The Education of Michelle Rhee
JOHN MERROW, Correspondent: [voice-over] Michelle Rhee’s journey to national prominence began in 2007. Washington, D.C., had just inaugurated a new mayor, Adrian Fenty. He had won a landslide election and promised to fix the district’s abysmal school system.
ADRIAN M. FENTY, Mayor, Washington, D.C., 2007-11: The lack of real opportunity for young people drives our unemployment rate, it drives our crime rate, and we can’t have that. This is the nation’s capital of the United States of America. We shouldn’t have the worst school system, we should have the best.
Are we ready? All right!
JOHN MERROW: Almost everyone expected Fenty to choose a seasoned veteran to turn the schools around, but he chose a virtual unknown.
MICHELLE RHEE: Good morning!
JOHN MERROW: Rhee began by introducing herself to students—
MICHELLE RHEE: I’m excited to be here today.
JOHN MERROW: —and teachers, giving them a glimpse of her forthright style.
MICHELLE RHEE: I am Michelle Rhee. I’m the new chancellor of the D.C. public schools. And just in case there was any confusion, I am, in fact, Korean. I am 37 years old. And no, I have never run a school district before.
JOHN MERROW: Although Rhee had never run a school district, she had worked in school reform for 10 years and warned Fenty that sweeping change could be politically costly.
MICHELLE RHEE: I said, “You are a politician. Your job is to keep the noise minimums to a level and to keep your constituents happy.” I said, “I am a change agent. And change doesn’t come without significant pushback and opposition.”
ADRIAN M. FENTY: The person who says that they’re going to come in, shake things up, change the system, challenge the status quo, that’s exactly what I want.
MICHELLE RHEE: I said, “What would you risk just at the chance to turn this school district around, to truly transform it?”
MAYOR ADRIAN M. FENTY: Everything. I said, “Everything,” that one word. Essentially, we’re putting the entire government, and the entire city, at the disposal of our chancellor to fix things as quickly as possible.
JOHN MERROW: Fall 2007, across Washington, some 4,300 teachers and 50,000 students were beginning a new school year.
TEACHER: Good morning, my favorite class.
PUPILS: Good morning, Mr. Hughes, my favorite teacher!
PRINCIPAL: It’s a new beginning. Teachers are excited this year. People are waking up and saying, “Gee!”
JOHN MERROW: This day was also the beginning of our long journey with Michelle Rhee. Over the next three years, we would follow her and watch as she wielded the extraordinary power she’d been given to try to fix D.C.’s broken schools.
MICHELLE RHEE: I’m trying to hit as many schools as I possibly can this week before my one-on-ones start with the principals.
JOHN MERROW: Rhee said her goal was to improve overall student achievement. She planned to use a year-end test known as the DC CAS, or the D.C. Comprehensive Assessment System, as the key measure of that improvement.
TEACHER: These are scores from last year. As you can see, some students just went way up there. For our 3rd graders—
JOHN MERROW: Rhee would keep one eye on the scores, the other on those responsible for raising them.
MICHELLE RHEE: I went into classrooms today where not a whole lot was going on. And frankly, I wrote down those people’s names. I remember them because when I meet with those principals, I’m going to say, “Look, your building might be clean, and that’s great. But if the instruction is not happening, then you are not leading this building correctly.”
JOHN MERROW: Rhee met with each school principal one on one — something no D.C. superintendent had ever done — and had them commit to specific test score gains.
MICHELLE RHEE: First, what academic gains can you guarantee for this year?
MELISSA KIM, Principal, Dean Middle School: I’m telling the teachers 10 percent. And that’s our school-wide goal. But I would be committing to you 5 percent.
MICHELLE RHEE: I came into those meetings, with 10 years of historical test data for every single school. The first question I asked the principal is, “How long have you been at the school?” So they’d say, “Six years,” and I’d count back six years, draw the line and say, “This is what the achievement level at your school has looked like since you’ve been the principal there.”
And if it was great, then I’d say, “Wonderful. Keep doing— what can I do for you?” And if it was, you know, on the downward trajectory, then I’d say, “We have a significant problem here, and unless you turn this around this year, you’re not going be here any longer.” And for those who were sort of flatlining it, I said, “This is not going to cut it long term.”
FRANCISCO MILLET, D.C. Assistant Superintendent, 2007-08: Principals were scared to death that if their test scores did not go up, they were going to be fired. And they knew she had the authority to do it. So of course, people felt threatened.
JOHN MERROW: Francisco Millet oversaw principals across the district.
FRANCISCO MILLET: It was my job to supervise approximately 42 schools, elementary schools. I went into all of my schools.
JOHN MERROW: One of his schools was Noyes Education Campus.
FRANCISCO MILLET: When I went into Noyes, I was very impressed.
JOHN MERROW: A typical inner-city school, Noyes was an example of what Rhee hoped to accomplish. The year before she arrived, its principal, Wayne Ryan, had raised test scores in reading and math over 20 points.
MICHELLE RHEE: He said he was going to make the same gains this year as they did last year.
WAYNE RYAN: No, if we made the same gains, the chancellor’s going to take my entire staff out to dinner!
JOHN MERROW: Rhee was so impressed by Ryan’s success that she featured him in this recruitment ad.
MICHELLE RHEE: You were like a poster child!
JOHN MERROW: Standardized tests like the DC CAS, which Ryan had used at Noyes, were mandated in 2002 by a federal law called No Child Left Behind. Their scores enabled federal officials to measure progress at individual schools.
