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Posted at 7:26 PM ET, 01/18/2011

The buzz about Rhee from "The Bee Eater"

By Bill Turque

My holiday weekend reading included an early copy of "The Bee Eater," Richard Whitmire's biography of former D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee, due out next month. Full disclosure at the top: Whitmire, a former reporter and editorial writer for USA Today, interviewed me and devotes a few pages to The Post's coverage of Rhee, including mine. It's fair to say he was not a fan.

"The Bee Eater" (title refers to the oft-told tale of how as a young teacher she silenced a rowdy grade school class by killing and swallowing a bee) doesn't unload any real revelations about the D.C. schools story. But there are a few interesting new nuggets for Rheeologists. New to me, anyway.

One is the role Teach for America founder Wendy Kopp played in pushing Rhee for the chancellorship. Kopp had already been a key figure in Rhee's career, reaching out to her to run the New Teacher Project, a nonprofit that helps school districts recruit teachers. Whitmire reports that at the 2007 annual meeting of the NewSchools Venture Fund (which helps finance charter schools) in New Orleans, a group of young reformers gathered for a late-night meeting to brainstorm who Mayor Adrian M. Fenty, who was about to take over the D.C. schools system, might tap to become chancellor. Among the attendees were Rhee, Victor Reinoso, deputy mayor for education, and one of his staff, Abigail Smith, who later became a top Rhee strategist.

"The best brains were tossing out ideas, but even the cutting-edge ones seemed dull," Whitmire writes. "And then Michelle Rhee weighed in. Few remember the exact school reform formula Rhee offered near the midnight hour. What everyone does recall was her boldness. As the night grew ever later, Kopp finally gave into her fatigue, but before leaving the meeting she leaned over and wrote these words on Smith's notepad: How about M Rhee?

Smith whispered to Kopp, 'Would she do it?'

Wendy wrote back: I think possibly yes."

Reinoso was also intrigued, and asked her in a cab they shared the next day if she was interested. Rhee said she wasn't.

"Before Reinoso could tell Fenty about Rhee," according to Whitmire, "the mayor called him and said, 'What do you know about someone by the name of Michelle Rhee?'"

It turns out Kopp had also e-mailed New York City schools chancellor Joel Klein to tout her. Klein, already impressed by Rhee's work representing the city school system in an arbitration hearing with then-United Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten, had passed her name on to Fenty.

The book also recounts the dramatic turnaround at Anacostia's Sousa Middle School, led by Dwan Jordon, a relentless young principal Rhee hired from Prince George's County in 2008. Test scores surged and school culture shifted on Jordon's watch.

But Whitmire tells the story in tandem with the lesser known, and less triumphant narrative of Johnson Middle School, just a short drive from Sousa. To lead Johnson in 2009-10, Rhee hired David Markus, a veteran teacher with a Harvard masters who had graduated from the New Leaders for New Schools' principals training program. Markus had no school office staff, no business manager, and a faculty consisting mostly of castoffs from other schools. He suffered a heart attack three days before his faculty was due to arrive and things went downhill from there.

On the day Whitmire showed up at Johnson to interview Markus in June 2010, he'd just been informed that Rhee was not going to renew his contract. The building was in harrowing shape, Whitmire wrote, reeking of mold from leaking pipes and with windows "so smeared that the outside world was barely visible, the result of repeated paintball attacks by neighborhood kids." Repair plans had been peeled back by budget cuts. Unlike Sousa, test scores at Johnson remained dismal, and Markus was not able to take control of his building like Jordon.

"I visited the school several times," Rhee tells Whitmire. "I watched him. I don't know that I would have been able to pick this up in a hiring interview, but he is just not the kind of guy who commands respect among kids. When I was talking with him, kids would run by him, yell over him, and throw things."

Rhee said she might have had patience with a new principal in a higher-achieving school. "But when you're talking about a school where 10 percent of the students are proficient and kids are running around ...show me a superintendent anywhere who in that circumstance feels comfortable looking a parent in the eye saying, 'We believe that with two more years of professional development that David Markus would be good."

