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Lessons from Michelle Rhee

By Dale Mezzacappa on Jan 8, 2013 05:46 PM
Photo: The National Academy of Sciences

Tuesday night, Frontline is airing a documentary, by my friend John Merrow, on Michelle Rhee. Merrow, who has been following Rhee's career since her days with the New Teacher Project and was granted unprecedented access to her, includes allegations from a former principal that the Washington, D.C., school district failed to pursue allegations of adult cheating on tests.

I know -- many Notebook readers are growing weary of our coverage of cheating allegations in Philadelphia schools. But this is important stuff, folks. Whatever you think of the value of these tests or of misguided incentives attached to giving them such high stakes, we should not ignore evidence that educators may be behaving dishonestly, undermining the integrity of the whole educational enterprise.

Monday, the day before the scheduled Frontline airing, the investigators from the U.S. Department of Education issued a statement it could not substantiate the principal's claim, but didn't speak directly to the issue of widespread cheating in D.C. schools between 2008 and 2010. Rhee was quick to respond, saying that "the results confirm what we've long believed, that the vast majority of educators would never compromise their personal or prefessional integrity to cheat on a test, thereby cheating children." She did not directly respond to the former principal's allegations, which include that she witnessed teachers erasing booklets, that investigators weren't interested in talking to her, and that teachers were promised bonuses and steak dinners as a reward for high scores.

Rhee noted that D.C.'s own internal investigation had, likewise, not been able to confirm evidence of cheating.

Merrow is one of the longest-serving and respected education reporters in the business -- the regular education correspondent for PBS's NewsHour. He spent years tracking Rhee while she was superintendent. A scene he filmed of Rhee firing a principal was used in the controversial documentary "Waiting for 'Superman.'"

Merrow also spent years in Philadelphia chronicling the reform efforts of Superintendent David Hornbeck, and in New Orleans following Paul Vallas. He does thorough, long-form work, not quick hits on controversial topics. He spoke to the public editor of the national Education Writers Association about Rhee and his impressions of her as a reformer and what happened in DC. (Merrow and I have both been on EWA's board, and he interviewed me on camera for the Hornbeck piece.)

Rhee is a leading voice in the education reform movement and she is getting more prominent as the head of Students First, which just issued a state-by-state report card based on policies including teacher evaluation, mayoral control, charter friendliness, and the availability of vouchers for students to attend private schools.

Whatever you feel about any of this, I recommend you check out the documentary. It can only deepen your understanding of what is needed to improve urban education in the United States.

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Comments (41)

