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Michelle Rhee Defends Record as Chief of D.C. Schools

Michelle Rhee is as unapologetic and uncompromising as ever.

That's my chief takeaway from last's night's hour-long "Frontline" documentary on the former chancellor of the District of Columbia public schools, whose record got a fairly harsh examination from education reporter John Merrow.

And why should we have expected anything different? Rhee, after all, is still building her nonprofit organization StudentsFirst, which has attracted the support of wealthy benefactors and already made a mark on shaping state and local education policy in the less than two years since she founded it.

Still, lingering questions—most potently raised in a 2011 USA Today investigation—about possible testing improprieties that went on during Rhee's years as chancellor will only be heightened by the "Frontline" piece. Adell Cothorne, a former principal of the Noyes Education Campus—which experienced dramatic gains on state exams in Rhee's first year—tells Merrow that she reported to the district's central office team that she'd seen three staff members possibly changing students' answers on a practice exam during the 2010-2011 school year. To her knowledge, nothing was ever done to investigate her concern, and, in 2011, Cothorne filed a lawsuit that alleged that the school district used results from tampered student exams in its winning application for a $75 million Race to the Top award from the U.S. Department of Education.

That claim was investigated by the Education Department's office of inspector general, which on Monday released a statement to say it had found no evidence of widespread cheating, and therefore, no reason to believe that the school system had received any federal funding under false pretenses. Rhee's StudentsFirst organization released a statement from the former chancellor just hours before the "Frontline" piece was broadcast that said the OIG's results confirmed that "the vast majority of educators would never compromise their personal or professional integrity to cheat on a test, thereby cheating children."

In her interview with Merrow, Rhee acknowledged that the dramatic gains of the first year that were followed by precipitous drops in the subsequent years at some schools could be suspicious, but she insisted that if there was cheating, it was "isolated" and doesn't undermine the steady upward gains across many of the city's other schools. This testing issue will continue to dog Rhee. (Now, if anyone could ever get Deborah Gist, the education commissioner in Rhode Island who actually runs in many of the same edu-reform circles as Rhee, to talk about her suspicions about possible testing improprieties while she ran D.C.'s office of the state superintendent...)

Rhee did express one regret about her time in D.C.: She misses her old job. She told Merrow she wishes she could have had at least an additional four years.

One notable omission from the "Frontline" piece, which relied heavily on footage and interviews from the time Rhee was chancellor, is that George Parker, the former president of the Washington Teachers' Union who often sparred with Rhee, now works for her at StudentsFirst. Parker appears throughout the piece as a critic, which he was at the time.

Now, will this "Frontline" piece settle the debate on Michelle Rhee's record in the District of Columbia? Absolutely not. We'll get to rehash it all over again in a few weeks when her memoir, Radical: Fighting to Put Students First, goes on sale.


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