Rhee Taught at For-Profit Managed School
Michelle Rhee likes to recount how her students' test scores rose from the 13th percentile to the 90th percentile during her three years of teaching. She doesn't mention, however, the for-profit company that was managing the school at that time.
There is very little in Michelle Rhee's background to convince most people that she is qualified to be the Chancellor of the DC public schools. The details of the 37-year-old's career are pretty well-known by now. After graduating from Cornell University in 1992, she taught for 3 years in a Baltimore public school. She then quit teaching to pursue a Master's degree at Harvard University and, after graduating, founded and led the New Teacher Project — a non-profit organization with a staff of 120.
It is questionable whether experience managing a 120 staff member non-profit is transferable to running a system as large and complex as the DC public schools. Moreover, while the New Teacher Project is based in New York, Rhee lived outside Denver, Colorado. As a result, even that management experience was long distance and probably relatively hands-off. As a result, Rhee and her supporters have sought to emphasize her teaching experience instead.
As described on her resume, Rhee joined one of the lowest-performing elementary schools in Baltimore City. Over a two-year period, her students improved from an average of the 13th percentile on national standardized tests to 90% of the students scoring at the 90th percentile or higher. On The DC Politics Hour with Kojo and Jonetta, Rhee went over this accomplishment in great detail. Notwithstanding Rhee's admission that during her first year of teaching the students "ran over me", this achievement does sound impressive. However, as is often the case, there is much more to this story.
In the Summer of 1992 — just before Rhee began her teaching career — Education Alternatives, Inc., a now-defunct for-profit corporation based in Minneapolis, MN, was contracted by the Baltimore Public School System to manage nine of Baltimore's public schools. Harlem Park Community School, the school to which Rhee was assigned, was among the nine. At that time, "for-profit education" was considered one of the hottest growth industries around and EAI was generally thought to be a market leader. Stock market analysts raved about the company's potential.
While EAI had promised that it could achieve better results at the same or lower cost of the traditional school system, analysis showed that the company was provided with a significant financial advantage under the terms of its contract. Not only did cost-savings fail to materialize, but test scores also did not improve. Studies showed that "scores dipped sharply in the first year" before rising the next two years to about their pre-EAI level. If Rhee did achieve the results described on her resume, its no wonder that she was featured so prominently in the media. She may have been the only teacher within an EAI school to have managed such a thing.
Just after Rhee left teaching in 1995, Baltimore cancelled its contract with the company. The next year, EAI lost a contract managing the entire school system in Hartford, CT, and Dade County, FL decided not to renew its contract with EAI. The company, which had at one time been the largest for-profit school manager in the country, soon when out of business.
Supporters of EAI are quick to point out that the Baltimore contract was cancelled as a result of EAI's refusal to accept a reduction in its payment to help the school district cover a budget shortfall rather than for academic reasons. However, independent analysts determined that EAI was likely being overpaid from the start. Either way, this is an interesting example of the conflicts that can arise when public services are turned over to for-profit ventures.
What's important about this is that Rhee was not some sort of Michelle Pfeiffer in "Dangerous Minds", single-handedly changing the lives of inner-city youths. Rather, she was part of a failed commercial foray into the public school system. Her first year at Harlem Park coincided with massive investment into the physical infrastructure of the school. The building was painted and computers were purchased for the classrooms. On the other hand, special education expenditures were slashed and experienced teachers were replaced by recent college graduates (Rhee being one example). Regardless, there certainly would have been the appearance of progress even if reality didn't match the perception. Undoubtedly, there were success stories here and there and Rhee may well have been one, but as a whole, the experiment was a failure.
After Rhee left Baltimore to attend Harvard University, she never returned to teaching, though she is now described as "a teacher at heart". She entered the world of "education entrepreneurs" of which Education Alternatives, Inc. had once been a leader. When she reminisces of her days at Harlem Park, its possible that she is remembering sitting in a circle of children while reading a book. Its also possible that her strongest memories deal more with the private management of public schools. It is that vision, after all, that that seems to drive so many recent developments with DC schools.