“Steadfast, Protective And, At Times, Adoring”: The Washington Post And Michelle Rhee

Last year, Washington Post education reporter Bill Turque made clear what he thought of how his paper's editorial board covered then-Washington, D.C., schools chancellor Michelle Rhee.

In a blog post, Turque wrote that the Post's editorial support for Rhee had been “steadfast, protective and, at times, adoring.”

The item was quickly removed from the Post's website, but Turque is hardly alone in his views.

Two of the Post's journalists covering education recently shared with Media Matters their own concerns about the way the paper's editorial page has covered Rhee.

Jay Mathews, a 40-year Post scribe who writes the Class Struggle blog and a weekly column, pointed to editorial writer Jo-Ann Armao's coverage of recent allegations of potential cheating on standardized tests. Mathews noted that Armao is his former boss and praised her work on education in general, but he said that on the testing issue, he could not “understand why her reporting instincts have failed her.” Mathews criticized what he called Armao's “failure to address seriously what seems to me are problems that cannot be overlooked,” later adding, “Her failure to see that, I find troubling and puzzling given my great respect for her as a person and a journalist.”

Valerie Strauss, who pens the Post's Answer Sheet blog, told Media Matters:

“I didn't agree with very much of the editorial stance when it came to the Rhee era. But certainly, as an editorial board, it had a right to take a stand and stick to it. That's what editorial boards do.” She added, “There were times when they could have been more critical, they could have looked harder and been more even-handed about how they presented information.”

Rhee's tenure at the helm of D.C.'s schools -- from 2007 to 2010 -- was contentious. She implemented a controversial reform program designed to improve achievement. She angered some parents and education officials and fired hundreds of teachers. (Rhee reportedly once invited a PBS camera crew to film her firing a principal.)

Rhee had something to show for her work -- gains in student achievement. The Post editorial page -- along with other Rhee supporters -- has pointed to rising test scores as evidence of her success.

But some of D.C.'s test scores were called into question earlier this year. USA Today reported in March that past standardized tests were found to have had an unusual number of erasures -- incorrect answers were erased and replaced with correct answers at an unusual rate.

High numbers of erasures are not proof of cheating; students often change wrong answers to right answers, especially when they have been encouraged in advance of the test to check their work. But experts consulted by the paper said that some D.C. schools' erasure rates raised red flags and that an investigation is necessary “when entire classrooms at schools with statistically rare erasures show fast-rising test scores.”

According to USA Today, “from 2008 to 2010, 103 public schools in the District of Columbia were flagged for having at least one class of students with statistically high rates of wrong answers that were erased and replaced by correct answers on standardized tests.” The paper's investigation focused on one school in particular -- the Crosby S. Noyes Education Campus -- noting that it “went from a school deemed in need of improvement to a place that the District of Columbia Public Schools called one of its 'shining stars.' ”

USA Today explained:

A closer look at Noyes, however, raises questions about its test scores from 2006 to 2010. Its proficiency rates rose at a much faster rate than the average for D.C. schools. Then, in 2010, when scores dipped for most of the district's elementary schools, Noyes' proficiency rates fell further than average.

A USA TODAY investigation, based on documents and data secured under D.C.'s Freedom of Information Act, found that for the past three school years most of Noyes' classrooms had extraordinarily high numbers of erasures on standardized tests. The consistent pattern was that wrong answers were erased and changed to right ones.

Rhee had refused to speak with USA Today in advance of the report, but quickly fired back once it had been published. Rhee insisted that USA Today's investigation “absolutely lacked credibility” and said, “It isn't surprising that the enemies of school reform once again are trying to argue that the Earth is flat and that there is no way test scores could have improved ... unless someone cheated.”

The Post followed up with several pieces on the testing issue, posted soon after the USA Today report.

One Post story, by education writer Bill Turque, reported that the current chancellor, Kaya Henderson, called for a review of the tests and released a 2009 study of test results at eight D.C. schools by Caveon Test Security, a Utah-based firm, which found no evidence of tampering.

A second Post piece, a column by Mathews, reported that Rhee had walked back her initial criticism of the USA Today story, calling her earlier statement “stupid.” According to Mathews, Rhee “said that she thinks cheating might have occurred.” Mathews also called the Caveon investigation that had exonerated the district “shockingly thin, accepting whatever school officials told them with no follow-up and almost no skepticism.”

