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?

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.


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.

Here’s What I Posted on Michelle Rhee’s Blog at ‘StudentsFirst’

Someone else brought the 1995 study to my attention, and I went through it and tried to pick out the parts that compare the cohorts at Harlem Park when Rhee taught there, to those in other, similar schools. The original 1995 data is here:…

What I discovered is that there is absolutely no evidence whatsoever of Michelle Rhee accomplishing the miracle that she has over and over claimed: raising students from well below the 20th percentile to having over 90 percent of them scoring above the 90th percentile.

As far as I can tell, it looks like there were only about two classes of third graders at Harlem Park during the year 1994-1995, the year that Rhee said that she and her team-mate brought two classes from the very bottom to the very top. And the scores for that third grade cohort at Harlem Park in both reading and math for 1994-1995 appear to be somewhere between the 40th and 55th percentile. At best.

You can also look at my blog,


where I point out the exact pages in that long study where you can look for that information.

Only about 20% to 25% of the students were excluded from having their test scores processed for the study at Tesseract schools, so that doesn’t increase the number of students in the actual classes by very much.

What’s more, I find it extremely interesting and significant that the cohort of students that were in the 2nd grade at Harlem Park appears to have shrunk by nearly 50% by the time they got to the third grade, when Rhee made her so-far-still-unsubstantiated claims of this educational miracle. Exactly how that winnowing out, I can only guess.And my guesses are fueled by my suspicion of Rhee’s notoriously long track record of distorting data.

Care to respond to that, either Michelle Rhee or Mafara Hobson?

Guy Brandenburg

I Got Scooped By More Than Three Years!!

How did we all miss this?

This writer, Jeff Steele, about whom I know nothing at all, found the exact same file that Ed Harris turned me on to, way back in 2007, and this is what he wrote. He makes essentially the same points that I did, only I wrote mine about 3.5 years later, not knowing of the existence of this article. Makes me feel bad. In any case, here is what he wrote:

Rhee Test Score Claims in Doubt

by Jeff Steele — last modified 2007-06-29 08:27

Test score data suggests improvements were not on the scale claimed on Rhee’s resume.

An earlier State of Columbia article described how acting DC schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee’s much-heralded teaching experience in Baltimore was part of an aborted experiment in for-profit management of public schools. That article pointed out that while Rhee claimed fantastic test score gains by her students, test scores for the school as a whole had been disappointing. This suggested that Rhee’s students and done inordinately well. Today, Gary Emerling in The Washington Times, reports that the test score improvements cannot be substantiated and he casts doubt on whether such gains were possible.

Rhee’s resume says the following:

Taught 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.

According to Emerling, Rhee said the test in question was the Comprehensive Test of Basic Skills (CTBS). While it appears impossible to recover test scores from that period, quite a bit of data is contained in a 1995 report compiled by the University of Maryland, Baltimore City. The report includes CTBS scores of Harlem Park 2nd and 3rd graders for the years Rhee was a teacher. That data suggests that Rhee could not have made the gains her resume claims.

According to the Washington Post, Rhee taught 2nd and 3rd graders during her first year of teaching. It says that for the next two years she “and another teacher co-taught a group of 70 students, of which only 13 percent were reading on grade level when they entered the class.” The focus on grade level reading is inconsistent with focus on test score percentiles on her resume (and in the Times article), though in both cases the alleged improvement is from 13 percent/percentile to 90 percent/percentile. According to the Times, Rhee couldn’t remember her class size which is another inconsistency between the Post and Times stories.

At any rate, according to the UMBC report, during the 1993-94 school year, 79 second graders took the CTBS scoring a NCE (similar to a percentile) of 27 on the reading portion of the exam. The Times reports that Rhee taught second-graders that year, so the 79 students taking the exam is reasonably consistent with the 70 students the Post says Rhee taught along with a co-teacher. However, while the NCE score and percentile don’t always match perfectly, there is a big discrepancy between the 27 NCE and 13th percentile claimed by Rhee.