THELMA JARRETT, Assistant Principal, Coolidge High School: [to students] Now, how many of you know about No Child Left Behind? What does that law say? It basically says that by the year 2014, every child in the United States should be proficient in English and in mathematics.
JOHN MERROW: Poor scores could trigger drastic consequences, like bringing in a private company to take over. So schools took time from their normal teaching to prepare their students for the tests.
THELMA JARRETT: I have the results in my hands. Now, am I smiling?
THELMA JARRETT: No, I’m not happy right now. I’m not happy because many of you did not do so well. But that’s OK for now because that’s part of the reason why I’m here, so that we can make some adjustments and so that you can score better.
JOHN MERROW: The DC CAS was also designed to diagnose students, to identify those needing additional help. But Rhee was taking it one step further.
[on camera] How did DC CAS become this be-all and end-all instrument for principals?
FRANCISCO MILLET: That’s a very good question. I don’t know. It did not become a serious issue until Michelle Rhee looked every single principal in the eye and said, “What can you guarantee me insofar as your test scores are concerned?” That’s when it became very serious.
JOHN MERROW: [voice-over] Now a single test could make or break a principal’s career.
LYNNE GOBER, Principal, Anacostia High School: I was one of the first principals to meet with our chancellor, with Chancellor Rhee. She reminded me that Anacostia is a tough school with tough issues. I promised her, you know, that I’m up for the challenge.
JOHN MERROW: Anacostia’s students experienced those tough issues every day.
MICA PAYAE, Anacostia High School: It’s like you in the death trap down here. It was, like, gang fights. It was, like, a big old crowd of kids just fighting each other in the hallway.
SHAQUAROE DAVIS, Anacostia High School: The students don’t go to class. They don’t listen to the teachers. And they’re being rude and disrespectful.
JOHN MERROW: [on camera] Anacostia High School.
MICHELLE RHEE: Yes. One of my biggest challenges, yes. If you look at the achievement levels in the school, they are so low. We’re in the single digits in terms of proficient and advanced kids. The school leader left at the end of the year, so I had to put an interim in place.
JOHN MERROW: [voice-over] That interim was Lynne Gober, who had been a teacher and administrator in D.C. for 15 years. This was her first shot at being a principal, and the disadvantaged neighborhood didn’t make her job any easier.
LYNNE GOBER: All of our students understand that just because of where you live does not mean that your expectations aren’t high. And I believe that a lot of them felt that, “People don’t expect me to succeed. They expect me to have C’s, D’s and F’s.” Well, our expectations are right here now.
MICHELLE RHEE: The principal? She’s struggling. She’s struggling.
JOHN MERROW: [on camera] What are you doing to help her, to help Anacostia High School?
MICHELLE RHEE: Putting a lot of extra resources there right now. We have deployed one of our regional superintendents. We have a number of extra assistant principals who didn’t have placements in other schools who have been placed there.
I think she’s in an incredibly difficult situation. And she wants to do well.
LYNNE GOBER: I wanted to at least double our test scores. Hypothetically, if our test scores were 7 percent, then I believe I might have said 14 percent.
MICHELLE RHEE: But the job of transforming an urban high school and turning it around— there aren’t very many people in this country who have done that, who have that skill set.
JOHN MERROW: Does she have the year?
MICHELLE RHEE: Maybe not.
JOHN MERROW: [voice-over] Holding principals accountable was a start. But Rhee also had problems with the school bureaucracy. She learned even before school started that it was notorious for losing books and supplies.
MICHELLE RHEE: I was asking teachers and principals, “What are you missing? What do you need?” And a lot of people were saying that they didn’t have all of the textbooks that they needed. So I went to the warehouse.
JOHN MERROW: Recognizing a great photo opportunity, she invited the media to come along.
MICHELLE RHEE: These are science kits.
By the time I got onto the second floor, I thought I was going to throw up. It was glue and scissors and composition books, things that teachers not only are dying for but spend their own money on. And they’d been sitting there for years.
There are boxes and boxes of these things here.
JOHN MERROW: Rhee’s warehouse tour made the evening news and put Central Office bureaucrats on notice.
MICHELLE RHEE: [Central Office meeting] If you have people who aren’t producing, start documenting. Make sure on his performance evaluation that you are clear on that. So you just have to, you know, department by department, just be as on top of it as you possibly can.
The Central Office has to be oriented in the right way. We don’t run the schools, we serve the schools. Right now, people at the central office have this idea that they are in charge, and you know, they can grant requests, they can give information, if they feel like it, and if not— that’s the absolutely wrong way to think about things.
Right now, we don’t have good quality controls in place—
What’s going to solve the problem is creating a culture of accountability in the Central Office first, and then eventually, everywhere in the school district, that says if you are not performing, then you cannot work here.
JOHN MERROW: Rhee wanted to fire staff she believed to be incompetent, but that was one power she did not have. For that, she needed the City Council to pass new legislation. So she began lobbying for votes.
MICHELLE RHEE: I like to follow the rules.
HARRY THOMAS, Jr., Councilmember, Ward 5: That’s why you’re asking us to change the rules.
MICHELLE RHEE: That’s right. That’s why I have to ask you to change the rules.
JOHN MERROW: Rhee started with Councilmember Harry Thomas.
MICHELLE RHEE: Are you going to vote for the legislation? Because this comes down to a matter of trust. The question is, do you trust me?
