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From her local post running D.C.’s public schools, Michelle Rhee developed a national profile in the education reform movement. Now she’s trying to leverage that experience with a new organization pushing for nationwide changes. Kojo talks with Rhee about her time running the D.C. system and the lessons she learned from it.
- Michelle Rhee Founder and CEO, StudentsFirst; Former Chancellor, District of Columbia Public Schools
Former D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee talks about allegations that gains made in test results during her tenure were inaccurate due to a high number of erasures on test papers from certain schools within the district. Rhee said that it was an “excellent call” for current DCPS Chancellor Kaya Henderson to proceed with an external investigation into the issue:
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. Later in the broadcast, providing first aid to people when their mental health is what's at stake. But first, we take a look back at the state of health of the Michelle Rhee era of the D.C. public school system, which has been thrust back into the spotlight by a series of reports looking into whether the gains posted by D.C. students on standardized tests during that time were, in fact, legitimate. It's a probe that has once again put local events with D.C. schools into the center of the nationwide conversation about education reform.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIJoining us to look back on her time as chancellor and to explore where things are headed both in the District and across the country is Michelle Rhee, former chancellor of the District of Columbia Public Schools. She's the founder and CEO of the new organization StudentsFirst, an advocacy organization pushing for nationwide education reforms. Michelle Rhee, good to see you again.
MS. MICHELLE RHEENice to see you.
NNAMDIThis is a big two weeks for students in D.C. All across the city, kids are taking standardized tests to measure their progress in reading and math. The progress posted during your tenure as schools' chief has been called into question by the resurfacing of allegations of improprieties that may have occurred on such tests, a USA Today investigation taking a particularly close look at the gains made at Noyes Elementary. Your successor, Kaya Henderson, has called on the city's inspector general to look into the matter. What do you see as being at stake here?
RHEEWell, I actually think that it was an excellent call for the chancellor to call for the I.G. investigation. You know, we took a lot of steps to make sure that testing integrity was a priority with the District when I was there, but because there are all of these allegations right now about Noyes, I just think that it is -- it's better to kind of lift the cloud and make sure that everybody is clear, that the gains were real. And if there were problems in, you know, isolated instances, then those problems should be dealt with directly.
NNAMDIAt first, you pushed back against the story pretty hard. You said that enemies of school reform were once again trying to argue that the world was flat, and that there's no way test scores could have improved for DCPS students unless someone cheated, the implication of the series of reports, but you've tried to walk some of that initial statement back. What are your thoughts about that USA Today series of reports right now?
RHEEYeah. So the part of that statement that I wanted to walk back was the part about the Earth as flat, because I just thought that was a silly part of the statement. And these are -- you know, these are serious issues, now especially with test scores playing a greater role in accountability and teacher evaluation. We have to make sure there's test integrity and good test security, so it absolutely makes sense that people take those allegations seriously. So the Earth is flat part was a little silly.
RHEEWhat I did, though, think was problematic is the fact that the USA Today article took one school in particular, and then, it said, you know, this is, you know, an indication of cheating across the District. And we really had never had any indication that that was the case. When schools were brought to us, where classrooms were brought to us as potentially having an irregular rate of erasures, we actually handed it over to an external investigation company to do a full investigation in each of those cases that -- well, the vast majority of them, they said, you know, there are no -- there's no improprieties. There's no evidence of cheating. And the couple of instances where there were, we took the appropriate actions.
RHEESo we've really never saw any data that would indicate that there was widespread cheating. And I do think that it is extraordinarily problematic to paint the entire District and all of the kids and all of the teachers who put in a tremendous amount of hard work with a broad brush stroke.
NNAMDI800-433-8850 is our number. You can call us, 800-433-8850. You can also go to our website, kojoshow.org. If you have questions or comments for Michelle Rhee. Obviously, one does not want to paint the entire school system with that broad brush, but the number of erasures that were reported in the USA Today series is really remarkable, being compared at one point to being so many that the chances of there being so many erasures by accident is greater than the chances of -- or is less than the chances of winning the lottery or winning the Powerball. What, in your view, could be the explanation for that large number of erasures?
RHEERight. So they were talking, I think, about one particular classroom...
RHEE...and I think in classrooms like that, where there is that large an irregularity, you should absolutely look into it. But, again, we handed that off to external investigators. They run their own process. They're the experts in this, and they said that they found no impropriety. I think if you think about what might be, you know, explanations, I think when children are taught good test-taking skills, which all children should be...
