Default Lines column, May 2011 issue of eSchool News—The last few weeks haven’t been kind to some of the biggest icons of what education historian Diane Ravitch calls the “corporate education reform movement.”
First, it was revealed that some of the test-score gains reported during the tenure of former D.C. Public Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee might have been the result of cheating. Then, former publishing executive Cathie Black resigned her post as chancellor of the New York City Public Schools after three highly divisive months on the job.
New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg surprised many people when he chose Black—who had never worked as an educator, had never attended public schools, and hadn’t even sent her own children to them—to head the nation’s largest public school system late last year. At the time, Bloomberg said Black was the perfect choice for the job, the Associated Press reported, because she was “a superstar manager.”
Critics questioned her lack of experience as an educator, however, and she did nothing to change their minds. Meeting with parents who were worried about overcrowded schools, she joked that birth control was the solution; according to the AP, two polls had her approval rating at 17 percent before she resigned April 7.
Rhee’s methods face new scrutiny after USA Today reported March 28 that a computer analysis of erasures on students’ standardized tests showed more than half the district’s schools had an inordinate number of answers changed from wrong to right. At the Crosby S. Noyes School, which has been touted as a model of reform for its dramatic test-score gains, erasures reportedly were a dozen times more common than at other schools.
As Ravitch noted in a March 29 column for The Daily Beast, “What will this revelation mean for Rhee’s campaign to promote her test-driven reforms? Her theory seemed to be that if she pushed incentives and sanctions hard enough, the scores would rise. Her theory was right; the scores did rise, but they didn’t represent genuine learning. She incentivized desperate behavior by principals and teachers trying to save their jobs and meet their targets and comply with their boss’s demands.”
Rhee is widely celebrated among supporters of the corporate approach to school reform for her no-nonsense approach with educators—but an anecdote from a new biography about her, called The Bee Eater, seems to reveal the true nature of her character.