HARRY THOMAS, Jr.: Well, just say Councilmember Thomas is inclined to support the chancellor.
MICHELLE RHEE: No.
HARRY THOMAS, Jr.: Why?
MICHELLE RHEE: Because that’s dumb.
HARRY THOMAS, Jr.: Why? That’s the truth!
MICHELLE RHEE: People want to know if you’re going to support it or not. This half-way crap, “Councilmember Thomas is inclined”— I’m not— that’s even embarrassing just saying that. I wouldn’t say that. I’m going to say he’s waffling.
HARRY THOMAS, Jr.: Oh, really?
MICHELLE RHEE: It is. It is what it is.
JOHN MERROW: [on camera] We saw your meeting with Councilman Thomas.
MICHELLE RHEE: Yes.
JOHN MERROW: How’d that go?
MICHELLE RHEE: I think it went well.
JOHN MERROW: You have his vote?
MICHELLE RHEE: Yes.
HARRY THOMAS, Jr.: [City Council meeting] Before the chancellor can fire someone, she needs to be sure—
JOHN MERROW: [voice-over] At this meeting, the City Council took up Rhee’s request for the power to fire central office employees.
VINCENT GRAY, Chair, Council of the District of Columbia: Not surprising, this bill has become a very controversial piece of legislation.
JOHN MERROW: It was the first skirmish in her reform battle and the stakes were high.
HARRY THOMAS, Jr.: We’re not private industry. We’re the government. That’s why we have these rules, to protect people in jobs like this, because we don’t want every new administration to hire and fire arbitrarily.
YVETTE ALEXANDER, Councilmember, Ward 7: So are we going to jeopardize everything by keeping incompetent people in their positions? I just can’t do that.
JOHN MERROW: Forced to choose between workers’ rights and Rhee’s reforms, the councilmembers cast their votes.
CLERK: Chairman Gray?
VINCENT GRAY: Yes.
CLERK: Councilmember Alexander?
YVETTE ALEXANDER: Yes.
CLERK: Councilmember Thomas?
HARRY THOMAS, Jr.: No.
CLERK: Chairman Gray, the vote is ten yes, three no. The motion passes.
JOHN MERROW: Rhee hadn’t convinced Councilmember Thomas, but she did get the authority she wanted. After the council vote, she fired 121 employees, 15 percent of her Central Office staff.
Mayor ADRIAN M. FENTY: My support for the chancellor is unwavering. We really are in lockstep. When you’re going through the type of drastic reform that we’ve already started to propose and will be proposing, you can’t waver, you can’t blink, you have to go full speed ahead.
JOHN MERROW: With no time to waste, Rhee had been criss-crossing the district, talking about ways to improve the schools. But she kept her most controversial proposal under wraps, closing two dozen half-empty schools, schools that were draining the system of resources.
MICHELLE RHEE: It would have been extraordinarily unwise of me to have started this process by saying, “So I’m going to close some schools. What do you all think?” I would lose faith immediately in that person. You have to have a vision. You have to have a strategy. You have to have methodology, and then data. Then people can react to that once it’s laid out.
JOHN MERROW: But her proposal was leaked to The Washington Post. The next six weeks were all about damage control as Rhee tried to explain the proposed closures to angry parents.
MICHELLE RHEE: The bottom line is that we made the proposal, which was a proposal. We wanted to have a number of community forums during which we could hear people’s input.
A lot of the decisions that I’m going to be making, as long as I’m chancellor, are going to raise this kind of opposition. For me, it’s about the fact that if we make these decisions now, and we take on the people who are not in favor of it now, what it will result in is greater resources quicker for kids in classrooms. And that to me is way more important than how many nights I have to sit around getting yelled at.
PHILIP BLAIR, Parent: You can’t yank them out of the ground they’re in and move them somewhere else and expect that program to work! I’m telling you that you are not being serious about taking parent and community input into account.
MICHELLE RHEE: That’s fine. I think that’s where we’re going to differ in opinion, then. You’re absolutely welcome to have your opinion—
PHILIP BLAIR: It is a done deal. Now I understand this situation.
MICHELLE RHEE: People said, “Well, you didn’t listen to us.” And I said, “No, I listened to you. I’m not running this district by consensus or by committee. We’re not running this school district through the democratic process.”
JOHN MERROW: [on camera] It’s not a democracy.
MICHELLE RHEE: No, it’s not a democracy.
JOHN MERROW: [voice-over] Despite all the tumult, Rhee remained remarkably calm and closed more than 20 schools.
MICHELLE RHEE: I really was fine through the entire process. In fact, my mother said, “I used to be worried about you when you were a little kid because you didn’t seem to care what anyone thought about you and I thought you were going to grow up to be really antisocial.” She’s, like, “It seems like that’s, you know, serving you well now.”
JOHN MERROW: We saw that cool, detached side of Rhee several times, most notably the afternoon she invited us to film this meeting with a principal.
MICHELLE RHEE: So I’ll tell you that from the very beginning, from when we first met, I had concerns about your ability to do this job.
Within the first seven minutes, I knew that this guy had little chance of making it long term.
The folks who have been in the school, from staff and faculty who are at the school, are saying the school is out of control, that there is no structure, no order, not a good culture that’s being created. That sits squarely on your shoulders.
