The Bee Eater: The Continued Building of the Michelle Rhee Myth

Ernest Hemingway understood the importance, even necessity, of  having a good myth to wrap around oneself.  For many readers there is almost no distinction between the Hemingway characters of Jake Barnes in The Sun Also Rises or Frederic Henry of A Farewell to Arms and Hemingway himself.  One a veteran of World War I living in Paris but still suffering, in Hemingway stoic fashion, the wounds of the war; the other a soldier in the war, recovering in a hospital in Italy.  Both books (actually pretty much all of his books) are often listed as semi-autobiographical.  That, of course, allows the reader to engage in the myth being created.  Hemingway often made himself out to be a soldier in the war, wounded in the fighting. He was actually an ambulance driver wounded while delivering chocolates and cigarettes to soldiers on the front line (nothing to be sneezed at but lacking, somewhat, in the kind of machismo bravado Hemingway loved so much).  He turned women who rejected his love, such as Lady Duff Twysden (Lady Brett inThe Sun Also Rises) and Agnes von Kurowsky (Catherine Barkley in A Farewell to Arms) into women who would do anything for his love, including risking death.  Hemingway fostered these myths throughout his life fueling them with overly exaggerated stories (he embellished his WWI story so much that it hardly resembles the truth). This myth building helped both the sale of his books as well as supporting his own self-image. It is hard now to read a biography of Hemingway and not come away with the feeling that, as a man, he was an obnoxious, resentful, and rather insecure man who happened to write some beautiful stories.

I am reminded of Hemingway because of an event I attended last night at Politics and Prose Booksellers for Richard Whitmire’s biography of Michelle Rhee,  The Bee Eater: Michelle Rhee Takes on the Nation’s Worst School District.  Whitmire’s book is a piece in the ongoing myth building of Michelle Rhee.  He rehashes the old stories that Rhee likes to tell of herself, both as a teacher (all three years of it) and as the Chancellor of DC Public Schools (all three years of it).  These stories, much like Hemingway’s, begin with a kernel of truth and end up as something entirely different before they are finished, becoming something that reflects on the originator as someone bigger than life.  Whitmire claims that he wanted to write this book as a way of asking the question whether Michelle Rhee’s controversial tactics were successful in raising the level of education for the district’s children. For Whitmire that answer is a resounding yes, shouted from as high a rooftop as can be found. According to Whitmire the fact that Michelle Rhee was able to close over 23 schools and effectively fire teachers is the absolute proof that she was successful because, according to him, no other school district in the country has been able to close schools or fire teachers to the degree that Michelle Rhee has.  He believes that this is the measure of her success so much that he repeated the words “fired” and “closed” throughout his talk and later throughout the question and answer period.

Whitmire repeats the oft-told stories surrounding Rhee: her initial failure as a first-year teacher and then success by her third year (modified in light of recent revelations about the real level of that “success”); her brashness and her “refreshing” attitude and use of colorful language; her incredible accomplishments as Chancellor of DCPS.  the stories that Rhee uses about her time as a teacher – the bee story, the taping the mouths shut stories, etc. – I do not really believe happened.  I think these are embellishments by Rhee, either things that have a true source (a bee entering the room and exciting the children) or a source in fantasy (the desire to tape the mouths shut of noisy children).  I don’t believe they happened, especially the second, because I don’t believe she would have ever made it to position of Chancellor if she had actually taped shut the mouths of an entire classroom.  Just as with these “stories” there is hardly a hint of any criticism directed at Rhee by Whitmire and any criticism present in this (I almost said novel, haha) biography is quickly dismissed in the most condescending and cursory manner.  This also happened to be how Whitmire dealt with his questioners during the Q&A.

