Where's the Accountability?

If you follow the media in DC, you're bound to be aware of one very annoying reality (especially if you're following education news): the Washington Post pretty much sets the tone and drives the city's conversation.  Add to this annoyance that pretty much every press release put out by the chancellor's office is accepted by the WaPo with limited scrutiny, and you end up with a very low level of accountability and transparency, and a chancellor's office that's shielded from taking a lot of the heat an honest and more objective press might generate.

Why is the WaPo such an awful place for citizens to get information about what's really going on with education in the District?  Consider that the Washington Post Company is an education and media company (note that education comes first).  Although savvy consumers of media in DC are often aware of this, I suspect many readers of the WaPo don't know that the company that owns the newspaper also owns Kaplan, Inc.  In 2009, Kaplan brought in $2.6 billion (a 13% increase from 2008) while the newspaper only brought in $679 million (a decrease of 15% from 2008).  The people who are in education for profit are of the same mind as those who propose merit pay for teachers, charter schools, and TFA as market-based solutions for public education.  It makes sense - if you run education as a business, you're probably inclined to agree with Michelle Rhee when she attempts to run public schools like a corporation with corporate money, not like a public service.  Lastly, it's incredibly important for readers of the Post to know that the CEO of the Washington Post Company, Donald Graham, sits on the board of directors of KIPP DC (which Bill Turque recently wrote a nice little story about here).

Here are a few examples of truly blatant bias in favor of the Fenty/Rhee administration from the Washington Post:

On June 6 of this year, Nikita Stewart wrote a story claiming that "Fenty's spending priorities don't favor certain wards."  Stewart tells us that predominantly black Wards 5 and 8 received more money for school construction from the Fenty administration than Ward 2, which is predominantly white.  Stewart then goes on to tell her readers that this crushes "the idea that when it comes to school construction, wards were favored by class and race."  This is an OUTRAGEOUSLY irresponsible comment.  As Chris Bergfalk (a DCPS teacher) pointed out on "More Room on the Outside" on June 8, Ward 8 has over twice as many square feet of school space (2,469,000) than ward 2 (797,000).  Additionally, there are more than twice as many students in ward 8 (8,363 in '08-'09) than in ward 2 (3,382 in '08-'09).  So Fenty spent $152 per square foot on Ward 2 between '07-'09 and $54 per square foot on Ward 8 between '07-'09 (see graph from 21st Century School Fund here.)  And that crushes the idea that "wards were favored by class and race"?!?!?  Hardly.  Stewart is either unaware of the facts, or deliberately misleading readers (and I doubt it's the former).  Either way, it's irresponsible journalism.  Oh, and by the way, maybe Stewart could have mentioned that predominantly black Ward 5 (which she cites as evidence that Fenty cares about blacks) doesn't even have a middle school! Or, perhaps she could have mentioned that in 2009 Shaed and Ketcham elementary schools (in Ward 8) each received around $40k for their playgrounds. Meanwhile Murch and Hearst elementary schools (in Ward 3) each received over $1 million for their playgrounds.

On January 27th of this year, Bill Turque blogged about his frustration with Michelle Rhee's decision to talk to the Post's editorial board and refusal to talk to Turque about the comments she made about RIFed teachers to Fast Company.  His post was originally put up on the morning of the 27th.  It was removed and then reposted later in the day.  However, the second post had been altered.  In his original post, Turque referred to the editorial board as "a print version of the Larry King show," and said he thought Rhee and Fenty "gaming the system by using the editorial page" was unhealthy for Post readers.  These comments were not included in the blog post that was put up later in the day.

Now let's look at some of what the editorial board has to say.  On May 21 of this year, the Post printed an editorial claiming that rising NAEP scores proved Rhee's time in office has been a success.  The editorial cites a six-point gain for fourth graders between 2007 and 2009, and a four-point gain for eighth graders during the same time.  Calling this success, the editorial goes on to wonder, "why everyone in this city would not seek to ensure that Ms. Rhee stays in office." Hmmmm - maybe you wonder that because you a) seem to be clueless about exactly how much consideration test scores really deserve in rating educational quality, b) have shown time and time again a strong ideological bias in favor of market-based reform in public education, c) have no real experience working in education, and d) likely do not send any of your children (if you have any) to DCPS schools.  Anyone with a high school education knows that statistics are a tricky game in terms of attempting to draw real conclusions about improvement.  When we look at the increase in NAEP scores between 2007 and 2009, we notice a few things.  First, when you separate them by subgroup, they're not as significant as the improvements between 2005 and 2007 (and I'm going to bet the Post never printed a similar editorial about Clifford Janey).  Second, the six-point rise seems more a function of change in demographics than a change in achievement.  As Chris Bergfalk pointed out in front of the DC Council, and again on "More Room on the Outside," between 2003 and 2007, 85 percent of students NAEP tested in DC were black (the lowest achieving subgroup).  However, in 2009, only 76 percent of students NAEP tested in DC were black.  Additionally, if you look at students NAEP tested in both DCPS and the charter schools, 67 percent of them were black in 2007.  In 2009, only 53 percent of them were black.  Removing students who traditionally perform most poorly on your tests is one sure way to improve the average.  Blacks seem to be leaving DCPS, but in such large numbers?  What's going on here?