I said, “Tell me how the school is different now or when you left from when it was when you got there.” And he said, “Well, I started a student of the month program, and I”— I mean, nothing to do with student achievement, nothing to do with measurable results. I mean, it was completely unimpressive.
No, I’m terminating your principalship now.
JOHN MERROW: [on camera] What do you feel at a time like that?
MICHELLE RHEE: At a time like that?
JOHN MERROW: When you’re firing somebody.
MICHELLE RHEE: I feel like I’m doing the right thing.
JOHN MERROW: Any compassion for the guy, for the person you’re—
MICHELLE RHEE: Compassion? I would not say that compassion is— I have hired and fired more people in my lifetime probably than almost anyone else.
I think that when you’re doing the kind of work that I’m doing, where the lives and futures of children hang in the balance, you can’t play with that. This is not about giving people jobs or ensuring that people can maintain their jobs. This is about educating children.
RICHARD WHITMIRE, Rhee Biographer: Who would do that? Who would think that that was a good idea, to fire a principal on camera, even if you can’t see that principal’s face? And I think the answer is just kind of a zealot, someone who so strongly believes that kids are getting cheated and that this person or this policy stands in the way of these kids getting a good education, and therefore, “I will do anything to eliminate that in whatever means possible.”
JOHN MERROW: Rhee’s biographer, Richard Whitmire, traces her passion back to her senior year in college.
RICHARD WHITMIRE: She saw a PBS documentary on Teach For America, and she said, just like— like a light bulb went off, and said, “This is what I want to do.”
JOHN MERROW: Teach for America sent Rhee to Baltimore.
MICHELLE RHEE: My school was one of the lowest-performing elementary schools in that city, the roughest neighborhood in Baltimore, home lives of my kids a mess, drug infestation, prostitution, kids staying up until 11:00, 12:00 o’clock at night, watching TV and eating cereal out of a box for dinner. That’s the life that my kids had when I was a teacher.
JOHN MERROW: One day when she was desperately trying to win the attention of her unruly 2nd graders, a bee flew in the window.
MICHELLE RHEE: It’s buzzing around the classroom and the kids are going nuts, you know, “A bee! A bee! A bee~!” And they’re literally jumping up on top of the chairs and the desks and running around, wreaking havoc. And I had my lesson plan, and the bee lands, and I smacked it. And I’m not sure what, but something in me just sort of made me flick it into my hand and eat it.
RICHARD WHITMIRE: And all the kids just stopped and looked at her, like, “Whoa, maybe we should be paying attention to this person. She’s bad.”
DENISE HALL: It freaks me out just talking about it, the bee story.
JOHN MERROW: [voice-over] Denise Hall was one of her students.
DENISE HALL: She actually taught me long division in 2nd grade. That was special because I was, like, one of the only students learning that. She said, “You’re smart. You can do this.”
MICHELLE RHEE: You can ask my kids, they’ll tell you, “She was strict. She was mean!” But in the end, they all knew the reason why I was doing everything was because I believed in them and I cared about them.
JOHN MERROW: Rhee said her hard work paid off in greatly improved test scores.
MICHELLE RHEE: Over a two-year period, we moved a group of students who were on average performing at the 13th percentile, and when they left me at the end of two years, they were— 90 percent of them were scoring at the 90th percentile or above.
JOHN MERROW: That big a jump, 13 to 90 percent, is dramatic, but Rhee said those numbers came from her principal.
RICHARD WHITMIRE: I’m convinced that she made great progress with her kids, startling progress. But it’s doubtful that it was the astounding progress that the principal cited back to her. And we’ll never know one way or the other.
JOHN MERROW: What is certain is that Baltimore taught Rhee the importance of great teachers, a lesson she’d never forget.
MICHELLE RHEE: Their parents didn’t change. Their home lives didn’t change. Their neighborhood didn’t change. What changed was the adult who was in front of them every single day in the classroom, who had the highest expectations for what they could do. And you know what? When you have those high expectations of the kids, they will meet them.
JOHN MERROW: Rhee brought those high expectations to her new job, but now she was aiming them at school principals. If you didn’t measure up to her standards, you’d be out. By the end of the first year, she fired 24 of them.
One was Lynne Gober at Anacostia High School.
LYNNE GOBER: I felt that I did the very best I could with what I had. It was. It was a surprise.
JOHN MERROW: Gober had more than met her test score goals, but Rhee also judged principals on school discipline and other factors.
LYNNE GOBER: This is the system that educated me, that trained me to be an administrator. I truly feel that the system that I grew up in let me down.
JOHN MERROW: So Lynne Gober wasn’t around when Rhee announced the DC CAS scores at the beginning of her second year.
MICHELLE RHEE: Good morning! We saw an 8 percentage point gain in reading at the elementary levels last year and we saw an 11-point gain in math. We saw a 9 percentage point gain in reading at the secondary levels and 9 percentage point gain in math. These are unbelievable for a one-year time period! Raymond Elementary School—
JOHN MERROW: As an incentive to raise test scores, Rhee had promised to give top-performing schools cash awards.
MICHELLE RHEE: The principals will be receiving $10,000 apiece. Assistant principals will be receiving $9,000 apiece. Teachers will be receiving $8,000 apiece.
Aiton Elementary School saw a 29-point increase in reading and a 42 percent increase in mathematics!
Mayor ADRIAN M. FENTY: Our test scores are going up and all the other academic indicators are headed in the right direction. It’s a story of success so far, with lots still to go.
