Media: Maybe She Didn't Eat The Bee, Either
Want to get a sense of how several mainstream reporters and publications dealt with unverified and somewhat hard-to-believe education story they heard that we now know wasn't quite so rosy as presented (at least not at the grade level level)? Of course you do. Assembled below is a list of a dozen or so of the biggest/easiest to find mainstream media stories about Michelle Rhee from the past few years, organized into four simple categories according to how they dealt with Rhee's claim (to have increased her students' test scores dramatically during her years as a TFA classroom teacher). Though their tactics very, many of them did a pretty poor job of taking care not to pass along Rhee's unverified and - more important --unlikely -- claim. Most did little more than covering their own behinds.
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.
HOW THEY DID (from worst to best)
A few (notably from the Washington Post and US News) simple repeated Rhee's assertion without indicating there was any question or concern -- like someone would say "It was a Monday." That's the worst you can do:
"Her students went from the 13th percentile on standardized national tests to the 90th percentile within two years' time." The Evolution of Teach for America Lucia Graves (US News & World Report). "Test scores for Rhee’s students jumped." Can Michelle Rhee Save DC Schools? Harry Jaffe (Washingtonian). "Students became calm and engaged. Test scores soared." Baptism by Fire Vulcanized Rhee, 'Brat Pack' Peers Jay Mathews (WP).
A couple of others indicated that the claims they were passing along came from Rhee but left it at that -- you know, "according to so-and-so" language, giving themselves a little fig leaf of protection but not really warning readers:
"By the end of the second year, she said, the class that had been testing in the 13th percentile was on grade level, with some children soaring to the 90th percentile."Recruited to Rescue Washington’s Schools Diana Jean Schemo (NYT). "Rhee told me that her information about huge gains in her students' scores came from her principal at the time." Michelle Rhee's early test scores uncovered Jay Mathews (WP) .
The biggest and perhaps most disappointing group (Newsweek, TIME, WP, etc.) noted that Rhee's claim was unverified (or verified by witnesses rather than documentation) but raised no questions about its plausibility and, most important, still used the information. Just because you can't verify a story doesn't mean it's believable and should be reported to readers:
"Baltimore does not keep records by classroom, so NEWSWEEK was unable to confirm this assertion." Can Michelle Rhee Save D.C.'s Schools? Evan Thomas (Newsweek). "Baltimore does not have good test data going back that far, a problem that plagues many districts, so this assertion cannot be checked. But Rhee's principal at the time has confirmed the claim." Rhee Tackles Classroom Challenge Amanda Ripley (TIME). "Former principal Linda Carter, who recalled significant gains, testified that she had discarded paperwork long ago and that it was not available through the Baltimore school district." Rhee Gets Plaudits Before Council Nikita Stewart and Theola Labbe (WP). "Three educators who worked closest with her at a Baltimore elementary school support her position that her students experienced big increases in standardized test scores." Council to Challenge Rhee's Résumé Nikita Stewart and V. Dion Haynes (WP).
Only two sources that I've found (the Washington Times and Newhouse) raised questions about the fundamental plausibility of Rhee's story:
"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.”Schools nominee fails to validate success Washington Times NO BYLINE. "It is a breathtaking claim, one for which neither she nor the Baltimore schools has proof." Can A Young Korean-American Woman Save DC's Schools? Jonathan Tilove (Newhouse /no longer online [archived here])
How many more times will reporters pass along unverified claims, only to have the truth come out years later? And why do reformers make such oversized assertions, knowing (as they must) that somewhere down the line the truth will come out? It's a sad, sad trend that's repeated itself several times now, discrediting both those who want to make education better and the journalists who purport to be skeptical rather than cheerleaders.