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The end of Michelle Rhee

- May 20, 2013

Many of you are probably aware of this already, but it was news to me. It’s about education reformer Michelle Rhee. I’ll hand the mike over to Mark Palko:

Rhee’s record mainly shows a pattern of intense self promotion, often the expense of students:

She appears to have started her career by greatly overstating test score improvements during her Teach for America days;

As an administrator, she was charged with abusing her authority to political ends:

and covering up a major cheating scandal;

She lent her political capital to anti-labor measures only tangentially related to education (but vital to her allies);

She oversaw the creation of a convoluted metric that assigned the top ranks to schools she and her allies were responsible for (despite those schools’ terrible performance on the very metrics Rhee had previously championed);

And she endorsed a Bobby Jindal  initiative which pretty much guaranteed wide-spread fraud.

Following the links, I found some further discussion here and here from a couple years ago that makes Rhee look pretty bad.

Palko describes Rhee’s success as an “affinity con”:

Affinity cons work in large part because when people see someone with similar background and cultural signifiers, they assume other similarities: common goals, values, approaches.

Movement reformers, particularly those who came in through Teach for America (and that’s something you see a lot) often get sucked in by something similar. They look at someone like Michelle Rhee and the rhetoric and the resume feel familiar. . . . Lots of leaders in education today have that exact same bio and since the vast majority of them genuinely care about kids, they assume Rhee does as well.

I don’t know about that. I’m just speculating here, but my take on it is, if you give someone good public relations, a lot of money, and a message that people want to hear, he or she can go pretty far before getting tripped up by reality. Palko refers to Rhee’s middle-class background, but I think if she had a lower-class background, that would’ve worked fine too. Look at Barack Obama: his background was different from almost all Americans, black or white, but people just ate up his story.

As for Rhee: I suspect she’s not planning on going anywhere, but all this error, corruption, and cover-up is taking a toll on her reputation. To the extent that her movement is about education reform rather than about Michelle Rhee, at some point they’ll have to find a more credible leader, no?

My impression is that there has been a shift. A few years ago, value-added assessment etc was considered the technocratic way to go, with opponents being a bunch of Luddite dead-enders. Now, though, the whole system is falling apart. We can learn a lot from tests, no doubt about that, but there’s a lot less sense that they should be used to directly evaluate teachers. We’ve moved to a more modern, quality-control perspective in which the goal is to learn and improve the system, not to reward or punish individual workers.

This shift may have not happened yet at the political level, but it’s my sense that this is the direction that things are going. The Rhee story is symbolic of the fallacies of measurement.