Paranoid Michelle Rhee blames her “enemies” for cheating report

A Nixonian response from the former D.C. schools chancellor to news of statistical anomalies in her success stories

Topics: Education, War Room, Washington, D.C.,

Paranoid Michelle Rhee blames her "enemies" for cheating reportMichelle Rhee (Credit: © Hyungwon Kang / Reuters)

Former Washington, D.C., schools chancellor Michelle Rhee, champion of “education reform,” is a right-wing folk hero because while working for the public she combined corporatist policy with open contempt for the public. An ostensible Democrat, she now advises Republican governors on how best to battle the nefarious teachers’ unions, which, in her reckoning, are almost solely responsible for poor student performance. Her solutions to the “education crisis” mostly involve the privatization of public schools. Her qualifications, besides having all the currently fashionable opinions, are her successes as head of Washington’s schools. Test scores increased during her tenure! In some places, they increased dramatically!

But USA Today reported yesterday that the test improvements were, in many cases, a bit suspicious. One school in particular, the Crosby S. Noyes Education Campus, showed dramatic gains in the span of two short years. The standardized tests from Noyes during those years also showed dramatic — and statistically improbable — rates of “wrong-to-right erasures” on their answer sheets.

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In 2007-08, six classrooms out of the eight taking tests at Noyes were flagged by McGraw-Hill because of high wrong-to-right erasure rates. The pattern was repeated in the 2008-09 and 2009-10 school years, when 80% of Noyes classrooms were flagged by McGraw-Hill.

On the 2009 reading test, for example, seventh-graders in one Noyes classroom averaged 12.7 wrong-to-right erasures per student on answer sheets; the average for seventh-graders in all D.C. schools on that test was less than 1. The odds are better for winning the Powerball grand prize than having that many erasures by chance, according to statisticians consulted by USA TODAY.

“This is an abnormal pattern,” says Thomas Haladyna, a professor emeritus at Arizona State University who has studied testing for 20 years.

Two other academics agreed that the rates were improbable enough to warrant closer examination.

The story is worth reading in full. It’s well reported and carefully edited, and marshals a great deal of evidence to suggest an epidemic of cheating during Rhee’s tenure, if not outright fraud.

And Rhee responded, last night. Not by answering any specific charge, at all, but by reasserting her essential rightness about everything, and the wrongness of her awful critics.

“It isn’t surprising,” Rhee said in a statement Monday, “that the enemies of school reform once again are trying to argue that the Earth is flat and that there is no way test scores could have improved … unless someone cheated.”

USA TODAY’s investigation into test scores “is an insult to the dedicated teachers and schoolchildren who worked hard to improve their academic achievement levels,” Rhee said.

Rhee, who said Monday night that the investigation “absolutely lacked credibility,” had declined to speak with USA TODAY despite numerous attempts before an article ran online and in Monday’s newspaper. Her comments were made during the taping of PBS’ Tavis Smiley show to air on Tuesday night.

I’m sorry, but this is the “haters gonna hate” defense. It’s just a blanket assertion of bias without any sort of attempt to refute the actual charges leveled against her. How is she not already a paid Fox analyst?

This was a really good week for New York magazine to run its slightly skeptical but largely positive Rhee profile.

Alex Pareene

Alex Pareene writes about politics for Salon and is the author of "The Rude Guide to Mitt." Email him at apareene@salon.com and follow him on Twitter @pareene

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