During the 1994-95 school year, the Times says Rhee taught the same students as third-graders. The UMBC report records 56 third-graders who had also attended Harlem Park the previous year scored a 45 NCE on the reading portion of the CTBS. Again, there is a big discrepancy between the 45 NCE and 90 percentile claimed on Rhee’s resume.

Based on the UMBC data, which was obtained from McGraw-Hill data tapes, Rhee’s students’ reading scores would have improved from a 27 NCE to a 45 NCE over the two-year period. This is not a bad achievement, but far from the 13-90 percentile increase her resume suggests.

Moreover, the UMBC report also offers an explanation for at least part of that increase. According to the report, schools managed by Education Alternative, Inc., such as Harlem Park, had a “preoccupation with test scores” and “concomitant use of instructional time for testing and test preparation”. In addition, the EAI schools had a fall testing program in which alternative forms of the CTBS exams were given which created a “small ‘practice effect’ that increases scores.”

Finally, it is noticeable that the number of test takers decreased from 79 second-graders to 56 third-graders. That could also have a significant impact on the scores.

An administration that produces plagiarized education plans and Potemkin review panels would really have to stretch to reach new levels of perfidy. But, if the acting schools Chancellor has a resume containing inaccurate information, Fenty and his cohorts may have done just that.

Update: The Washington Times is running an article today that says Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray is investigating Rhee’s test score achievement claims. The article quotes several Councilmembers expressing dismay at the possibility that the claim may not be true. However, one Councilmember, Tommy Wells (Ward 6) seemed to indicate indifference at prospect, saying “We’re not asking her to be a teacher”.

Published in: on February 9, 2011 at 11:46 pm  Comments (3)  
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Jay Mathews’ Fawning Column

I had no idea that was coming; in fact, it looked as though the lame-stream media had decided to ignore the entire matter.

Mathews makes entirely too much of my researching abilities. It was Ed Harris (thanks!) who alerted me to that report. My understanding of statistics is of an entirely elementary nature.

Unlike some folks (eg MR or leaders of certain religious groups) I make no claim to making miracles happen, to omniscience, or to inerrancy. I like to think I had some successes in the classroom, and I know for sure that I had some failures. Some kids and their parents liked my approach, and some hated my guts. I tried (with some success, occasionally) to show how math was useful in real life. Like most teachers, I worked hard, but always found that the amount of work required was at least double the amount of time I had available and could possibly provide.

Whenever I tried to do any statistical stuff with my own students’ accomplishments on final exams, on standardized tests, or even letter grades, after a year with me,  I was consistently mystified: nothing ever seemed to correlate with anything, or if they did, the correlation coefficients were extremely low. My personal experience in this regard leads me to suspect that there is so much unexplained, seemingly random, variation in human performance, desires, and so on that any sort of ‘value-added’ measurement is going to be bogus.
For the record, since Rhee and her colleague team-taught the entire 3rd grade class at Harlem Park during her last year, then, if you believe the rhetoric of Hanushek, Rhee, and others, then she and her co-teacher were responsible for the growth (or not) of the entire cohort. (BTW: who was that other ‘miracle’-worker? Evidently someone a lot less arrogant and prone to self-promotion than Rhee!)
To quote one of my posts:

“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.”

So, even though half of the students ‘disappeared’, the most that miracle-worker Rhee could do is to get the rest up to somewhere near the 50th percentile.

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.


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.

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.

If I could question Michelle Rhee…

Here are some questions I would like to ask:
(1) How do you respond to documented data showing that under your 2 first full years of leadership in the DCPS, the achievement gaps between the high-achievers and low-achievers have widened by a lot, as shown by NAEP data? (By race, by income, by top and bottom decile, by top and bottom quartile, and many other measures…)

(2) Why do you continue to pretend that there was no increase going on in NAEP scores for DCPS before you arrived?

