Perdido 03

Perdido 03

Saturday, March 30, 2013

Unlike Beverly Hall, Michelle Rhee Is Too Big To Be Brought Down

After hearing about the indictment of former Atlanta schools superintendent Beverly Hall on charges of racketeering, theft, influencing witnesses, conspiracy and making false statements in a test cheating scandal, it's natural to wonder if such an indictment could be brought against former D.C. schools chancellor Michelle Rhee.

Hall, after all, was a lower-profile Rhee - a darling of the test-based, teacher accountability/education reform movement who ran the Atlanta schools with an iron hand, relished firing principals and teachers when their scores didn't increase as she had prescribed and, at least for awhile, basked in the glow of rising test scores and acclaim for increasing student "achievement" in Atlanta schools.

It was all based on fraud, however:

On Friday, prosecutors essentially said it really was too good to be true. Dr. Hall and the 34 teachers, principals and administrators “conspired to either cheat, conceal cheating or retaliate against whistle-blowers in an effort to bolster C.R.C.T. scores for the benefit of financial rewards associated with high test scores,” the indictment said, referring to the state’s Criterion-Referenced Competency Test.

As with Rhee's tenure in D.C., there were rumors circulating for years that so-called test gains in Atlanta schools were fraudulent.  Reporters for the Journal-Constitution wrote stories about the so-called "Atlanta Miracle" and questioned how the test scores could increase so dramatically from one year to the next.  

But it wasn't until 2010 that Governor Sonny Perdue, despite pushback from the Atlanta business community, decided to investigate those rumors and get to the bottom of the miraculous test score increases:

In August 2010, after yet another blue-ribbon commission of Atlanta officials found no serious cheating, Mr. Perdue appointed the two special prosecutors and gave them subpoena powers and a budget substantial enough to hire more than 50 state investigators who were overseen by Mr. Hyde.

Mr. Bowers, Mr. Wilson and Mr. Hyde had spent most of their careers putting criminals in prison, and almost as important, they could write. They produced an investigative report with a narrative that read more like a crime thriller than a sleepy legal document and placed Dr. Hall center stage in a drama of mind-boggling dysfunction.

Investigators turned an informer, got her to wear a wire, and slowly but surely got the evidence they needed to get 35 indictments of various educators in the Atlanta system, including the former schools superintendent.

Beverly Hall now faces up to 45 years in prison.  

Prosecutors recommended a $7.5 million dollar bond for her.

She is no longer a darling of the education reform movement.

Which now brings us to that other famous darling of the education reform movement, the official once feted by Oprah Winfrey as a "warrior woman," the former schools chancellor famous for ruling her district with an iron hand, firing principals for not getting scores to increase, and pictured on TIME magazine cover with a broom in her hand, ready to sweep out the "bad teachers."

As with Hall, there have been rumors for years that the test score increases D.C. schools saw under Michelle Rhee's tenure were fraudulent. 

As with Hall, Rhee ran her school system under a "culture of fear" and a "conspiracy of silence."

As with Hall, reporters have looked into the test score increases and found convincing evidence that the increases in many of the schools were fraudulent, based upon erasures.  

As with Hall, there have been several "blue-ribbon commissions of officials" who have looked into Rhee's tenure at DCPS and the allegations of test cheating and decided there is no criminality there.   

As with Hall in Atlanta, Rhee hired Caveon Consulting Services LLC to look into cheating in DCPS public schools.  Caveon eventually reported it "did not find any evidence of cheating at any of the schools" in DCPS.

This is the same testing security firm that Hall hired to look into cheating allegations in Atlanta schools.

The Atlanta cheating scandal investigators hired by Governor Perdue found "many schools for which there was strong statistical evidence of cheating were not flagged by Caveon."

In other words, Caveon gave Hall a pass when they should have flagged her.

Have they given Rhee a pass when she, too, should be flagged for potential wrongdoing?

Yes, there are many, many similarities between the Atlanta cheating scandal and the D.C. cheating scandal, many similarities between Hall and Rhee and how they ran their districts, how the scores miraculously increased, how there were red flags all over the place about those increases.

Could Rhee end up like Hall, the victim of a dogged politician like Perdue and dogged prosecutors looking to get to the bottom of the erasures in DC public schools that a USA Today report found to be so extraordinary that you would have a better chance at winning the lottery twice than having students erase all those wrong answers and change them to the right ones the way had happened at some DC schools?