Submitted by tom-104 on January 8, 2013 6:51 pm
It is noteworthy that Rhee's states report does not include test scores in its analysis (which is the way she wants teachers and schools rated). If she had, the state she ranks first, Louisiana, would have been in the bottom of her rankings. Her ratings were based solely on state laws and policies, or in the world of StudentsFirst, whether or not a state is moving public schools to privatization. For a more detailed analysis, see "What Exactly Is Measured in Michelle Rhee's Bogus State Report Card?" at:
Submitted by Christina Puntel (not verified) on January 8, 2013 6:12 pm
I was really taken aback by suggesting Notebook readers are tired of reading about cheating on tests. I'm not tired of it, and I think suggesting teachers are tired of reading about what many of think is a rotten system of evaluating students and now teachers is condescending. Further, I think calling Michelle Rhee a "leading voice in the education reform movement" is wrong. She uses the media to get a message out about her beliefs about education, yes. A "leading voice in education" suggests someone with a deep level of integrity, a close knowledge of the practice and art of teaching, and a commitment to curriculum unsurpassed only by the ability to listen and change with the times. Sorry, that's not Michelle Rhee.
Submitted by Education Grad Student (not verified) on January 8, 2013 6:19 pm
The only reason that Michelle Rhee is a leading voice in education reform is because she makes a lot of noise. However, most of her noise doesn't have much substance to it.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on January 8, 2013 11:58 pm
Maybe we could just put some tape over HER mouth, like she did with her noisy students.
Submitted by Education Grad Student (not verified) on January 9, 2013 1:11 am
Lol. It's important to respect free speech rights, even if you disagree with the person.
Submitted by Sir Frederick Mercury (not verified) on January 10, 2013 11:03 pm
Speaking truth to power Ed Grad Student: Greetings Philadelphia and welcome to another addition Talkin’ Out of School. Our Sponsors for today’s show are Mastery Charter and The Rupert Murdock Foundation for Free and Democratic Schools. OK, let’s welcome in our first guest, educational authority and independent thinker, Christopher Paslay. Hi, Chris. Chris: Great to be here, Ed. I’m a big fan. Ed: Likewise. Critics might say that your writing is full of broad, sweeping generalizations, and that you frequently use statistics without attribution. What would you say to such critics? Chris: I take it as a compliment. Liberals, Socialists and Marxist frequently make the same accusations against Bill O’Reilly, Glen Beck and other leading intellectuals. I take a very fair and balanced approach and phooey on you if you don’t like it. Ed: I want to begin with a recent post on your fabulous Blog, . treatise that I would like to lecture on is a brilliant analysis of the PSD’s decision to distribute condoms to high school students. You are very critical of this policy, and suggest that abstinence is a more preferable approach. Here’s why I agree. When I was at Mastery there was a teacher who was very concerned about the lack of restraint among his/her students. In order to address these concerns s/he decided on a Do Now: h/she put pictures of hetero-normative Stars on the board. Straight Males were encouraged to imagine what they would like to do to or with either Pamela Sue Anderson, Beyonce or Rosie Perez. Straight Females chose among Leonardo Di Caprio, Chris Brown or Freddie Prinze Jr. Chis (cutting Ed off): And what, gays got Freddie Mercury or Rosie O’Donnell? See, this is what I mean. Once you start down the slippery slope of encouraging students to engage in mindless, promiscuous sex, you will eventually wind up with some liberal, politically correct, progressive approach, like multiculturalism, to solving this serious problem. These are the facts: 100% of all parents do NOT want their children having sex. As educators, do we have the right to force children into sexual behavior? Ed: Chris, I totally agree that students should not be having sex in schools. Anyway, so the teacher did the same activity for LGBTQ and asexual students. Then the class brainstormed proactive measures that they could take before acting on their fantasies. Some pulled out the bibles, others suffered anxiety seizures and texted their parents. Chris: As you know from reading my blog, my suggestion is to put poignant notes on the condoms, such as “Save me for that special someone.” Ed: I love that idea. When I was in Catholic school the Sisters would show us images of condoms that said “God will kill you and doom you to eternal Damnation if you use me. “ I can safely say that abortions at my school went down by at least 50% after that. Chris: And I bet those abortions were not provided by Planned Parenthood or Obama-care. That’s one thing we can learn from religious education, besides morals and values. We can learn the meaning of self-reliance. Maybe if young girls knew that they would have to get a job and pay for their own abortions they would be less likely to live the lifestyle of a Madonna or Paris Hilton. Ed: Agreed. Thanks, Chris. Anything on the horizon before we end today’s show? Chris: There is exciting new research coming from Fox News and The Heritage Foundation which proves that Multiculturalism is leading to decreased respect for religion and patriotism. Take Obama, for example. A reasonable person can safely assume that Obama learned to hate America because he didn’t have a real father (condoms, anyone??????????) and also because his parents took him to so many foreign countries when he was a young boy. The working title is Against Multiculturalism: If You Want to Study Your Own Culture Then Move Back to the Country You Came From. Ed: We’ll look forward to it. Allow me to leave you with this thought. We should all feel free to say whatever we want, no matter how uninformed or offensive, as long as we do it in civil tone. Good night and God bless.
