Education "reform's" new Ann Coulter: A reeling Michelle Rhee passes the lead to Campbell Brown

Exclusive: As Rhee's efforts flounder, new links emerge between a group she founded and a new face, Campbell Brown

Published July 23, 2014 8:17PM (EDT)

         (Jacquelyn Martin)
(Jacquelyn Martin)

For years, Michelle Rhee, the former District of Columbia schools chancellor, has been upheld in the media as someone with the formula and fight required to "fix" public schools.

Others – okay, yours truly – have likened her more to an "education Ann Coulter," providing lots of attention-getting optics for a movement made up of rich and powerful people who press their belief that what ails public education most is "bad teachers."

Supported by shadowy money and shaky science, these wealthy folks have created a "blame teachers first" campaign that seeks to address education problems rooted in inequality and low investment by attacking teachers' job protections and professional status. Their efforts are, of course, "for the children."

The campaign's latest victory was the court case Vergara v California, which threw out key job protections for teachers in that state. Now, Vergara-type lawsuits are expected to roll out across the country.

But recent developments in the career trajectory of Rhee may have prompted the Blame Teachers First crowd to pick a new front person to lead their campaign: former CNN anchor Campbell Brown.

Rhee's Sullied Reputation

However you feel about Rhee and her campaign to label "ineffective" teachers as the cause of just about everything wrong with public education, her luster certainly seems to be waning.

Her book "Radical: Fighting to Put Students First," recounting her personal accomplishments as an education policy leader, has been a complete bomb. Her "grassroots movement" seems to consist of, as education historian Diane Ravitch has put it, “'members'” who "seem to be people (like me) who innocently signed an online petition supporting teachers."

As the folks at Parents Across America have pointed out, Rhee's StudentsFirst campaigns have done little to animate parents. In Connecticut, an investment of about $700,000 produced a rally at the State Capitol, with Rhee as the featured speaker, which drew only about 75 people. In Alabama, where StudentsFirst claimed 17,000 members, only about 20 showed up at a meeting she called at that state’s capitol.

Revelations about Rhee's accomplishments while she was chancellor for Washington, D.C., public schools have also sullied her self-avowed reputation for "raising achievement." PBS's education reporter John Merrow likely knows more about that subject than anyone.

Merrow posted on his personal blog an op-ed he wrote about Rhee's tenure in D.C. that he was unable to get accepted at other media outlets despite – or maybe because of – the devastating evidence he revealed about Rhee's troubled track record. Wrote Merrow, "Because Ms. Rhee is trying to persuade the rest of the country to do as she did in Washington, it’s worth asking what her ‘common sense reforms’ accomplished when she had free rein to do as she wished."

In the piece, Merrow proceeded to recount in detail how Rhee turned teaching positions into revolving-door jobs while bloating the central office staff and accomplishing very little in terms of improving academic achievement.

While student scores on the National Assessment of Education Progress – aka. 'The Nation's Report Card' – did go up, "they rose in roughly the same amount as they had under her two immediate predecessors, and D.C. remains at or near the bottom of that national measure."

Further, Rhee’s reform effort seems to have contributed to "a widening gap in academic performance between low-income and upper-income students, a meaningful statistic in Washington, where race and income are highly correlated."

Darkening the pall cast over Rhee's reputation is an unresolved cheating scandal on Rhee's watch in D.C. The alleged scandals -- and what, if anything, Rhee might have known about them -- have never been adequately investigated.

A damning USA Today series cast serious doubt on gains at the Noyes Education Campus in D.C., touted as one of the shining stars of her turnaround when test scores soared. However:

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.

As Candi Peterson, general vice president of the Washington Teachers’ Union, explained, on the site of local D.C. blogger G.F. Brandenburg, after a series of refusals by D.C. officials to investigate reports of cheating on Rhee's clock and on her successor, Kaya Henderson, "limited investigations were eventually conducted in 2009." But due to stonewalling by D.C. officials, that investigation did not include an "analysis of the questionable testing data." So the results were inconclusive.

Nevertheless, the stench of questionable numbers is likely to follow Rhee wherever she goes, with any new appointment likely to prompt more questioning and investigation from journalists.

Rhee's Waning Clout

Not only has Rhee's reputation as a results-oriented school leader gone south, but her organization StudentsFirst is not doing so well either.

As the Minneapolis Star Tribune reported, StudentsFirst, the lobbying and political actions firm Rhee started, is shutting down its Minnesota office due to a "changing legislative climate," according to the organization's spokesperson in that state. Reporters at Politico noticed the office closing too and added in its daily newsletter that StudentsFirst has "pulled out of five states and laid off six staff members as the midterm elections approach," shutting down operations not only in Minnesota but also in Florida, Maine, Indiana and Iowa.

Additionally, the reporters noted, "The organization hasn’t brought in anywhere near the $1 billion that Rhee confidently predicted she would raise when she founded the group in 2010."

