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Michelle Rhee is in trouble

michelle rheefavicon There hasn’t been an indictment, and there isn’t any hard evidence yet, but Michelle Rhee may soon find herself in the middle of a major cheating scandal.

StudentsFirst founder and former chancellor of the Washington D.C. public schools, Ms. Rhee is known for her tough-love, results-only, no-excuses approach to educational reform. She’s been on the cover of Time magazine and is the author of Radical: Fighting to Put Students First. Ms. Rhee is hugely famous — and contentious, and controversial.

And today, in a scathing article by respected education reporter John Merrow, Ms. Rhee is being accused of knowing about a large-scale cheating scandal and not doing enough to investigate it.

In “Michelle Rhee’s Reign of Error,” Mr. Merrow discusses a leaked confidential memorandum he received written by an independent investigator. The report first highlights wrong-to-right erasure data from one school in the district. Whereas the average student had 1.7 wrong-to-right erasures on the reading test, students from Aiton Elementary School had 5.7 erasures. An article last year in the USA Today, which first uncovered the wrong-to-right phenomenon, indicated that the chances of such a discrepancy in erasures are “greater than the odds of winning the Powerball.” After focusing on Aiton, the memo added, “Aiton is NOT the only school in this situation.”

There’s something going on here. I’m usually skeptical about conspiracy theories, and I know that there are plenty of people out there that would do anything to bring Ms. Rhee down. But the combination of the USA Today article and Mr. Merrow’s post is pretty damning.

Here’s what hit me most: Mr. Merrow implicates not only Ms. Rhee but the entire results-only movement in hurting children. The usual argument is that No Child Left Behind has made school boring and pressure-packed. It goes something like, There’s no more time for art or independent reading. Everything is geared toward the test. There’s no joy anymore.

That assertion may be true. But Mr. Merrow concludes his article with something even more troubling. Ms. Rhee, in her crusade to put students first, actually created an environment that centered on adults. After all, during her tenure, millions of dollars of bonuses went to teachers and principals whose students performed well.

Success meant more money for the adults, not the children. In fact, children who falsely improved were taken out of intervention programs they’d qualified for based on their previous (and accurate) test scores. Yes, according to Mr. Merrow, students were directly cheated.

Georgia Governor Nathan Deal nailed it:

“When test results are falsified and students who have not mastered the necessary material are promoted, our students are harmed, parents lose sight of their child’s true progress, and taxpayers are cheated.”

I want to believe in education reform, and I gravitate toward people who work hard and are unabashed in their passion toward success. We cannot accept mediocrity. But as more and more evidence piles up against Ms. Rhee, I can no longer pretend that something quite sinister did not occur in Washington D.C. under her leadership.

Update, April 16: As I expected, this story is now being picked up by major media outlets. Here are a few articles to check out:

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