JOHN MERROW: But that dramatic rise caught the attention of the official responsible for administering the test.
BILL TURQUE, The Washington Post: The state superintendent noticed that there were enormous gains in some schools, outsize gains, 20, 30 points.
JOHN MERROW: Bill Turque of The Washington Post reported that the DC CAS answer sheets — sheets with fill-in bubbles like these — showed an unusually high number of answers erased, changed from wrong to right.
BILL TURQUE: This was not something that was just kids as kids will do, you know, erasing. There had to be some outside activity going on to change these answer sheets.
JOHN MERROW: [on camera] Do we know that someone cheated?
BILL TURQUE: No, this is— this is the problem. Erasures, in and of themselves, are simply a diagnostic marker. They don’t prove anything. They just are an indication that something needs to be investigated.
JOHN MERROW: [voice-over] In fact, the state superintendent asked the chancellor to investigate and report back within 60 days.
MICHELLE RHEE: We kept saying, “OK, we’re going to do this. We just need to have more information.”
JOHN MERROW: Twice, the usually decisive Rhee asked to extend the reporting deadline.
MICHELLE RHEE: By the time the information was trickling in back and forth, it was— we were about to take the next year’s test. There was a new superintendent of education that came in at the time. And she said, “OK, well, we’re about to take the next test anyway, so let’s just make sure that the proper protocols are in place for next time.”
JOHN MERROW: [on camera] I have it from a confidential source that you did not want an investigation.
MICHELLE RHEE: That’s absolutely incorrect. Absolutely incorrect.
JOHN MERROW: That the state superintendent pushed you and you resisted it.
MICHELLE RHEE: Absolutely not.
JOHN MERROW: Rhee tightened security procedures for future tests. She never did investigate possible cheating that first year.
DARRIN SLADE, Principal, Ron Brown Middle School: [teachers meeting] Every minute should be spent on making sure these students understand the skills.
JOHN MERROW: In year two, Rhee set her sights on improving teacher quality.
DARRIN SLADE: If I come into your room and I give a quick assessment and nobody is getting it, then I’m looking at the teacher.
MICHELLE RHEE: When we took control of this school district in 2007, 8 percent of the 8th graders were operating on grade level in mathematics— 8 percent. And if you would have looked at the performance evaluations of the adults in the system at the same time, you would have seen that 95 percent of them were being rated as doing a good job.
How can you possibly have a system where the vast majority of adults are running around thinking, “I’m doing an excellent job,” when what we’re producing for kids is 8 percent success?
JOHN MERROW: From what I’d seen when my own children went to school here, Rhee had a point. Ineffective teachers often got a pass in the D.C. school system.
EBONY DAVIS, Ron Brown Middle School: Some teachers can’t even— they can’t control their students.
ANGELA, Ron Brown Middle School: Some kids sit around and talk. Some kids get up, walk out, go places.
EBONY DAVIS: We have this one teacher, when we come in the classroom, she’s hollering. Throughout the whole class period, she stands at the door. She doesn’t teach, she gives us work. She tells us to do it. She doesn’t teach at all.
JOHN MERROW: Rhee started pressuring her principals, like Darrin Slade of Ron Brown Middle School, to keep a close eye on teachers who didn’t measure up. Slade told us he welcomed the pressure. He’d been trying to get rid of poor teachers for years.
DARRIN SLADE: I’ve walked into a teacher’s room before, the teacher was asleep. I wrote the teacher up, and the teacher still called the union on me. Within the first four months, I had, like, 12 grievances from teachers just because I was going in, asking to see their lesson plan, making sure they were doing their job.
JOHN MERROW: [on camera] Do you have a sense of percentage of teachers who are really in need of drastic improvement?
DARRIN SLADE: In this building, we have, like, six teachers. That’s, like, 20, 30 percent of the staff.
MICHELLE RHEE: We’re actually going to hold them accountable to say, “If you say you have five ineffective teachers, then you either have to show us the plans for how you put in place a professional development program for them and they improved, or you’ve got to show us what you did about that.”
DARRIN SLADE: In the past, nobody had the guts like Chancellor Rhee. Nobody had the mindset of, “I’m going to do what needs to be done to improve the quality of instruction, even if it means I have to get my hands dirty a little bit.”
_[to student in hallway] What are you doing? Whose room are you supposed to be in?
STUDENT: Miss Lewis.
DARRIN SLADE: Miss Lewis? Let’s walk down to Miss Lewis’s room.
MICHELLE RHEE: Darrin Slade has, you know, 600 kids who are counting on him. Every teacher at Ron Brown has, you know, 125 kids who are counting on them. And what happens in our schools while they’re here will make or break what their futures look like. So we should feel a tremendous amount of pressure around that.
DARRIN SLADE: Do you want to go in Miss Lewis’s room? Thank you, Miss Lewis.
CHERYL KREHBIEL, Dpty. Chief, Prof. Development, DCPS: We have a number of teachers who I don’t believe will ever believe that kids can learn at high levels. And those are the teachers we need to move out quickly, rapidly, at whatever cost.
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JOHN MERROW: How big is that number? What’s the number?
CHERYL KREHBIEL: I’m not sure I should say that number. At least 50 percent.
GEORGE PARKER, Pres., Washington Teachers’ Union, 2005-10: That’s a ridiculous statement, 50 percent, because it’s based on no logic. It’s an opinion and not a fact, and it’s just something that came out of the air.
