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Rhee: Reformer's Growing Credibility Problem

Picture 89 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.

We need new people and new ideas and new energy. Our current reform-driven regime isn't good enough, and the educator-dominated era that preceeded it wasn't good enough, either.  Fiddling at the margins or going back to the good old days just isn't going to cut it.

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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A key point is that Rhee made up hard numbers -- she fabricated them, aka *lied.* Lying on one's resume is considered unacceptable based on conventional standards of behavior and something that discredits the perpetrator. If she didn't know that making **** up and putting it on her resume would become a bone of contention?

I've been wondering "what's wrong with the press?" since watching them eagerly parrot falsehoods from Chris Whittle's now-collapsed, once-hailed Edison Schools Inc. 10 years ago. As a newspaper veteran myself, I'm still more baffled -- that's not how I THOUGHT we were supposed to be operating. Did all these folks go to journalism school thinking "Wow, I'm going to write puff pieces hyping miracles and change the world!"?

credibility's an issue on your side of things, too, caroline, so be careful not to miss the point of the post you're commenting on and commit the same sin that's being singled out.

we don't know she lied. we know she used figures that she couldn't back up, and kept using them despite questions about verification and accuracy, which was dumb (thoughtless, careless, arrogant maybe).

we know that the record doesn't seem to support her assertions, that she was probably wrong about how well her kids were doing, or remembered incorrectly, which was convenient to her and incorrect.

but my larger point -- please take heed -- is that overstatements breed mistrust. it would be a shame for those of you who are pushing back against reformy things made the same mistake.

The two situations are not parallel. Rhee gave false information on her resume, and it was very specific false information, with numbers that at best couldn't be verified and are now shown irrefutably to be false.

Needless to say, the obvious reaction is "she lied." It's also a completely valid reaction, because she DID lie. I'm sorry, but saying "she lied" in response to the fact that she lied is not a parallel breach of credibility or trust. It's not even in the same ballpark -- no matter how forcefully her defenders try to claim that it is.

Many of us reacted to the original false claim from the beginning with a response along the lines of "oh, I am so sure." Others trusted and believed. It's the credibility of those who trusted and believed that's threatened.


This whole story speaks to Rhee's character. I understand your point to avoid over-charged statements, but for us DC public schools teachers, anything less than a full volume "of course" is not enough. We as teachers in DC were subjected to her central office powerpoints and rhetoric of the Baltimore mirage every step of the way. And how we were going to pay the price if we did not recreate it. Horrible stuff. And what was so troubling was how our local paper The Post seemed to amplify the worst elements of her fable. It was a one-two punch that cut deep and will never be forgiven. We are as a group happy to see her legacy crumble by the day. Hopefully it will not be too late to help some (like Obama) to figure out their own mistakes and change course.

Rhee's lie is important because without it, there is no credibility for TFA-style reform. It is important because without those claims, she had NO CREDENTIALS that would provide a basis for her appointment in DC. In addition, this misrepresentation haws been the basis of the entire "school reform" cult, with Rhee as its messiah. Rhee, and StudentsFirst, her new "reform" cash cow, is actually a new (corporate-funded) sect of the TFA cult. No actual facts can displace the follower's FAITH in their DIVINE LEADER. Rhee's false claim about her students’ success on standardized tests is the SACRED STORY behind their faith. It led to her REVELATION that any student could learn if provided a "great teacher" like herself. (The seemingly impossible rise in test scores, again, is the evidence that she was, in fact, the "great teacher" messiah figure. She alone knows the secret to the "miracle.") The SACRED STORY is also the basis of the cult’s dogmatic faith in the standardized tests themselves, as they are the stigmata of greatness, according to the cult. It is also the "reasoning" behind all of their policy proposals, especially when they conflict with educational and cognitive research. Thus, anyone who questions the SACRED STORY or the divinity of the chosen leader is engaging in blasphemy and must be attacked and silenced. (Bloggers! Infidels! You must listen only to the high priestess!) Because without the SACRED STORY and the accepted divinity of the leader, the beliefs and prophesies of the cult’s leader are exposed as nothing more than the superstitious ranting of an unbalanced, false prophet and her followers.

really, I don't think most people would put something on their resume that they weren't sure of, or couldn't back up. They would want it out of there, so no suspicions would be raised.