NNAMDIReview, review, review.
RHEERight. And read the questions over again, you know, make sure that you think you've got the answer right. That's a very different stance than, you know, just, you know, bubbling the circles as quickly as you can, to put your head down. So, you know, part of it could be that, but, again, you know, I think that all these allegations should be looked into.
NNAMDII, for one, am reluctant to believe that large numbers of administrators or teachers would be involved in cheating. But what does the episode say to you about the potential dangers of relying heavily on test data to measure the progress being made at schools? It seems there's a lot at stake in these tests...
NNAMDI...and a lot of pressure on the teachers who are preparing the students for them and the principals of those schools.
RHEEI think that, you know, part of what I've heard recently is because there is so much pressure, you're creating an environment where people are going to cheat, and I just think that's so ridiculous. I mean, the vast majority of the educators that I know would never ever compromise their professional integrity simply because, you know, there was -- there's pressure. There's pressure in every job, and, you know, as journalists, there's pressure to get more viewers and readers and listeners, and that doesn't mean that you're going to report, you know, things that aren't true just to make things sensational.
NNAMDISpeak for yourself, but go ahead.
RHEEYou know, what I'm saying? Because you would never do that as a journalist, and I think the vast majority of teachers would never do that.
NNAMDISpeaking of measuring progress, since we last spoke, we've had the chance to talk to the new teachers' union chief, Nathan Saunders, a few times. In fact, it seems his chief priority is calling for changes to impact the system you put in place to measure teacher performance. It's my understanding that there's a study taking place right now on impact, but from your perspective, are there any components to that evaluation system that you think are worth looking at changing?
RHEEWell, I think the entire model is -- definitely should be looked at, and, you know, we should be determining whether the percentages are right et cetera. I think that based on the movement that we're seeing across the country and where people are kind of putting a stake in the ground in states across the nation that the impact really is serving as a model for lots of other states, so I feel good about that. One interesting thing is that there was a study that came out a few months ago that showed that there's a very high correlation between student feedback about teachers and how much those teachers actually...
NNAMDII saw that.
RHEE...gained their achievement levels or grow their student achievement levels, and so that's one thing that I think the District should look at is that another component that they should add in.
NNAMDIBack to the issue of stress on teachers, the point has been made that it's not only the stress on teachers, but when there are financial rewards available to principals and to teachers, if, in fact, test scores are good, that's not necessarily stressful, but it can be, in the view of some people, a motivation for those people who are less than 100 percent honest shall we say, to cheat?
RHEEBut, again, to me, the number that you're talking about is so insignificant. I mean, I just don't think that the vast majority of educators out there are going to say, oh, because of a few thousand dollars, I'm going to compromise, you know, my professional integrity. I just don't think people are going to do that.
NNAMDIWhat lessons do you think the District learned during the years that Michelle Rhee was running the city's public schools? You can call us at 800-433-8850 or go to our website, kojoshow.org, join the conversation there. We will start with Guy in Washington D.C. Guy, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
GUYI have really just two basic questions and some other comments and sort of backup to the question.
NNAMDIWell, let's start with one question at a time.
GUYOkay. And it's addressed to Michelle Rhee. And why does she continue to lie and distort the truth about pretty much everything, everything that has made a difference, that has made her into a national figure, it's all been false?
NNAMDIOkay. What would be your second question?
GUYWhen will she stop?
NNAMDIWhat would be your second question?
RHEEHis second question was when will she stop.
NNAMDIOh, okay. Can you be more specific about what you think Michelle Rhee has not told the truth about?
GUYLet's start with her first thing, the Baltimore miracle that, you know, she supposedly brought all these students from the 13th percentile to the 90th percentile.
NNAMDIMichelle Rhee, how do you respond to that?
RHEEYeah. That's a good question, and I think one that's important to address. So back when I was a teacher, we didn't have value-added reports. I was relying on what my principal at the time told me. I have no reason to believe why she would want to, you know, give me incorrect information, but what we do have available to us is a study that was done overall of the school that I was teaching at, and in particular the grade that I was teaching at. And they show even though you can't separate out my particular kids from the rest of the grade, what is interesting about that study is that it shows that my -- the students that I taught, the grade and the school that I taught at started with the lowest test scores, and ended up after the two years with the highest test scores as an entire grade.