JOHN MERROW: [voice-over] George Parker was president of the Washington teachers union.
GEORGE PARKER: There are only so many Lebron Jameses and Michael Jordans. So you wouldn’t have an NBA if you didn’t develop players. A school system is no different. You take an average teacher and you turn him into a great teacher through support.
JOHN MERROW: In most school districts, firing a teacher is arduous and time-consuming. It’s easier to transfer the teacher to another school.
RICHARD WHITMIRE, Rhee Biographer: Across the United States, teachers don’t lose their jobs because they’re poor teachers. It just doesn’t happen. In Los Angeles, the superintendent of schools was equally determined to fire ineffective teachers, and he came up with less than a handful. So this is just not done.
JOHN MERROW: But Rhee wasn’t just any superintendent, and the teachers knew it.
KADESHA BONDS, Former D.C. Teacher: People are scared for their jobs because it seems like principals can have power of— like, “Well, if I don’t like you, you’re out of here.” And they hold that overhead. So people are terrified.
GEORGE PARKER: There’s a— I think a belief that fuels the fear that the chancellor’s solution to improving education is firing people. I think the criticism and the firing, it created a culture of low morale, one that was lowest that I’ve seen since I’ve been in D.C. public schools, and I’ve been here for 25 years.
MICHELLE RHEE: Everybody who works for me has to feel comfortable and know that at the end of the day, we’re going to look at the results, and if the results are not there, if they are not producing significant gains for kids, then— then there is a chance that they won’t be here in the long term.
JOHN MERROW: [on camera] So it is really produce or else.
MICHELLE RHEE: Shouldn’t it be?
JOHN MERROW: [voice-over] To make certain teachers were held accountable, Rhee imposed a new evaluation system based on student achievement. DC CAS scores would now determine up to 50 percent of a teacher’s rating. She said this would make evaluations more objective.
MICHELLE RHEE: The system that we were using before was 100 percent subjective and based only on the beliefs and opinions of one person, which was the teacher’s principal.
JOHN MERROW: *The new system, which she named IMPACT, would have the principal and two outside master educators observe teachers. Teachers who got high ratings could get a cash bonus or a pay increase. If they were rated ineffective, however, they might be fired.
MICHELLE RHEE: It doesn’t matter whether you have tenure or not. It doesn’t matter if you’ve taught here for 30 years or not. If you are not serving children well, if we do not see the evidence through our observations and the student growth data that you are doing right by kids, then we’re going to let you go from the system.
JOHN MERROW: The DC CAS, which was created to evaluate schools and diagnose students, was now being used for a new purpose, evaluating individual teachers.
GEORGE PARKER: IMPACT is the most dangerous instrument that has been created. It is a system that seems to be geared toward firing teachers, rather than what an evaluation system should be geared for, and that is providing teachers the support that they need to grow and develop into outstanding teachers.
JOHN MERROW: D.C. teachers had another concern. Many of their students lived in tough circumstances and often brought those problems to school.
PATRICE BILLUP, Ron Brown Middle School: They’re not factoring in the fact that my student had a bad night last night, or you know, we had a shooting down the street or in the neighborhood.
BECKY MILLNER, Ron Brown Middle School: There’s so much— legitimately, so much going on in their daily lives, like, you know, what’s going on with your parents? Are they in and out of your life? Your safety, making sure you’re getting all of your meals, making sure, you know, that you have a winter coat, basic health safety things that then you only have this much left over for school.
MICHELLE RHEE: Our teachers have to take into consideration where our kids are coming from. You can’t teach in a vacuum. You have to know where your kids— you’ve got to meet them where they are. But you can never, ever, ever let that be an excuse for the kids not achieving at the highest levels.
JOHN MERROW: Judging by test scores, Rhee’s “no excuses” policy seemed to be working. In Rhee’s second year, DC CAS scores continued their upward climb, and top-performing schools continued to win those hefty bonuses, schools like Noyes Education Campus.
But once again, there was a problem. Many schools, including Noyes, had a high number of erasures, answers changed from wrong to right. This time, Rhee took action.
BILL TURQUE, The Washington Post: Chancellor Rhee went out and hired a firm named Caveon to come in and take a look at schools with high rates of erasures. It was not really an investigation, my sense was, as much as it was an audit, a security audit. They went in and asked, “Let’s see your test security policies. Let’s see what you do to prevent this from happening.” If you talk to Caveon, they’ll tell you that they did not use all the diagnostic tools in their toolbox.
JOHN MERROW: [on camera] The company that you hired said that it had additional methods they could have used to determine if cheating had taken place, but they were not asked to go further.
MICHELLE RHEE: Yeah, that was a little odd to us because we hired them to investigate. We did not— we did not lay out the parameters of the investigation. We just hired them to do the investigation and really believed that they were going to do it in as comprehensive a manner as possible.
JOHN MERROW: [voice-over] Caveon did not examine the actual tests. However, it reported that it “did not find evidence of cheating” at any of the eight schools it investigated.
GIRL IN PLAYGROUND: Can you give me your autograph?
MICHELLE RHEE: An autograph? Why do you want my autograph? I’m not famous.
JOHN MERROW: Once a virtual unknown, Rhee was now a media celebrity. The national attention made Washington a symbol of hope for public education nationwide. It had attracted thousands of job applicants and millions of dollars in foundation grants.
MICHELLE RHEE: I’m living what I think education reformers and parents throughout this country have long hoped for, which is somebody will just come in and do the things that they felt was right, and everything else be damned.
