I am troubled that Rhee thinks that teachers are the biggest problem facing American education. Attacking teachers seems to be her hallmark. I was at an event on Martha’s Vineyard last August when Rhee repeated a story she has often told: three “great teachers in a row” closes the achievement gap. I was waiting for her to say it, and I quickly chimed in to say that it is an urban myth. While writing my last book, I tried to discover if there was any district or any school that had actually closed the achievement gap by providing “three great teachers in a row.” Certainly teachers make a difference, and no one would dispute that it is wonderful to have three great teachers in a row. But no one has ever figured out how to achieve this feat in an entire district. Certainly Rhee didn’t when she was chancellor in the District of Columbia.
Rhee has turned this urban myth into a national crusade against teachers. If scores are low, she suggests, it is because the students have lazy, incompetent teachers who should be fired. She achieved national notoriety in Washington, D.C., for her readiness to fire teachers and principals whom she judged to be unworthy. You may recall the infamous cover of Time magazine, where she posed sternly with a broom, ready to sweep clean the District of Columbia’s public schools. She did clear out a large proportion of the professional staff in the D.C. schools, and she did impose a new teacher evaluation system called IMPACT.
However, the benefits of her innovations are questionable. For one thing, the federal NAEP tests in 2011 showed that the D.C. public schools have the largest achievement gap of any city tested by that program; the D.C. black-white achievement gap is fully double the gap in the typical urban district. For another, USA Today documented a major cheating scandal in the D.C. public schools during her tenure. At the center of the scandal was a principal Rhee had repeatedly singled out, honored, given bonuses, and promoted. He resigned.