An Open Letter to Oprah Winfrey

Dear Oprah,

I learned today, in the Washington Post online blog DeBonis by Mike Debonis, that you are going to have Michelle Rhee on your show on September 20th. I understand this is to highlight the new movie Waiting for Superman and that you will also have the director, Davis Guggenheim, and Bill Gates on the show as well.  All this as a platform for educational reform – or at least the kind of reform that Rhee claims to make.  I hope you will ask Ms. Rhee a few harder questions about her “accomplishments” before you give her such a huge stage on which to tout herself.

Even better, you might come down to the district and record some observations by the people most affected by her “miracles”.  You could start with the teachers.  How about asking us what it feels like in our buildings, the level of stress, the resentment that is growing in our buildings from IMPACT and the way it is used, the lack of real support that we are not getting, the false claims that Rhee makes about scores and what she has done while she fires too many of our worthy colleagues (meanwhile leaving the very type of teacher she claimed she wanted the system rid of still in place).

Talk to the students in our various schools.  Talk to the students at Eastern and Anacostia High Schools, talk to the students at Hardy, talk to students in many of the schools where Rhee has left anger and frustration because she ignored the community of that school and did what she wanted.  Ask her why she has put educators in prominent administrative positions at Hardy Middle School who lack the proper credentials to be in our schools.  Ask her why she focused on already successful schools, removing their principals on the shallowest of reasons and ensuring the failure of those schools by her actions.

When she talks about the “tremendous gains” we have made you need to ask her where exactly those gains are since over 34 of our schools did not make AYP on the last testing cycle and many of those schools had never failed to do so in the history of those schools. Ask her how that is progress.  You should also maybe talk to Chris Bergfalk.  He is a teacher here in DC who can show you the real statistics that Rhee does not want to admit to. Statistics that show that our gains were made merely by shedding our system (either by attrition or by keeping them off the test) of our lowest performing African American students.  This is like saying you lost weight when you took off your clothes.  Ask Chris, and then ask Ms. Rhee, about the fact that the gap between white students and students of color has WIDENED under Rhee.  The very students we should be helping the most are not being helped. Exactly how is this covered under “tremendous gains”?

Ask Ms. Rhee about her pronouncements: taping shut the mouths of children she taught; smearing innocent teachers with charges of sex abuse and physical abuse and neglect of their duties (talk to those teachers who were fired – many were considered excellent teachers by their colleagues, students and parents of their schools); about her claims of deficits in the system followed by contradictory claims of surplus in the system.  You really, really need to do some research here before you lionize this woman.

Talk to the teachers who have their test scores counting for 55% of their evaluation. Talk to them about the fact that no matter how high the marks were on their observations, if their students did poorly on the test, those teachers found themselves marked as efficient, while teachers whose scores were not tied to tests (in some cases teachers who are not in the classroom on a full-time basis) found themselves in the Highly Effective range.  Ms. Rhee had a little party for the Highly Effective teachers last night at Union Station. The effect on my school of this party was to have a very tense school-day in which many teachers – equal in so many ways in the way they perform their duties – almost not talking to one another.  As one teacher said to me “I worked hard all year with my kids, I scored close to 4 on all my impacts, I busted my hind end trying to get those kids to do well, but because of several students that simply would not work or could not I end up just effective.”  Ask these teachers about being demoralized through a faulty evaluation process.

Talk to the principals, too, Ms. Winfrey. They can tell you stories of being bullied, of being treated worse than children, screamed at on a weekly basis by consultants making 9 times their salaries. There is another good thing you could ask Ms. Rhee – how much money has been spent on “consultants’ and how many of these consultants are associated with organizations such as the Bill Gates Foundation, the Broad Foundation and the other corporate foundations that are funding the new contract.