The Q&A portion of the night is when things got truly interesting, if only because it took Whitmire off his tired chanting routine of the wonders of Michelle and actually put him on the defensive regarding his questionable use of facts in the book.  The first interesting thing that Whitmire did was to put out his watch and claim that there was only 20 minutes for Q&A.  He suggested that this was the policy of the bookstore but having been a long-time habitue of Politics and Prose I know this is not the case.  I have been there on nights when the Q&A has been a lively affair lasting for as much as an hour. The night they had Michael Moore they actually locked the doors and allowed people to continue talking with him while he signed books.  As can be imagined there were a number of people there who did not share Whitmire’s adulation of his subject. Several DC teachers took to the mike and tried to confront Whitmire about the reported facts in his book – noting that the teachers were fired under a reduction in force move,  not because of performance; the lie to the numbers in terms of test scores; refuting his claims that the only schools that failed had teachers dismissed (if that were so then why did Michelle Rhee fire teachers at Stoddard the same year they jumped in scores on the DC CAS? Why did she fire a principal as successful as Maria Guzman at Oyster-Adams – a designated blue ribbon school right up to the time Guzman was ousted, something that Oyster hasn’t achieved since)?  But this was how the Q&A went:  an audience member would come to the microphone and try to frame their question and Whitmire would then badger them to get to the question while mentioning the time and others in line who wanted to ask questions, then he would rephrase the question to better suit the answer he wanted to give and condescendingly dismiss the questioner.  At one point he mentioned the fact that he had worked at the Pentagon and this was how they often got through a difficult question at press briefings, they would simply yell out “question, question” to the crowd and take a new question.

When it came to dealing with the facts that refuted his own Whitmire came up short in his answers. He would often say “the data is in the book” or “that’s in the book” as if the fact that this information was printed and published made it irrefutable.  When people brought up the firing of teachers and Rhee’s comment about firing “teachers who sexually abused children” he hemmed and hawed and waffled and tried to mitigate what she said while people in the audience shouted out to him the truth.  At one point Pete Tucker, the journalist for The Fight Back, came to the mike and asked Whitmire what would be the difference if Michelle Rhee had written this biography because, as he (Tucker) saw it, there would be no difference.  He went on to say that The Bee Eater should sit in the fiction section of Politics and Prose.

For myself what was so remarkable about this event was its one-sidedness.  At most P&P events the Q&A portion is a wonderful dialogue between the readers of a particular book and the creator of that book. It is an ongoing discussion that reveals things to both the writer and the reader.  I have seen writers develop a new insight to their work through this dialogue, a new perspective on their subject that they hadn’t considered before, or a deeper way of looking at their subject. That was not so with Whitmire.  His Q&A was kept to a time limit and limited to questions only as a way of controlling the discussion and not allowing any view other than that of Whitmire’s to be heard.  At one point he repeatedly yelled “what is the question?, the question!” at one person on the mike trying to make their point (the audience, clearly exasperated by both the questioner and Whitmire began shouting out “just ask the question!”).

As a way of controlling the discussion it had an effect of stunting and frustrating the audience.  Many were clearly, and audibly, aligned with the questioners and their disbelief at some of Whitmire’s responses could be heard in audible sighs and outright groans. Afterwards there was a lively discussion among several people, parents of students in DCPS, teachers, Pete Tucker and others about the absurdity of the event as well as the inadequacy of most of Whitmire’s answers.

Much of Whitmire’s way of controlling things was reflective of how Michelle Rhee, and many of the so-called “reformers”, deal with people and situations. They prefer a one-sided event where discussion is kept to people asking questions and they, Rhee or whoever, have the answers. Input is asked for after the decision is made (making input irrelevant but that is exactly the idea), which is exactly how Michelle Rhee dealt with the Hardy parents over the dismissal of Patrick Pope and how she dealt with teachers regarding the building of her ground-breaking contract. Discussion has to be controlled lest an opposing view or the truth happen to get through. We must trust them in the information they have.  It’s in the book, after all.

