MEDIA WATCH: 'Waiting for Superman' star turns into the Wicked Witch from the Whiz... Rhee plays 'Don't nobody bring me no bad news' in avoiding questions about her D.C. testing scandals

As the various stars of the corporate school reform movement are exposed over and over for the frauds they are, some are having a harder time than others keeping the positive media spotlight focused on their good side and away from the ugly truths about their careers and (in some cases) knotty personal lives. For Michelle Rhee, it's long been a question of keeping the cameras going only on one side, since the real Michelle Rhee, all the way back to her days with Teach for America and the New Teacher Project (both produced and funded by corporate America against America's public schools) is more like "Two-Face" from Batman, rather than the Wonder Woman she tried to portray when she was featured in the teacher bashing film in "Waiting for Superman" a year ago.

Although she claimed she was going to head a billion dollar national school reform entity when she left Washington, D.C. less than two years ago (following the defeat of Mayor Adrian Fenty, who had been her sponsor and protector), Michelle Rhee is now dodging press questions following revelations in USA Today that she orchestrated cheating on standardized tests by a tyrannical regime in D.C. public schools. But let's not think that America's corporate media are backing off on the propaganda beat, at least as far as corporate "school reform" is concerned. Take the ridiculous career of America's top educator. Arne Duncan is off limits for serious criticism, even when he repeats that nonsense about how he learned everything he needed to know about running America's schools by hanging out at his Mom's after school program at Jackie Robinson Elementary School in Chicago (Arne's never taught a day in his life, but tries to take credit for "teaching" out of that experience with Mom).

Or take the guy who made mayoral control a nightmare for teachers parents, and children in America's largest city. Former New York City schools chancellor Joel Klein continues to steer positive press coverage of his career (thanks in part to his new career shilling for Rupert Murdoch's ventures into educational entrepreneurship).

And the guy who began the stupidity and teacher bashing known as mayoral control is still at it, and exporting his story. The corporate media long ago decided that former Chicago (and now Philadelphia and New Orleans) schools chief Paul Vallas is too crazy to mess with (Vallas is now adding more "Chicago Boys" reforms to Chile and Haiti), Michelle Rhee has been a different story.

During her years as chief of the Washington, D.C. public schools, Rhee got the idea, thanks mainly to The Washington Post, The New York Times, and The Wall Street Journal, that she could say or do anything she wanted and the corporate media would just print her verbiage as "facts" while ignoring the inconvenient truths behind what she was saying and doing. Even when she tried to claim that her firing of more than 200 (almost all African American) D.C. public school teachers was because they were sexual perverts (or worse), Rhee was getting a gold pass from the corporate media celebrities who covered education reform in the nation's capital.

During her heyday, Rhee appeared at various events with other frauds of the corporate "school reform" era, including former Chicago schools chief, Ron Huberman. Huberman abruptly left the post as head of CPS in November 2010 following the announcement that his protector and mentor, former Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley, would not run for re-election. Since Daley's successor Rahm Emanuel began his term as mayor, Emanuel's new school leadership team has been dismantling the expensive "data driven" systems put out by Huberman and constantly criticizing the failed programs of the Daley regime. Huberman didn't try to follow Rhee into more "school reform" work but has instead left public service and gone into business as an investment banker.Then, just about the same time the public learned of massive cheating in the D.C. public schools, the same stuff came out about Rhee's regime in D.C. Like its counterpart The Atlanta Journal Constitution, USA Today dug deeply into the claims that Rhee had raised scores miraculously in D.C. by being tough and found out that the whole thing was, mostly, a lie. So what does Rhee do? She ducks all questions about her time and testing miracles in D.C.

But now former Rhee cheerleader, The New York Times, is taking a closer and harsher look at one of the stars of "Waiting for Superman" and revealing that she's basically a fraud.

Here is the story from the August 22, 2011 New York Times

EAGER FOR SPOTLIGHT, BUT NOT IF IT IS ON A TESTING SCANDAL, New York Times On Education Column -- August 22, 2011, By Michael Winerip

Washington -- Why won't Michelle Rhee talk to USA Today?

Ms. Rhee, the chancellor of the Washington public schools from 2007 to 2010, is the national symbol of the data-driven, take-no-prisoners education reform movement.

It's hard to find a media outlet, big or small, that she hasn't talked to. She's been interviewed by Katie Couric, Tom Brokaw and Oprah Winfrey. She's been featured on a Time magazine cover holding a broom (to sweep away bad teachers). She was one of the stars of the documentary "Waiting for Superman."

The cover of the infamous Time magazine issue four years ago depicting Rhee with a broom (to sweep out "bad teachers") is now fading as the truth about Rhee's actual praxis becomes factual and slowly erases the carefully crafted school reform myths that served Rhee for a time.These days, as director of an advocacy group she founded, StudentsFirst, she crisscrosses the country pushing her education politics: she's for vouchers and charter schools, against tenure, for teachers, but against their unions.

Always, she preens for the cameras. Early in her chancellorship, she was trailed for a story by the education correspondent of "PBS NewsHour," John Merrow.

At one point, Ms. Rhee asked if his crew wanted to watch her fire a principal. "We were totally stunned," Mr. Merrow said.

She let them set up the camera behind the principal and videotape the entire firing. "The principal seemed dazed," said Mr. Merrow. "I've been reporting 35 years and never seen anything like it."

And yet, as voracious as she is for the media spotlight, Ms. Rhee will not talk to USA Today.