A March 31, 2011, Post editorial, however, responded to the USA Today series by defending the D.C. schools and Rhee. The Post trumpeted the Caveon findings and argued that the test scores in question were consistent with the results of a separate set of tests. The editorial did call for the test scores to be reexamined:

Anytime there is a suggestion a school may have cheated its way to showing improved student achievement, there is reason for serious concern. That's why D.C. school officials hired a high-priced outside expert to investigate what appeared to be anomalies on a number of student test sheets. It's also why it is prudent for the system to take another look at the schools where tests were called into question. But to use the issue of erasure marks at a handful of schools to disparage the very real improvements made in recent years by D.C. schools is irresponsible ... John Fremer, president of Caveon, described the investigations -- which included interviews with school personnel and data analysis -- as “a thorough job working with credible data.” He told us that if there were reason to believe something was amiss, the company would have advised further action. Further scrutiny will show whether the city got its money's worth on this investigation.

That the schools were cleared by an outside firm seen as premier in its field, or that they represent just 2 percent of the system's total testing, hasn't stopped critics of the reforms begun by then-Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee from seizing on the situation as evidence that the improvement in D.C. schools is a myth. Other tests -- including the National Assessment of Educational Progress, about which there are no questions -- showed significant gains in reading and math by D.C. students between 2007 and 2009. That's evidence of progress that can't be erased.

But since then, the District has invalidated test scores from three classrooms because investigators “found evidence or a strong suspicion of a test security violation,” and the District has reportedly fired at least two teachers for inappropriate actions related to testing. The U.S. Department of Education has joined the investigation.

Meanwhile, the results of Caveon's investigations have come under increased scrutiny, both in the D.C. situation and a separate testing scandal in Atlanta. As Turque reported in May, “One of their major concerns is that Acting Chancellor Kaya Henderson didn't ask Caveon to use all of the forensic tools at its disposal. Skeptics also note that she did not ask Caveon to look at all of the more than 110 classrooms across 41 schools flagged by CTB/McGraw-Hill for elevated levels of wrong-to-right erasures on the 2010 test. DCPS asked the firm to look at just ten schools.”

But the Post's editorial page hardly seemed to notice. Its only subsequent mention of the story came halfway through a July 10 editorial about D.C.'s most recent test scores. After arguing that “the gains in test scores over five years ... testify to the work begun by ... Rhee in setting higher expectations and making the system accountable for results,” the paper added, “Apparent anomalies on some test sheets in 2009 prompted some to question whether cheating occurred; outside consultants found possible testing improprieties in three of 14 classrooms flagged for investigation but found no conclusive evidence of cheating; further investigation is underway. National tests administered independently buttress signs of progress in the D.C. schools, showing significant gains in reading and math between 2007 and 2009.”

A July 30, 2011, Post editorial about the massive cheating scandal in Atlanta did not even mention the D.C. allegations.

The support for Rhee was nothing new. The Post has published dozens of other editorials on Rhee's work or related issues while she was in office -- and since she left -- and has been largely supportive of her. Among them:

*A July 11, 2008, editorial criticizing those who failed to credit Rhee with test score increases at the time.

*An October 12, 2008, editorial criticizing leaders of the Washington Teachers' Union for not supporting Rhee's “bold” contract proposal to reward teachers for giving up tenure protection.

*A May 2, 2010, editorial that questioned why all D.C. residents are not working to keep Rhee:

IN THE RECENT tumult over a proposed contract for District school teachers, the key question has been ignored: Why is everyone in the city not working together to make sure that Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee sticks around?

*An October 22, 2010, editorial on Post endorsements that made clear the paper would not endorse incumbent city council member Mary M. Cheh because, among other things, she had been insufficiently supportive of Rhee.

Contacted for comment, Rhee declined to speak with Media Matters, but a Rhee spokesperson issued this statement:

The Chancellor's office worked with Washington Post reporters on a nearly daily basis, and the Chancellor is cited in hundreds of stories by those reporters. We had no say over what went into those stories, just as we had no say in what went into the editorial content by the Post -- including the over one hundred critical opinion pieces about the Chancellor by Post columnists.

Former USA Today senior projects editor Linda Mathews, who oversaw that paper's series and its D.C. investigation, had strong criticism of the Post editorial page's response to the testing issue. She pointed specifically to the fact that the Post's editorial about the Atlanta cheating scandal didn't mention D.C.

“I think the editorials on Rhee and D.C. were thinly reported, unskeptical, disdainful of facts,” said Mathews (who is married to Jay Mathews). “It is uncharacteristic of the Post to be that craven. I think most editorials on other subjects are thoughtful and well-researched, I just think they've got a blind spot when it comes to Rhee.”

The D.C. testing allegations and the USA Today series were back in the news in August when The New York Times published a story that discussed Rhee's reluctance to speak with reporters from USA Today about the testing story.

Rhee's avoidance of certain reporters is also a familiar issue for the Post

On June 21, 2009, then-Ombudsman Andrew Alexander took Rhee to task for refusing to speak with Turque, a situation he revealed had existed for almost a year:

Unhappy with his coverage, Turque said, Rhee has refused to talk with him since last summer. His queries are handed off to press aides, and he is largely relegated to quoting from her public appearances.