RHEENow, I think that's unfortunate that we can't separate out my individual kids from the other three teachers, but I do think that that shows that a tremendous amount of academic gains were made during that time.
NNAMDIGuy, thank you very much for your call. We move on to Mark in Washington D.C. Mark, your turn.
MR. MARK SIMONYes. Hello.
NNAMDIYes, Mark. You're on the air. Go ahead, please.
SIMONThank you, Kojo. Michelle, I wrote a column in The Post back in 2008, along with two accomplished DCPS teachers, objecting to the whole emphasis under your administration on standardized testing...
NNAMDIMark, what's your last name?
NNAMDIWhat's your last name? You said you wrote a piece...
SIMONMy last name is Simon -- Mark Simon.
NNAMDIOkay. Go right ahead.
SIMONAnd we, in that column, in the outlook section, objected to the whole emphasis on standardized testing, on firing teachers, closing schools, rather than on improving the quality of teaching, as Montgomery County had done. And we formed an organization called Teachers & Parents for Real Education Reform because of that misplaced emphasis under your administration.
NNAMDIWe don't have a lot of time, Mark. Do you have a specific question?
SIMONAnd my question -- I've got a very specific question. My question is about Eraser-Gate, and it's that there's a rumor that that back in 2009, when the allegations broke that there were improprieties, and Deborah Gist, the secretary of education for the state of D.C., wanted to do a thorough investigation. The rumor has it that you and Kaya Henderson and Adrian Fenty prevented her from doing that, and that that's one of the reasons that she left. I wanted you to respond to that.
RHEEThat's absolutely incorrect, and I think that is one of the things that the I.G. investigation will show very clearly. We have documentation of the communications that went back and forth with DCPS and the Office of the State Superintendent for Education, and I think it will very clearly show that though we were looking for clarification about exactly how many schools and how many classrooms were showing irregularities, that there was absolutely an openness to ensuring that we investigated those schools.
NNAMDIEarlier this year, an arbitrator ordered the reinstatement of 75 teachers fired from the system several years ago. The aforementioned, Nathan Saunders and Randi Weingarten, the head of the American Federation of Teachers, went as far as calling your methodology for dismissing those teachers, quoting here, "a secret black box program." How would you respond?
RHEEWell, I think that it absolutely was not a secret black box program. But, at the same time, you know, we couldn't share the information publicly. I think that what we told the union when they asked us for the information was, you're more than welcome to ask your members whether they will send you the information about their evaluations, et cetera, but we cannot give that information to you because of personnel rules.
RHEEAnd I think that if the union wants to say that that means that there's a black box, they should actually talk directly with their members about ensuring that their members are giving them the information that they want.
NNAMDIGot to take a short break. When we come back, we'll continue this conversation with Michelle Rhee. She is former chancellor of D.C. Public Schools, now heading the organization called StudentsFirst, an advocacy organization pushing for nationwide education reforms. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back to our conversation with Michelle Rhee. She is former chancellor of the District of Columbia Public Schools and founder and CEO of the new organization StudentsFirst, which is an advocacy organization pushing for nationwide education reforms. You're an education official, but it's an impossible to untangle what you do from the politics involved. What would you say you learned during the course of those four years about politics, both at the national and at the local level?
RHEEOh, geez. I think I learned a tremendous amount about politics. I've learned, first of all, that it's incredibly important to have very strong and courageous politicians who are willing to withstand some of the opposition that's gonna come with incredibly aggressive school reform, but I also learned about the importance of good communication and getting people bought in to things and really making sure that teacher voices are at the forefront of policy changes as well.
NNAMDIYou wrote a piece for The Huffington Post, in which you indicated not only are you not opposed to collective bargaining on the part of unions but that you felt that collective bargaining is important. Can you explain?
RHEEYeah. Well, you know, I've been out in states across the country. I've been working with some Republican governors. I've sort of seen what's going on. And I think it's very interesting because as a Democrat, I actually believe in employees' rights to organize. I believe in their rights to be able to negotiate at the bargaining table for wages and benefits and that sort of thing. And I think that to assume, which many people had, that by questioning some of the things that are in collective bargaining agreements you automatically wish the collective bargaining would go away, I don't actually think that's true.
