The Bee Keeper Can’t Understand Why We All Don’t Love His Heroine

You may know that Richard Whitmire got funded by the Broad and Kauffman foundations to write a saint-worshiping biography of Michelle Rhee.

Whitmire (the Bee Keeper) doesn’t understand why so many parents, teachers, students, and others really despise Rhee, those foundations, and everything they stand for. He doesn’t understand why we think that those powerful and wealthy few — that is, his friends — are on the track to destroy everything good and decent and innovative and creative in American public education.

He thinks we are all  ‘birthers’ (conspiracy theorists), and has written his opinion of us here in Education Week.

Since you would probably have to pay to view his smarmy article attacking me and many other honest people, I will do you the favor of printing it here, gratis. Along with others, I will write some comments at Education Week.

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What Is Behind the Discrediting of Michelle Rhee?

By Richard Whitmire
There’s one issue you won’t find in the 270 pages I wrote in my new book about Michelle A. Rhee, who spent 3½ turbulent and controversial years upending the District of Columbia public schools. Why, I kept asking myself during months of research, does Rhee draw such virulent responses from a select group of extreme detractors?

At the time I was writing, I wasn’t sure I had a good answer. But now is the time to take a shot at that question, given that the copycat criticism from her tenure in Washington is following Rhee to her new organization, StudentsFirst, as it spreads to other states.

While researching my book, The Bee Eater, I often shook my head in amazement after reading some of the online comments posted after a Washington Post story about Rhee. Wow, I would say to myself, some people really, really dislike her.

It’s not that Rhee didn’t, and still does, have many supporters. You don’t launch a new organization like StudentsFirst and declare a one-year goal of enlisting 1 million members and raising $1 billion without having more than a few backers.

But why, I kept asking myself, do some of these detractors go to such extremes? This core group of critics—well represented in any online discussion of Rhee and usually writing under disguised identities—seems to have limited interest in debating the school reform decisions Rhee made.

Rather, their goal is “proving” Rhee is a flat-out fraud. The most popular path toward that goal appears to be claiming that Rhee invented her success story as a Teach For America teacher at Harlem Park Elementary School in Baltimore. (Rhee says she started out as an awful teacher disrespected by her students, but eventually evolved into a highly effective teacher.)

From a book-writing perspective, that flap is a relatively minor issue. On the resumé Rhee handed out when nominated to be the Washington schools chancellor, she listed some startling test-score gains her students experienced after she figured out how to teach them. Her claims, she said, were based on what the principal told her.

I interviewed Rhee’s former principal, her teaching colleagues, and her TFA roommates, and came away confident that Rhee did, in fact, turn into a highly effective teacher. Today, with the benefit of hindsight, would Rhee cite exact test-score gains when, in actuality, the records don’t exist to prove them? No way. That was a rookie mistake.

The issue flared again in the last few weeks when a former District of Columbia math teacher produced test scores that he claimed proved conclusively that Rhee couldn’t possibly have achieved significant test-score gains. Those scores, however, can’t isolate Rhee’s actual students. To believe that Rhee pulled off a test-score-scam requires believing that her then-principal, Linda Carter, conspired in the scam. And that’s just the beginning.

“The real nut of this is the threat to the pride of thousands of teachers, especially those in low-performing school districts.”

Also required to be in on the conspiracy are Deonne Medley, Rhee’s teaching intern, who witnessed both the initial chaos in her class and the dramatic turnaround, plus Andrea Derrien, a student-teacher at the time who is now assistant principal at Scotts Branch Elementary School outside Baltimore.

“A year of working with Michelle has left me forever changed,” said Derrien in an e-mail interview, astonished by the flap over test scores. “Michelle proved to me over the course of that school year that regardless of environmental factors, socioeconomic status, parental involvement, or resources, … effective, consistent, and high-quality instruction [can] provide every child the opportunity to successfully access the curriculum.”

