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Posted at 4:19 PM ET, 03/ 3/2011

Rhee: D.C. school bureaucracy makes 'no sense'

By Bill Turque

In her nearly three-and-a-half years as chancellor, Michelle A. Rhee brought waves of changes to the school system's central office. She shrank it by a third, hired a new team of instructional superintendents to help principals improve school performance, and established a "rapid response team" to deal expeditiously with parent concerns.

But in describing the experience to an audience of American University students Wednesday night, Rhee left the impression that the central office remained unresponsive, obstructive and contemptuous of parents, teachers and students.

"You know, I used to walk through the central office all the time and I'd see people who picked up the phone and it was parents who had questions. And they literally looked like they could not be more annoyed to be answering that question," Rhee told a packed auditorium at the Ward Building after a screening of "Waiting for Superman."

The comment was part of an extended answer recounting the ills of the DCPS bureaucracy. "Having run a large public school system, I can tell you that a lot of things the District does make absolutely no sense whatsoever. And so it was an incredibly frustrating environment for a high-performing, motivated principal or teacher to work in, oftentimes. Part of what I tried to do when I came into the system was to give some autonomy, some freedom and flexibility to those schools that were doing well. What the central office was doing was making their lives harder. I thought the best thing I can do is just get out of their way. Let's stop putting all of these bureaucratic things in place where they have to come to this meeting on truancy when they have 98 percent daily attendance. So I think it's important for the central office of a school district to understand that their job is not to lord over schools and tell them what to do. Their job is to be in service of schools, the families the children. And that's so counter to what the current culture is."

Rhee has been traveling the country building support for her new political lobbying organization, StudentsFirst, and speaking out on her favorite issues: tougher teacher evaluation systems that tie assessment to student growth, and an end to tenure and seniority-based layoffs. Other points she made during an hour of questions:

Her Baltimore teaching career. Rhee did not address recently renewed scrutiny of the claim on her resume that after two years 90 percent of her students scored at the 90th percentile or higher. She said only that her three years at Harlem Park Elementary was the transformative experience of her life, and that her students' academic achievement "grew significantly."

On criticism that "value-added" models of teacher evaluation have too much margin of error. Rhee said that while value-added may be imperfect, traditional teacher evaluations, which often involve a quick look by a school principal, are clearly dysfunctional. "The question is, we don't have the perfect model, do we just stay with the really crappy model or do we move towards what we know right now is the best thing we have? Even with all of the research that will tell you there are certainly some issues with the value added growth model. It will also tell you that it is the best measurement we have right now".

On No Child Behind unfairly branding some schools as failing because they miss AYP. "A lot of what you hear is this stuff about these schools that are rated as failing schools and that's demoralizing and so we demoralize people and make them feel like failures because the schools that are rated failing. But they are failing. You have to call a spade a spade."

On charter schools and whether they hurt traditional public systems. "I don't think that charter schools take away at all from a school system. For example here in D.C. because the charter school sector had grown so rapidly and kids were leaving en masse to go to the charter system, that absolutely provided some of the leverage the mayor needed to take over control of the schools. I think the competition and the dynamic they've created is a positive one

By Bill Turque  | March 3, 2011; 4:19 PM ET
Categories:  Michelle Rhee  
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Next: School reform study: Reliance on test scores 'naive'


The lady is a fool.

did she know where she worked? One of the reasons DCPS is the system that it is is due to a wave of autonomy throughout the system that led to disjointed chaos. There was so much autonomy schools and grades were not compatible. there's was no curriculum that made a grade in School A match School B. they had different books, different lesson plans and more. You had poor standards in places and you had solid standards in places.

Posted by: simplewords999 | March 3, 2011 5:26 PM | Report abuse

Bill Turque-

In the Washington Post Guy Brandenburg is referred to as "a former DC math teacher." Sounds innocent enough.

Jay Mathews has said that "Brandenburg's hate for Michelle Rhee can be called a bias."

Brandenburg admits that he was a "member of the 1999-2001 WTU negotiating team." His role as a union negotiator can rightly be called a bias.

Neither of these biases were identified in the Nick Anderson Rhee piece (you link to), which was reprinted in newspapers across the county.

