Tuesday, July 29, 2014

What can Brown do for SouthComm?

It has been a while since a local reporter wrote the following about lightning-rod education reformer, Michelle Rhee, so it is time to see how the 1 1/2 year old copy stands up to reality. Writes Andrea Zelinski, circa January 2013:

Michelle Rhee is an icon of the education reform movement. She’s pushed to hold teachers more accountable for students’ performance, busted open the doors of school choice and shaken up the education establishment. She’s also thrown a few elbows and drawn criticism for her style.

A Tennessee transplant, she is turning her attention to schools in her new state.

The polarizing former Washington, D.C., schools chancellor heads up StudentsFirst, an education reform organization she founded just as she began setting roots in the Volunteer State. The group has already handed out hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations to state-level political campaigns and a handful of local elections here, positioning itself as a force to be reckoned with.

Back when Michelle Rhee was a rock star, this kind of fawning coverage might have flown in spite of the protests of those like me who judged it to be a load of crap. Ms. Rhee was a celebrity, and aspiring news coverage seeks to hitch its wagon to a star above all.

Now, given what we have learned about the pitiful "movement" Michelle Rhee fabricated, the SouthComm interview appears to be folly without the slightest hint of courage to probe for the truth. One makes choices, and Zelinski's (or was it SouthComm's?) choice not to challenge Michelle Rhee is inane in light of the harder questions other journalists ask:

Rhee’s StudentsFirst campaigns have done little to animate parents. In Connecticut, an investment of about $700,000 produced a [Rhee head-liner] at the State Capitol ..., 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”....

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....

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 ....

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

StudentsFirst, the lobbying and political actions firm Rhee started, is shutting down its Minnesota office due to a “changing legislative climate” .... 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.”

The contrast between Andrea Zelinski's ode and the latest point-by-point interrogation of Michelle Rhee's actual career could not be more stark. Keep in mind that SouthComm fancies itself as "alt" journalism, but all the "alt" that we can learn appears to be elsewhere.

SouthComm is in a difficult place. They hitched their wagon to Rhee's star instead of at the very least playing devil's advocate, and now that Rhee's star is fading they don't have a shred of credibility left on the subject of education "Rheeform."

The only option they have left to save face is to gin up a promotional interview with Ms. Rhee's replacement in the anti-teacher niche, Campbell Brown, and hope she "transplants" to Tennessee, too.

UPDATE: There was evidence out there in January 2013 that Michelle Rhee was nothing more than a marginal "Tennessee transplant."


  1. To sum up, Michelle Rhee has not succeeded in her mission, and Campbell Brown will lead a similar effort. Additionally, a lot more is known and clear with hindsight.

    I re-read the Andrea Zelinski piece. It's fine as an interview. Hardly "fawning" or an "ode."

    1. Perhaps terms like “fawning” and “ode” were too pejorative. Would you prefer terms like “friendly” and “predisposed”? Zelinski's piece reads more like something Michelle Rhee would link to and not something she would distance herself from. In that vein, the copy has become irrelevant beyond being a useful study in glaring omissions.

      I'm not sure what your point is about hindsight. That we should stop analyzing past interviews because our current knowledge disqualifies any judgment about past play calls? Would we ever question past actions under an absolute rule that “hindsight is 20/20”?

      Several months before Zelinski's interview was published, it was widely broadcast that Rhee's group was trying to stir support for parent triggers in local public schools. As a MNPS parent at the time I received the emails from StudentsFirst promoters sent to our PTO. I blasted that information on this blog and argued that Rhee's “movement” seemed to be operating from the top down. If a lot more is clear with hindsight, why couldn't Zelinski formulate a critical question based on hindsight of StudentsFirst’s local activities beyond their partisan campaign donations?

  2. Meanwhile, it is reported that 44% of public school students have chosen charters in Washington, DC. This reaction of the traditional public schools is instructive.