At the end of March, three of the paper's reporters — Marisol Bello, Jack Gillum and Greg Toppo — broke a story about the high rate of erasures and suspiciously high test-score gains at 41 Washington schools while Ms. Rhee was chancellor.

Also fading from the corporate school reform mythology is the depiction of Rhee on the cover of Newsweek (above) as the lady who was going to keep fighting to save the kids despite her leaving D.C. public schools. Contrary to some versions of the Michelle Rhee myth, Rhee didn't get dumped as D.C. schools chief, but quit abruptly following her role in the defeat of Mayor Adrian Fenty.At some schools, they found the odds that so many answers had been changed from wrong to right randomly were 1 in 100 billion. In a fourth-grade class at Stanton Elementary, 97 percent of the erasures were from wrong to right. Districtwide, the average number of erasures for seventh graders was fewer than one per child, but for a seventh-grade class at Noyes Elementary, it was 12.7 per student. At Noyes Elementary in 2008, 84 percent of fourth graders were proficient in math, up from 22 percent in 2007.

Ms. Rhee's reputation has rested on her schools' test scores. Suddenly, a USA Today headline was asking, "were the gains real?" In this era of high-pressure testing, Washington has become another in a growing list of cheating scandals that has included Atlanta, Indiana, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Texas.

It took the USA Today reporters a year to finish their three-part series. So many people were afraid to speak that Ms. Bello had to interview dozens to find one willing to be quoted. She knocked on teachers' doors at 9:30 at night and hunted parents at PTA meetings. She met people in coffee shops where they would not be recognized, and never called or e-mailed sources at their schools.

Hari Sevugan, a spokesman for Ms. Rhee, said the reporters were "provided unprecedented time and access to report out their story," including many meetings with senior staff members and the chief of data accountability. By last fall, Mr. Sevugan said, district officials' patience was wearing thin. The deputy press secretary, Satiya Simmons, complained in an e-mail to a colleague, "Jack Gillum isn't going away quietly, Uggh."

"Just stop answering his e-mails," advised Anita Dunn, a consultant who had been the communications director for President Obama.

The reporters made a dozen attempts to interview Ms. Rhee, directly and through her public relations representatives. Ms. Bello called Ms. Rhee's cellphone daily, and finally got her on a Sunday.

"She said she wasn't going to talk with us," Ms. Bello recalled. "Her understanding was we were writing about" district schools "and she is no longer chancellor."

On March 29, the day after the story came out, Ms. Rhee appeared on the PBS program "Tavis Smiley" and attacked USA Today.

"Are you suggesting this story is much ado about nothing, that this is lacking integrity, this story in USA Today?" Mr. Smiley asked.

"Absolutely," Ms. Rhee said. "It absolutely lacks credibility."

Mr. Smiley asked if she was concerned that she had put too much pressure on teachers and principals to raise scores. "We want educators to feel that pressure," she answered.

Ms. Rhee emphasized that the district had hired a top security company, Caveon, to investigate in 2009, and was given a clean bill of health. The district released a statement from John Fremer, Caveon's owner, saying, "The company did not find evidence of cheating at any of the schools."

However, in subsequent interviews with USA Today and this reporter, Mr. Fremer made it clear that the scope of his inquiry was limited, and that the district had not requested that he do more. Indeed, Caveon's report, posted on USA Today's Web site, was full of sentences like, "Redacted was interviewed at redacted."

Teachers described security as "excellent" and "very vigilant," and investigators, for the most part, took their comments at face value.

It did not take Ms. Rhee long to realize she had miscalculated. Three days later, she told Bloomberg Radio she was "100 percent supportive" of a broader inquiry.

Still, she would not talk to USA Today. Mr. Sevugan gave no explanation, but pointed out that she had spoken with several other news outlets.

The reporters did not give up. On April 26, Emily Lenzner, a spokeswoman, wrote Mr. Gillum, "Michelle is willing to do an interview, but we'd like to do this in person." She asked if they could hold their story, and arranged for a meeting on May 3 at the StudentsFirst office in Washington.

On May 2, another Rhee spokeswoman e-mailed to say the reporters were too interested in cheating and not enough in StudentsFirst. She said they could submit a list of questions.

There were 21 questions; Ms. Rhee did not answer 10 of the 11 about cheating.

Mr. Gillum, who recently took a job at The Associated Press, said he was surprised by how unresponsive Ms. Rhee has been. "She talks about how important data is, and our story is data driven," he said.

So that people could make their own judgments, Linda Mathews, the project editor, posted the relevant public documents on the USA Today Web site.

Shortly after the follow-up story appeared, the district's inspector general began what was supposed to be an inquiry, but in July The Washington Post reported that just one investigator had been assigned. "Basically it was one guy in a room who made 10 phone calls," Mr. Toppo said.

Officials with the federal Department of Education have indicated that they are assisting with the investigation.

In Washington, two investigators spent five days at eight schools. In Atlanta, the state deployed 60 investigators who worked for 10 months at 56 schools. They produced a report that named all 178 people found cheating, including 82 who confessed. There was not a single case of "redacted and redacted doctoring redacted grade answer sheets at redacted."

People in Atlanta could go to prison. Last week, a grand jury issued subpoenas seeking the names of school employees who had received bonuses for test scores. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported that there were subpoenas for "signed copies" of "any and all oaths of office" taken by Beverly Hall, the former superintendent.

The three reporters still hope to interview Ms. Rhee. "Absolutely," said Mr. Toppo.

Which brings things full circle: Why won't Ms. Rhee talk to USA Today?


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