On the other hand, what StudentsFirst seems to excel at is funneling campaign contributions from its undisclosed financial backers to lobbying efforts and politicians, who are mostly Republican and mostly incumbents. So much for being a "change agent."

A Rhee-placement Emerges

With Rhee and StudentsFirst sinking under the weight of over-promises, under-performance, and unproven practices, the Blame Teachers First crowd is now eagerly promoting Campbell Brown.

According to a report in The Wall Street Journal, Brown launched the group Partnership for Educational Justice, with a Veraga-inspired lawsuit in New York State to once again dilute teachers' job protections, commonly called "tenure." The suit clams students suffer from laws "making it too expensive, time-consuming and burdensome to fire bad teachers."

An article in The Washington Post noted, "Brown has raised the issue of tenure in op-eds and on TV programs such as 'Morning Joe.' But she may be just getting warmed up."

Actually, Brown has already been warmed up and is plenty ready to take the mound and pitch. As the very same article noted, Brown started her campaign against teachers some time ago, claiming that the New York City teachers' union was obstructing efforts to fire teachers for sexual misconduct. Unfortunately for Brown, the ad campaign conducted by her organization Parents Transparency Project failed to note that, as The Post article recalled, at least 33 teachers had indeed been fired. "The balance were either fined, suspended or transferred for minor, non-criminal complaints." Oops.

Further, as my colleague Dave Johnson recalled at the time, Brown penned an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal accusing the teachers' union of "trying to block a bill to keep sexual predators out of schools." It turned out, the union wanted to strengthen the bill, not stop it. Double oops.

Nevertheless – or as The Post reporter put it, "undaunted" – Brown has now decided to take on teacher personnel policies on behalf of, she claims, "millions of schoolchildren being denied a decent education."

Shadowy Funds

Of course, both Rhee and Brown can only be effective fronts for their campaigns as long as the funding holds out. So who are the funders?

As a 501(c)(4) nonprofit, the organizations promoting "Blame Teachers First" may keep their donors' identities secret and spend money in electoral campaigns, so long as political activity doesn't consume the majority of their time and money.

Rhee has long been able to keep her funders mostly secret, although an article in Slate reported her StudentsFirst organization is likely backed by "a slew of billionaire donors, like philanthropist Eli Broad, former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, hedge fund manager Dan Loeb, and Netflix CEO Reed Hastings." Rupert Murdoch is also a likely contributor.

Likewise, "Brown’s effort," as Post reporter Paul Farhi wrote, "is funded by … well, that’s not clear. An advocate of transparency and full disclosure as a journalist, Brown won’t say who is backing her nonprofit organization."

At Mother Jones, Andy Kroll wrote last year, when Brown and her Parents Transparency Project were accusing public schools of being safe harbors for sexual predators, her operations and financing were closely linked with political consultants who worked with the Republican Party. She hired a consulting firm that had worked for numerous Republican candidates including Mitt Romney. There were also strong financial ties to organizations that work with StudentsFirst, including a firm that "helped launch Rhee's StudentsFirst" and a PR firm that served both organizations.

Brown in fact is married to Dan Senor, an investment banker who is on the board of StudentsFirstNY, which is part of the StudentsFirst national organization.

Links to Rhee-Founded Group

Brown's ventures also appear to be closely tied to another organization founded by Rhee and strongly associated with attacks on teachers' unions: TNTP, the group formerly known as The New Teacher Project.

TNTP has lauded the teacher management policies practiced in D.C. public schools, which Rhee formerly led, despite those policies being soundly discredited by education bloggers who delved deeply into the data. Now it appears that TNTP is aiding Brown to help advance these flawed ideas.

An analysis of the website associated with Brown's effort to revamp teacher contracts has revealed that much of the site's content appears to be written by TNTP without any attribution to the group. The site is listed as an “initiative of Parents Transparency Project,” yet metadata from various documents included in the site list the author as Elizabeth Vidyarthi. Vidyarthi works for the TNTP communications department.

One of the documents included on the site and linked to Vidyarthi recommends that pay increases for teachers go to only those teachers who have been identified as "effective" in a "given year." The document identifies the Washington, D.C., public school system as an "exemplar" of this approach. That system, known as IMPACT, has been discredited by Rutgers professor Bruce Baker and others as promoting "arbitrary, non-meaningful distinctions" among teachers that when "adopted in policy are harmful."

Another document on the site that is linked to TNTP's Vidyarthi recommends identifying at least 20 schools per year as turnarounds, which would allow the school to be exempt from contract agreements so it could extend working hours without additional compensation to teachers and allow administrators to staff the school with only "the right people." Another document recommends reduced compensation for teachers who have been laid off due to no fault of their own.