Submitted by Dina (not verified) on January 9, 2013 1:12 pm
Absolutely agree!
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on January 8, 2013 7:59 pm
Next article: Lesson from Penny Nixon
Submitted by Dave (not verified) on January 8, 2013 7:10 pm
weary is right. why don't you do some real investigative work and uncover how the SRC is single handedly ruining public education in this city and find out who's in whose pocket. what goes on here is an absolute disgrace. or shed some light on the absurdness of these standardized tests that drive teacher instruction taking away valuable opportunities for children.
Submitted by Geoffrey (not verified) on January 8, 2013 10:57 pm
I am watching the show right now. It is great reality TV.
Submitted by lizzyann (not verified) on January 8, 2013 11:19 pm
I retired from teaching two years ago after teaching 45 years. I started in Kdgn in 1965 and after receiving my Master and 45 hours ended my career at a University as Director of the Library and professor of library science. Michelle has high expectations of teachers and principals that is really important. I don't believe you can judge teachers by test scores, it really encourages them to teach the test, not teach better. You really need to give teachers support from family, community and administration to give teachers everything they need to teach better. Some teachers shouldn't be teaching, they have given up on kids, but can you really "fire" teachers who do everything they can to teach effectively and still some children continue to fail? Principals can be effective when they have effective tools to promote good teachers and fail poor teachers. National Education Association and AFT American Federation of Teachers have worked for more effective evaluations and they all need to work together. Does Michelle have the right qualifications to judge teachers? I am not sure she has the right qualifications to judge all by herself which teachers are the most effective. Test cannot predict student sucess always.
Submitted by Education Grad Student (not verified) on January 8, 2013 11:01 pm
lizzyann, I like your comment: Does Michelle have the right qualifications to judge teachers? I am not sure she has the right qualifications to judge all by herself which teachers are the most effective. Test cannot predict student sucess always. Someone who is going to be evaluating teachers should have AT LEAST 5 years of teaching experience. How many years did Michelle Rhee teach? 2? 3? EGS
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on January 9, 2013 10:56 pm
Rhee lasted three years and then went into admistration. When the media tried to find out about her years as a teacher the info was no available. If Rhee truly wants teachers to follow her lead then let her teach under the same conditions and get the hotshot results herself. If she can do it then teachers might listen what she says to do. Until then she's just another deskwarmer playing politics.
Submitted by tom-104 on January 9, 2013 11:58 pm
The details about Rhee's career can be seen here: Click on footnote 8 for audio of her description of her class management skills. Note she does not have a degree in education, child pedagogy, or any other field which a professional has for teaching. What this article omits is that she has not been acting alone. She is on the Board of a leading promoter of privatization of public schools, the Broad Foundation, including when she was Chancellor of schools in Washington D.C.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on January 8, 2013 11:51 pm
Incompetence is a plague, nobody should have a job for life especially in education, education is #1 priority in a society, who care about your little job. The rest is not important. Nobody have the guts to do what need to be made.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on January 9, 2013 2:17 pm
Easy to say that when it is not your job...
Submitted by Ken Derstine on January 8, 2013 11:26 pm
Diane Ravitch's response to "The Education of Michelle Rhee:
Submitted by Education Grad Student (not verified) on January 8, 2013 11:45 pm
I like Diane's response. I love this paragraph that she writes: Rhee assumes that better test scores equal better education. She never once mentions literature or history or science or civics or foreign languages; she doesn’t talk about curriculum or instruction. She never calls out a teacher for poor instruction or a principal for a weak curriculum; she is interested only in the bottom line, and that is the scores. I wonder if Rhee would be okay with her children being judged based on their scores on a single standardized test. What kind of education does Rhee want for her own children? EGS
Submitted by Philly Parent and Teacher (not verified) on January 9, 2013 5:00 am
While in DC, her 2 (?) children went to Oyster-Adams public elementary school, a top DC school with a dual language immersion program. (So, now, she did not send them to their K-8 neighborhood school). Since she moved, I have no idea where her children go but I'm sure it is not a KIPP type school. Her ex-husband, also of TFA, now is head of the Dept. of Ed. in Tennessee ( This is a good commentary on the contradictions of Ms. Rhea - (I did not see the Frontline report so I do not know if the reporter asked Rhea any hard hitting questions.)
Submitted by Geoffrey (not verified) on January 9, 2013 8:33 am
Ms. Rhee rationalizes her draconian and uninformed leadership practices by claiming that she will only do what is best for children. This is, of course, a flagrant lie. As Philly Parent points out, Rhee sent her own children to schools with far greater resources than those schools featured on the show. It is hard to believe that schools like Oyster-Adams are subject to the relentless bullying that Rhee practiced against less privileged schools. As Ravitch points out, Rhee was ultimately a failure, and should be regarded for what she is - an ideologue serving the interests of the Far Right.
