The Lies by Which Saint Michelle Built Her Brand

Bob Somerby of the Daily Howler and ‘Jersey Jazzman’ have some analyses of the lies peddled by my former chancellor, Michelle Rhee. I recommend reading (or re-reading) them. Disclosure: I was one of the ones who looked at the original UMBC study and found that Rhee absolutely did NOT bring a class of up to 70 students from below the 13th percentile to over the 90th percentile.

Somerby on Rhee’s fraudulent claims of success in Baltimore:

  1. part one  (at the bottom)
  2. part two (at the bottom)
  3. part three (at the bottom)
  4. part four (at the bottom)
  5. part five (as usual, at the bottom)

Jersey Jazzman on the same:

The fact that the Washington Post and other media and various billionaires continue promoting this serial liar (Rhee), and that interviewers like Jon Stewart don’t call her on those lies, is truly sad.

I’d like to quote the conclusion of Somerby’s part four:

In that telling of Rhee’s tale, you see the germ of the current idea of “educational reform” which has been pimped by our billionaire and “journalist” classes.

Note what Rhee said about the reason for her vast success. She didn’t engineer that miracle because she was super-smart. More specifically, she didn’t engineer that miracle because she was “a great teacher.” She didn’t succeed because “she found unconventional but effective ways to teach reading and math,” the explanation Jay Mathews offered when he told Rhee’s miracle tale one month later. Sorry! In the tale that was told to Thomas, Rhee had produced her astounding results because she was willing to work hard. The key to Rhee’s success was “sweat,” Thomas quoted her saying.

The inexperienced teacher had simply worked hard! She had stood in front of those children “every single day;” while there, she’d been willing to “teach them!” This of course implies the claim—the ugly, simple-minded, remarkable claim—which lies at the heart of Rhee’s “reform” ideas:

Why do lovely, deserving, low-income kids lag behind national norms in the classroom? It happens because their teachers are lazy—too lazy to stand up and teach them! Because their teachers—who are “shitty,” as Rhee told Mathews—refuse to do their jobs! (my emphasis – GFB)

Truly, that’s a remarkable claim, but the claim has a long provenance. For whatever reason, elites have always been drawn to this claim; this dates at least to the 1960s, when the nation’s movers and shakers began to wonder what could be done to improve inner-city schools. On Monday, we’ll offer a quick review of this history. For today, let’s reflect on the way this remarkable claim has affected ideas of “reform.”

Why don’t poverty children meet national norms? It’s because their teachers are lazy! This idea is remarkably simple-minded—but it makes life remarkably easy for a big public figure like Rhee. How sweet it is! As educational reformers, she and her colleagues don’t have to come up with “effective ways to teach reading and math;” they simply have to threaten the teachers! After all, those teachers would produce huge success if they’d simply get off their asses and teach, the way Rhee did, back in the day.

If public school teachers would just get to work, they’d produce miracles too!

What a life! Michelle Rhee’s simple-minded idea makes life easy for “educational experts” and for “education reformers.” The teachers already know what to do! All the “reformers” have to do is threaten them, fire and bribe them! This approach has lay at the heart of Rhee’s ministry, in which she has produced almost no ideas about how to succeed in the classroom.

America’s teachers just won’t do their jobs! Has a major movement ever been built on such a simple-minded idea? But Michelle Rhee’s simple-minded idea of reform has always been built on her miracle tale—a miracle tale in which she worked amazingly hard, a tale which never happened.

No, she didn’t produce those results. Why then have so many elites worked so hard to believe her?

Scooped Again – By the Washington Times in 2007!

Scooped again.

I see now that my own analysis (and dismissal) of Rhee’s claims of stupendous success in the classroom, based on the UMBC study written by Lois Williams and Lawrence Leak in 1995, came about three years later than a fairly objective analysis in the Washington Times, dated June 28, 2007. Here is most of the article, with the parts highlighted that I think are important.

 

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D.C. Mayor Adrian M. Fenty’s choice to reform public schools has been unable to provide proof of the remarkable student improvement she achieved during her brief teaching stint in Baltimore.

“We were told that these kids came in on this level and they were leaving on average at this level,” said D.C. schools chancellor-nominee Michelle A. Rhee, who has noted a dramatic improvement in student test scores in her resume.

“I didn’t think to ask back then for solid documentation or proof or any of those things,” she said. “As a new teacher, I didn’t think those things were particularly relevant.”

Mrs. Rhee, 37, began her three-year teaching career at Harlem Park Community School in the 1992-93 school year through the Teach for America program.

In the 1993-94 school year, when she taught second-graders at the inner-city school, those students had scored at the 13th percentile on standardized tests.