Lastly, the Post printed an editorial on June 8 of this year in which they slammed Rhee's critics for complaining about the outside money she raised for the new teachers contract.  From the editorial: "In any other city, an official who manages to raise millions of dollars from credible organizations to improve public schools would get a commendation.  Not so in the District of Columbia, where the reward for such effort is a suggestion of wrongdoing."  Credible organizations?  The Walton Foundation and the Broad Foundation are not seen as credible by those concerned with quality public education.  Don't let the fact that they come with the word 'foundation' attached to them fool you into thinking this is charity.  This is corporate money, and it's intended to be used to promote a free-market approach to fixing public education (maximize test scores, increase charter schools).  Now, if you think that's the best way to fix public education, that's your opinion, and we can argue about that at another time.  I just think many people are unaware of the interests these foundations have.  Additionally, the contract was negotiated so that the money can be withdrawn if Rhee loses her role as chancellor, which might make it relatively difficult for Vincent Gray to remove her if he's elected.  That the provision is in the contract means that these corporate-minded reformers are essentially buying their public officials, which in most other districts in the country have to be democratically agreed upon by a school board elected by the citizens.  So yea, WaPo editorial board, people are wary about Rhee's raising of this money.  And I don't think that you're so naive that you don't understand why.  You just choose to ignore it.

On Monday Mayor Fenty and Chairman Gray will be debating educational issues at the Navy Memorial and Naval Heritage Center auditorium.  I get to attend as 'Media.'  How special.  Anyway, it's being moderated by Colby King of the Washington Post.  I don't know anything about Colby King, but I think it would be nice if it were moderated by somebody who doesn't work for a company with a strong ideological interest in supporting market-based reform in our system of public education.  My questions to the candidates, were I to have the chance to ask any, would be: Are you concerned about the lack of transparency and accountability in the Rhee administration? or the shielding of Michelle Rhee from legitimate public criticism by the Washington Post? What solutions would you propose for improving the accountability and transparency of the administration?  As Pete Tucker, an independent journalist for 89.3, has suggested to me many times, the WaPo should be required to print a disclaimer at the top of all its stories about education:

Disclaimer: The Washington Post is owned by the Washington Post Company, which makes the majority of its money from Kaplan, Inc., a for-profit education company.  Therefore, please take all of our education-related stories with about 2.6 billion grains of salt.

What other questions should be asked of Mayor Fenty and Chairman Gray on education?  I'm sure there are tons.


  1. RE - Thank you for this careful analysis. I hope you're sending it directly to WaPo journalists, District officials and other bloggers. It needs to get wide attention.

    I'm sending my question for the forum to you in a separate email, in case the Fenty team is reading here to see what they need to prepare for. (I wouldn't blame them!)

  2. I just wanted to say a big "thank you" for your work in DCPS and your writings here on this blog.

    You truly have more insight and far more thoughtful analysis than the majority of education reporters out there.

    As a DCPS parent for 8 years now, I have watched things go from bad to worse under this administration. I'm an advocate for reform, but Michelle Rhee's brand is damaging to children. Even if Fenty loses, I fear there won't be much left to salvage for the next head of the District of Columbia Public Schools.

    With gratitude,

  3. My impression of Colbert King is that he follows DC politics closely, and is very concerned about youth crime and violence as well as the failings of the DC juvenile justice system. I'm not recalling much on the subject of education.

  4. This is an excellent piece. I knew about the Kaplan connection but not the KIPP one. This explains so much. Didn't I tell you to consider a career in journalism?

  5. Colby King is a well known, long term, highly respected Washington Post editorialist and the only one I know of who has criticized Michelle Rhee in his columns – here are two examples:

    Is Rhee Producing? 1/3/09
    Enticing excerpt: “Last August, I had lunch with Rhee near the anniversary of our first meeting to get an update on school system reforms. What a difference a year makes. The session wasn't what I expected. An hour's conversation, and it was all about her.”
    Enticing alteration: The original title, “Beyond Publicity, What Is Rhee Producing?” is changed to “Is Rhee Producing” when you click on the WaPo link. Check Google references to the article and see for yourself.