Given that Education Alternatives Inc., the Minnesota company hired by then-Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schomke to take the academic reins at failing schools, chose Rhee to act as a mentor/demonstrator for other teachers, the “conspiracy” also requires believing the company deliberately chose a failing teacher to serve as its model. “Her class became the showcase class,” said Medley. “She became the go-to teacher.”

I like a good conspiracy theory as much as the next person, but …

Rhee’s track record in Washington is ripe with data, both local and national. Why not judge her on that and her actual reforms, or her lengthy record building the New Teacher Project? Who cares what happened back in Baltimore?

It took a while, but eventually I heard a familiar tone in these attacks. It was an approach similar to the one the “birthers” have used to discredit Barack Obama. This particular fringe of protesters has no interest in debating President Obama’s policies. They need to deny him at a more fundamental level. They need to expose him as a fraud by proving he wasn’t born in the United States. If birthers can just prove that one fraud, then all the other “bad” stuff, especially the possibility that the nation’s first African-American president might succeed, would go up in smoke.

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.

What struck me about the backlash Rhee experienced in Washington was the cloak of protection everyone afforded the city’s teachers. Politicians, parents, Washington Postcolumnists—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.

Whether you’re a union leader or classroom teacher, threats just don’t penetrate any deeper. Teachers everywhere in Washington, whether highly effective or plainly awful, thought Rhee’s (poorly aimed, in my opinion) criticisms were targeting them. And that was more than enough to launch the birther-style rhetoric about Rhee.

Today, that rhetoric has spread far beyond the question of what Michelle Rhee did or didn’t do in Baltimore. An anecdote intended to be funny that she passed on to new Washington teachers about placing tiny slivers of masking tape on kids’ lips as reminders to be quiet has now become: Rhee taped shut the mouths of small black children! (Read all about it in a recent op-ed published in The Miami Herald by Pat Santeramo, the president of the Broward Teachers Union and a vice president of the American Federation of Teachers, objecting to new Florida Gov. Rick Scott’s alignment with StudentsFirst.) A comment she made amid the “tiger mom” debates about not overly praising children (including her own on their so-so soccer skills) becomes: Rhee’s a terrible mother!

As StudentsFirst reaches more states, the birther-like rhetoric is likely to travel along. And it’s not likely to abate unless Rhee and her organization make no headway and therefore present no threat.

Richard Whitmire, a former president of the National Education Writers Association, is the author of The Bee Eater: Michelle Rhee Takes on the Nation’s Worst School District (Jossey-Bass, 2011). He writes the Why Boys Fail blog on edweek.org.

 

Published in: on March 1, 2011 at 12:54 pm  Comments (24)  

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24 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Whitmire is truly incredible–one of the most thorough party-liners I have ever seen.

    His flim-flam regarding Rhee’s test scores as a Baltimore teacher is really a thing to behold. This part strikes me as most remarkable:

    “I interviewed Rhee’s former principal, her teaching colleagues, and her TFA roommates, and came away confident that Rhee did, in fact, turn into a highly effective teacher. Today, with the benefit of hindsight, would Rhee cite exact test-score gains when, in actuality, the records don’t exist to prove them? No way. That was a rookie mistake.”

    Of course, Rhee didn’t claim to be “a highly effective teacher.” She claimed to be a miracle worker. That said:

    Rhee spent a dozen years building a lucrative career, in significant part on the basis of miraculous test scores she knew she couldn’t verify. She was still pimping these highly improbable scores when she came to DC, nominated to serve as the system’s chancellor. Whitmire refers to this as “a rookie mistake,” as if she was still in her first year of teaching.

    Incredible. The lucrative mystique of Teach for Amnerica has also been built on miracle claims which can’t be verified–claims which are actually contradicted by the basic research.

    Watching Whitmire at Politics and Prose, I really thought I had never seen so thorough a hack in person. Parts of his book are worth reading. But good lord, what a company man!