By the end of the 1994-95 year, after Mrs. Rhee had taught the same students as third-graders, 90 percent of them scored at the 90th percentile, according to her resume.

Mrs. Rhee said the test results were achieved on the Comprehensive Test of Basic Skills (CTBS).

Her biographical information on the mayor’s office Web site (http://dc.gov/mayor/news/) and on the Web site of her former nonprofit — the New Teacher Project (www.tntp.org) — both say such “outstanding success” in the classroom earned Mrs. Rhee national media acclaim.

But education experts note that most low-income schools have a high student-turnover rate and Mrs. Rhee taught her students as part of a team. Tying the percentile jump specifically to her is extremely hard to do, they said.

“Although there were some significant gains for third-grade Title 1 students in reading [during Mrs. Rhee's tenure], there is nothing that would establish a sufficient evaluation link between that particular population of students and any particular individual staff member,” said Ben Feldman, who is in charge of testing for Baltimore schools. “You couldn’t go there.”

In addition, establishing a precise link between student achievement and Mrs. Rhee’s performance in the Baltimore school system is difficult in part because of dated information systems and antiquated storage.

Mr. Feldman said retrieving data from a decade ago is hard because his office changed its information storage systems for the year 2000.

Still, the normal curve equivalent score (which is similar to a percentile) on the CTBS for Harlem Park second-graders was 27 in reading and 43 in math in the 1993-94 school year, according to a 1995 report published by the University of Maryland-Baltimore County.

The report also shows that third-graders at the school for two years achieved a score of 45 in reading and 51 in math in 1994-95. The report does not break down scores by specific class and excludes some students from the totals, including those who received special-education services.

Those scores show significant gains at Harlem Park, but the question remains whether they support the remarkable gains highlighted by Mrs. Rhee and her backers.

“It’s nothing to sneeze at at all,” said Mary Levy, director of the public education reform project for the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs. “The only question is where does this 90 come from. Ninety [percent] is amazing. You get that kind of score at schools attended by advantaged children.”

Figures contained in the university study also show that Harlem Park’s elementary enrollment fell from 523 in 1992-93 to 440 in 1994-95.

Mrs. Rhee, who was in her early 20s while at the school, said she did not remember the size of her class.

Her time at Harlem Park coincided with an experiment by the Baltimore school system to let a private company — Education Alternatives Inc. (EAI) — manage nine out of 180 city schools, including Harlem Park.

The Maryland study, which focused on the EAI experiment, and a follow-up report showed that the project elicited little progress in CTBS scores among its students.

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Me again:

The whole thing is so bizarre – and typical of Rhee and her star-struck, reality-defying acolytes.

Rhee claimed very specific (and incredible) gains among her students. Admits that she had no actual data whatsoever – she didn’t even remember how many students she had – which means that she made the whole thing up – but pointedly refuses to admit that. She claims that there was national press coverage of her amazing success, and cites various publications (without, however, providing any dates). When I and other investigators look into those publications (such as the Wall Street Journal), we find no such acclaim at all. When I and other investigators look into the actual CTBS data for the time period, we find no evidence whatsoever of any such unprecedented, extraordinary gains.

Then, well-paid, right-wing ideologues like Rick Hess attack me (!!) for supposedly playing loose with the statistics – but exonerate Rhee for making up a pleasing fairy tale, and claim that perhaps her claims are true, but that none of her students were tested (!!!!!). One rather obsessed Rhee-lover, Chris Smyr of Eduwonk (I think), goes on to make the outrageous claim that the principal author of the UMBC study has no right to comment on my conclusions that Rhee made all of her claims for success up!!

Meanwhile, Rhee continues to make claim after claim in the national press — claims that go against all evidence, but which are accepted at face value by almost the entire establishment press, with the exception of Valerie Strauss, a paid blogger/reporter for the Washington Post. Jay Mathews, the most-printed WaPo education writer, appears to realize that Rhee made up nearly all of the claims that got her the job as DCPS chancellor, but he doesn’t quite come to the correct conclusion — which is that she is a fraud from beginning to end.

 

Is She A Liar, or is She Merely Stupid?

I have been asked about the “argument” made by Rick Hess that perhaps none of Rhee’s students were actually tested in Harlem Park, and therefore we can’t tell anything about whether Rhee achieved the miracle that she claimed, so therefore the vitriolic blogger Brandenburg is full of it.

His argument is laughable.

