I will protect your pensions. Nothing about your pension is going to change when I am governor. - Chris Christie, "An Open Letter to the Teachers of NJ" October, 2009

Thursday, February 10, 2011

St. Michele's Halo Gets Tarnished

Maybe it was a little early to canonize her:
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.
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.

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. 
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]
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?

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.


thinker said...

Those results are a fairly outrageous claim on Rhee's part! And as Somerby notes, that school would have been crawling with researchers! But, as has come to be the norm, we just accept it as truth and even when it is later revealed to be untrue, we all just forget about the lie and act as though it never happened.

I admit I had to laugh out loud at the excerpt...is it by Jay Matthews?...on Rhee's teaching. so learning improved when you had the kids sit in a u-pattern and when you marked good and bad behavior on the board without stopping your lesson? You worked to get parents involved and wrote objectives? You spent a summer planning lessons? SHOCKING! I'll bet NO teacher ANYWHERE has tried THAT before! (right, because they're ALL "lousy")....oh, except me and about 12,478,661 other individuals in the classroom. Fact is, we try new stuff EVERY DAY until we figure out what works to manage and teach that particular mix of kids that we are currently teaching. But I guess if you go from a "zoo" to a well-managed classroom, it can seem like a miracle (let's not think about the fact that it never should have been a "zoo" to start with...even for a novice teacher. I should know, I am one!)

This is just unreal...this is the miracle? It's like hearing about a miracle cure for cancer only to discover that it's really just aspirin.

Duke said...

I have had my issues with Somerby over the years, but he was on Rhee a long time ago. He wrote several pieces saying exactly what you are, Thinker: everything she claims was innovative was anything but.