Rhee: Reformer's Growing Credibility Problem
Team Rhee's response to yesterday's charges that her claims of raising student test scores were grossly inflated wasn't particularly exonerating to me. The study doesn't focus on just Rhee's classroom, sure, but she and her teacher partner taught half the class. It's hard to imagine how her kids could score as high as was claimed and yet the cohort totals come out so relatively low. And no, there's no conspiracy against Rhee, just a lot of angry people. But after talking with her on the phone last night I realized that's not really the point.
And yet, puffed-up preliminary results and ridgid adherence to a starting idea have become some sort of entry requirement to get funding and attention. It's as if reformers feel they have to be heroic and perfect and -- at least publicly -- avoid setbacks, failures, lessons, reflections, and changes of course. But that just doesn't work, at least not for very long.
Michelle Rhee shouldn't have -- and shouldn't have had to -- claim to have raised student test scores astronomically in order to be considered for DC schools chancellor. Tim King shouldn't have -- and shouldn't have to -- claim 100 percent graduation rates to promote Urban Prep's all-boys education. Geoff Canada shouldn't have - and shouldn't have to -- claim to have helped tens of thousands of Harlem residents when only a few hundred have gotten the full range of HCZ services. President Obama shouldn't have -- and shouldn't have to -- claim that Race To The Top is the most transformative education law to push for better teacher evaluations.
Yesterday I wrote about the media's role in passing claims along. But it all starts with these overstated (or unverifiable) claims, which stretch believability from the start, are nearly always debunked eventually (as with Texas, Chicago, New York City, TFA, charters), and make it harder to push for real changes in the long run. Funders and advocates and journalists may crave these fairytale stories but we're all just going to have to get over that false perfection thing.
This is a lesson that Rhee is learning the hard way. She let out a big laugh when I asked her if she ever regretted making the now-infamous claim such a big part of her story or ever thought about walking them back. "I'm not sure I would do everything exactly the same," she said. "But I didn't think three years ago that people would want to report on something that happened 20 years ago."
Indeed, when she sent the Fenty camp a resume as they requested she did so in a rush without knowing that it would become such a bone of contention. But in this day and age especially -- when someone's ancient high school grades or decade-old divorce papers can end up on the Internet, and lowly retired teachers can dig around in an organization's tax returns and long-forgotten sound bites -- reformers shouldn't take credit for more than they can document. Not just because they'll eventually get caught, but also because they'll slow down or even reverse the change that they hope to generate. They may think they're getting away with it, or that no one will care, or remember, or that the media will go along with their storyline, but increasingly that's not the case.
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