Like Rhee, Whitmire believes that students’ academic performance is solely a function of the quality of their teachers. If students have low test scores, it is their teachers’ fault, while students with high scores had great teachers. Neither Whitmire nor Rhee seems aware that social science research has demonstrated for many years that what families do, and the advantages or disadvantages that family income confers, have even more influence on academic performance than what teachers do. Poverty makes a difference: When children start school at age 5, before they ever meet a teacher, there is already a gap in their vocabulary and readiness to learn. But never mind.
Whitmire maintains that Rhee was consistently stymied by the teachers’ union and by racial politics. The union, of course, objected to mass firings. And in his telling, black parents cared more about protecting the jobs of black teachers than about the education of their own children. Rhee alone put the well-being of black children above the “self-interest” of the adults in the system. She was also hobbled, he asserts, by negative reporting in The Washington Post. Careful readers would question that claim, since she received unwavering support from The Post editorial board, as well as from education writer Jay Mathews, and consistently fair treatment from reporter Bill Turque.
Did she succeed? Whitmire insists that she did and points to the District’s test score gains on the National Assessment of Educational Progress from 2007 to 2009. But the gains on the federal reading tests under Rhee were no greater than those under her predecessor Superintendent Clifford Janey, which were achieved without the firings and angst of the Rhee era. From 2005-07, under Janey, black fourth-grade students made a five-point gain in reading, but only a three-point gain under Rhee; Hispanic students made a 13-point gain in reading during Janey’s tenure, but only a one-point gain from 2007-09. Reading scores for eighth graders didn’t budge from 2002-09, regardless of who was running the school system. On the federal math tests for fourth grade students, the gains recorded on Rhee’s watch outpaced Janey’s, but the gains from 2003-05 were larger than those achieved under either Janey or Rhee. In eighth-grade math, D.C. students have made steady gains from 2003-09.
Whitmire, a longtime education writer, describes in reverential terms the dramatic turnarounds at Sousa Middle School and Dunbar High School. At Sousa, Rhee installed a new principal who was as tough and unforgiving as she was, and test scores soared. At Dunbar, she hired a turnaround team called Friends of Bedford from New York City who seemed to have the special magic that flows from cracking a whip over the heads of lazy adults and undisciplined students.
Whitmire paints the turnaround of Dunbar in made-for-Hollywood language. George Leonard, the leader of the group from New York City, is described as a “suave, intense man with a preternaturally soothing voice, a sharp sense of humor, a near-perfect ability to lock eyeballs, and that indefinable, impossible-to-find ability to reason with unruly students.” Leonard discovered a school where chaos reigned, fighting was commonplace, students openly smoked reefer, and the noise was deafening. Leonard swiftly took control, fired the principal, and began to turn the school around.