On a more whimsical note, Whitmire reports that despite her slight frame, Rhee eats enormous meals. According to his footnotes, he often met with her for interviews over lunch in her office.

"Invariably, her lunch would have fed a stevedore: a huge slab of meatloaf and mashed potatoes comes to mind. At another interview she had a large-size McDonald's sweet tea and three round plastic tubs of food: potato salad, macaroni and cheese, and red beans and rice."

But no bees.

Follow D.C. Schools Insider every day at washingtonpost.com/dc- schools. And for admissions advice, college news and links to campus papers, please check out our new Higher Education page at washingtonpost.com/higher-ed. Bookmark it!

By Bill Turque  | January 18, 2011; 7:26 PM ET
 
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Comments

Apparently the myths will be chronicled as truth.

Posted by: oknow1 | January 18, 2011 9:45 PM | Report abuse

It will be interesting to see how Richard deals with Miss Rhee's dishonesty, whether it concerns the whoppers (or, lies) from her resume' to the lying about the test scores at Shaw Middle School to John Merrow, Jay Mathews and the Post daily discussion board.

Also, Richard didn't have good research. He missed the 1995 report from the University of Maryland that has the CTBS scores that show Miss Rhee did NOT take her students from the 13th percentile in second grade to 90% of them at the 90th percentile in third grade. Somehow, I don't think he found the articles from the Wall Street Journal and the Hartford Courant that gave Miss Rhee "acclaim" , nor the Good Morning America or Home Show segments that highlighted her as she taught at Harlem Park ES.

This biography won't meet the standards of Oscar Wilde who wrote:
“Every great man nowadays has his disciples, and it is always Judas who writes the biography”.

Maybe Miss Rhee doesn't fit the word Great.

Posted by: phillipmarlowe | January 18, 2011 11:27 PM | Report abuse

This website printapons is too cool. I use promo codes alot and hate having to look all over the place for them.

Posted by: melisagrice | January 19, 2011 4:20 AM | Report abuse

“If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it. The lie can be maintained only for such time as the State can shield the people from the political, economic and/or military consequences of the lie.

It thus becomes vitally important for the State to use all of its powers to repress dissent, for the truth is the mortal enemy of the lie, and thus by extension, the truth is the greatest enemy of the State.”

Posted by: thelildiva4u | January 19, 2011 10:49 AM | Report abuse

The other interesting "nugget" from this story is the amount of outside interest. D.C. once again has been used as a stepping stone for a bigger agenda.

Posted by: thelildiva4u | January 19, 2011 11:07 AM | Report abuse

Michelle Rhee was a formidable politician who brought positive change to DC Public Schools.

She was a strategist, but she was neither a manager nor an educator.

Her calling cards were her success as a TFA volunteer in Baltimore and her references from New York City Chancellor Joel Klein. It now turns out that there is only evidence that suggests her claims of her students' remarkable academic progress are untrue. Klein's recommendation was based on the fact that she brought "data no one else had seen" to the union negotiations. One wonders whether these too were fabrications. Furthermore, Klein's recommendation holds less weight in retrospect as it turns out his administration was padding student achievement and when more reliable tests were administered, the progress he had been claiming all but evaporated.

Some things in Rhee's tenure such as rationalizing DCPS footprint and special ed reform were great successes. Others, such as her principal selections -- looks like she threw her appointee Markus under the bus -- and her claims of achievement gains were mixed.

And she flat-out could not manage the $1 billion budget and refused to get a seasoned financial advisor, relying instead on a series of acolytes long on loyalty but short on skills.

Ultimately she was done in by the fact that she believed that only she could reform the schools and that collaboration with other stakeholders was beneath her. She and her boss needlessly poked good people who cared just as much about the kids in the eye. And she couldn't or wouldn't adapt to a less political role under Gray. Ultimately, Michelle Rhee took her marbles and went somewhere where she didn't have to share the spotlight and answer to anyone but her rich, adoring fans.

