THE BIG BUZZ, OR IS IT THE BIG PILE OF B.S. in education reform today is accountability. We are going to hold teachers accountable. We are going to hold their feet to the flames and maybe their grading hands and make them raise standards.
We are going to test students until they're dizzy. And we are going to fire the bad teachers if pupils score low for any reason whatsoever. Then everything wrong in education and in the lives of children will miraculously go away.
That may sound simplistic but that's pretty much the message today. Arne Duncan is for standardized testing and tying teacher pay to test results.Michelle Rhee is for it. President George W. Bush was for it. President Obama thinks it will help. Ohio Governor John Kasich is emphatically for testing-tied-to-merit pay. In fact, it's hard to find a great mind in education reform now who isn't sure testing is The Cure.
Everyone seems to feel that we need to hold teachers accountable for everything. Low test scores. Childhood obesity. The increase in teen pregnancy.
Yeah: and don't forget the sinking of the Titanic.
Then again, maybe we should start holding our reformers accountable. Let's start with Michelle Rhee, a woman who has become a brand name in education reform. There are times when it seems she's all show and no substance, a fraud really, akin to a shill who pushes penis enhancement pills on late-night tv. Rhee has made grandiose claims about her own success in a classroom but abandoned the classroom after three years to climb the bureaucratic ladder. Eventually she rose high enough to run the Washington, D. C. schools.
WHAT HAPPENED DURING THE THREE YEARS she ran the city's schools? Well: she fired a lot of teachers. Hundreds. Yet, getting rid of those "rejects" at the front of the room proved no magic fix. Attendance rates for students fell from 91% in 2006-07 to 88% by 2008-09. Or, put another way, the average D. C. student was staying home 21.6 days per year.
Graduation rates did rise; but SAT scores fell from 1217 (the D. C. web page had a mistake and said 1271) to 1196 in those years. It was decline across the boards: down 9 points in reading to 405, down 7 in math to 392, down 5 in writing to 399. Apparently, the penis-enhancement pills weren't working.
Then again: maybe they were. While Rhee ran the schools standardized test scores, so beloved by reformers, soared. Crosby S. Noyes Education Campus went from 10% of students "proficient" or "advanced" in math in 2006 to 58% in two years. Amazing success!!! Way to go, Michelle Rhee!!! In 2009, Noyes was one of 264 schools across the country to win a prestigious National Blue Ribbon School award.
Naturally, Rhee was thrilled and made the school Exhibit A in her campaign for reform. Twice, in 2008 and 2010, she awarded teachers at Noyes (which serves preschoolers through eighth grade) $8,000 bonuses. Wayne Ryan, the principal at the school was awarded $10,000 both times.
Unfortunately, these stunning improvements were more "saw-the-lady-in-the-box-in-half" trickery than actual progress. An investigation by USA Today revealed that many high performing schools in Rhee's district had "extraordinarily high numbers of erasures on standardized tests. The consistent pattern was that wrong answers were erased and changed to right ones."
The pattern showed up in 103 schools, more than half of all buildings in Rhee's district. And in 2009, seventh-graders in one class at Noyes averaged 12.7 wrong-to-right erasures on the reading test when the average, citywide, was less than 1.
That's penis-enhancement-type success, and while teachers who were fired for low test scores looked for new careers, Rhee was busy touting her success and calling for greater reforming zeal.
So what happened in the meantime? The D. C. schools won another $75 million in the "Race to the Top" program run by Arne Duncan, because Duncan loves testing measures. Ryan has been featured in recruitment advertisements by Rhee's old district, calling him "one of the shining stars of DCPS" and a man known for his "unapologetic focus on instruction." Applicants for administrative posts are asked: "Are you the next Wayne Ryan?"
SOON THE OFFICE OF THE STATE SUPERINTENDENT OF EDUCATION began to catch a whiff of something fishy and recommended investigation. Top D. C. school officials balked and dragged their feet. The State Superintendent's office asked McGraw-Hill to examine test results at 96 D. C. schools, including 8 of 10 buildings which won TEAM awards from Rhee "to recognize, reward and retain high-performing educators and support staff." Based on rising scores in 2007 and 2008, more than $1.5 million in bonuses were paid out. McGraw-Hill found that three award-winning schools had wrong-to-right erasure rates that raised red flags about cheating in 85% of classrooms. After 2009 the district hired an outside investigator to examine eight schools, including Noyes, and test scores plunged. A second investigation, after tests were completed in 2010 found 41 schools, including Noyes again, had at least one classroom with unusually high numbers of erasures.
Even parents were getting suspicious.
The head of the teachers' union called Rhee's push for testing and linking scores and teacher pay an academic Ponzi scheme. Mary Lord, a member of a board which has only power to advise the D. C. schools, puts it succinctly: "You've handed out these big bonuses. What are you going to do? Take them back? It's a bombshell. It's embarrassing."
Ryan declined to speak with reporters for the story but has since been promoted to instructional superintendent in the D. C. schools.
WHEN RHEE WAS REACHED BY PHONE she told the USA Today reporter she was no longer chancellor of the D. C. schools and passed on a chance to comment.
If you follow Rhee's career you know what a rarity that is. Normally Michelle Rhee loves to talk. In fact, her favorite topic is Michelle Rhee.
D. C. officials also refused comment. They refused to let reporters visit the schools or talk to principals, including Adell Cothorne, the new leader at Crosby S. Noyes Education Campus.
As for Rhee, she's still a leading voice in the charge for education reform. She's still an advocate of testing. She still believes teachers should be held accountable and fired if scores are low.
She's still selling penis-enhancement pills.