Isn't the fact that Brandenburg was a WTU negotiator (and is identified as a Rhee-hater) hugely relevant to the news reader in assessing his credibility as a source? Why would the Post keep that information from readers?

What is the Post's policy on disclosing bias to readers? Does the Post have a policy? If I say someone lied (and the Post prints it) should my biases be included in the story?

Here's the relevant excerpt from the Post news story:

"A former D.C. math teacher, Guy Brandenburg, posted on his blog a study that includes test scores from the Baltimore school where Rhee taught from 1992 to 1995. The post, dated Jan. 31, generated intense discussion in education circles this week. In it, Brandenburg contended that the data show Rhee "lied repeatedly" in an effort to make gains in her class look more impressive than they were."

Mike DeBonis, before he joined the Post, identified him as a WTU negotiator in his Washington City Paper column.

Are journalistic standards for such things lower at the the Post than at the Washington City Paper?

Posted by: frankb1 | March 3, 2011 5:38 PM | Report abuse

Richard Whitmire:

"What struck me about the backlash Rhee experienced in Washington was the cloak of protection everyone afforded the city’s teachers.

Politicians, parents, Washington Post columnists—they were all quick to rush to the defense of beloved teachers, citing their dedication and years of loyal service.

The fact that the District of Columbia ranked as the worst school district in the nation and that similarly poor, African-American children fared far better in other urban districts (as much as two years ahead in learning) seemed not to warrant a mention.

What mattered was that Rhee was questioning their life’s work."

Full commentary at:

Posted by: frankb1 | March 3, 2011 6:14 PM | Report abuse

frank b 1 fool:
So Brandenberg was a union member and a negotiator a decade ago. Then, go to the sources for some of his rather basic blog posts: Researchers' published statistics and online NAEP stats.
How does that conflict of interest which seems so great to you compare to the conflict of a recent labor contractor, whose livelihood and support for family members depended on selling employment services to school districts such as the one she joined? The teachers placed under these contracts my be service-minded career changers, but there are many $ to be made off securing contracts to place them. Those contracts remained in place, as did Rhee's the credits to Rhee's reputation (and bank accounts?) from service on foundation and corporate Boards during her tenure -- loosely used -- with DCPS.

Posted by: incredulous | March 3, 2011 6:53 PM | Report abuse

This is what is so maddening about her. She gets some of the big issues, but she sabotaged her own efforts by going after all teachers with a blunt instrument (IMPACT). Bill, please devote some of your efforts to the "lording" issue. Bureaucrats should not be in charge of highly performing schools. I am at one and, despite Rhee's self-perceived efforts on this front, we are still interfered with, cajoled, "lorded over", etc. We do amazing things at my school, but we could do more if the incompetent administrators downtown were not involved in our school culture and operations. Please examine the "automony" schools and whether or not the term has currency. At present, it does not in my opinion. The culprit, from our perspective, is Jason "one-size fits all" Kamras and Scot Thompson, who are too young and inexperienced to be in their positions. These bureaucrats need to be held accountable for the damage they are doing in highly functioning schools in the District (and, most likely, all the schools).

Posted by: thetensionmakesitwork | March 3, 2011 6:58 PM | Report abuse

incredulous: I'm for full disclosure in both cases, then let the reader decide. This is about journalistic ethics.

It is unethical and misleading to present a partisan expert as a neutral one. And that is what the Post did here.

The problem here is not the relationship, but the lack of disclosure and the inherent bias that comes from being involved in an organization.

Posted by: frankb1 | March 3, 2011 7:05 PM | Report abuse

IMPACT (and Rhee like reforms) spreads to New Jersey:

N.J. Proposes Way to Measure Teachers

"A Christie administration task force is recommending New Jersey teachers be judged half on student test scores and half on observations of teachers and other methods.

The evaluation system laid out in the group’s report, if approved by the state Legislature, would affect teachers’ pay and tenure. In what his administration is pitching as the “year of education reform,” Gov. Chris Christie is looking to make it easier to fire teachers, create charter schools and pay teachers based on job performance rather than seniority."

Posted by: frankb1 | March 3, 2011 7:13 PM | Report abuse

"incredulous: I'm for full disclosure in both cases, then let the reader decide. "

No, you're not.