What Michelle Rhee and Richard Whitmire practice is a form of intellectual tyranny.  Control the subject at hand through the use of big lies and dominating the discussion by repeating those lies without providing credible evidence that supports their statements or refutes the views of others.  It fits nicely with their belief that they know better than anyone else what has to be done. They have information that we do not. In fact, Whitmire even stated that he has been the only person to have access to everyone – Rhee’s former principal at Harlem Park Elementary, her TFA cohorts, her former students, etc – and able to talk with everyone that has been involved with Rhee. Somehow I found this statement to be another attempt at making both Whitmire and Rhee seem credible.  There are many cracks in his tale, as there are many cracks in Rhee’s theory of education.  I say theory because Rhee doesn’t really have any articulated philosophy of education other then Wendy Kopp’s moronic view that enthusiasm triumphs over experience (Whitmore made a pathetic attempt at justifying this view as well).

Whitmore also repeatedly referred to the NAEP scores as evidence that Rhee is succeeding. His mantra throughout the evening seemed to be “close, fire and NAEP scores” as argument for Rhee’s success.  Rhee has also been repeating the DC NAEP scores throughout the nation as “record gains in academic achievement” and stating that “we were the only jurisdiction in the entire country in which every single subgroup of children improved their academic standing.” It doesn’t seem to matter that both of these statements are exaggerations that come close to outright lies, she is touting these “achievments”  in Florida, in Georgia and elsewhere as part of a nationwide tour designed to sway legislatures to do things the DC-Rhee way with their local schools. This tour is financed by the Broad (rhymes with toad) Foundation, the Gates people and other billionaires who desire to destroy public education further by mining for what gold they believe still lies in the earth.

When we actually look at a comparison of Michelle Rhee’s NAEP scores (“the gold standard” according to Whitmire) to those of Vance and Janey both Rhee and Whitmore’s claims barely hold water. Dr. Alan Ginsburg, Director of Policy and Program Studies U.S. Department of Education (retired) did a study on those cores. His analysis can be found in this paper: The Rhee DC Record: Math and Reading Gains No Better Than Her Predecessors Vance and Janey. Dr. Ginsburg presents some remarkable statistics in light of the claims of  “record gains in achievement”.  Here are two quotes from the paper:

•  With respect to the distribution of DC’s total gains in NAEP scores over grades 4 and 8 between

2000-09, Vance accounted for a 46% share of the total gain, Janey 30% and Rhee 24% (Exhibit

IIA). In terms of average annual gains in NAEP math scores, Vance achieved the highest annual

gain of 3.5 points, followed by Rhee’s 2.8 points and Janey 1.8 points (Exhibit IIB).

•  With respect to the distribution of total gains in NAEP reading scores over grades 4 and 8

between 2003-09, Janey accounted for about a two-thirds share of total NAEP reading gains and

Rhee about a one-third share (Exhibit IIC). On an annualized basis, the gains are approximately

identical, with Rhee 1.5 points and Janey 1.4 points (Exhibit IID).

I fail to see, personally, how a 10th of a point gain on Janey in Math and a whole point gain in Reading can be regarded as “record gains”.  Incremental is how I would describe such gains to the parents of my students if this were their scores.  Incremental is not record nor is it anything to base or justify the style of management (or, really, the lack thereof) of Madam Rhee.  When you read this document you cannot help but come away with more proof that Rhee dissembles and lies, to use the words of one of the participants from last night, on almost everything that is important regarding education.

There has been a lot of talk in DC about “getting past Rhee.”  I find this to be either a misguided attempt at moving on or, in some cases, an outright desire to forget what happened in order to allow her acolytes to continue her “ground-breaking” work.  While I understand the desire of the former I feel it plays into the hands of the latter.  Rhee must remain a part of the discussion especially given that she is running around the country demanding that other systems follow her methods and people like Whitmore are shilling their books justifying those same methods.  I think, now more than ever, we must keep the heat on.  We must make the bee eater finish her meal – although I believe the meat should be crow, not such a helpful and necessary insect as a bee.

Addendum:  If you go to Richard Whitmire’s blog on Gender and Education at EduWeek,  you might find it interesting, not to say apropos, that his comments are turned off.

