsidized casino, and the most lop-sided income stratification in the developed world.

(For more on Reagan, see: )

The same people who gave the nation these things now desire to privatize public education. It seems prudent to me to consider just how awful the effects of their business and financial “reforms were

Posted by: DrDemocracy | February 7, 2011 9:23 AM | Report abuse

I appreciate these heart-felt, well-informed comments. But I read the piece saying pretty much what efavorite and others are saying: Rhee failed to improve the schools as much as they needed, and poor principal selection and support was a big part of that. I said EXACTLY that in this piece. I was critical of Kopp for failing to address that issue. Kopp fans complained to me about ignoring the book's virtues in favor of focusing on that flaw. I am hoping you will continue to read what I actually say, not what you think I would say. I am not always so predictable.

I am also puzzled by Linda/RetiredTeachers view that this is all about privatizing public schools. I have spent a lot of time in the last decade with hundreds of great teachers in regular public schools that emphasized AP and IB for all, and large numbers of teachers in public charter schools that emphasize raising achievement for low income kids. Some of them are TFA people. Some are not. None of them have the slightest interest in working for private schools. They are committed to public schools because that means their skills are available to all. So please explain how their work is contributing to a movement to privatize our schools.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | February 7, 2011 11:55 AM | Report abuse

Sounds more like micro-managing (inefficient and ineffective). Promising but inexperienced sounds like an experiment.

"KIPP has a splendid training program for principals, but it is trying to do more. In Houston, it is attempting to create new charter schools at a pace never seen before. That means putting many promising but inexperienced principals in place. I saw KIPP co-founder Mike Feinberg, who runs KIPP's Houston schools, meet this challenge by staying in daily contact with his newest school leaders. I heard him dictate to one of them exactly what she should say to a coach who had cursed in class."

Posted by: zebra22 | February 7, 2011 12:14 PM | Report abuse

Jay, weren't we talking about KIPP and other charter schools? Well, in California many of these schools are run by "managers" who siphon off school tax money for themselves. They do this by hiring young teachers and keeping their salaries low. Once these schools become "charters" many are in private hands with little oversight over the money. That's the real movement in education. According to SAT scores and dropout rates there is no improvement in achievement.

What has happened in higher education (i.e. for-profit schools taking advantage of the poor) is now happening in K-12 education. The rich kids will get UC Berkeley and Bronx High School of Science and the poor will be St. Stephens Bible College and Storefront Elementary.

Maybe KIPP schools ARE good for the few students that they serve, but, Jay, please keep an open mind as to what is happening to public education in general.

Posted by: Linda/RetiredTeacher | February 7, 2011 1:32 PM | Report abuse


@ Linda/RetiredTeacher and others, please read this:

The SAT is NOT an achievement test, nor should it be construed as one.

@ Jay, and others...

Jay poses the question of how the work of "great teachers," presumably AP teachers, contributes "to a movement to privatize our schools." Quite frankly, I think that's a much smaller piece of a greater problem, outlined in my Part 1, 2 and 3 posts above, but Jay ignores the larger issue.

I'll take a quick stab at Jay's question though...and I'll use the myth of Ronald Reagan to do so.

Much of what people believe today about Reagan is, in fact, unsubstantiated. Similarly, much of what people believe about public education today has little if any bearing in fact.

People think Reagan cut taxes, reduced the size of government and balanced the budget. While Reagan did initially cut taxes, especially for corporations and the wealthy, he increased taxes in 6 of the 8 years of his presidency, and the federal government workforce grew by more than 200,000. After 8 years of Reagan and 4 of his successor and former vice-president George H.W. Bush, the national debt that was accumulated over 200 years had more than quadrupled. Neither Reagan nor Bush ever submitted a balanced budget to Congress.

Many of the middle- and working-class citizens who voted for Reagan, and bought his “voodoo economcs” fantasy of cutting taxes and spending more on defense while balancing the budget, ended up paying a higher tax rate because of Reagan. I suspect that employees at John Deere and Caterpillar who voted for Reagan and later got laid off because his rampant borrowing forced up the value of the dollar, making exports of those companies far less competitive, never quite understood that they voted themselves out of jobs. Nor do today’s Tea Party members, who cling to the myth of Reagan (and who voted for both Bushes), believe that they share any responsibility for the nation’s debt. They still believe, against all evidence, that tax cuts pay for themselves. They don’t.

