I am done reporting about Michelle Rhee. For one thing, there are many education stories of greater national significance to cover. But I have also been advised by trusted friends to get off the Rhee story because, as one said, “It’s beginning to look like a vendetta, and some people say you are ‘picking on poor Michelle.’”
Another friend believes I’ve become obsessed. That stopped me in my tracks. Was I like Carrie, the heroine of “Homeland”? Think of the opening sequence of the series, where she (Claire Danes) is obsessing over having missed warning signs before 9/11. Her supervisor, Saul (Mandy Patinkin), attempts to reassure her by saying “We all missed something,” and she blurts out, “I’m not everyone.”
I guess I do feel a bit like Carrie. I had unprecedented access to Rhee during her Chancellorship, and I missed some warning signs that all was not legitimate. I was not skeptical enough back then, and my failure then partially explains my desire to get it right this time.
But there’s more to my ‘obsession.’ Once producer Mike Joseloff, researcher Catherine Rentz and I began tugging on threads during our Frontline investigation, the enterprise took on a life of its own. Learning that “the truth is out there” fueled my determination to uncover it. In the Cub Scouts we were taught that “cheaters never win, and winners never cheat,” and I’ve never completely lost that naive optimism, despite lots of evidence to the contrary.
If you have followed the story, you know that we did not get Dr. Sandy Sanford’s confidential memo in time to include it in the Frontline program. The memo (.pdf) showed up on my desk in a plain white envelope a few weeks later and proved to be ‘the smoking gun’ that showed just how much Rhee knew about the erasures–and made her failure to investigate all the more revealing about her educational priorities.
We reported on Frontline about the inadequacy of the DC Inspector General’s investigation into the widespread erasures–but not on the other investigations that Rhee and her successor, Kaya Henderson, regularly cite as ‘proof’ that they have been exonerated. So of course I then looked into those and discovered that they were superficial in nature and/or largely controlled by Rhee.
The Atlanta scandal was running on a parallel track, and so contrasting the two newspapers’ treatment was a natural story to follow. It was sad and disappointing to see how the Washington Post’s editorial pages have functioned as a cheerleader for Rhee, but facts are facts.
The refusal of Washington DC’s Mayor and the City Council to dig into this story also fueled my determination to get it out, particularly because the schools in DC are worse today by almost every conceivable measure. The leader of this ‘see no evil’ crowd has been Councilmember David Catania, who, as head of the education subcommittee, has made it clear that he has no interest in ‘digging up the past.’
Another factor in my obsession with getting at the truth was an “off the record” conversation with a top leader in DC who was in a position to intervene early but apparently lacked the courage. That same person had similar “off the record” conversations with at least two other reporters, giving them damning information that they were unable to use publicly. I can’t and won’t identify that individual, although I wish I could.
Our Frontline program introduced a whistle-blower, principal Adell Cothorne, to a national audience. I wrote about her in my blog, feeling that readers ought to know more about her courageous stand. As I reported, she gave up her DCPS principalship and opened a bakery, a loss to public education (and a huge salary cut for her). Well, I am happy to tell you that Adell Cothorne is back where she belongs, in education. She’s working with the great Catherine Snow at the Harvard Graduate School of Education in a project called SERP for “Strategic Education Research Partnership.” This work keeps her in schools, working with teachers, principals, district staff and students, as she helps implement a vocabulary building program for kids in 4th-8th grade. She is also a member of the Leadership Faculty for ASCD, providing professional development for current and aspiring administrators. Her new beginning is a well-deserved happy ending.
People often asked me how I feel about Michelle Rhee. She was great fun to cover, because she’s bright and confident and tireless. She was a great interview, candid and forthright (at least until she hired a slick PR person, Anita Dunn, to shape her image and teach her political tricks of the trade). As Rhee’s biographer, Richard Whitmire, told Frontline, Rhee is “a zealot.” As she told me, she does not look back and reflect; she does not have any regrets because she’s too busy moving forward. She lives in a black-and-white world. I don’t think she’s a cheater, but it’s clear that she failed a fundamental test of leadership when confronted with strong evidence that adults on her watch cheated.
But Michelle Rhee is not the point of all this. What matters much more is what she failed to accomplish in Washington. She espoused a certain approach to reforming failing schools, a path that she and her successor have followed for six years, and that approach has not worked. That’s the central point: Rhee’s “scorched earth” approach of fear, intimidation and reliance on standardized tests scores to judge (and fire) teachers and principals does not lead to improved schools, educational opportunities, graduation rates or any of the other goals that she presumably embraces.
Full disclosure: I am still trying to get copies of the emails between Sandy Sanford and his immediate supervisor, Erin McGoldrick, using the provisions of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). For over a year now, DCPS has managed to avoid finding any electronic communication between them, except for his invoices. It has been a comedy of errors: DCPS has entered incorrect search terms and even a wrong email address–and then reported (surprise!) that it could not find any communications. We’ve appealed each time, and each time the Mayor’s General Counsel has told DCPS to search again. If the Mayor’s General Counsel were to do more than chide DCPS, perhaps we would get their emails, and that might shed more light on the situation. If that happens, I will be back on the story.
And if another insider were to come forward with more information about the cover-up, I would return to the story.
But as of now, I’m back on the education beat where I belong.