Rhee-thinking D.C.

Michelle Rhee has travelled a long way on the good name she made for herself by reporting higher student achievement as superintendent of schools in Washington, D.C. (never mind that her reforms were so unpopular that her patron, ex-Mayor Adrian Fenty, was voted out of office). Since leaving that post, Rhee has become a highly visible spokeswoman for corporate education reform -- high-stakes testing, charter schools, crushing the teachers' union and what not -- as head of the organization Students First. You may have seen her the other day on "The Daily Show" with Jon Stewart promoting her new book. She's doing very well!

But it's all built upon a shaky house of cards -- which is crashing down:

With the indictment of former Atlanta School Superintendent Beverly A. Hall and 34 other public school employees in a massive cheating scandal, the time is right to re-examine other situations of possible illegal behavior by educators. Washington, DC, belongs at the top of that list.

Michelle A. Rhee, America’s most famous school reformer, was fully aware of the extent of the problem when she glossed over what appeared to be widespread cheating during her first year as Schools Chancellor in Washington, DC. A long-buried confidential memo from her outside data consultant suggests that the problem was far more serious than kids copying off other kids’ answer sheets. (“191 teachers representing 70 schools”). Twice in just four pages the consultant suggests that Rhee’s own principals, some of whom she had hired, may have been responsible (“Could the erasures in some cases have been done by someone other than the students and the teachers?”).

Rhee has publicly maintained that, if bureaucratic red tape hadn’t gotten in the way, she would have investigated the erasures. For example, in an interview[1] conducted for PBS’ “Frontline” before I learned about the confidential memo, Rhee told me, “We kept saying, ‘Okay, we’re going to do this; we just need to have more information.’ And by the time the information was trickling in back and forth, we were about to take the next year’s test. And there was a new superintendent of education that came in at the time. And she said, ‘Okay, 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.’”

At best, that story is misleading.

But it could get worse -- the reality is that Rhee saw this damning report -- and yet she did nothng? Why? Because it would have demolished her credibility as an "education reformer" and an author. So best to hope the whole thing would go away. The reality is that while we all want bet\ter -- and usually tougher -- classroom learning for America's kids, high-stakes testing isn't the answer. From Atlanta to D.C. to right here in Philadelphia, the grown-ups are cheating and the children are getting cheated by losing days of irreplacable classroom time spent "teaching to the test."

Yet from Pennsylvania to New York, our so-called "leaders" are doubling down on high-stakes testing. Why?