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Lessons from Michelle Rhee

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

Tuesday night, Frontline is airing a documentary, by my friend John Merrow, on Michelle Rhee. Merrow, who has been following Rhee’s career since her days with the New Teacher Project and was granted unprecedented access to her, includes allegations from a former principal that the Washington, D.C., school district failed to pursue allegations of adult cheating on tests.

I know — many Notebook readers are growing weary of our coverage of cheating allegations in Philadelphia schools. But this is important stuff, folks. Whatever you think of the value of these tests or of misguided incentives attached to giving them such high stakes, we should not ignore evidence that educators may be behaving dishonestly, undermining the integrity of the whole educational enterprise.

Monday, the day before the scheduled Frontline airing, the investigators from the U.S. Department of Education issued a statement it could not substantiate the principal’s claim, but didn’t speak directly to the issue of widespread cheating in D.C. schools between 2008 and 2010. Rhee was quick to respond, saying that "the results confirm what we’ve long believed, that the vast majority of educators would never compromise their personal or prefessional integrity to cheat on a test, thereby cheating children." She did not directly respond to the former principal’s allegations, which include that she witnessed teachers erasing booklets, that investigators weren’t interested in talking to her, and that teachers were promised bonuses and steak dinners as a reward for high scores.

Rhee noted that D.C.’s own internal investigation had, likewise, not been able to confirm evidence of cheating.

Merrow is one of the longest-serving and respected education reporters in the business — the regular education correspondent for PBS’s NewsHour. He spent years tracking Rhee while she was superintendent. A scene he filmed of Rhee firing a principal was used in the controversial documentary "Waiting for ‘Superman.’"

Merrow also spent years in Philadelphia chronicling the reform efforts of Superintendent David Hornbeck, and in New Orleans following Paul Vallas. He does thorough, long-form work, not quick hits on controversial topics. He spoke to the public editor of the national Education Writers Association about Rhee and his impressions of her as a reformer and what happened in DC. (Merrow and I have both been on EWA’s board, and he interviewed me on camera for the Hornbeck piece.)

Rhee is a leading voice in the education reform movement and she is getting more prominent as the head of Students First, which just issued a state-by-state report card based on policies including teacher evaluation, mayoral control, charter friendliness, and the availability of vouchers for students to attend private schools.

Whatever you feel about any of this, I recommend you check out the documentary. It can only deepen your understanding of what is needed to improve urban education in the United States.

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