(3) Why have your claims about your ‘Baltimore Harlem Park’ miracle changed so often? Do you admit that the claim “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” was totally made-up? [quoted from ]

(4) Several people have attempted to find any mention of you and your ‘classroom practices’ in the Wall Street Journal during the time you taught in Baltimore – which you claimed in your resume. None of these searches have been successful. Can you please give us the date and page on which that report was published in the WSJ?

(5) If you discovered that one of your employees had materially falsified their official resume, how would you deal with that employee?

(6) You have made repeated claims that your new principal hires have been experiencing (causing?) much greater growth in DC-CAS scores in their schools than in schools with veteran principals. The data do not show this to be the case; the score changes are essentially identical. [see my January and February blogs] How do you respond?

(7) You wrote ( ) that “….under a new principal at one school, student reading proficiency went from 24 percent to 85 percent in just four years, and from 10 percent to 64 percent in math.” However, this principal is in fact one of the longest-serving principals in DCPS – Wayne Ryan of Noyes Elementary. Do you admit that this was a distortion in which you were attempting to take credit for something that had nothing to do with you?

(8) In the same article, you also wrote “In another [school], only 9 percent of the students were on grade level, when just down the street in a successful charter school, over 90 percent of students were. Same kids, same neighborhoods and exposure to violence, same poverty, hunger, and parent education levels. At the successful schools, the primary difference was the team of adults who decided it was possible for lives and outcomes to move in other directions.” The two schools appear to be Eastern SHS – the very lowest-performing DCPS high school – and KIPP KEY – the very highest-performing charter school in DC. And, furthermore, the KIPP application specifically rules out any student who has ever repeated a grade; KIPP students and their parents are required to agree to longer school days, Saturday classes each week, and a longer school year. Eastern students come almost exclusively from the local neighborhood, where as KIPP students come from nearly all over the city. Do you admit that you were distorting the record?

(9) With regards to IMPACT: As it stands, teachers of ‘value added’ subjects won’t even have a clue as to 50% of their rating until the end of this summer – and they are completely at the mercy of whatever mathematical algorithm your ‘experts’ put together. And, given your history of falsifying data, none of these teachers have any particular reason to trust you. Why did you not do what other school systems have done with similar, large systematic changes, namely try it out in a smaller version as a pilot program, see how it works, mull it over, debug it, and then try it for real the next year (or discard it entirely if it’s unworkable)?

(10) Have you bothered to read Diane Ravitch’s latest book, where she concludes that NCLB and, yes, this entire nation-wide mania for testing and reducing education to test scores, was all a large and tragic mistake?

(11) Harlem Park Elementary in Baltimore wasn’t a very large school. If you were such a successful teacher at Harlem Park, and had really raised 90% of your students to being above the 90th percentile, then how come the school’s scores didn’t rise? Were all of the other teachers at your school incompetent, except for you?

(12) If you were so successful at Harlem Park, why didn’t you remain there and continue the wonderful work with other generations of students?  Oh, I forgot – Edison’s for-profit contract with Baltimore ended just about the time you quit. Since you were (and are) so wonderful, you couldn’t be expected to actually work under a normal city public school system, and couldn’t possibly be expected to join a teacher union. Please ignore this question.

(13) Can you name ANY nation whatsoever that is embarking on the drive for yearly testing, demonizing teachers, eliminating public school systems entirely, and the like?

(14) There has been, to my knowledge, exactly one large study of the effects of Teach for America. [see my blog] The results are essentially nil – though one of the statisticians claims that raising scores from the 14th to 17th percentile is “significant”. How do you respond?

(15) Can you provide the public with the exact, verified, audited DCPS membership numbers? Never in the past has the public had to wait until March for this information. Or do you admit that the numbers haven’t yet been “fixed” for public viewing?

(16) There is concern that your leadership is putting the very least-experienced and least-qualified teachers into classrooms with students who are in greatest need. Can you provide the public with the number of years of experience, and the type of certification [if any] of the current teachers in DCPS, by school? Names aren’t necessary. Or do you admit that you don’t have this information?

That would be a good start. Does anybody have any other questions that you would like to pose?

Published in: on March 24, 2010 at 2:33 pm  Comments (5)  
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