Submitted by Education Grad Student (not verified) on January 8, 2013 11:06 pm
Just watched The Education of Michelle Rhee. *Principal Darrin Slade said that he wrote up a teacher for sleeping and that teacher called the union on him. He went in and asked teachers for their lesson plans. Students said teachers stood at the door, gave them worksheets, and didn't teach.* This was an interesting segment. Why should any teacher be defended if he/she sleeps on the job? What do other teachers think about this? Teachers can have bad days, but sleeping when you should be giving instruction is totally unprofessional. *When Rhee talked about her students in Baltimore, she only talked about the difficult situations, the drug abuse and eating cereal out of the box for dinner.* Was that representative of all of her students? Did she have any students come from stable, married homes? Just because the children are poor and Black doesn't automatically mean that their families are dysfunctional. Yes, some do come from fragile families, but others come from stable families. I have interacted with many Black children from low-income families and some come from unstable homes, but others come from stable homes. It varies. Don't put all of the children in one box. *Michelle Rhee wore a lot of low cut blouses.* This may seem nit-picky, but I find that to be unprofessional. Your job is to be professional, not sexy. I may be in my 20s, but I'm old school about how one should dress. Cover up cleavage, skirt at or below the knee, no jeans. Wear comfortable slacks or pants instead of jeans. Kids should tuck in their shirts, wear the proper uniform. *A principal and 2 master teachers had to observe teachers under the IMPACT system.* I don't agree with the test score portion of the IMPACT system, but evaluations from principals and master teachers sounds like a good idea. It's good to have more than one set of eyes do the evaluations. *The DC CAS's purpose was to evaluate schools for NCLB data and serve as a diagnostic assessment. It was not designed for making decisions about teachers.* This brings into question the issue of construct validity, or does an assessment measure what it is intended to measure? If the DC CAS wasn't designed to measure teacher performance, it should not be used for that purpose. *George Parker, former WTU president - Evaluation should be used to grow and develop into good teachers.* This is true, but after a certain amount of unsatisfactory evaluations, especially from multiple evaluators, the evaluation should have consequences. *Rhee: Meet students where they are but don't let that be an excuse for them not achieving at the highest levels.* This is a contradictory statement. It's great to have high expectations, but high expectations will differ slightly for each student. Some children are more capable than others. Some students excel in math, but struggle in reading. Every child has strengths and weaknesses. Meeting expectations also takes time. It doesn't happen overnight. *She asked Caveon to do an investigation of cheating but didn't lay out the parameters for the investigation.* When you contract with someone to do a job, you outline what you want them to do in a contract, you give them a proposal or a work order or something like that. *She ignored City Council's decisions about summer school.* This was very undemocratic. No one is perfect. There has to be a system of checks and balances. She seemed to think that it was her way or no way. However, not taking other people's input is very dangerous. Everyone has weaknesses and these weaknesses can become glaring and unjust She seems to like bossing around people.... Education Grad Student
Submitted by tom-104 on January 9, 2013 12:43 am
From Wikipedia's biography of Michelle Rhee: "Inspired by a PBS special that she saw when she was a senior in college, Rhee signed up with Teach For America, went through their five week summer training program, then worked for three years as a teacher in Baltimore, Maryland.[4][6] She was assigned to Harlem Park Elementary School, one of the lowest-performing schools.[5] She had difficulty controlling her classroom the first year. She said the stress gave her hives. In a speech at the Columbia Heights Education Campus in Washington DC, Rhee said that she once put small pieces of masking tape on the children's mouths so they would be quiet on the way to the lunchroom and that, after removing the tape, skin came off their lips, they were bleeding and she had "thirty-five kids who were crying".[7][8] Rhee told Washingtonian magazine that she was demoralized by her first year of teaching, but said to herself, "I’m not going to let eight-year-old kids run me out of town". She said she took courses over the summer and received her teachers' certification, then returned to teach at Harlem Park.[4] Rhee's first year test scores showed a precipitous drop in her class: Average math percentile dropped from 64% to 17%. Average reading percentile dropped from 37% to 21%.[9]" Her speech at Columbia Heights Education Campus is here: From this clip it is clear she would not have survived as a teacher if she had a Michelle Rhee for a Chancellor.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on January 9, 2013 7:33 pm
Amazing. Ms. Rhee is the Anne Coulter of education.
Submitted by DaveA (not verified) on January 10, 2013 5:08 am
Wikipedia is not a proper source. The reference link within Wikipedia for Rhee's test scores is a chart created by a retired teacher in his personal blog. The blogger provides a deadlink for his source. Is the information true? It's possible. Is the information a fabrication? Just as possible. Without the citation of proper sources it is just not credible. If you are a teacher you should know better than to cite Wikipedia!
Submitted by Lawrence A. Feinberg (not verified) on January 9, 2013 6:07 am
Here it is if you missed Tuesday night's broadcast: Rhee-run: Watch Frontline’s “The Education of Michelle Rhee” PBS video runtime 53:40
Submitted by Ron Whitehorne on January 9, 2013 8:27 am