    (By the way: Those test scores matter because they form the basis for Rhee’s whole theory of “reform,” in which children will do miraculous things if you just stand up and teach them. This ridiculous notion has always lay at the heart of her notion of “reform.”)

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    • Agreed. Rhee’s record matters because it is fundamental to her agenda and policy positions. She believes poverty can overcome anything and preaches that because she says she’s done it.

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  2. michelle rhee
    un, January 30, 2011 10:45:11 AM

    From:
    richard whitmire

    To: Phillip Marlowe
    Mr. Marlowe:

    I’m writing with what you will undoubtedly find an odd question. I’m starting on a commentary about why Michelle Rhee, far more than other school reformers, draws such extreme negative reactions.

    Especially interesting to me is why this group focuses on the “legitimacy” issue, such as whether she did in fact become a highly effective teacher in Baltimore. In some ways it reminds me of the “birther” opposition to Obama: Proving he’s not a U.S. citizen would negate his legitimacy as president.

    I realize you may not agree with that comparison, but I”d like to include quotes from one of Rhee’s fierce detractors in the piece. Nothing complicated or long, just a quick summary explaining the source of your dislike for Rhee. I would show you in advance any quotes I might use.

    thx, richard whitmire

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  3. I think those of us in DC who watched her work learned that she would say anything. I sat in the council hearing room after she had testified that she had to fire those teachers because of unforseen budget reasons. Then Noah Wepman got up and testified that not only did he warn her that there was a looming problem, he gave her alternate solutions to firing. Then she went to a national media outlet and told them the people fired didn’t come into work or molested children. If the resume padding issue were the only time she had stretched the truth I think people would overlook it.

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  4. the reasons people dislike rhee are hardly mysterious.

    1. she’s a liar.
    2. she’s abrasive & disrespectful.
    3. she’s a shill for her rich backers, whom she’s helping to destroy public education & unions.

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  5. RW asks why people hated her here in the Nation’s Capital. While many liked her, the haters (not in order of importance): disliked the way she looked; were incensed that she dare close a school; believe that DCPS is an entitlement and jobs program for teachers; were too close to their pensions; did not like being questioned–about anything; thought that racial politics is always the way to play; believe the DC govt’s job is to transfer wealth. Make sense?

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    • Victimization is a drug.

      It makes all complexity go away. You’re left with Your Own Preferred Story–which may of course be true to some unknown extent.

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    • No, that’s not at all why people despise her.

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  6. Whitmire’s commentary is very interesting, and sounds right to me. The teachers do feel threatened in terms of their profession and their professionalism, and not without reason. M. Rhee was their worst nightmare because she asked–and helped answer–questions that DC superintendents and lazy Boards of Ed never dared to ask. For example, they never tried seriously to reduce the number of school buildings, or have more than a perfunctory teacher evaluation system. She put two and two together–how could the teachers be so wonderful, while students’ achievement is so very low, except for a handful of schools. The downward trend is obvious, yet all help is refused, from anyone, not the federal government, well-intentioned philanthropists, even the lame AFT. The District of Columbia has proven since the early seventies that it cannot manage the schools. Congress and money are not the problems.

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  7. If I ever do something really slimy and sleazy, I’ll get Richard Whitmire to cover for me — after getting a grant from the Broad foundation, of course.

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    • Fine. But where does DCPS go from here? What’s next? What is going to change–for the better?

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      • Don’t listen to the snake oil peddled by the likes of Rhee and Whitmire.

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  8. Guy,
    You and the Post are being attacked by the anonymous frankb1 who claims the data collected in 1995 for the 1995 UMBC report is suspect because you were a WTU negotiator.
    (http://voices.washingtonpost.com/answer-sheet/teachers/school-reform-through-confront.html)

    I wait for Whitmire/frankb1/eduwonk/SarahMead/Hess/Hanushak/ChrisS to accuse you. Jeff Steele or me of going back in time and stealing the data on Michelle Rhee’s 63 students so we could make her look like a liar 16 years later. (or 20 years if you are ChrisSmyr.)