RHEEI think that there are so many teachers out there -- and I talk to them every day -- who say, you know what, we actually know that there are things that are wrong with the system. We know that these policies need to change. We know they're not working well. And so, I think sort of a more middle-of-the-road approach of understanding the collective bargaining can be helpful. We just need to focus and then change it in these ways, I think, as more where most people are.
NNAMDIWhat's StudentFirst -- StudentsFirst?
RHEEWe are a national movement. We are a membership organization that is working across the country to try to ensure that the policies and laws that our governing house school districts are running every single day are more focused on children as the bottom line as opposed to adults and jobs.
NNAMDIThe president has already tried to nudge individual states and school districts into making change with his Race to the Top program, which offered financial incentives for states and localities like the District to institute reforms. How would you compare the agenda you're pursuing to the kinds of reforms the administration pushed for with Race to the Top?
RHEEI think they're very similar in a lot of ways if you look at what the administration wanted to incent states to do. For example, they wanted them to have very, very strong evaluation systems, where 50 percent of the evaluation was based on student achievement, that we're also pushing that as one of our policy agenda items. They want staffing decisions to be made on the basis of quality, not seniority. We're also pushing that. Our agenda is also a little broader though.
RHEEWe include a lot of language and legislation on choice, the need for charter schools, vouchers for low-income kids and then also a lot in terms of accountability and actually measuring the effectiveness of the taxpayer dollars that we're spending.
NNAMDIThe name StudentsFirst implies that our education policies as a whole do not consider students first. Whom do we consider first?
RHEEWell, I think it depends on the policy. But in a lot of policies that we enact across the country, we really are looking at adults first. So let me give you an example. We have a national campaign going on called Save Great Teachers, and it's because there are going to be layoffs of teachers that are gonna happen across the nation come this summer. And the way that layoffs are conducted, for the most part in this country, are by seniority, not based on quality.
RHEENow, when layoffs are conducted by seniority, they have three negative impacts. The first is that you end up firing some of the most highly effective teachers in the District. The second is that you end up losing more jobs, more teachers, and more classrooms are impacted because you have to remove more of the junior teachers since they're paid the least amount of money in order to make up the budget deficit. And the last is that it disproportionately negatively impacts the lowest achieving schools in -- the lowest performing schools because they tend to have the largest number of new teachers.
RHEESo we know for those three reasons that seniority-based layoffs are not good for children. Now, if you talk to the unions, they'll say, well, we think it's the fairest thing for the adults. That may be the case, but the question is, in cases like that, are we gonna put the interest of the adults first or are we gonna put the interest of kids first?
NNAMDIHere is Beth in Landover, Md. Beth, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
BETHHi. Thanks for taking my call. I'm interested in the idea like -- it seems like the conversation pits -- you know, StudentsFirst seems to pit students versus teachers. I mean, you were just saying that, like, they're the concerns of the adults and it might be in the best interest of the adults to maintain the seniority layoff system, but it's not in the best interest of the children. And it seems like that's actually part of the problem as we try to sort through education reform.
BETHTeachers are obviously very, you know, very on the edge right now and feel like they're being vilified in that their needs and that their well-being isn't somehow important to this.
RHEEYeah. I would totally disagree with that because, first of all, a huge percentage of the members of StudentsFirst are teachers, and the vast majority of effective teachers that I talk to every day also disagree with seniority-based layoffs. And these are not just new teachers. There are senior teachers as well who say, you know what, it drives us nuts when we have ineffective teachers in the classroom. We don't wanna protect those people any more than anyone else does.
RHEEIn fact, I think there are no group of people who want to remove ineffective teachers from the classroom more than effective teachers because it makes their job harder. So I don't think it's a kids versus students -- sorry, teachers versus students dynamic at all because there are so many teachers who actually agree with our policies and agree that a lot of things need to change.
NNAMDIWe got this email -- and thank you for your call, Beth. We got this email from Delabian (sp?) who says "Why did you never highlight your systems successes? Last year, you had five national merit semifinalists at Wilson High School, as many as St. Albans, and you did not celebrate it. This year, you have two at Wilson and one at School Without Walls more than several respected private high schools. It always seemed that your fame was based on proclaiming that everything was awful in this predominantly black school system."