    The Federal Lab Rat 1/17/09
    an excerpt to enrage you: “Good teachers, Rhee declared, are "the single most important determinant of student success." That's what the chancellor is out to prove in an experiment with national significance.

  6. Great post. The WaPo seems to be anti traditional public schools period. It's not just DC. I teach in Montgomery County and I've been really frustrated with the editorials (typically by Joann Armao or Fred Hiatt) that openly criticize the fact that we didn't take furloughs or that we endorse certain candidates for local political office. There were several articles which referred to our local teachers association as union thugs and painted a picture of our organization that was totally inaccurate and unjustified. There was one editorial printed in March that blamed Maryland teachers for bad road conditions. Basically that article said to thank a teacher if you hit a pothole and damage your car. Why? Because the state decided not to pass the cost of teacher retirements to the counties and cut road maintenance money to fund teacher retirements --which, by the way, are some of the worst plans in the country (MD ranks around #40 in terms of teacher retirement). The bashing just goes on and on. It's ridiculous and it's clear that there is an agenda.

  7. Another great post! I have been saying the same thing about the Washington Post for the last two years - their bias towards Rhee is indisputable at this point. I have said before that I believe the day will come when the scandal that is the Post's coverage of Michelle Rhee and DCPS will be someone's front page, Pulitzer Prize winning story. You should add to Ward 3 schools John Eaton ES which received a new playground at a cost of 1.7 million (some say 2 million). When you look at expenditures it is quite clear that Ward 3 had so much more going their way than almost any other ward. Keep up the good work of exposing the Post for their unethical journalism. I will do the same. It's all we can do really - until election time.

  8. When does this forum begin at the Navy memorial? I can't find it listed anywhere

  9. Anon at 209 - See the following link:


  10. Thanks, I just went to the website and the forum is filled up!

    RE - please report back quickly for those of us who couldn't attend.

  11. Look, the Post's problem is a newspaper-wide demise. It's readers see sloppy and inept reporting all over. Its readership is plunging, not because the ed. coverage sucks. And the columnists are getting worse, too. As for the wapo.com, it remains an ugly, lousy mess, with some really low-quality "reporters" and opinion/columnists who are not in the paper. It remains poorly edited.
    Incompetence and sloppiness infect the editorial page, too. Nothing new about that.

    It would be a mistake to over-attribute the importance of the Post. It is becoming a laughable rag, and its influence is declining in direct proportion to its readership numbers and cratering advertising revenues.

    Look at the trend it its other businesses, and you can see Kaplan revenue and profit growth rates are also beginning to tank. There is not enough connection to make any case that poor public schools feed those businesses.

    No data to show that. Just blind assertions and allegations that take our attention away from meaningful causes of declining education in the District of Columbia. The reflective educator's posts scores no hits in logic or data. It is just a misguided surmise, absent some evidence borne of analysis and proof.

    One problem one sees in our community of educators and other interested parties is a tendency to find conspiracies under every rock and around every corner. Every time we lock onto one of these, we deflect attention from.....wait for it....ourselves. We elected the city council and mayor and "we" citizens allowed the schools to become a POS over many years since Home Rule. We cannot blame this on the media, The (STUPID) "PLAN," foundations, contracting firms, the WTU, or even Madame Rhee.

    So let us pull up our socks and address the issues and problems and not deflect attention away from parents, teachers, principals, DCPS civil servant bureaucrats, and involved interest groups. We have done it to ourselves. No plot involved. If you want to plead socio-economic problems, fine, but that is in the baseline.

  12. Anon at 1143: I think I'd agree with most of what you say. It is primarily the responsibility of the citizens to ensure quality government. But there are a few things I think citizens need to make important decisions about the way their government works. And one of those things is a quality media source, one that allows for varying views of what's happening in the District, and one that does not actively seek to limit the views of people who disagree with the editorial board.

    When you say I provided no data to make my point, it suggests that you missed my point. Nowhere did I make the case that poor schools feed Kaplan. I think on a national level, corporate interests are out to improve public education because they need better prepared incoming workers (and I don't really have a problem with that). But when they seek to improve public education using private-market solutions that misunderstand the way a public service works (or the way education works), then they're harming education. It's also worrisome when corporate money goes to educate children solely so they can be good workers one day without valuing other essential components of an excellent education.

    My point was that the WaPo has a strong bias in reporting on education - and I'm not arguing that it's because they have a financial interest in seeing Rhee succeed. I'm arguing their bias exists because they a) don't understand public education and b) they, like so many other national 'reformers,' believe market-based solutions will save education. I think the evidence I provided of their bias was pretty good.

    So while I think you made some good points, you seem to have missed mine.