It's not uncommon for public officials to temporarily slam the door on reporters who upset them. But this is unusual. Rhee's effort to transform the public schools is arguably the biggest story in the District and has gained national attention. Her pique has lasted months. Turque is the only reporter who covers her full time. And he works for a powerful hometown newspaper whose coverage is essential to taxpaying readers with a stake in the issue.

The Alexander column followed a June 14, 2009, story about Rhee by Turque that included comments Rhee made in an interview with the Post's Jay Mathews.

In his column, Alexander went on to report how Rhee had met with editors earlier that year to complain about coverage:

Months ago, Rhee laid out a handful of complaints over breakfast with executive editor Marcus Brauchli and Robert McCartney, then the editor in charge of the Metro section for which Turque works. Brauchli recalled that Rhee was “polite and respectful” in expressing displeasure over a mix of stories and blog items. Turque, who acknowledged that The Post has corrected a few “minor” errors, said the snub “seems personal.”

Early last year, Rhee sought to justify the layoffs of 266 teachers and staff by saying, “I got rid of teachers who had hit children, who had had sex with children, who had missed 78 days of school. ... Why wouldn't we take those things into consideration?” On January 26, 2010, Turque reported that Rhee's office had declined to elaborate on exactly how many of the fired teachers had committed those types of infractions. That same day, however, those figures appeared in a Post editorial. While the editorial criticized Rhee for invoking offenses that applied only to a small fraction of the fired teachers, it also criticized the teachers' union for “enabling some of these unfit teachers to stay in the classroom.”

The next day, Turque addressed the situation in a sharply worded blog post. Turque wrote that Rhee probably talked to Armao more than Rhee talked to him, which Turque suggested was partially the result of the fact that the editorial board's “support for the chancellor has been steadfast, protective and, at times, adoring.” Turque added that the relationship between Rhee and Armao had turned the editorial page into a “guaranteed soft landing spot for uncomfortable or inconvenient disclosures-kind of a print version of the Larry King Show.” And Turque provided an example:

The chancellor repeatedly sidestepped questions about whether policies and procedures had been followed to place the kids in the coveted school. A few days after the dust settled, an editorial offered, without attribution, an “innocent explanation”: the Fentys neighborhood school, West Elementary, had only one fourth grade class. Lafayette's multiple fourth-grade sections made it possible to separate the twins, which studies show is developmentally desirable.

Turque concluded:

Are Fenty and Rhee gaming the system by using the editorial page this way? Of course. Is this a healthy thing for readers of The Post? Probably not. Is it going to keep me from doing my job effectively?


And then Turque's post disappeared. As Erik Wemple, then a City Paper columnist, reported, a version of Turque's piece “with duller elbows” was subsequently posted. According to Post ombudsman Andrew Alexander, the original piece had “irritated” editorial page editor Fred Hiatt, who alerted managing editor Liz Spayd. Spayd told Alexander that she felt the piece contained inappropriate editorializing and that it was her decision to remove and rewrite it.

Alexander reported that Rhee subsequently called Turque's supervisor to apologize for not providing the newsroom with the lay-off statistics, a mistake that Rhee said was inadvertent.

Turque declined to comment to Media Matters, saying only, “Whatever I have to say about Rhee, I have said in the paper.”

Armao also declined to speak with Media Matters, referring inquiries to Hiatt.

In a phone interview, Hiatt declined to discuss the incident involving Turque's blog post, telling Media Matters that it was “ancient history” and adding that “what Bill Turque does or doesn't do has nothing to do with me.”

Asked about the erasure controversy, Hiatt said:

“I don't believe that what's been reported so far seriously detracts from what we know of what [Rhee] was able to accomplish.”

Hiatt also stated that the editorial page was trying to support Rhee's reform efforts:

“Our view was that by abolishing the elected school board and taking full responsibility for the schools and then appointing a strong chancellor committed to a strong set of reforms, Mayor Fenty offered the best opportunity in a long time to actually make progress. And that if this chancellor missed, it might be a long time before the stars would align again and a serious attempt to improve the public schools would take place. Over the four years, our view was that Mayor Fenty and Chancellor Rhee took a lot of hard decisions that were necessary. After four years the schools were in much better shape than they had been four years before and that was measurable and demonstrable.”

Hiatt reiterated this point.

“I've given you my assessment of why I think, why we thought this was the most important issue, why we thought people who were seriously committed to reform should be supported and how if you look at the actual facts, the result suggests there was progress over four years,” he said. “To me that's the important question: Were the schools getting better or weren't they?”