JOHN MERROW: And the country took notice, especially after she made the cover of Time.
ADRIAN M. FENTY, Mayor, Washington, D.C., 2007-11: Here is the woman that we put in charge of our school system on the cover of Time magazine, with a cover article being written about something that we’re doing right. To me, that was fantastic.
JOHN MERROW: But many D.C. teachers had a different reaction.
GEORGE PARKER, Pres., Washington Teachers’ Union, 2005-10: This one shot gave the picture of, “Look, just sweep ‘em all out. Get rid of ‘em all.” And that’s not the solution.
[www.pbs.org: Watch on line]
CANDI PETERSON, D.C. Schools Social Worker: No other superintendent, no credible school system, allows their superintendent or chancellor to do this, and that the message is saying not only are we bad, but we have a superintendent that’s a kook.
PROTESTERS: Sweep Rhee! Sweep Rhee!
JOHN MERROW: At the beginning of her third year, Rhee stirred up even more controversy. She had hired more than 900 new teachers over the summer and then discovered a budget shortfall. And so she laid off 229 teachers.
SHEILA GILL, Counselor, McKinley Technical High School: I had been in D.C. public schools for 32 years. The principal told me that he had bad news, that my position was terminated.
JOHN MERROW: The City Council had instructed Rhee to cut back summer school. She defied the council. Instead, she told her principals they could lay off teachers they felt were ineffective and they could ignore seniority.
SHEILA GILL: The metropolitan police officer told me to follow him. He escorted me to my car. He said, “Get in your car and leave the premises now.” I have never in my life been treated like a convict, humiliated. And my heart is broken.
GEORGE PARKER: It was either based on complete incompetence or it is an intentional effort to get rid of folks whose hair is too gray!
JOHN MERROW: Rhee’s earlier efforts to purge ineffective teachers hadn’t drawn any great protests, but this mass layoff did, even alienating some of her supporters.
PROTESTER: Michelle Rhee better watch her back because looking out here today, she is going down!
JOHN MERROW: Three weeks after the rally, the City Council summoned Rhee and demanded to know why she had ignored their instructions to cut back summer school.
VINCENT GRAY, Chair, Council of the District of Columbia: We learned today that you, in your unlimited authority, have simply decided that you’re not going to implement what the council said, you’re just going to do something else. That is unbelievably cavalier, Chancellor Rhee.
MICHELLE RHEE: My understanding is that I do have the authority, as the agency head, to make the decisions about moving budget from one place to another. And quite frankly, when we looked at the impact that cutting summer school in half would have to our children’s ability to be successful in the long term, to their graduation rates, I was unwilling to make that cut.
VINCENT GRAY: Why bother to have a legislative body if people in the executive branch will do whatever they choose to do if they don’t like the decisions of this body? That’s a violation of the law. I mean, maybe we ought to just disband this council.
JOHN MERROW: Many Washingtonians turned against what they saw as Rhee’s autocratic manner and her tough reforms. And by the summer of 2010, the once wildly popular mayor was fighting for his political life. His opponent, City Council president Vincent Gray.
GEORGE PARKER: I think the difference between Adrian Fenty and Vincent Gray is that Vincent Gray feels that you can still make the tough decisions for reform, but you can still treat the teachers, you can treat the community with the respect that they need for them to be involved in the process.
MICHELLE RHEE: I don’t believe that I can do this job and serve the children well unless I have the backing of the mayor, of my boss, in the way that Fenty has given me.
JOHN MERROW: Shortly after Fenty’s defeat, the teacher union president, George Parker, lost his own reelection bid. And Michelle Rhee held her last press conference as chancellor.
MICHELLE RHEE: Good morning. Today, Chairman Gray and I have reached the mutual decision that I will leave my post as the chancellor of the Washington, D.C., public school system. In short, we have agreed together that the best way to keep the reforms going is for this reformer to step aside.
RICHARD WHITMIRE, Rhee Biographer: When she came to Washington, D.C., she was convinced that she had very little time to turn everything around because she assumed that she was going to burn through whatever political good will she had and the mayor had. And the odd thing about that, of course, is she proved to be right.
ADRIAN M. FENTY: I wish we could have convinced more people that in order to have a world-class school system, we were going to have to upset people. But we just weren’t able to do it. But that doesn’t mean that Michelle Rhee was wrong in doing so. In fact, I think she’s the most right person that’s probably ever come to this city.
JOHN MERROW: Rhee left Washington with a reputation as a fearless reformer. She had fired staff deemed incompetent and closed half-empty schools. And her most enduring reform was tying teacher evaluations to student test scores. She also left a record of significant gains on the DC CAS.
But five months later, the legitimacy of those test score increases was challenged once again. USA Today reported that during Rhee’s three-year tenure, well over half of her schools had been flagged for an inordinately high number of wrong-to-right erasures.
MARISOL BELLO, USA Today: There was one school where the 4th graders were erasing on average almost 13 wrong answers and correcting them to right answers. And the average was, you know, 1 for the district as a whole. And so statisticians are telling us, “Your chances of winning the Powerball are higher than this happening by chance.”
JOHN MERROW: The USA Today investigation looked primarily at one school, the award-winning Noyes Education Campus.
MARISOL BELLO: More than 75 percent of its classrooms were flagged for high erasure rates. And Noyes, during that same time, really saw its test scores spike. They went up from 44 percent in 2007 in reading. And then in 2009, it went up to 84 percent.