Diane Ravtich had it right about the Rhee legacy.    John Merrow did not ask hard questions or explore in any depth what many think is wrong with Rhee's notion of education reform.   He seems pretty much infatuated with her persona as a hard charging champion of children versus unions and entrenched interests.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on January 9, 2013 11:49 am
We watched the documentary. I disagree with Michelle Rhee's idea of student success. High test scores reflect only that students were prepared for the test. They do not in any way reflect the success of those students in school or in society as a whole. We are wasting valuable time and shortchanging kids because we are so focused on this foolishness.
Submitted by Joan Taylor on January 9, 2013 11:54 am
"Frontline is airing a documentary, by my friend John Merrow..." I wish Dale wouldn't mention who her personal friends are. It seems to constitute an editorial endorsement.
Submitted by Dale Mezzacappa on January 9, 2013 12:27 pm

I was trying to be transparent. If you know he's my friend, you can judge what I say accordingly.

Submitted by eileen difranco (not verified) on January 9, 2013 2:16 pm
It seems to me that those in the area of education are in the business of grasping at straws rather than really figuring out how to improve education. An unknown with little teaching experience rides her white horse into DC and announces that she can solve the problem of urban education. Shame on those who believed her. Shame on anyone who would showcase the merciless firing of a fellow human being. Shame on anyone who would believe that a school could make miraculous progress in one year. "Whatever it takes" and "It's for the children" are the buzzwords of zealots. It took a long time for the schools to have sunk to the level at which they are currently operating and it will take years for them to recover. Why not acknowledge this instead of offering up fairy tales that do little but breed mistrust? There is no one answer to the problem. There is no one policy that will work for everyone. There is no educational messiah who can singlehandedly save the schools. Shame on anyone who continues to believe this.
Submitted by Dina (not verified) on January 9, 2013 4:22 pm
Opportunity to Learn campaign has a great analysis of what's wrong with Rhee: 5 Ways Michelle Rhee's Report Puts Students Last.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on January 9, 2013 4:16 pm
I am so tired of carping over tests. Of course, no test is a perfect instrument. How is a battery of questions that probes math fundamentals flawed? Or an instrument that gauges reading comprehension? What, do these test overlook that student skilled in classic Greek? How sad. Oh, the hypocrisy. Those same folks decrying tests are scourging public schools for not making these budding scholars "college-bound." And how does the average student enter college, at least those without exceptional skills on the field or court? By taking any of several standardized tests. For an advanced degree, or professional school, more tests. For a certification as a mechanic, as an HVAC technician, as an electrician.... No doubt those teachers complaining loudest run their classrooms on a Summerhill model, eschewing the embarrassment of tests. Perhaps the real reason is fear of tests. Tests that might assess their own competence. There is no question the data: For years, Pennsylvania teacher graduates have been, on average, average students at best, with mediocre grades on tests.
Submitted by Terry Novak (not verified) on January 9, 2013 6:00 pm
Please check Michele Rhee's background. From the outset she comes from private, privileged background....not to say this is a bad thing, I went to private, catholic schools in Lakewood, Ohio, although not as private as Michele Rhee's schools, ie: Toledo Day School, Cornell and Harvard. The point is, that it is much easier to act the way she did in Washington D.C., when you come from that kind of background....and have something to fall back on....if it does not work out! I got fired by a person who came in and did the same kind of thing, and was from the same kind of background as Michelle Rhee, although it was in private business. I warned him not to screw around with my position even though I was the top salesman in the company and could prove it with all the numbers and client base, he would not listen, and you guessed it, he fired me and it cost the company a fortune through the lawsuit I filed, I was over 50 years old for crying out loud! Anyway, the lesson here is that sometimes you have to break a few eggs to make an omelette..... you just have to have the right chief doing the egg breaking...