At Politics and Prose, you were overheard telling a bystander that working for Miss Rhee was a joy and that you found it infuriating that data from 15.5 years ago was discovered that contradicted the fable Michelle told. You retorted that you didn't care what the data showed, because you believed whatever she said.

Posted by: phillipmarlowe | March 3, 2011 7:38 PM | Report abuse

Hey Bill, check your notes from Rhee's first years. These are exactly the stories and words she used then. The one about the unresponsive front office she was using within the first six months. She uses stories from her first year at DCPS to make it seem like nothing has changed, which is pretty amazing considering that the downtown office was one of her more positive accomplishments.
As for her instructional superintendents, that has been a waste of money. Her "rapid response team" is a joke as well, merely a sop for parents for whom she has little real respect.

Posted by: adcteacher1 | March 3, 2011 8:18 PM | Report abuse

For three years, she was a major part of the bureaucracy that made no sense. What does that say about her? She just talks for the sake of talking.

Posted by: syvetteavery | March 3, 2011 8:32 PM | Report abuse

No sense is, what no sense does. Did she realize that it didn't make sense after the mayoral primaries? I think the headline should have stated that Rhee's bureaucracy was not sensitve. If these are her thoughts currently, wait til the summer. But the biggest statement of all is Who Cares!!!!!! Ask yourself have we cared what Vance, Janey, Ackerman, Jenkins, Smith, Reed, Sizemore and whomso ever else who has held the leadership position of DCPS have thought about bureacracy?

Posted by: mlr1960 | March 3, 2011 9:01 PM | Report abuse

Michelle Rhee:"Part of what I tried to do when I came into the system was to give some autonomy, some freedom and flexibility to those schools that were doing well. What the central office was doing was making their lives harder. I thought the best thing I can do is just get out of their way."

Well, Hardy Middle School was doing well. However, Ms. Rhee did not quite get out of Principal Pope's way.

Posted by: kev09 | March 3, 2011 10:58 PM | Report abuse

What is behind the Brandenburg/WTU intense, obsessive, birther-like hatred of Michelle Rhee?

Richard Whitmire's got it figured out:

"One difference is that the extreme Rhee critics come from left-wing, not right-wing, politics. The nexus of their issue with her appears to be that there’s something about Rhee’s school reforms that is uniquely threatening.

Rhee raises existential threats not presented by voucher conservatives. Rhee wants to curb teacher tenure; overturn “last hired, first fired” layoff policies; and impose teacher evaluations with teeth. Most important, these are not just think-tanky proposals. Rhee actually did all these things in Washington.

The threat, now embraced by several governors, is real and internalized by unions. If teachers’ unions can’t guarantee quick tenure, preserve the last-hired, first-fired rule, and protect members from firings, why pay dues?

But we’re still not at the core of solving this mystery. This is not just about unions. The real nut of this is the threat to the pride of thousands of teachers, especially those in low-performing school districts. For years, they have argued that poverty and single-parent families explain the low performance of their students. Rhee is saying maybe, maybe not"

Posted by: frankb1 | March 3, 2011 11:09 PM | Report abuse

Frank, my class this year is dominated by the problems that some of my students face. Can't share the details, but they are almost exclusively in homes that are affected by poverty and fatherlessness. The psychological/learning/behavioral problems they are experiencing are affecting their ability to perform academically. Neither you nor MR could ever convince me that these issues do not matter. I've put everything I have into trying to help and its a drop in the bucket of what is needed.

Posted by: thetensionmakesitwork | March 4, 2011 12:09 AM | Report abuse

thetensionmakesitwork wrote: "but they are almost exclusively in homes that are affected by poverty and fatherlessness."

I agree that there are huge life challenges for many DCPS students. I suspect you are one of the really good teachers in DCPS, making a difference in their lives nonetheless.

But far too many "ineffective" teachers (to be kind) remain in DCPS. It is frustrating to me (and maybe to others) that good teachers don't speak out, and help rid the system of these "ineffective" teachers (as well as other ineffective DCPS staff).

Posted by: frankb1 | March 4, 2011 12:52 AM | Report abuse

"Speak out", like Dr. Siebens or Eric Martel, and the system will try to crush you.

What's behind this intense, obsessive birther like adulation of Michelle Rhee?

Liberal guilt?