Once something on their resume was publicly questioned, they'd definitely get it off and definitely would not repeat the unsubstantiated claim in speeches and interviews around the country.

But Rhee did all of these things - made a dramatic, unsupported claim on her resume. Left it there when it was publicly questioned, then went around the county making the same undocumented claim. Lots of people heard it and cheered her on.

How could any decent person possibly support such behavior? Is it beause she does it with a straight face, showing no remorse? that she laughs into the phone when talking about it?

What is it about her.

Do you see how she masterfully twists things?

She says, "I didn't think three years ago that people would want to report on something that happened 20 years ago."

The teaching happened 20 years ago, but the resume claim was made 4 years ago. The issue is her resume, which she personally wrote - it didn't just "happen."

She also makes it sound like an unforeseen weirdness that any sane person would want to report on her resume claims. She doesn't mention that she has continued to make those claims - the last recorded one was just 2 months ago in the December issue of the Washingtonian magazine.http://www.washingtonian.com/print/articles/6/174/17501.html 12/10

I can't wait to hear her big laugh when a reporter asks her about that.

Please try to get her on the phone again.

"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."

So it's us that's at fault? Our need for false perfection has forced Rhee and others to tell us fairy tales about schools. We have to get over it and Rhee has to learn to stop trying to please us. Do I have that right?

Did we force her to put it on her resume and repeat it over and over again? Did we force the press not to report it until 3 years later

Do you see what lengths you're going to defend her.

The issue is trust. If she still believes that she “Over a two-year period, moved students scoring on average at the 13th percentile on national standardized tests to 90 percent of students scoring at the 90th percentile or higher.” then she should say that. If she doesn’t, then she should admit she was wrong. Showing that kind of maturity would really help students by presenting them with a good role model.

Until she does one of these two things, people should stop giving her donations and supporting her organization.

The same resume contained misleading/false/inaccurate/ information on supposed media stories about her classroom success. Why did she do this?
That's what should have asked of her.

Alexander, apparently all the blowback from your honest and honorable comments succeeded in blowing you back.

I've added This Week in Education to my favorites list, because I don't think you're going to stay blown back for long. This is going to be some great reality blogging, if I'm right.

Your rationalizations here are a sincere attempt to drown your own unease with the self-serving dishonesty you've allowed yourself to become allied with. They have a certain elegance, a kind of a textbook purity. Check it out:
http://www.philosophymagazine.com/others/MO_Sartre_BadFaith.html

But now you own this silly narrative, about how wrong it is that liars are forced to lie, and it lives on in the columns of unreflective ninnies like this one:
http://blogs.edweek.org/edweek/sarameads_policy_notebook/?intc=thed

Is this what it was like for Diane Ravitch, do you think, to change sides? Come on over, and bring your ironic edge with you. That's something we really need.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cpqbPJwOLH4

Thank you Mary

Alexander - I hope you're listening and reflecting and resisting the urge to rationalize.

lowly retired teacher?

BTW...I have had the pleasure to work with the retired teacher who got all this started...and I would call him one of a number of brilliant math teachers who I had the pleasure to meet when I entered teaching in DC...I got to know him primarily through discussions and professional development sessions he and his compadres who have since left the system had more knowledge of mathematics teaching than I will ever hope to gain...oh yeah, and I would also see him at the Mathcounts competition each year when his team would routinely beat even the private schools...I am sure he was not perfect, I am not in to worshiping people, but I do know he had a lot of math to share...

what is the implication froom--"lowly" retired edcuators to imply?
Please explain from your writing

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