RHEEI totally disagree. We absolutely did celebrate the positive things that were going on in the District as well. For example, last year, School Without Walls was a Blue Ribbon winner, meaning that it was one of 300 schools across the nation that have that distinction. We had a press conference there. Arne Duncan came, who's the secretary of education. So we absolutely did a tremendous amount to try to highlight the successes as well with our AP scores or SAT scores, et cetera. I'm not -- I can't guarantee you that those things were always picked up by the media in the way that we would have liked to, but we absolutely tried to ensure that people understood that very positive things were happening in the District as well.
NNAMDIAnd back to StudentsFirst. It seems that so many of the changes that you're looking for would have to come from decisions made at the local level, in places that often have their own distinct political environments, political coaches, just like D.C. How do you implement a nationwide strategy that takes into account all of the unique challenges you may face on the state-by-state, county-by-county, city-by-city level?
RHEEIt's a great question. The way that we're gonna do that is actually to activate our members. So we have members across the nation right now. It's almost 200,000. And we just got started in...
NNAMDIYou just got started yesterday.
NNAMDIHow can you know 200,000 members?
RHEEWe have 200,000 members already.
NNAMDIWho's funding it?
RHEEActually, right now, it's just been the members that have funded us, people who, you know, are paying membership dues, who have put in contributions. We've brought in over $4 million already, and all through small contributions. I mean, the average contribution to our website is $63. And what we do...
NNAMDISure you're not running for president? But go ahead, please.
RHEE(laugh) No, no, I'm not one for politics. But what we do at each state is we let other members in that state know what the legislation and what the laws and policies look like in their state. And then we activate them to take action based on what their particular jurisdiction is doing or not doing.
NNAMDIAre your kids still in D.C. Public Schools?
RHEEThey are. They are at Deal. My eldest -- and she loves it there. And then my youngest is at Oyster.
NNAMDIHere is Susan in Washington, D.C. Susan, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
SUSANHi, Kojo. Hi, Michelle. Thank you...
NNAMDIHi. Back at you.
SUSANHi. I guess I'm going back to erasure gate here. I've got just a quick observation and a quick question. I'm a professor at Rutgers, and I've been teaching at the university level for about 15 years. And in my own observation, and I admit that this is unscientific, students over the years, about 70 percent of erasures I have found to be changed from the right answer to the wrong answer. And that, you know, this -- that the possibility that somehow better test taking skills, as you suggested before, might be driving students changes from the wrong answers to the right answers, it doesn't make sense, because presumably, by the time students get to Rutgers, they've got pretty good test taking skills already. So I'd just like you to, sort of, reconcile that. And the second thing is just, you know...
NNAMDIOkay. Let's deal with the first thing first because we're running out of time.
RHEEYeah. So this is actually an important point because -- just because you have a high number of erasures does not mean that a school is -- should be investigated. Because if you have a high number of erasures but, as this person said, those erasures were from right answers to wrong answers or there were stray marks on the paper or something like that, or the school, or the classroom actually saw a decreased in their test scores, then that's really not a worry that you're going to have that something -- you know, some kind of cheating was occurring. So you have to look at the places where there weren't irregular number of erasures coupled with a dramatic rise in test scores.
NNAMDIDo you feel, however, that the emphasis on test scores, and I guess this is a one of the main criticisms of school reform, comes from people who say the emphasis on test scores does not look at the overall educational accomplishments of our students and that emphasis on test taking does not necessarily mean that my child is getting a quality, rounded education?
RHEESo I think that that's actually something that we always should consider. And that's why, you know, when we were in the District, the mayor and I, made sure, for example, that when the budgets were cut that we weren't cutting important things like art teachers and music teachers and P.E. teachers because we did believe that access to a broad-based curriculum was incredibly important for every child and that -- what children are learning can't all be reflected in standardized test scores.
RHEEAnd I think it's also important to note that in D.C., the standardized tests only occur with a certain subsection of children. So that for those classes and for those teachers who are teaching an untested grade in subject areas, there have to be other ways of ensuring that student achievement is happening.
NNAMDIMichelle Rhee is the former chancellor of the District of Columbia Public Schools. She's the founder and CEO of the new organization, StudentsFirst. That's an advocacy organization pushing for nationwide education reform. Michelle Rhee, thank you very much for joining us.
RHEEThanks for having me again.
NNAMDIWe're gonna take a short break. When we come back, mental health first aid. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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