The kids who had no test scores reported, according to the study itself, were those who were

(a) absent during the testing time period,

(b) enrolled at the school after February 1, or

(c) were in severe special education categories and thus were exempt, or

(d) students who put their heads down and didn’t answer anything at all, or scribbled all over the test, or some such thing, and thus were given a score of “1″. (I left this reasons b and d originally)

As far as I understand, there were no other reasons to exempt students. Anybody find any such reasons? In any case, NONE of those groups of students are the ones that Michelle Rhee could possibly be boasting about.

I agree that it is awfully suspicious that only sixty-four percent of the students at Harlem Park had reported test scores in 1994-5. No other school in the entire study had such low numbers (the next-lowest percentage is in the mid-70s; most are in the 80s to 90s). Of course, back then, it was rather common for principals and unethical teachers to subtly encourage their low-performing students to take testing week off, or to allow them to put their heads down or doodle during the test, or else to send them to a special room to watch films during testing period, and so on. That raises the scores for the remainder.

I can’t think of any good, legitimate reasons for the low test-reporting rate, and I have also publicly worried, in print, why the number of students tested AND the entire cohort that Rhee and her colleague taught at shrank so drastically from grade 2 to grade 3 at HPE. Such a high percentage of missing scores only occurred at that school, and at none of the other ones, either Tesseract or regular Baltimore Public schools. It makes me think that the principal at Harlem Park at that time was not doing her job.

Keep in mind that Rhee has said and written many times that she AND her team-teaching colleague raised the scores of the entire group of 70 students from the bottom to the top, i.e, from the 13th percentile to 90% of them above the 90th percentile. She uses the word “we” a lot in this regard, and of course, later, claimed that she learned about the scores from her principal, but, of course, conveniently has no records.

Let’s do a little math. There are reading scores reported for 43 third-graders at Harlem Park in 1994-5. The overall fraction of students at the school with scores reported is 64%. That would mean that there were probably about 67 third-graders overall. There is no evidence whatsoever in the report of reporting or testing irregularities at Harlem Park, except for that 64% figure. But 67 kids is more like three classes, not four classes, it seems to me.

But then again, it might just be, if you believe Rhee’s boasts, that she and her colleague taught every single one of them. (After all, 67 is less than 70.)

If you believe it is likely or possible that only 10 of Rhee & Colleague’s students got tested and that 9 out of those ten got scores at the 90th percentile — while all of the other students in that other, non-cooperating teacher got tested and they scored really low, then I would say this:

(1) I have a nice bridge in Brooklyn that I’d like to sell you.

(2) You have no understanding whatsoever about statistics or probability.

(3) Even, if by some miracle, this actually happened, then:

The only HONEST thing Rhee could have said was, “I lost all of my class data for all of my students, lost all of my roll books, and somehow almost every single one of my students was absent on the entire week that the CTBS was administered, and I forgot to call any of their parents to please, please bring their children to school that week. But, of the ten students in my and my colleague’s class that DID get tested, well, 9 of them did really, really great!”

Or else, perhaps Rhee simply found that at some unit of study, she and her colleague taught some unit of study, and over 90% of the students got scores of 90% or better on this teacher -made test (or perhaps it was one that was purchased from some commercial venture — and the company claimed that the test was ‘nationally normed’ or some such foolishness).

My response would be, “That’s nice. Good for you.”

But I would continue: “Michelle, don’t you know the difference between a teacher unit test and an actual, nationally-normed, standardized, comprehensive, end-of-the-year test like the CTBS? Didn’t you take any educational statistics courses at all? And how come you don’t have any records whatsoever to prove this, and yet you have boasted over and over and over again about this miracle that didn’t happen? Are you just full of chutzpah, or are you just stupid?”

So, I am going to revise my conclusions a little bit. It is now a tossup

(a) She’s a bald-faced liar

b) She’s stupid and clueless and can’t keep records, and doesn’t understand the first thing about educational statistics.

Either way, she has no business running any of the following:

(a) a business recruiting long-term subs (NTP)

(b) any school as a principal

(c) any school district as a superintendent or chancellor

(d) advising any governor or educational body whatsoever about anything. Unless that ‘something’ be how to lie and get away with it.

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Aside: It’s no surprise that Rick Hess, who gets paid big bucks to prostitute his intellect for the right-wing millionaires and billionaires who fund the American Enterprise Institute, leapt to the defense of his personal friend, Michelle Rhee, since she is basically in the same boat. Me, I do this entire body of research and advocacy for precisely no financial remuneration whatsoever, and I am not going to go around asking billionaires or ordinary people for any funds for it. This, however, won’t prevent folks who are rabidly anti-public-employee-union for saying that I am receiving millions of dollars from a dastardly union plot to take over the nation, and that teachers are selfish and only in it for the money. If it weren’t such a serious situation, it would be laughable.