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on January 9, 2013 11:43 pm
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on January 11, 2013 1:39 am
John Merrow has some interesting background about the Frontline documentary on his blog. Too bad most of this didn't make it on to the program:
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on February 3, 2013 11:50 pm
you are criticizing the woman who want to improve your system of education... how dare you!
Submitted by Ajay Jain (not verified) on March 14, 2013 2:16 pm
The Voting Rights Act (VRA) must be upheld by the supreme court: The numerous despicable attempts to restrict voting made during the last election cycle are proof of that. Anyone who truly believes the VRA is obsolete needs to recognize, given last year's voter suppression efforts, the Jim Crowe era is biding its time. Now even if you are dumb enough to believe that all is OK with the world and there are no reasons to have the voting rights act on the books. Then why are the the parties at opposite end's on this? Why are the Republicans in America trying to keep people from the poles ? The argument is that VRA is discriminatory against Southern states to require them but not other states to seek pre-clearance for voting laws; I actually agree. The Voting Rights Act should require *ALL* states to seek pre-clearance. After what we've seen the GOP try to pass in states all across the nation prior to the last 2012 election, I see no reason this safeguard against voter suppression should be limited to just Southern states as suggested by VRA of 1965 but now should be expanded to apply to ALL 50 states. Ajay Jain 1209 Creekwood Drive Garland TX 75044-2421
Submitted by Ajay Jain (not verified) on March 14, 2013 2:10 pm
Michelle Rhee - The famous former Washington DC School District Chancellor Michelle Rhee on OPRAH Michelle Rhee on abc's ThisWeek Michelle Rhee on The DailyShow with Jon Stewart FRONTLINE: The Education of Michelle Rhee Why Teach For America works - Michelle Rhee A Two-Tier Proposal for Teacher Pay - Michelle Rhee Time Magazine: Rhee Tackles Classroom Challenge,9171,1862444-2,00.html Michelle Rhee Discusses "Waiting for Superman," Charter Schools And Sch... Stanford University: A Conversation on "Waiting for Superman" "Radical" Fighting to Put Students First should be a must read for all members! Michelle Rhee's new book, "RADICAL: Fighting to Put Students First," is now in stores! For more information about where you can find it, to read an excerpt from the book, and to share your story about education in America visit the official site at or Michelle Rhee at the ACE 2011 Spring Luncheon Michelle Rhee and Kevin Johnson (4/20/11) Michelle A. Rhee 03.17.11 Cornell Alumni: Olin Lecture 2012: Michelle Rhee '92 Harvard Public Health: Michelle Rhee, Former Chancellor of Washington D.C. Public Schools Geoffrey Canada - Conversations at KCTS 9 Geoffrey Canada interviewed by Julian Bond: Explorations in Black Leadership ... "Waiting for Superman" the documentary and Bloomberg documentary "Risk Takers" Michelle Rhee should a required screening for all members. I saw them on Netflix and became an instant member of and Michelle Rhee follower. "Won't Back down" the movie is another example to screen to all members. Share the reasons you fight for education reform. Your story will inspire others to get involved. So tell us: Why are you working to put students first? Check out today's blog by StudentsFirst staffer Charity Hallman, "One size fits all, or so they said," on The Fordham Institute's "Education Gadfly Daily: FLYPAPER" blog. To view the Fordham study, "When Teachers Choose Pension Plans: The Florida Story," visit Watch MAKER videos on StudentFirst Founder Michelle Rhee visit
Submitted by tom-104 on March 14, 2013 3:41 pm
The antidote to this propaganda is here: "Who is Eli Broad and why does he want to destroy public education?
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on March 15, 2013 10:02 pm
Michelle, Is that you?
Submitted by Ajay Jain (not verified) on March 14, 2013 5:05 pm
tom-104 Michelle Rhee is doing good towards US Education and you will thank her when she becomes the Secretary of Education under President Hillary Clinton in 2016. Mark my words. March 14th 2013.

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