  13. I generally second Anon at 1143, WaPo is hardly worth focusing too much on, their coverage of DC is very poor as the vast majority of their readership is in the more literate and wealthy burbs. Also, I myself am not surprised at the ideological similarities among WaPo, Kaplan, Rhee, and others, but you're implying there's a direct corporate conspiracy I think, which is a bit far fetched. Lastly, DC schools are in dead last place by so many indicators, they are often simply urban hellholes created by decades of mismanagement by the same entities you applaud. That neglect is what created the current reform, not some shadowy conspiracy among corporate players.

  14. RE--you say tomato, I say tomaahhto....you say "bias," I say journalistic incompetence. Post management couldn't do it objectively if they wanted to; some skill and alert editing are needed for that, and they have little of it--heading south quickly.

    If they like market-based solutions--and as far as I know they don't do this to the exclusion of other solutions--the Post biggies do this because the public/government solution in so many places and so many ways looks pretty bad, to say it plainly. It is as simple as that. The doofi writing the editorials/editing just take a common-sense approach. Like most frustrated parents and taxpayers, they'd try just about anything, and privatizing is scant and still pretty experimental. Jury still out, as for charters. But you want to shut it (considering other solutions) down, maybe, on ideological grounds?

    As to the Posties' lack of "understanding," well they are in a pretty big club. And the club's membership rolls include legions of graduates of the finest ed. schools, other public managers, millions of parents, lawmakers at all levels. Who the heck delivered us the present educational mess?

    As to helping companies get workers educated, you just barely, grudgingly allow it. Ya think this country needs a few more unemployed right now?

    Don't make a fundamental underpinning of society sound like some dirty, odious thing. The idea of education supporting society as a whole, the economy, and eventual company hiring is literally something that made this country great.

    Don't worry, you won't be inadvertently subsidizing Kaplan or whoever it is that you really fear. You might even be preparing people, perish the thought, for civil service jobs, NGO jobs, even public school teaching jobs.

  15. I don't mean to suggest it's a conspiracy at all. The movement toward deprofessionalizing the teaching profession, adhering to an educational philosophy that believes rising test scores are the only outcome that matter, and increased school choice in all contexts is better is all part of a belief among contemporary reformers that this is the way to fix education. It's a belief that's driven by an ideology that sees free-market principles as the best solution to everything. Ideology is not the same as a conspiracy. I think all of the players involved here would all freely admit that they think this is the best way to improve education - although many of them are likely only saying that because they know rising test scores will better their careers.

    What I'm suggesting is pretty simple: Rhee, the WaPo, Graham, and others have a bias and they're not interested in listening to the other side. That would be fine if the WaPo wasn't charged with providing a service essential to a well-functioning democracy: giving both sides of the story.

    The fact that the WaPo's readers are primarily people outside the city is perhaps even more disturbing. I find many of them consume its stories with little to no awareness of its conflicts of interest (i.e. ostensibly providing well-balanced coverage of story they only want people to hear one side of). Unfortunately, this leads people across the country to believe that everything Rhee does is good, and that if only their local districts would do the same, education would be much better off. I strongly disagree.

  16. RE, with high and due respect, you have a rich imagination when it comes to the influence of the Post, nationally and locally.

    Population alone suggests most readers and its influence would be outside DC boundaries. Within the District, it wields hardly any clout in most fields. Nationally, the present-day WaPo is a mediocre reporter of the operations of our national government.

    I agree that the (usually not smart or informed) media who might report on Rhee do not have the intellectual wherewithall to know the good and bad aspects of her approach. But show us a case where she has been imitated? I can't think of any, but frankly, I have not looked very far.

    I wish you would devote your thoughts to something more important than Rhee's influence outside DC. And, even any reflected glory coming back has hardly any influence, in the end, on what happens in DC schools. Keep your eyes on the ball.

  17. Anon 1:51 here: Well hey, welcome to Washington! Start your own paper and good luck ;) Its a cruel world...

  18. Okay - these comments really confused me until I found their source. I didn't realize DeBonis had linked my post here:


    Of course, DeBonis says that I think WaPo is engaged in a conspiracy to somehow bump up the profits of Kaplan. That's not what I said, Mike.

  19. Okay, no biggie, I never take DeBonis at face value of course ;) Your language in para 2 seemed pretty conspiratorial to me, but in rereading it I see how it can not be. I was more struck by your bio as a relative newcomer to DC and your assessment of WaPo as well as DCPS of course. Specifically, WaPo is an enormous source of frustration to many DC residents (aside from Ward 2 and 3 probably) as it generally ignores DC and most people I interact with know this well. DCPS is a decades long nightmare which, along with other issues, is at the heart of the many problems in this city. Go to the site of any recent murder and tell me if DCPS and other institutions are really benefiting the youth of this city. Those glaring reasons are why Rhee, supported by carpetbaggers at WaPo, is in power. Even without WaPo, she'd be there.


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