The Rhee Miracle Examined Again – By Cohort

Unless I get some more hard data, this will be my last column on the so-called Rhee miracle in Baltimore.

Here I will attempt to follow four different cohorts of students through Harlem Park Elementary, one of the Baltimore City public schools that was taken over by Tesseract/Edison company for several years in the early-to-mid-1990s and failed. Using publicly available data, I graphed the average percentile ranks of groups of students as they went through Harlem Park in first grade, then second grade, then third grade, and so on. If there’s a blank in my graphs, it’s because the data isn’t there.

I highlighted the classes where Michelle Rhee was teaching. In her last year, the scores did rise some, but nowhere near what she claimed. In her first year, they dropped almost as low as they can go. If Tesseract/Edison had been using the IMPACT evaluation system she foisted on DCPS teachers, she would have probably been fired after the first year!

Look for yourself:

Why does this matter?

Simply because I think it’s important for the public to know that the main spokesperson for the movement for additional dumb standardized testing, for teaching to the test, and for firing teachers based on those dumb tests, would herself have been fired under those criteria.

And she has lied repeatedly about that, and has repeatedly claimed that she performed some sort of miracle when she was teaching in Baltimore: a miracle that no-one else has ever, ever achieved.

Voters in DC, to their credit, saw through her lies and voted Adrian Fenty out of office largely because of her lies (I think) and the horrible effects she had on DC public schools. Yay! But in the rest of the country, people probably only know her because of adoring media coverage that paints her as some sort of saint; she has become an advisor to several right-wing Republican governors who think that the key to educational success is breaking teacher unions.

The public has the right to know about what a liar she is, and to judge accordingly.

PS: my data source is here.

The Secret to Raising Test Scores? (Part 2)

As I have pointed out, one of the easiest ways to improve test scores in a class or a school is to get rid of the students who generally score low, and to retain the ones who do well. I suspect that may have been the secret behind the fact that Michelle Rhee, after two years of complete and utter failure with her second-grade classes, finally managed to raise the scores to somewhere near the 50th percentile mark.

It appears that the ‘weeding-out’ was pretty drastic.

The cohort that started the first grade at Harlem Park in 1992-1993 had 84 students, probably 3 or 4 distinct classes.

When they arrived in the second grade in 1993-1994 and endured Michelle Rhee’s second failed year of teaching, they still had 83 students – probably 3 or 4 classes again.

But when this cohort arrived in the third grade in 1994-1995, Rhee’s “miracle year”, their numbers dropped by nearly half, to only 44 students. I doubt strongly that so many students dropped dead. I can’t prove it, but I would not be surprised if the school (and Rhee) ‘counseled out’ the ones who were doing poorly, and kept the ones who had high test scores.

You may be wondering if the same thing happened at other Edison schools and at the regular Baltimore public schools that were used for comparison purposes. Look for yourself at the graphs below – and I think you will conclude that while some of the cohorts in some of the schools had small rises in populations, some went down a little bit, and some stayed about the same. NONE OF THEM HAD SUCH HUGE DROPS AS WE SEE IN MICHELLE RHEE’S “WONDER YEAR.”

(By the way, this trick doesn’t always seem to work. The first grade in 1991-2 at Harlem Park had 102 students, and scored at the 63rd percentile in math in the spring. The next year, they were promoted to the second grade, and only had 77 to 84  students, depending on which count you follow, and they had Rhee as one of the second grade teachers. The average percentile rank of this cohort fell from the previous (respectable) 63rd percentile to an abysmal 18th percentile. As someone might say, echoing Michelle Rhee’s recent interview with Harry Jaffe,

these kids were getting screwed because people wanted to blame their low achievement levels on the single-parent households and on the poverty in the community. In that two-year period, none of those things changed. Their parents didn’t change. What changed? What we were doing with them in school.”

Well, if she wants to take credit for a 20-percentile rise in scores from 1994 to 1995, then she needs to take the blame for a 45-percentile-point DROP from 1992 to 1993, even with the weeding out.)

As has been the case for my past several data-driven posts, all of these tables and graphs were made by me from the tables in the appendices to the UMBC Evaluation of the Tesseract Program in Baltimore City, written by Lois C. Williams and Lawrence E. Leak in 1995. You can find it on the web at this URL.

Answers to the Latest Quiz on the Baltimore-Rhee “Miracle”

Here are the answers:

(1) There is not a single Baltimore Edison/EAI/Tesseract school at which students in math jumped from the 13th percentile to above the 90th percentile, in either CTBS reading or math, at any grade level, during the period 1992 through 1995.

(2) The school where Michelle Rhee taught was school O (with a yellow background).