17 thoughts on “The Bee Eater: The Continued Building of the Michelle Rhee Myth

  1. God, I wish I could have been in DC for that. I saw Whitmire at an event AEI put on last spring about his “boys are failing because they’re illiterate” book, and I thought he had very little understanding of how education works. Also, I love Pete’s work. I wish I could have been there to see him give that comment.

  2. What a great post. I wish I had known about the Politics and Prose event. It sounds like it was an interesting evening!

    As a former teacher, I have always regarded Rhee with suspicion. Her attempts to fire her way to student improvement are severely misguided. With my legal background, I am particularly angered by her deliberate misuse of a RIF (reduction in force) in order circumvent the due process standards in place regarding firing teachers for cause. The contract would never have allowed mass firings at the discretion of the administrators without Rhee’s pretext of a RIF.

    Thanks for your post and your in-depth description of the event.

  3. Thanks for your response. It is always nice to get a legal opinion confirming one’s views. Many of us are hoping Mr. Whitmire will be at a few more bookstores to talk about his book. We all think that the more people such as Whitmire are confronted and, even if they spend the evening trying to duck the questions and comments, held accountable for the claims they make, the more the more the truth will out.

  4. Thank you, Rachel. I’ve enjoy your blog very much, especially your posts on teacher/teaching quality.

  5. Absolutely delicious blog. Thanks for all of the details and the data. I’d like to think that we’re–finally–seeing the pushback to free-market educational policy, and that the dust-up at a Washington D.C. bookstore will be repeated, in tens of thousands of public venues. Truth-telling on a massive scale.

    But even if not–it must have been fun to be there and watch Whitmire squirm. Great piece–thanks.

  6. Rhee is posting (sans comments here):

    Here’s what the author, Richard Whitmire, wrote to me yesterday:
    http://thebeeeater.com/wordpress/?p=334

    And then he wrote this:

    I appeared at Politics & Prose yesterday, “the” bookstore in D.C. located in upscale NW, and encountered a steady stream of Rhee detractors — all of whom offered up bizarre conspiracy theories about Michelle, but not a single person had any thoughts on why low-income African American kids in D.C. are as much as two years behind comparable kids in other urban areas. Pretty sad, really
    (this was on Whitney Tilson’s blog)

  7. Yeah, I was among the seedy and Whitmire was among the smarmy (actually, the only one). His take here and on his Bee Eater blog (where comments are not allowed) is rather similar to his statements at the store. I would say that the reason Rhee’s Baltimore test score data is important is because she repeatedly claimed, in interview after interview, that she took her class from the 13th percentile to the 95th percentile. Her first year as Chancellor she said this in interviews, in person, in speeches – she trumpeted it over and over again. In the time magazine article she suddenly dropped the language of “13th percentile to 95th percentile” and started using language that said, roughly, “I took my class from the lowest performing percentile to among the higher performing” a significant change from such specific numbers. She lied over and over again. Here is why I think it is more than just the mistake of a new teacher listening to what her principal told her (and again here we have Michelle blaming someone else for her mistake): I think Rhee knew that Baltimore didn’t keep test data for those years, so she could say whatever she wanted. What she didn’t know was that Univ. of Maryland/Baltimore and Towson State were doing studies on her system and kept the data. She thought she was safe. There’s your conspiracy theory, right. There were no bizarre conspiracy theories posited other than one question about Rhee’s time in Sacramento which Whitmire dismissed outright because he said he didn’t research that time. End of that conspiracy question. All the other questions were people trying to counter Whitmire’s claims and supposed facts with their own data – something he kept frustrating over and over again by not letting the speaker talk – “Ask the question! Ask the question!” he would scream. He never brought up the question about why low-income kids are two years behind to the audience. His question throughout was whether or not Rhee’s tactics succeeded and should be used elsewhere. The majority in the audience disagreed with him. He offered his reasoning, many in the audience gave evidence to why his reasoning was based on fallacious data (the NAEP scores usually) or outright misinformation – for instance, saying that Rhee only fired teachers from schools that were failing. Among one of the so-called “seedy” Rhee detractors was Reverend Lynn Bergfalk who tried, vainly, to point out that there were problems with Sousa’s test scores and controversies surrounding those scores (Whitmire used Sousa as an example of success). His statement to you, Ed, and on his blog are just another example of how Whitmire dismisses any criticism of Rhee. He his a hack doing a hack job.