JOHN MERROW: [on camera] 44 to 84?
MARISOL BELLO: Correct, from 2007 to 2009. Big jumps.
JOHN MERROW: [voice-over] Noyes’s principal, Wayne Ryan, who had been promoted to the Central Office, left the public school system, he said, to pursue other options. He did not respond to FRONTLINE’s requests for an interview.
Ryan’s successor was Adell Cothorne. When she arrived at Noyes, she said she knew right away that something was wrong.
ADELL COTHORNE, Fmr. Principal, Noyes Education Campus: There’s these huge disconnects. They’re struggling academically, yet the data that I have been given is showing great gains. But what I see with my own eyes on a daily basis is not a true picture of great gains.
JOHN MERROW: Cothorne said she stayed late one evening to catch up on work. It was just after the students had taken a DC CAS practice test. And she heard voices coming from one of the rooms.
ADELL COTHORNE:: So I walked into the room and I saw three staff members. There were test books everywhere. One staff member was sitting at a desk and had an eraser. And then there were two other staff members at a round table, and they had test books out in front of them.
And one staff member said to me, in a lighthearted sort of way, “Oh, Principal, I can’t believe this kid drew a spider on the test and I have to erase it.”
JOHN MERROW: Cothorne said she reported the incident to the Central Office. But to her knowledge, there was no follow-up. So prior to the actual DC CAS, she changed the locks on the room where the tests were stored and asked for additional proctors.
[on camera] So what happened to the DC CAS scores at Noyes that year?
ADELL COTHORNE: They dropped 30 percent.
JOHN MERROW: I’m sorry?
ADELL COTHORNE: They dropped 30 percent the year that I was there.
JOHN MERROW: [voice-over] And remember those phenomenal test score gains from Rhee’s first year? After security was tightened, some of those test scores dropped, as well. By 2011, Aiton’s scores had plummeted 40 percentage points, Raymond’s 25. Both schools had been flagged for wrong-to-right erasures.
[on camera] What’s your reaction to those numbers? They say the gains are phony.
MICHELLE RHEE: Yeah. I mean, I— again, I feel like when you look at a situation like that, does it call things into question? Absolutely. And should those things be investigated? A hundred percent. No— there’s no doubt about it. But I can point to, you know, dozens and dozens of schools where, you know, they saw very steady gains over the course of the— the years that we were there, or even saw some dramatic gains that were maintained. So I think, you know, in isolated places, could something have happened? Maybe.
JOHN MERROW: [voice-over] Some schools did maintain their gains. But was there also widespread cheating? To try to settle the matter, D.C. public schools asked the city’s inspector general to investigate.
The IG began by interviewing teachers at Noyes Education Campus, the same school USA Today had focused on.
ADELL COTHORNE: At first, they tried to interview staff members after school, but then staff members would find a reason not to be interviewed. So finally, after playing a cat-and-mouse game with my staff for about two weeks—
JOHN MERROW: [on camera] Why would teachers play cat and mouse?
ADELL COTHORNE: That would be speculation, but I guess they had something that they didn’t want to be forthcoming.
JOHN MERROW: [voice-over] The IG finally managed to interview 32 school personnel and 23 parents. And after a 17-month investigation, the IG found a number of problems with test security. But on the issue of Noyes personnel erasing answer sheets, “investigators found no evidence to corroborate these allegations.” Based on the Noyes investigation, the IG decided not to look at any other schools.
[on camera] Were you interviewed?
ADELL COTHORNE: No, I was not.
JOHN MERROW: Why weren’t you interviewed?
ADELL COTHORNE: Again, my speculation, they didn’t want to hear what I had to say.
JOHN MERROW: [voice-over] FRONTLINE requested an interview with the D.C. inspector general. His office declined, saying that their policy is to let their reports speak for themselves.
[www.pbs.org: Read the report]
It’s been over two years since Rhee left D.C. She was given unprecedented power and resources to transform the system. She’s shaken up the teacher ranks. IMPACT, her landmark evaluation system, has been awarding performance bonuses or pay increases to hundreds of teachers, and has also terminated nearly 400 of them.
And scores on a national test improved slightly, but the public schools in Washington are still among the worst in the nation and D.C.’s high school graduation rate is dead last.
MICHELLE RHEE: I don’t think our kids are broken. I think our system is broken.
JOHN MERROW: Despite her controversial record as chancellor, Michelle Rhee has helped put public education in the national spotlight. Today she is a media star. She announced on Oprah that she was taking her brand of school reform nationwide.
MICHELLE RHEE: ["Oprah Winfrey Show," December 2010] I am going to start a revolution. I’m going to start a movement in this country on behalf of the nation’s children.
JOHN MERROW: Her new organization, Students First, has emerged as a prominent political force, backing candidates who support eliminating teacher tenure and the reform agenda she developed in Washington.
[on camera] Last question. Mayor Fenty lost his job. George Parker lost his job. You come out smelling like a rose. Do you see any irony in that?
MICHELLE RHEE: I came out smelling like a rose? [laughs] I’m not sure.
JOHN MERROW: Students First, you know, national organization.
MICHELLE RHEE: Yeah, I— I will say this. I lost the job that I loved, the job that I— if I had my druthers, I would have been in for at least four more years. The job— the work that we’re doing right now with Students First is important. Would I rather be in D.C. as the chancellor? Absolutely.
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