(3) The ones that were run by Tesseract/EAI/Edison were schools J, L, O, R, and S. The regular Baltimore public schools were schools K, M, N, P, and Q.

If you group the two sets of schools, results appear to be about a wash.

This study is pretty conclusive evidence that Michelle Rhee was flat-out lying in her resume, in her testimony about her resume, and in her interview last month in the Washingtonian magazine.

Here are the graphs again, with the names of the schools written in:

If we were to use the criteria of Jason Kamras, Eric Hanushek, and Michelle Rhee, then Rhee should have been fired after the first year or two.

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Why does this resume flap still matter?

Simply because this person, who is proven to be a repeated liar, continues to nearly dominate the national discussion about “reforming” public education. (read: destroying public education) She has absolutely no shame about lying to the public with an absolutely convincing demeanor. Perhaps she believes her own lies. If that was the only problem, nobody would care. But there is a problem: she is succeeding in demonizing teachers in general and in steering the public away from the real changes that need to happen in the American public educational system, and towards changes sought by the same billionaires who are plundering the entire planet, widening the gap between the wealthy and the rest of us, and who recently threw millions of Americans out of work.

PS: here is my data source.

Now a Quiz on the Baltimore Rhee CTBS Math Miracle

You have another quiz, this time to see if you can deduce what school Michelle Rhee performed her Baltimore CTBS mathematics miracle in. As I have pointed out in previous posts, Rhee claims that she took her students from the 13th percentile (extremely low) to above the 90th percentile (you can’t go higher than 99th percentile) on national standardized tests in “academics” – so that, presumably, includes mathematics.

I randomly chose 5 of the seven Tesseract/EAI/Edison schools, and also five of the eight comparison-group regular public schools. For each school, I converted the NCE scores to percentile ranks for the 2nd grade in years 1992, 1993, and 1994, and for the 3rd grade in 1995. Finally, I again used a random-number generator to scramble up the order of the schools.

So, you have two challenges:

  1. In which of schools J-S did Michelle Rhee work this miracle? (Remember, there were only two third grade sections during her final year teaching, and she was team teaching [perhaps with the other third-grade teacher] so the jump should be extreme!)
  2. Which ones were regular public schools, and which ones were run by the for-profit EAI/Tesseract/Edison corporation? (Five are in one group, and five in the other.)

Here is the data (which I double-checked this time):

Small technical note: you cannot add, subtract, divide, multiply or take averages on percentiles. You can do all of that with NCEs, but NCEs are a lot harder to understand for most people than percentiles are. Rhee gave her results in terms of percentiles, so I am following suit.

Published in: on January 28, 2011 at 7:02 pm  Comments (6)  
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One Way to Raise Test Scores: Get Rid of the Special Education Students

The easiest way to raise average test scores in a class or a school is to eliminate the ones who present problems: those requiring special education services, recent immigrants with little English ability and little education in their home country, and so on. If you eliminate the students who are often difficult to teach and who tend to have low scores, then you can look like a winner, because your average scores will rise — and those of your “competitors’ will fall. Without doing anything about our national problems.

(Ain’t educational competition grand?)

Judging by what the for-profit Tesseract/EAI company did in Baltimore back in the first half of the 1990′s, when they were awarded a contract to run seven elementary schools, it looks like they may have done just that. (But their scores STILL weren’t anything to brag about!).

Why do I bring this up? Because recently-departed Chancellor of DC Public Schools, Michelle Rhee, supposedly performed various miracles in one of those Tesseract schools, starting in 1992-1993 and going through SY 1994-5. The name of the school? Harlem Park.

See for yourself:

As you can see, the percentage of students eligible for Level 4 special education services in the two official comparison groups of regular public schools, grades 1-5,  stayed pretty constant during the entire 4-year experiment: somewhere between 6% and 8% of their students were identified as Level 4 special education.

Not so in the seven Tesseract schools, though. The percentage for the entire group of EAI schools went from 8% SPED to 2% SPED, which means that the proportion of students in those schools eligible for special education services dropped by three-fourths!!!

At Harlem Park, too, the proportion of students in special education during that time period dropped drastically – by 70%.

Did this weeding-out of Special Education students have anything to do with Chancellor Rhee’s alleged miracle? (remember: she claimed on her official resume that she

“[t]aught in Harlem Park Community School, one of the lowest-performing elementary schools in Baltimore City, effecting significant measurable gains in student achievement. Over a two-year period, moved students scoring on average at the 13th percentile on national standardized tests to 90% of students scoring at the 90th percentile or higher.“) [emphasis added by GFB]

Stay tuned for more results.

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