The answer is no, this will not happen to Michelle Rhee.  

Unlike Beverly Hall, who was a lower-level functionary in the education reform movement in a city that, while big enough to warrant national attention, does not enjoy the prominence of a place like Washington D.C., Rhee is the very face of the test-based, teacher accountability/education reform movement who worked at the very center of power in the United States.  

After she left her DCPS post, she has remained a focal point of that test-based, teacher accountability/education reform movement when she started her Wall Street- and corporate-funded Students First education reform lobbying group which has very prominently lobbied for test-based, teacher accountability "reforms" all over the country, along with providing the funding needed to ram some of those "reforms" through.

Chief among those "reforms" is ending the power of the teachers union, curtailing work protections for teachers like seniority and tenure, and promoting "school choice" and charter schools over traditional public schools.

These are items on the education agenda that the people in power very much like.

You can bet that the powers that be in this country do not want anything to tarnish Ms. Rhee, her tenure at DCPS or her lobbying group, Students First.  

This is why there has been little real action on the very convincing evidence USA Today found for cheating under Rhee's DCPS tenure.

That Rhee has connections to some of the most powerful and most connected people in the country also ensures nothing will happen to her.

The American Thinker published a piece on March 18, before Hall and 34 other educators were indicted in Atlanta on cheating charges, that took a look at the possibility that Rhee and her tenure at DCPS could undergo the same rigorous investigation that Hall and her tenure in Atlanta underwent.

They too are skeptical that will happen, primarily because of her prominence in the education reform movement and her connections to people in power:

A year after the USA Today exposé, Rhee, the media darling, is still riding high.  Appearing on cable news shows, PBS, and network television; crisscrossing the country, speaking to varied audiences; pushing legislation; and heading up StudentsFirst, the advocacy group she founded, Rhee appears unstoppable.  If her public image remains mostly untarnished, it may be due to nothing less than friends like Arne Duncan and former White House operatives.

In late summer 2011, after a USA Today reporter made a number of attempts to get Ms. Rhee on the record about the cheating scandal, Rhee's StudentsFirst PR representative, SKDKnickerbocker's Anita Dunn (also President Obama's former communications director), advised the D.C. chancellor's office to "just stop answering his [Jack Gillum's] e-mails." 

Hari Sevugan, Rhee's VP of Communications at StudentsFirst, served as former national press secretary for the DNC and before that worked as senior spokesman for President Obama's 2008 campaign.  Along with Dunn, he covered for Rhee, saying reporters "were provided unprecedented time and access to report their story."  Answering for D.C. officials last fall, Sevugan suggested that they were running out of patience with reporters' attempts to get a statement from Rhee. 

Rhee did answer written questions submitted by USA Today last May, but out of the eleven pertaining to the cheating scandal, she refused to respond to ten.

Secretary Duncan's closeness to Rhee poses a significant obstacle to getting to the bottom of the D.C. investigation.  In Atlanta there were "subpoenas for signed copies of any and all oaths of office" taken by the former superintendent Beverly Hall.  Where are the subpoenas for information from Michelle Rhee and DCPS?  After nine months, there are still no definitive conclusions from the DOE inspector general's office.  Who's protecting whom?

There is little doubt in my mind that the USDOE and the DOJ will NOT look into Michelle Rhee's tenure at DCPS and the evidence of test tampering and cheating because if they find anything, it will a near-fatal bullet into the heart of the test-based teacher accountability/education reform movement.

Hall's fall from education reform grace is happening far from center stage and while it hurts the movement that someone with Hall's education reform credentials has been taken down by evidence of cheating and fraud, it is not fatal to the movement.

If the same were to happen to Michelle Rhee or Joel Klein, the other education reformer and former schools chancellor with the same prominence and notoriety as Rhee, it would be, if not fatal to the movement, a very grave wound from which the movement might not recover.

Rhee, along with Klein, are the very public faces of the education reform movement.

Whatever happens to them, happens to the test-based, teacher accountability/education reform movement as well.

So in the end, the Hall indictment and trial will provide Rhee and the other functionaries who worked around her with perhaps some uncomfortable moments in private, but I believe there will be no Sonny Purdue to ride to the rescue and run an thorough, honest and independent investigation of Rhee and her DCPS tenure, no dogged prosecutors in D.C. as there were in Atlanta to get to the bottom of the scandal, root out the wrongdoing and work their way up to the people at the top. 

