On March 26, NBC's Today show did a pretty moving report about Susan Sluyter, a veteran Massachusetts teacher who decided to leave the field because of the dramatic changes she's seen as a result of an overemphasis on standardized testing.
But it was the segment after the report that was so puzzling: an interview with corporate education lobbyist Michelle Rhee, who was at the center of a massive standardized-test cheating scandal when she was chancellor of the Washington, DC, school district.
In the piece about Sluyter, correspondent Ron Mott called her resignation letter a "sobering assessment" of the state of public education. Her words certainly resonated with many; as anchor Matt Lauer pointed out, when the Today show posed an online question: "Are standardized tests the best way to have kids learn?," 5,692 voted no, while just 41 voted yes.
Interesting, then, that the Today show would choose to feature Rhee, whose reputation was built largely around the idea that test-taking would be one of the most effective ways to expose bad teachers. Rhee's history on this question is legendary; a famous Time cover (12/8/08) showed Rhee, broom in hand, ready to clean up the messy business of public schools.
But Rhee's record wasn't really up for examination. Lauer's first question:
You have children in public schools. I have children in public schools. What is your gut reaction to what this teacher wrote in her resignation letter?
Rhee even declared at one point that she decried schools "where there's an overemphasis on testing."
This is where some explanation of Rhee's record would come in handy. She is only on TV because of the supposed turnaround she engineered in DC schools. But that storyline suffered a serious hit when USA Today (3/28/11) uncovered evidence of cheating on the tests that Rhee was using as proof that her radical methods were working. Rhee's response to the paper was interesting: "When reached by telephone, Rhee said she is no longer the chancellor and declined to comment further."
For Rhee's critics, the revelations suggested that Rhee's successes weren't what they appeared to be. The plot thickened when USA Today (4/11/13) reported on a confidential memo that warned Rhee that cheating on the tests was possibly widespread, and that the district should immediately investigate. The paper notes that little seemed to come of the memo, as business as usual prevailed: Schools with "high" scores were rewarded by Rhee, and teachers at schools with low scores were fired by the hundreds.
That memo was uncovered by veteran education reporter John Merrow, who had followed and reported on Rhee's tenure for years. His article "Michelle Rhee's Reign of Error" (Taking Note, 4/11/13) provides many of the details. He closed by noting this:
That Michelle Rhee named her new organization StudentsFirst is beyond ironic.
Rhee's history could make her an interesting person to interview for a critical piece about the overemphasis on standardized testing. But the failure to mention Rhee's scandal suggests that either the Today show doesn't know that history–or doesn't think it matters.
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