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    • Yeah. I confessed. I never used to scoop up the poop for my dog Nicole either during the early 1960s, either. I wonder who Frankb1 really is.

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  9. Mr. Brandenburg: what is wrong with him being funded by Broad and Kauffman? Four legs good, two legs bad? Have you read his book contract? Do you think he was asked to be objective and independent? Book contracts routinely say that. What is it about the author’s background that lead to subjectivity? I don’t see it in available bio info on him? Is there any source of money, save the kind that paid your salary and now your pension, that is pristine enough for you? Or perhaps he could finance the book for nothing?

    I guess the question for you is: who would be acceptable and qualified to write a book on Rhee, in your opinion? And what would you do to ensure that person was objective?

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    • It would have been different — in my estimation — if he had simply gotten a regular advance from a normal book publishing company.
      The problem that I have is that the Broad, Kauffmann, Walton, and Gates foundations all share pretty much the same agenda with Klein, Rhee, and a host of other people who are currently helping to destroy the good parts of the American educational system. I think it is a real problem that a tiny group of billionaires are trying to force their view onto the entire nation.
      If you find my view unconvincing, you might want to read Diane Ravitch’s recent book on the Death and Life of the American School System. She has an excellent chapter on the Billionaire Boys’ Club.

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  10. I was hoping you would define how pristine a person has to be to write a book about Ms. Rhee.

    Regarding the philanthropists, I don’t think Ravitch or any other critic has convincingly shown ill intent or some kind of conflict of interest. These guys are giving their money away (e.g., Gates has committed almost all of his to world health) and not getting anything in return, except a lot of gas. They’re hardly union-busting robber barons. No evidence of that for this crew. If there is, how are they benefiting? Who is pristine enough to fund improved public education? Oh, I know: the taxpayers. That’s cool, I give at the office and at home all the time.

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    • You have omitted the fact that a large fraction of the money that they give away would otherwise be taxed.

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      • Taxed, yes. Fine. That’s true of every charitable donation, even mine and yours. All purported good works, no?

        But again, Mr. Brandenburg: Who would be pristine enough (objective, unconflicted, above reproach) to write a credible book on Ms. Rhee?

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      • Jesus,
        or Bob Dylan (“To live outside the law, you must be honest.”)

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    • The problem RE Whitmire doesn’t really start with the funding. The problem starts with his obvious sycophancy. When you see someone fawning in such ridiculous ways, you start to look for reasons.

      Parts of his book are worth reading. Most of it is comically bad.

      Ravitch specifically says she thinks the billionaires tend to be well-intentioned. Here’s the problem: They don’t really know what they’re talking about. But through their massive money, they are very influential.

      Whitmire has worked/consulted for the Broad Foundation before this. That wouldn’t bother me if his book wasn’t cosmically awful in the most obvious ways. It may be the most sycophantic book I have ever read.

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      • yeah. what bob said, gorgonzola.

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      • Er, thanks, but Bob didn’t answer my question either. I am getting the impression that you think no one is qualified to write that book.

        I will take the tip about the book’s quality and not buy it. But I think there’s plenty of running room around some of the criticism, including yours, Guy. It ain’t airtight, or even tight, but there are anti-Rhee sycophants cheering you on.

        But if you wanna talk about sycophancy, take a gander at Ravitch. Who is going to write the book about her?

        As a close observer, not an active participant in public education, I wonder who the icons are, besides Ravitch. I am getting the feeling that there are a lot of professors and researchers working at the same very large horse trough, grinding out stuff that never gets used. Look at the state of public education. The horse trough is mainly filled by tax money, and lots of it. A grant is a terrible thing to waste….

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      • Speaking more slowly:

        Many people would be “qualified,” unless they were obvious sycophants or there was some other problem.

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