This was written by Jay Matthews in his "Class Matters" blog for the Washington Post; I'll show in a minute why it's important to know that.G.F. Brandenburg, a retired D.C. math teacher with an irresistible blog, has done it again. If he had chosen a career in journalism instead of teaching, no U.S. president would have finished out his first term. He has found the missing test score data from former D.C. schools chancellor's early years as a classroom teacher, something I did not think was possible.He has proved that Rhee's results weren't nearly as good as she said they were. (To see Rhee's response, which calls Brandenburg's criticism "unfounded," click here.)You can find Brandenburg's revelations in this Jan. 31 post, "The Rhee Miracle Examined Again--By Cohort." Then go back further for other recent pieces he has done, with many charts, to make his findings clear. You may also be enlightened by his most recent Feb. 8 item, "The Cluelessness of Rhee, Kopp and Mathews," which finds fault withmy Feb. 3 column on Teach For America founder Wendy Kopp's new book. It is an honor, of a sort, to be mentioned by Brandenburg in the same headline as Rhee, who has been his prime target for years.
I've started looking at Brandenberg's posts, and the evidence is very strong. Basically, he has year by year data on the entire grade level of Rhee's old school; if Rhee had done what she said she did, I'm certain it would have been impossible for the tests scores to turn out the way that they did.
Rhee's claim about her teacher prowess has always been this:
Rhee's résumé asserts that the students made a dramatic gain: "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."
"When people say, 'Do you have documentation?', I've been saying no," Rhee said yesterday. "I think this is an important thing going forward for teachers to have documents to say, 'This is what the data look like.' My lesson is: How do we set up a system so teachers can have this kind of information on their students?" [Emphasis mine]You know, if any of us produced such dramatic results in our own line of work, we'd probably make sure we had documentation. But that lack of evidence didn't stop the press from fawning all over our St. Michele:
To understand D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee and the educational insurgency she is part of, you have to know what happened when she taught at Baltimore's Harlem Park Elementary School in the early 1990s.
The Teach for America program threw well-educated young people such as Rhee -- bachelor's degree from Cornell, master's from Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government -- into classrooms full of impoverished children after only a summer of training. "It was a zoo, every day," she recalled. Thirty-six children, all poor, suffered under a novice who had no idea what to do.
But within months, for Rhee and other influential educators in her age group, the situation changed. She vowed not "to let 8-year-olds run me out of town." She discovered learning improved when everyone sat in a big U-pattern with her in the middle and she made quick marks on the blackboard for good and bad behavior without ever stopping the lesson. She spent an entire summer making lesson plans and teaching materials, with the help of indulgent aunts visiting from Korea. She found unconventional but effective ways to teach reading and math. She set written goals for each child and enlisted parents in her plans.
Now, who's the journalist who would put this sycophantic piece of sludge into print without bothering to check if Rhee's claim were true?Students became calm and engaged. Test scores soared. She kept one group with her for second and third grade. She was convinced that her students, despite their problems, "were the most talented kids ever." Then the real world intruded, a key moment for the entrepreneurial educators Rhee counts as friends. "All of those kids would go on to other teachers and totally lose everything because those teachers were" lousy. (Rhee used an earthier adjective.) [emphasis mine]
You guessed it - Jay Matthews, back in 2008. He even finds a way to excuse himself in the same piece where he sings the praises of Brandenberg: he says Rhee isn't "lying," she just didn't know the truth:
As I used to try to explain to my children when they got in a lather about what somebody told them, there is a big difference between telling a lie and saying something wrong. If you say words that you think are right, but are not, that is not a lie. Lying means knowingly embracing a falsehood.
Rhee told me that her information about huge gains in her students' scores came from her principal at the time. She had no data to back it up, but went with the best information she had, her memory, when asked how her students did. Until Brandenburg dug deep, nobody had the real data.Dear lord, how embarrassing. Matthews credulously accepted everything Rhee said. He was either too lazy or too incompetent to bother to verify if her claims - claims that, if true, are astonishing. He didn't even bother to write that "Rhee claimed her test scores soared"; he just presented it to his readers as fact.
Now, he won't even give a meek mea culpa. Everyone earns assumed good faith - especially Matthews.
Bob Somerby wrote about Rhee's self-puffery in real time, back in 2007. And, much to his credit, he got it exactly right:
Let’s make this simple: According to that claim on Rhee’s resume, a group of kids at one of Baltimore’s lowest-performing schools recorded phenomenal levels of achievement at the end of third grade. Ninety percent of these students scored at the 90th percentile or higher (presumably, that’s in reading and/or math). In a wealthy suburban school district, that would be a remarkable record—one a principal ought to verify. In a school like Harlem Park, it would be an educational miracle—a revolution. About those test scores, we’ll only ask this:
Did anyone at Harlem Park really believe that those test scores were real? If so, Michelle Rhee should have been arrested and held for further study. If those deserving Harlem Park kids really did achieve at those levels, a young teacher had authored an educational miracle; she had somehow managed to solve a heart-breaking, decades-long educational puzzle. The school should have been crawling with researchers, trying to figure out what she’d done.
I'm going to take another look at Brandenberg's work at some point, but I really feel it's a bit of a waste of time. Not that Branderberg shouldn't be complimented on what he's doing - he should. But I understand basic math well enough to know that there is simply no way Rhee's claims are true. 90% at 90%? After averaging 13%? I'd sooner believe all the claims that show up in my spam box about Nigerian princes owing me money.
And I don't know what's worse: that Rhee would make such an audacious claim, or that reporters like Matthews would actually believe her.