The D.C. school system is listed as an "exemplar" in multiple documents. Another school system, Newark, N.J., is also recommended as an exemplar in multiple documents (here and here).

Newark, a long embattled school system under state control, was once considered the next landing place for Rhee after her stint at D.C. schools. That school system, now led by the controversial superintendent Cami Anderson, is widely viewed as being pushed toward privatization.

TNTP is also closely associated with Teach For America in that both groups train teachers over the summer to serve, often, in school districts that mostly serve low-income students. The two groups are also linked through Michelle Rhee, who is a TFA alum and helped found TNTP.

What emerges from these interwoven relationships, then, is a big-money effort led by a small number of people who are intent on the singular goal of reducing the ability of teachers to have control of their work environments. But to what end?

"An Absurd Smokescreen"

Regardless of how you feel about the machinations behind the Rhee-Brown campaign, what's clear is that it is hell-bent on imposing new policies that have little to no prospect of addressing the problem they are purported to resolve, which is to ensure students who need the best teachers are more apt to get them.

Research generally has found that experienced teachers – the targets for these new lawsuits – make a positive difference in students' academic trajectory. A review of that research on the website for the grassroots group Parents Across America concluded, "Every single study shows teaching experience matters. In fact, the only two observable factors that have been found consistently to lead to higher student achievement are class size and teacher experience."

The California judicial decision propelling these new lawsuits is fraught with bad thinking. A UCLA law professor who recently reflected on that decision noted, "My prediction is that [the decision] will not stand up on appeal because [the judge] never adequately shows that it is teacher job security that is responsible for the poor quality of some schools in California … It is easy to scapegoat teachers for the problems in schools. But it misdirects attention. California is one of the worst states in the country in student-faculty ratios. Estimates vary, but it is in the bottom half of all states in per pupil spending. Directing attention here would be far more important to improving education than eliminating job protections for teachers."

Turning to Rutgers professor Bruce Baker again, he wrote on his own blog that the aims Campbell Brown has in mind for her new campaign are "an absurd smokescreen, failing to pass muster at even the most basic level of logical evaluation of causation."

Citing evidence from research, Baker contends that lawsuits that want to overturn state policies that enforce restrictions on how teachers are treated in local schools are barking up the wrong tree. Noting that variation in access to teacher quality varies across schools and across districts despite what state policies require in teacher contracts, he concludes that other factors are more important, which the Blame Teachers First campaign totally overlooks.

In the case of New York in particular, Baker concluded that finding enough good teachers to staff its schools – especially those serving high-needs kids – is not obstructed by tenure or seniority policies but more so due to the fact it "is abundantly clear that New York State school districts – especially those serving the state’s neediest children – lack the ability to pay the necessary wages to recruit and retain the workforce they need."

But addressing that issue would require the Rhee-Brown campaign to attack a different target instead – not teachers, but political leaders and lobbyists who influence legislation that keeps teacher compensation inadequate and school districts underfunded.

What Campbell Brown Wants

Brown recently struck back against her detractors in an op-ed for the New York Daily News, repeating the unproven claim that rewriting teachers' job protections will result in "progress" for "children."

Based on the California judge's conclusion that teacher tenure laws amounted to "uber due process" (yes, a judge really wrote that), she claimed that what teachers are defending is "added due-process protections," a new term to add to the lexicon of the Blame Teachers First campaign.

Brown ultimately rested her case on a meaningless trope – "tenure laws do not assure quality teaching," an empty phrase for sure since her entire campaign and the lawsuits she favors never provide an adequate evidence base for what "quality teaching" is and how rewriting teachers' job protections will ensure its spread.

The teacher and edu-blogger who goes by Jersey Jazzman reviewed the case Brown and her campaign made and wondered, " What exactly does Campbell Brown want?"

He wrote, "Yes, tenure is good for teachers – but it doesn't follow that, a priori, tenure is bad for students. I'd argue, in fact, that tenure helps children and taxpayers at least as much as it helps teachers, because it puts the brakes on corrupt and unethical behaviors from school boards and administrators."

He too noted, Brown may be "the new face" of a "reform" campaign Michelle Rhee has become too discredited to lead.

If that's the case – and it certainly appears to be so – with Brown as the new figurehead of the Blame Teachers First campaign, proponents may feel that a fresh face on a stale product is all they need to win over acceptance of their unfounded ideas. Don't buy it.

By Jeff Bryant

Jeff Bryant is a writing fellow and chief correspondent for Our Schools, a project of the Independent Media Institute. He is a communications consultant, freelance writer, advocacy journalist, and director of the Education Opportunity Network, a strategy and messaging center for progressive education policy. His award-winning commentary and reporting routinely appear in prominent online news outlets, and he speaks frequently at national events about public education policy. Follow him on Twitter @jeffbcdm.

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Ann Coulter Campbell Brown Editor's Picks Education Education Reform Michelle Rhee Rupert Murdoch