In the end, Michelle Rhee cared about DCPS students, but cared about Michelle Rhee a whole lot more.

Two cheers for the chancellor who started to turn DCPS around.

Posted by: chgobluesguy | January 19, 2011 1:23 PM | Report abuse

I volunteered at Johnson Middle School during the 2009-2010 school year in large part because I was inspired by David Markus' passion and commitment to educating the kids there and because of the tremendous challenges that he faced that were referenced briefly in the post. As the leader of the system at that time, Ms. Rhee should ask herself whether she provided adequate support or set a new principal up to fail. As the employer, I find her on the record comments about an employee irresponsible, if not slander of a good man and potentially a great principal. Like a noisy boat with a large wake, Ms. Rhee has moved on. Who is left to care about the kids attending Johnson Middle School in substandard conditions?

Posted by: Fredson1 | January 19, 2011 9:32 PM | Report abuse

Few people are able to connect with children the way David Markus, Principal of Johnson Middle School from 2009-10, did. I should know, as I was the director of the tutoring center that Mr. Markus set up at Johnson to help students.
I watched, everyday, as Mr. Markus gained the attention and respect of children
many of whom where labeled troubled, emotional disturbed or worse.

I grew up in SE and know the students who attend Johnson Middle school, and in a neighborhood where dreams die daily, male role models are few and far between and children are disallowed the opportunity to be just that, children, Mr. Markus was a beacon of hope. He never stopped working, thinking creatively about ways to get these children
to succeed. Once, when the tutors and I needed help to teach some math skills to students, Mr. Markus sat with me and taught me new ways to teach basic math that would excite and engage the students. He was always first and foremost about doing right by students.

David Markus was on the way to turning around Johnson Middle school, Had he been given sufficient time, I have no doubt he would have found a way to make it a great school. I know this because in the one year he was in charge, I watched the school and its students change. The school, whose physical plant had been left disintegrating for years, had finally found a spokesperson in Mr. Markus when he secured a huge renovation of the building. He never stopped looking for help to make Johnson great. His collaboration with my non-profit to provide daily tutoring to his students and the private foundation grant he received to build Johnson's first library are proof of that. Together with some of his staff, our tutors were seeing children change, reading more and fighting less. And if that was not reflected in the test scores, it was only a matter of time.


The story of Johnson could have been one of hope, and should require us to look closely at urban education and all the players.

Posted by: newbug05 | January 20, 2011 9:55 AM | Report abuse

I volunteered at Johnson Middle School last year. We started early in the school year. Walking into the school I was shocked at the condition of the school and the behavior of some of the students. Within a few weeks of volunteering, it was apparent that David was familiar with the students. We would be walking in the hallways and he would address each student by their name. It looked like David intending on bringing change to the school, not only by starting a tutoring centers and repairing doors and windows, but by changing the environment of the school. A school system cannot be like a company, if you don’t meet your returns in one year, you can’t fire the CEO. David was working not only to get the test scores up, but to fundamentally change the problems at Johnson Middle School. A change like that at a school like Johnson Middle School is not a one year task.

Posted by: emdot1 | January 20, 2011 4:27 PM | Report abuse

emdot and newbug, Assuming your defense of Mr. Marcus is genuine and deserved, I hope you now have a clear sense of the type of character assassination that Rhee uses whenever it suits her.

Think of the awful stories you heard about ineffective principals and teachers that Rhee fired for the sake of the children. Please consider that that most if not all of them were untrue and simply a means of feeding the Rhee myth by a person focused on self aggrandizement at the expense of innocents, whether they be adults or children.

Think of the kind of fear her employees lived under, knowing their careers could be destroyed at any time by a cruel, casual remark made to a fawning media.

Posted by: efavorite | January 21, 2011 8:11 AM | Report abuse

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