Ask her about her time at the St. Hope Academy Charter School run by her future husband, where Ms. Rhee held, all at the same time, the positions of Board of Director member, CEO, and consultant to the Human Resource department. Ask her how she managed to perform three jobs that contain such conflicts of interest.  Ask her, as well, about her role in the scandal surrounding St. Hope, read the Inspector General’s report on this scandal, ask her why she did not contact the California authorities (as she was legally required to do) when allegations were made against Kevin Johnson by the teenage girls working for the Americorps project.  Read that report and see if you do not have some questions yourself about her conduct.  You can also ask her about why, after St. Hope lost all access to government grants and funds for their misuse of Americorp money and students, did she want to bring in St. Hope to run several high schools in DC (parents stopped her, why don’t you talk to those parents).

Ms. Winfrey, this hero has feet of brittle clay. She has managed to keep her dirtiest linen hidden from the rest of the nation with the complicity of the editorial board of the Washington Post (another connection you could question her about).  No one in the national media has yet to ask her questions that demand hard answers, answers that cannot be brushed away by mindless encomiums or pat phrases.  You can prop her up and present her to the nation as the hero of education but eventually, as Shakespeare said in the Merchant of Venice,  ”the truth will come to light… the truth will out.”

10 thoughts on “An Open Letter to Oprah Winfrey

  1. You have taken the words right out of my mouth.

    I hope that you really do send this to Oprah. I found this link to contact her:

    I will be writing to her in the same spirit as should everyone else who sees Rhee in the same light that you do. I will also send her the link to Bill Turque’s blog posting exposing her two outrageous first-year teacher stories and her insensitive and unacceptable imitation of a student’s accent.

  2. This letter is wonderful and so better than I could ever right,please, please, please send it to Ms. Opera. I am outraged that she is on the show. The issues of sexual abuse and witness tampering as have been posted by many media except the Post is really shocking. If it was anyone else this would be a huge scandal, I’m so amazed that so many people still don’t know about it. It’s also the sort of thing that Ms. Winfrey is so against. I’m going to write a letter too but yours is so beautifully written.

  3. Thank you. I did post it to Oprah’s website, although I had to post the text because they do not allow links to other sites. I am hoping the episode has not been recorded yet.

  4. This is a great letter. My only concern is that if you have ever heard Rhee in an interview, then you know that she is the master of spin and will very persuasively lie to people. She can make people doubt the truth.

    We need organized resistance to combat her and her right wing agenda.

  5. I really believe that she is only persuasive in front of her choir. If you listen to the interview with Peter Tuckman from Pacifica (the one at Union Station with Chris Bergfalk) you can hear her get rattled and become not so eloquent in her response. Equally when she was in front of a hostile meeting of Hardy parents she did not sound eloquent at all. I think you take away her security blanket and she is just not as good.

  6. Pingback: An Excellent Open Letter to Oprah Winfrey About Michelle Rhee « GFBrandenburg's Blog

  7. Talk to a resident and taxpayer in congress heights who is within walking distance of several elementary and middle schools, but still has to drive two kids to md private schools and homeschooling the other because the schools perform so poorly.

  8. I have never said that there are not poorly performing schools in DC nor that there are no teachers who have no business being in education. What I have said is that Rhee’s reform is not really reform and has done very little to improve schools – otherwise you would be writing me about how wonderfully those schools improved under Rhee’s watch. Rhee’s claims to success are based on very poor evidence and the manipulation of numbers. She cries success in her Capital Gains program but then Guy Brandenberg does the actual number crunching and it no longer looks like such a success. She makes claims of “tremendous gains” in test scores but fails to note that she manipulated the demographic taking the test, that over a 1/3 of our poorly performing, economically challenged kids did not take the test thereby creating a small rise in test scores and that the gap between white and black kids has widened. We do need reform in DC. But a reform that is driven by teachers AND parents, not by outside corporations whose intent are highly suspect. There were and are perfectly good, well functioning and high performing DC schools that do not need the reforms that Rhee sought. She messed with several others that were also working fine. What she did very little of is change the miserable aspect of those schools that really needed changing. By the by, I am a resident and a taxpayer as well.

  9. Pingback: What you didn’t hear on Oprah yesterday (Part I) « Failing Schools

  10. Pingback: What you didn’t hear on Oprah yesterday (Part I)

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