Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Grading School Reformers: Michelle Rhee and the Miracle of Rising Test Scores

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.


  1. This post brings to mind a quote I once heard from Bertrand Russell, "It has been said that man is a rational animal. All my life I have been searching for evidence which could support this." This whole standardize test fetish that has gripped the nation is completely insane. As a student who went through the "rigorous standards" of the OGT that are put in place to ensure quality of our nation's posterity, I can honestly say that the test actually had little to nothing to do with useful information. This test, which is designed to show whether or not a student is ready to move onto the next level of education, is a joke compared to the already institutionalized ACT and SAT, a prerequisite for college. The material OGT covers is not anywhere near enough to constitute an education, because true education cannot be really quantified on paper. Concepts like understanding ethics, what really hard work is, and how to deal with the hand life dealt you. Not to mention the fact that making another standardize test is redundant and a waste of money. As a college student, I don't pretend to know the solution to the problem, but as Einstein once stated that true insanity lies in doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. As a country, we cannot afford to keep repeating the mistakes of our past. So, Mr Viall, you can count on at least one former student who considers himself a conservative to vote against SB 5.

  2. The problem is, OUR version of Democracy, which sucks. Our democracy loves using numbers, which get fudged, as any Cop under Comstat can tell you. Education, what can you measure? Duh! Test Scores! The ENTIRE problem is that test scores are the only thing politicians can point to, to attack incumbents and gain election, or to keep tenure as a success in their choice of head of schools. Therefore, teachers suffer. Just like Cops suffer the ridiculous demands of COMSTAT. One more burglary than last year, fire all the higher ups in that precinct. So the higher ups crap all over the beat cops, 90% of whom hate their jobs because of it. Theyre not the good guys, they're the harrassment force, endlessly writing summonses for waste of time infractions, and arresting the hell out of people in politically powerless precincts. Lock everybody up!

    1. And Im a teacher. There was a great show about this called "The Wire" on HBO about Baltimore, which showed it all for anybody to understand. The school system, the war on drugs, its all in that show. Its every American City, although Baltimores problems are worst than most, the necessities of being elected, when the public can only understand simple things like arrests, murders, and test scores, this is the result.

  3. The Amazing thing is: This is mostly for poor districts, this whole problem. Middle class Public schools do GREAT on scores. Of course they do!! Same teachers, same colleges, different families that dont have the problems we deal with. And all this "reform" is just destroying it more, its hard enough to teach in a poor neighborhood, but you TRULY have to be stupid to start a career in teaching dangerous neighborhoods when reformers want to fire you, for basically, having kids with high needs, who wont score as high. One of my students is addicted to heroin, another is on medication for Schizophrenia, and neither is 'special needs'. My stats WILL be awful in that class, even though Im the most popular teacher with the most interested students in the building. Which is why my union will fight these reforms to our deaths, as these reforms mean the death of Public Educator as a viable career path for anyone. Were too invested in it, Our lives get destroyed with these reforms, because we were stupid enough to choose public service.

  4. If you are young and thinking about teaching, think twice. If you dont have a connection to a middle class school, your looking at a thankless job of student hostility, administrative hostility, and political hostility. YOUR the reason kids are poor. Your the bad teacher in the bad school, if they just tortured you enough, youd turn them into harvard graduates. Thats the logic of "Educational Reform" pretty much summarized. And when we argue that we shouldnt be held accountable for what our students bring with them, the things we counsel them on, were called "Lazy Good for nothings" who work 10 months a year and the city is "failing our kids" by continuing to suffer our employment, and continuing to pay us as much as teachers in lily white perfect districts. Youve been warned.