Barack Obama, Arne Duncan, Jeb Bush, Oprah Winfrey and Rhee's other powerful connections will ensure that will not happen. 

The fix is in, folks.  As The American Thinker story notes:

A February 26, 2012 New York Times article questioned Secretary of Education Arne Duncan's appearance with Michelle Rhee at a January education conference given the DOE's pending involvement with the case. 
When asked by the Times about the apparent conflict of interest, Mr. Duncan's spokesperson called the columnist "irresponsible ... to presume guilt before we have all the facts."
Richard L. Hyde, who led the Atlanta investigation, disagreed:
I'm shocked that the secretary of education would be fraternizing with someone who could potentially be the target of the investigation.
But the same Times article fails to mention that the DOE's inspector general, Kathleen Tighe, also heads the Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board overseeing Stimulus fund distribution.  How can the IG of the DOE be a watchdog over $100 billion in Stimulus funds designated for that same institution?  Another conflict of interest to add to the growing list?
Indeed, Rhee is ensconced in what seems to be a bubble of invincibility so that even when this happens:

A USA TODAY investigation, based on documents and data secured under D.C.'s Freedom of Information Act, found that for the past three school years most of Noyes' classrooms had extraordinarily high numbers of erasures on standardized tests. The consistent pattern was that wrong answers were erased and changed to right ones.

Noyes is one of 103 public schools here that have had erasure rates that surpassed D.C. averages at least once since 2008. That's more than half of D.C. schools.


A trio of academicians consulted by USA TODAY — Haladyna, George Shambaugh of Georgetown University and Gary Miron of Western Michigan University — say the erasure rates found at Noyes and at other D.C. public schools are so statistically rare, and yet showed up in so many classrooms, that they should be examined thoroughly.

Or when this happens:

Student standardized-test scores at an award-winning D.C. school dropped dramatically in 2011 after the principal tightened security out of concern about possible cheating, according to a new “Frontline” television documentary to be broadcast Tuesday.

The hour-long program raises questions about whether District officials have adequately investigated persistent suspicions that public school employees may have tampered with tests during the tenure of former schools chancellor Michelle A. Rhee.

Adell Cothorne was principal of the District’s Noyes Education Campus for one year, in 2010-11. She told “Frontline” that just after students took a midyear practice version of the city’s annual standardized test, she stumbled upon three staff members sitting late at night in a room strewn with more than 200 test booklets.

One of the adults was at a desk, holding an eraser. The other two sat at a table, booklets open before them.

“One staff member said to me, in a lighthearted sort of way, ‘Oh, principal, I can’t believe this kid drew a spider on the test and I have to erase it,’ ” Cothorne told filmmakers, offering the first such direct testimony about potential tampering with answer sheets in D.C. schools.

Cothorne told “Frontline” that she reported the incident to the central office, but to her knowledge nothing was done.

Even after both of these very damaging allegations, Rhee and her tenure at DCPS will STILL not undergo a thorough, rigorous and independent investigation.

There is too much at stake here - for Rhee herself, of course, but also for Arne Duncan, for Barack Obama, for Jeb Bush, and for the rest of the corporate education reform movement.

In short, just she is "Too Big To Be Brought Down." 

As always when I write these kinds of things, I hope to be wrong.  I hope Rhee does undergo a thorough, rigorous and independent investigation and, if wrongdoing is found, she is prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law the way Hall is enjoying right now.

But I've seen nothing from DC officials, the Congress, the USDOE or the DOJ that makes me think that will happen. 




    1. And? You have a point hidden there, somewhere. It has something to do with School Superintendents run wild? Please clarify.

  2. ...must be nice....

  3. ...needs a wired whistleblower to take out Rhee. or just a group of whistleblowers ....

  4. Great article. I wish I had subpoena powers and was the hacker they think I am. Oh the things I would probably uncover...

  5. As educators we are to smart to let a smooth talking anti education person be the empty head of education reform. I am paying a fortune not to have my child subjected to this white noise of educators who dont know the first thing about education. Without the backing of rich people who want to do away with public education they would not be given the time of day by real reformers who know what to do. Shame on us for not standing up to them.