  8. Thanks, Ed. I went to Tilson’s blog and, again, I notice there is not way to make a comment to what she posts. This seems to be a common characteristic among this faction of school reform – allow no outside opinions, repeat the same lies as often as possible, and describe anyone who opposes you in the worst possible terms. I meant to say yesterday in referring to Rhee’s lie about her scores that the reason it matters is that she has used that lie to justify her actions. She would state the lie about the scores and then say how it didn’t matter because next year her students got a teacher who didn’t care and their scores went back to being among the lowest. In both cases she never offered proof – neither of her high scores nor the low scores of the next year teacher who was so terrible (according to Rhee). She used this story to highlight why her type of reform was needed, why teachers with seniority needed to go, why young, enthusiastic teachers with no experience are better than veteran teachers (often described as burnouts by Rhee). Her justifications have always been founded on a lie. That is why it matters whether she told the truth or not.

    Wilson, Whitmire, and Matthews and others who believe in reform at all cost, who believe that as long as the hypocrite says what they want to hear that the hypocrisy should be ignored, are doing a disservice to their cause, to our schools and, most importantly of all, to the very children they profess to care for.

  9. Whitmore’s book is amazingly sycophantic. His performance at Politics and Prose was remarkably poor.

    RE Rhee’s test scores as a teacher:

    Her whole theory of reform is built around the idea that children will succeed at the highest level if you just get up there and teach. She has always offered those stunning test scores as the proof of this theory. Her claims were implausible on their face, and by now they have been debunked. It’s stunning that she got away with making this claim so long.

    RE Rhee’s NAEP scores in DC:

    These scores are a bit hard to break down, in large part because of the NAEP’s approach to charter schools, which changed as of the 2009 testing. There are quite a few apples-to-oranges comparisons floating around, in which scores for all DC schools (including charters) are compared to scores which exclude charters. Be careful, whether you’re dealing with pro-Rhee or anti-Rhee assessments. This represents a bit of a glitch in the NAEP’s current procedures. They ought to clean it up.

    RE DC’s nationwide standing on the NAEP:

    For me, the problem with Whitmnire’s book starts right on its cover. Like Rhee, he pimps the idea that DC was “the nation’s worst school district” in 2007, when Rhee came to town. He bases this claim on DC’s NAEP scores, even though the NAEP was limited to about eight actual urban districts in 2007 (and DC’s scores were tied with LA’s). Detroit wasn’t included, for instance; neither was New Orleans, St. Louis, Kansas City and a very long list of others. The notion that Rhee conquered “the nation’s worst school district” makes the hero-tale that much better, so people like Whitmire go out and pimp it, even though he has no idea what DC’s real ranking was.

    Simple story: Rhee is a toy and a tool of power, and power dissembles a lot.

  10. Just for the record, I was at the event and this account is just as biased as Whitmire’s book is for Rhee. The people at the microphone were making speeches, meandering from one subject to another, and taking up time. The line to ask questions was long – and for those in the audience, the “Just ask the Question” was because we were frustrated by the rude people at the microphone who would just blab on and on.

    Disagree or agree with the author, but the people making speeches at the microphone were the ones who were being disrespectful, not the author.

  11. While I agree that some were making speeches (and I didn’t say that in my post) I still feel he was railroading the people asking questions. I think that is why some began making speeches because they were being frustrated in being allowed to refute anything that Whitmire stated. The fact is that he makes statements as facts that are questionable at best, statements that often have, as their ultimate proof of being valid, the fact that Michelle Rhee believes it. When anyone that night tried to ask him a question by pointing out the fallacy of his “facts” then Whitmire would sidestep those facts by berating the person to “get to the question,” then disdainfully dismiss the question with a usually weak response such as “it’s in the book.”

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