PBS' "Frontline" documentary about Michelle Rhee's rocky tenure as school chancellor in Washington D.C., took me back to my college days in the late 1960s and early '70s. Even then, D.C. public schools had a bad reputation.
My college, Howard University, sponsored a tutorial program for public school kids where I volunteered. I remember one student in particular, an intense high schooler who was earning A's and B's. She wanted me to help her answer a series of questions in a history workbook. The questions all related to a chapter in the American history text she was supposed to have read.
It seemed a rather routine assignment to me. But after working with her a short while, I discovered why she needed help. She could not read. She would try to match a series of words from the question with the same series of words in the chapter and then copy the sentence, just guessing that that was the right answer. She was 15 or 16 years old, earning A's and B's, but she could not read. I was stunned.
Living and working in California decades later, I was only vaguely aware of education reformer Rhee's crusade to shake up Washington's perennially failing public schools. But with the memory of that illiterate high school student seared in my brain, I reflexively supported Rhee, cheering on her hard-nosed tactics from afar.
The "Frontline" documentary has given me pause. It raises doubts about the dramatic rise in D.C. school test scores attributed to Rhee's leadership. Despite an investigation by the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Inspector General that found no widespread cheating on standardized tests during Rhee's tenure, 2007-10, I'm skeptical.
The big jumps in test scores, accompanied by unusually high rates of erasures indicating that wrong answers were changed to right convinces me that cheating did occur at some schools, specifically those where improved scores looked too good to be true. I think Rhee was less aggressive than she should have been ferreting out cheaters.
Also, while it may make for dramatic footage, you don't fire people on camera as Rhee did in the documentary. Her brash manner may have sunk her own career and that of her champion, former Washington Mayor Adrian Fenty. Ultimately it may have hurt kids she was trying to help.
Still, I remain a Rhee fan. The video of her touring a warehouse chock-full of pencils, paper, textbooks and other school supplies that teachers were begging for while incompetent administrators sat idle was a brilliant public relations stroke, perhaps the only way to break through a calcified school bureaucracy. Her successful fight to persuade the district council to give her authority to fire incompetent administrators had me cheering. The rallies she held and the bonuses she gave out to reward teachers and principals were positives, too.
The clips of her facing angry parents when budget constraints forced her to close half-empty schools reminded me of the difficult challenges school superintendents face in our region today.
Finally, I firmly support Rhee's no-excuses philosophy on student achievement. Her insistence that poor children from the most deprived backgrounds can succeed and that they must be held to high standards was right; it's right for Sacramento and for the rest of the nation.