Posted by: DrDemocracy | February 7, 2011 3:01 PM | Report abuse


So too, many people believe the “voodoo education” fantasy that public education is broken and a healthy dose of testing, and more charter schools, and merit pay for teachers will fix it. In fact, American public education is remarkably good, and has been for quite some time. Generally, we know what and where the problems are and how to fix them. But the easier fix, the so-called “free lunch” seems just to tempting for some.

I don’t think those who voted for Reagan (and both Bushes) deliberately chose to undermine the nation’s economic security. But the warning signs were there from the get-go, and the damning evidence, and debt, piled up year after year. Those who supported supply-side economic disaster could at least face facts and atone for their errors.

I also don’t think that many of the “data-driven” decision-makers and “reformers” (and AP teachers) are purposefully, consciously, trying to privatize public schools. But there are plenty of warning signs, and the evidence is accumulating (the Huffman piece was just the latest example). GIven conservative antipathy toward public education and teachers, and given the bleak economic forecasts for states and the projected deficits they face, the pressures on schools to “perform” are increasing.

Already those who perpetrated the economic cataclysm are blaming schools for “global competitiveness” failures. Easy and cheap, and thus politically popular alternatives (charters, merit pay, vouchers) are offered up as “solutions.” Charlatans eager to profit (Wendy Kopp, Michelle Rhee to name only two) are leading the parade.

That doesn’t mean that rational people have to agree....or to follow.

Posted by: DrDemocracy | February 7, 2011 3:40 PM | Report abuse


There is something disingenuous about your claim that your article makes 'EXACTLY" the same points about Michelle Rhee as do many of the comments. Your article admits she made some mistakes, but your tone is still respectful; you still believe she qualifies as some kind of expert - in fact she is such an expert, so deservign of respect as an educator, should co-author a book with her bff Wendy!

The comments do not give her this respect, nor does she deserve it. She did not just make a few mistakes: she made a series of ruthless mistakes that were destructive to the school district; her mistakes negatively impacted both students and teachers. Her fail was epic. You neither acknowledge nor believe this. The "heartfelt, well-informed" commenters you refer to do.

Posted by: juliedearborn | February 7, 2011 4:54 PM | Report abuse

For juliedearborn---I try to be respectful to everyone, particularly the many people who write in to the blog to disagree with me. If I am every disrespectful, please let me know. I try to say something positive about everyone I write about. Its not bad to do that, even when you are criticizing them, as I was here with Kopp and Rhee.

For DrDemocracy---I very much agree with you on the basic health of the American public school system. I have supported your view on this many times, particularly in my frequent critiques of people who say our global competitors are killing us because our allegedly inferior schools. My principal complaint about US public ed is that it still does a terrible job raising achievement for low income kids, and also shies away from challenging average kids of every background, even in our best schools. The rules that keep all but strong B students out of AP in some of our richest neighborhoods, where an average student is likely at the 90th percentile nationally, are particularly irksome. And as you may notice, I am regularly deriding private schools and telling parents they are wasting their money when the public schools in the same neighborhoods are just as good.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | February 7, 2011 5:12 PM | Report abuse


To me there is a difference between being respectful in the treatment of a person and respecting them. I agree that one should try to treat everyone with respect, the respect every human deserves merely because they are human. However, I do not believe that everyone's actions should be respected. I do not respect Ms. Rhee's actions or point of view regarding education. Nor do I think they are worthy of my respect.

Posted by: juliedearborn | February 8, 2011 5:58 PM | Report abuse

Part of the TfA aura is that it is research and data driven. (You know, just like every manufacturer of cosmetics is research driven.)

Did the claim make its way to the book that TfA collects data on multiple measures of the success of past TfAers to annually tweak and improve its selection procedures?

At this stage of success in Ms. Kopp's glamorous career, the time has come for nip-and-tuck,editorial botox, a hell of a lot of make-up, and just the right lighting and camera angles. All perfectly natural, of course.

Posted by: incredulous | February 9, 2011 10:22 PM | Report abuse

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