Why can't frankb1 read the UMBC report, especially pages 149 and 152 and offer his opinion of whether or not the data supports Miss Rhee?
Or are his attacks and avoidance of discussion of Miss Rhee's veracity a sign of the instability from seeing your heroine is a fraud?

Great minds discuss ideas.

Posted by: edlharris | March 4, 2011 4:51 AM | Report abuse

Frank, we have agreement that there are ineffective teachers. There are ineffective postal workers, janitors, stockbrokers, CEOs, and place-kickers as well. I would suggest to you and everyone that is so keen to identify the low-performers amongst us (which includes me some days in the classroom) that the hunt to identify and remove them can be overdone. Yes, the teacher union hasn't helped its cause by protecting glaring failures, but lets not make every single teacher pay for the limitations of a few. And I pay for it Frank. I'm paying for the "witch hunt (metaphor, hyperbole)" that you and Rhee and Kamras and Scot Thompson are all fixated on. I love teaching, but I am starting to wonder whether its worth it to deal with all of the BS brought about by IMPACT and the administrators that are driven by the data they receive through testing. Its a fight to keep my classroom focused on learning and thinking and not preparation for eliminating two bad answers and choosing a correct answer. And Frank, the dogs have basically been sent out. 1000 teachers have been replaced (out of 4000) since the Rhee-form era began. Don't hold me to that number its a loose guess. How much blood on the street will satisfy you? I assure you that every teacher in my school is grinding it out and is committed to the students despite the aforementioned BS. We sacrifice our lives and sanity for 10 months a year and we deliver. Please let me know how much sacrifice other people are making for the kids of Washington, DC? Are the lobbyist sacrificing? Are the Nationals/Redskins/Wizards/Capitals sacrificing when they show up at Children's Hospital or when they let school groups sit up in the rafters? Are the bankers grinding it out each day for the kids? How about all the partisans amongst us in this political hornet's nest called DC. Are they fighting the good fight for the kids? I, and most of my fellow teachers, will never be able to afford to buy a property in a decent neighborhood in DC, but I am sure making a contribution to the future of the entire society. I am committed to my students, but is the mayor and the other members of the emminence front really committed to my welfare? You push for accountability, fine. But, take a broad view of the situation and direct your ire towards people and organizations that are letting our entire country down through their greed and avarice. You won't find alot of teachers if you do such a broad sweep. Good day, sir.

Posted by: thetensionmakesitwork | March 4, 2011 6:12 AM | Report abuse

Unions are POS they don't care about kids. Charter Schools will soon take over. It is not rocket science. Get rid of unions now, they ruin this country.

Posted by: drewsands | March 4, 2011 8:48 AM | Report abuse

Home School and Charter Schools and put all the teachers in a Rubber Room. 12% GRADUATE THIS IS SO SO SAD. POOR POOR DELUSIONAL TEACHERS F---Y-- YOU ARE CREATING TERRORISTS.

Posted by: drewsands | March 4, 2011 8:56 AM | Report abuse

"For years, they have argued that poverty and single-parent families explain the low performance of their students. Rhee is saying maybe, maybe not"

If this is a real excerpt from Whitmire's book then he's misrepresenting Rhee's own philosophy.

Rhee is saying “definitely not.” Specifically, in her own words, Rhee says,

"It drives me nuts when people say that two thirds of a kid's academic achievement is based on their environment. That is B.S.," says Rhee. She points to her second graders in Baltimore whose scores rose from worst to best. "Those kids, where they lived didn't change. Their parents didn't change. Their diets didn't change. The violence in the community didn't change. The only thing that changed for those 70 kids was the adults who were in front of them every single day teaching them." URL: 8/23/08 Evan Thomas

“As a teacher in this system, you have to be willing to take personal responsibility for ensuring your children are successful despite obstacles…You can’t say, ‘My students didn’t get any breakfast today,’ or ‘No one put them to bed last night,’ or ‘Their electricity got cut off in the house, so they couldn’t do their homework.” (The Atlantic, 11/08)

“[I have] an unwavering belief in the children of the city, that they can achieve at high levels despite the obstacles they face” Examiner 6/17/10 Thursday morning conference in Georgetown, “Making a Difference: Personal Experiences from Three American Leaders,” sponsored by Accenture.

