[Marxism] Michelle Rhee dodges USA Today

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Mon Aug 22 10:24:55 MDT 2011

NY Times August 21, 2011
Eager for Spotlight, but Not if It Is on a Testing Scandal

WASHINGTON — Why won’t Michelle Rhee talk to USA Today?

Ms. Rhee, the chancellor of the Washington public schools from 
2007 to 2010, is the national symbol of the data-driven, 
take-no-prisoners education reform movement.

It’s hard to find a media outlet, big or small, that she hasn’t 
talked to. She’s been interviewed by Katie Couric, Tom Brokaw and 
Oprah Winfrey. She’s been featured on a Time magazine cover 
holding a broom (to sweep away bad teachers). She was one of the 
stars of the documentary “Waiting for Superman.”

These days, as director of an advocacy group she founded, 
StudentsFirst, she crisscrosses the country pushing her education 
politics: she’s for vouchers and charter schools, against tenure, 
for teachers, but against their unions.

Always, she preens for the cameras. Early in her chancellorship, 
she was trailed for a story by the education correspondent of “PBS 
NewsHour,” John Merrow.

At one point, Ms. Rhee asked if his crew wanted to watch her fire 
a principal. “We were totally stunned,” Mr. Merrow said.

She let them set up the camera behind the principal and videotape 
the entire firing. “The principal seemed dazed,” said Mr. Merrow. 
“I’ve been reporting 35 years and never seen anything like it.”

And yet, as voracious as she is for the media spotlight, Ms. Rhee 
will not talk to USA Today.

At the end of March, three of the paper’s reporters — Marisol 
Bello, Jack Gillum and Greg Toppo — broke a story about the high 
rate of erasures and suspiciously high test-score gains at 41 
Washington schools while Ms. Rhee was chancellor.

At some schools, they found the odds that so many answers had been 
changed from wrong to right randomly were 1 in 100 billion. In a 
fourth-grade class at Stanton Elementary, 97 percent of the 
erasures were from wrong to right. Districtwide, the average 
number of erasures for seventh graders was fewer than one per 
child, but for a seventh-grade class at Noyes Elementary, it was 
12.7 per student. At Noyes Elementary in 2008, 84 percent of 
fourth graders were proficient in math, up from 22 percent in 2007.

Ms. Rhee’s reputation has rested on her schools’ test scores. 
Suddenly, a USA Today headline was asking, “were the gains real?” 
In this era of high-pressure testing, Washington has become 
another in a growing list of cheating scandals that has included 
Atlanta, Indiana, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Texas.

It took the USA Today reporters a year to finish their three-part 
series. So many people were afraid to speak that Ms. Bello had to 
interview dozens to find one willing to be quoted. She knocked on 
teachers’ doors at 9:30 at night and hunted parents at PTA 
meetings. She met people in coffee shops where they would not be 
recognized, and never called or e-mailed sources at their schools.

Hari Sevugan, a spokesman for Ms. Rhee, said the reporters were 
“provided unprecedented time and access to report out their 
story,” including many meetings with senior staff members and the 
chief of data accountability. By last fall, Mr. Sevugan said, 
district officials’ patience was wearing thin. The deputy press 
secretary, Satiya Simmons, complained in an e-mail to a colleague, 
“Jack Gillum isn’t going away quietly, Uggh.”

“Just stop answering his e-mails,” advised Anita Dunn, a 
consultant who had been the communications director for President 

The reporters made a dozen attempts to interview Ms. Rhee, 
directly and through her public relations representatives. Ms. 
Bello called Ms. Rhee’s cellphone daily, and finally got her on a 

“She said she wasn’t going to talk with us,” Ms. Bello recalled. 
“Her understanding was we were writing about” district schools 
“and she is no longer chancellor.”

On March 29, the day after the story came out, Ms. Rhee appeared 
on the PBS program “Tavis Smiley” and attacked USA Today.

“Are you suggesting this story is much ado about nothing, that 
this is lacking integrity, this story in USA Today?” Mr. Smiley asked.

“Absolutely,” Ms. Rhee said. “It absolutely lacks credibility.”

Mr. Smiley asked if she was concerned that she had put too much 
pressure on teachers and principals to raise scores. “We want 
educators to feel that pressure,” she answered.

Ms. Rhee emphasized that the district had hired a top security 
company, Caveon, to investigate in 2009, and was given a clean 
bill of health. The district released a statement from John 
Fremer, Caveon’s owner, saying, “The company did not find evidence 
of cheating at any of the schools.”

However, in subsequent interviews with USA Today and this 
reporter, Mr. Fremer made it clear that the scope of his inquiry 
was limited, and that the district had not requested that he do 
more. Indeed, Caveon’s report, posted on USA Today’s Web site, was 
full of sentences like, “Redacted was interviewed at redacted.”

Teachers described security as “excellent” and “very vigilant,” 
and investigators, for the most part, took their comments at face 

It did not take Ms. Rhee long to realize she had miscalculated. 
Three days later, she told Bloomberg Radio she was “100 percent 
supportive” of a broader inquiry.

Still, she would not talk to USA Today. Mr. Sevugan gave no 
explanation, but pointed out that she had spoken with several 
other news outlets.

The reporters did not give up. On April 26, Emily Lenzner, a 
spokeswoman, wrote Mr. Gillum, “Michelle is willing to do an 
interview, but we’d like to do this in person.” She asked if they 
could hold their story, and arranged for a meeting on May 3 at the 
StudentsFirst office in Washington.

On May 2, another Rhee spokeswoman e-mailed to say the reporters 
were too interested in cheating and not enough in StudentsFirst. 
She said they could submit a list of questions.

There were 21 questions; Ms. Rhee did not answer 10 of the 11 
about cheating.

Mr. Gillum, who recently took a job at The Associated Press, said 
he was surprised by how unresponsive Ms. Rhee has been. “She talks 
about how important data is, and our story is data driven,” he said.

So that people could make their own judgments, Linda Mathews, the 
project editor, posted the relevant public documents on the USA 
Today Web site.

Shortly after the follow-up story appeared, the district’s 
inspector general began what was supposed to be an inquiry, but in 
July The Washington Post reported that just one investigator had 
been assigned. “Basically it was one guy in a room who made 10 
phone calls,” Mr. Toppo said.

Officials with the federal Department of Education have indicated 
that they are assisting with the investigation.

In Washington, two investigators spent five days at eight schools. 
In Atlanta, the state deployed 60 investigators who worked for 10 
months at 56 schools. They produced a report that named all 178 
people found cheating, including 82 who confessed. There was not a 
single case of “redacted and redacted doctoring redacted grade 
answer sheets at redacted.”

People in Atlanta could go to prison. Last week, a grand jury 
issued subpoenas seeking the names of school employees who had 
received bonuses for test scores. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution 
reported that there were subpoenas for “signed copies” of “any and 
all oaths of office” taken by Beverly Hall, the former superintendent.

The three reporters still hope to interview Ms. Rhee. 
“Absolutely,” said Mr. Toppo.

Which brings things full circle: Why won’t Ms. Rhee talk to USA Today?

E-mail: oneducation at nytimes.com

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