Posted by: efavorite | March 4, 2011 9:02 AM | Report abuse

I am afraid I am still waiting for quotes from Rhee that describe her students' transformation, beyond the supposed scores increasing. She states this time in her life "transformed" her, but also states she is only reporting what the principal said (scores). Where are her anecdotes that demonstrate the transformation taking place in her classroom, in front of her eyes?
Where does she discuss observing with her own eyes kids who could not read prior to her being "in front" of them, to them reading chapter books? She would have seen huge classroom performance differences, not to mention behavior improvement, as the students would seemingly love coming to school when she was in front of them.
I believe since I have asked you on many different threads, threads where you quote extensively from the Bee Eater book, and other sources, that those anecdotes don't exist. Teaching didn't "transform" her, what transformed her was hearing her scores increased, without the data to back it up. A teacher would know their kids were doing that much better, without waiting for a principal to inform them at the end of their 2-3 years.
Time's up. The anecdotes don't exist, or you would have provided them.

Posted by: researcher2 | March 4, 2011 9:30 AM | Report abuse

There are failing teachers. Some chronically. Most of the failures are temporary, due to personal crises for the teachers. Some failures are chronic, for the duration of the school year, whether attributable to the teacher, to a burden of troubled students, or chaos in the school from which the teacher cannot offer shelter.
If Rhee and her acolytes cared about the educational failures, they would not let them continue during the year. They would intervene. They would not allow ongoing failing classrooms, and they would not permit babysitting by substitutes.
The lesson of "new manufacturing", and then the triumph of Japanese cars in the US market, was that the production line did not just continue when there was a defect. Quality Control was not done, IMPACT style, AFTER the product was badly made and the failure rate was measured by inspection and it was too late.
We have never heard of Ms. Rhee getting classrooms fixed when they were failing.
Would you, frankb1 be comfortable with someone managing a hospital with problems this way, waiting for the infections and deaths she blamed on poor staff to happen, comparing infection rates between wards, nursing stations, and operating rooms, rather than saving patient health and lives as and when they were at risk?
I don't think so.
Ms. Rhee had and still has no more idea how classroom and school organization succeeds than she knows how infections are prevented. She no more understands education than the Washington Redskins owner understands football. Like him, she knows how to make money on the enterprise. She was a players' agent, a labor contractor selling product before, and she's learned nothing but how to expand the demand for new, which she earns commissions for selling, by creating doubt about that which was already in place. Who would be surprised by a specialist in her position spreading rumors about the seriousness of injuries to veterans? Nobody. Has she deluded herself out of self-interest? Does it matter?

Posted by: incredulous | March 4, 2011 11:41 AM | Report abuse

Gee as a parent I found MS. Rhee to personally be the most obfuscating central office official of all. When asked why my neighborhood school which was rightfully consolidated (due to low student numbers) and now a K-8 school was not given a strong instructional curricula program (like IB) where I could send my 7th grader-She responded that she put DIBBLES. I guess I was supposed to be too stupid to know that was an early reading assessment that couldn't remotely do a thing for my 7th grade child. Bureaucratically speaking and to use the bee lady's own jargon -Rhee's approach was crap.

Posted by: rastajan | March 4, 2011 7:30 PM | Report abuse

So, frankb1 has nothing to say about his birther like obsession with Guy Brandenburg and how Guy changed the UMBC report to make Michelle look bad.

Posted by: phillipmarlowe | March 5, 2011 2:06 AM | Report abuse

@thetensionmakesitwork, You make excellent points about-Jason"one-size-fits-all"Kamaras, he is too young and inexperience in his job. Some of his generation are out for blood and guts. They just don't realize that they will be 40-50-60 years of age soon. Payback is a witch.

Posted by: fivetogo | March 5, 2011 2:01 PM | Report abuse

She's right on everything but NCLB- it's not a value added measure, it's based on garbage statistics. Bush and Kennedy combined for an F on that one.

Posted by: staticvars | March 8, 2011 9:30 AM | Report abuse

She was supposed to reform the entire school system but in the end could not even reform her own central admin bureaucracy? Now she gets to bash it? Speaks for itself.

Posted by: itsalltrue70 | March 10, 2011 9:44 PM | Report abuse

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