Michelle Rhee, Back in the News in a Big Way

I'm looking forward to this evening's episode of FRONTLINE, which will explore evidence of adult tampering with children's tests in certain Washington, DC public schools during the chancellorship of Michelle Rhee, who is perhaps the nation's most controversial school reformer. The allegations are not new. They were first revealed nearly two years ago by my colleague Greg Toppo and his crack reporting team at USA Today, which used a computer algorithim to comb through reams of data, and found a national pattern of manipulated standardized test scores in the wake of No Child Left Behind, which greatly increased test-score pressure on schools and districts. Tonight's documentary, however, reported by John Merrow, will delve more deeply into Rhee's efforts to evade a thorough investigation of statistically implausible test score gains. In a preview interview with the Education Writers' Association, Merrow judges Rhee harshly. "The record is pretty clear that D.C. schools are not better because she was there," he says. "They’re still at the bottom, with the lowest graduation rate in the country."

The FRONTLINE report is especially timely as it comes just a day after Rhee's national advocacy organization, Students First, released a "report card" grading states on how closely they align with Rhee's agenda of tying teacher evaluation and pay to student test scores; weakening teacher tenure; transitioning teachers from traditional pension to 401(k) plans; funding charter schools and private school vouchers; instituting mayoral and state control of schools; and expanding the charter school sector and holding it accountable for results. Doug Henwood notes that states with high grades on the report card, including Louisiana and Florida, have woefully poor student academic achievement, while Massachusetts, with the highest math and reading scores in the nation, earned a D+ from Students First. This is true, but as Matt Yglesias writes, most of Rhee's favored policies are too new to be conclusively judged; the proof will be in the pudding a decade from now, when we can track what effect, if any, school choice and test-score based accountability policies have had on gold-standard NAEP test scores over time. 

That said, Rhee's most influential effort, her push to tie teacher pay and job security to individual students' standardized test scores, is the one element of this agenda for which we already have some powerful, and disturbing evidence, thanks to the investigations of USA Today and FRONTLINE. As I've reported, psychometricians, the scientists who study testing, have been warning for decades that when policy-makers attach ever-higher stakes to tests–first accountability measures targeting schools and districts, and now job security threats for individual principals and teachers–the reliability of test scores is compromised, sometimes due to teaching-to-the-test, and sometimes due to outright cheating. This consistent finding has crucial implications for "value-added measurement," the method, promoted by economists, of using standaridzed test scores as the major proxy for teacher quality and student learning. If we are concerned, as Matt is, about so much economic modeling being backed by poor data, we must deal with the implications this has for education policy. In my 2012 year-in-review, I talk a bit more about what all this means for education research; I want to emphasize that raising concerns about value-added measurement does not mean one is reflexively "anti-testing," it simply means that one is questioning the wisdom of tying high stakes to tests.

Before I leave the subject of Michelle Rhee, it's worth noting that Students First has had a very difficult time coming up with a consistent position on the rights of teachers to collectively bargain, even just for pay.  (Most recently, it seems that they are against collective bargaining — for everyone.) Now, as Joy Resmovits reports at the Huffington Post, many of the well-connected Democrats who worked for Rhee have left her team, and are being replaced by former staffers from Americans Elect, a hedge fund-backed effort to elect third-party independents. 

I'm not questioning Rhee's personal commitment to certain progressive aims. I was impressed, for example, with her genuine efforts to better integrate public schools in rapidly-gentrifying DC neighborhoods, by working hard to convince college-educated parents to enroll their kids in local schools. But as her career advances nationally, she is more and more allying with Republican, even Tea Party-type conservative governors and state legislators. I'm midway through writing a book on the history of American education, and from this vantage point, I'm very skeptical about relying upon an anti-government political movement–one almost totally indifferent to social and economic inequality–to invest in and improve the schools poor children attend.

3 thoughts on “Michelle Rhee, Back in the News in a Big Way

  1. Bruce William Smith

    I am totally committed to improving opportunities for poor children to attend better schools, and to fundamentally changing the unequal educational opportunities in our ghettos; but as I’ve written on numerous occasions, superior ghetto schools will not solve America’s problems. Perhaps we should prioritize turning around the bottom quintile of schools, or the bottom quintile of neighbourhoods; but that can only form a part of a more comprehensive national strategy to ensure our continuing competitiveness in the 21st century; and America’s strategy should only form a portion of a more comprehensive strategy to create a better world.

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  2. James

    “This is true, but as Matt Yglesias writes, most of Rhee’s favored policies are too new to be conclusively judged; the proof will be in the pudding a decade from now, when we can track what effect, if any, school choice and test-score based accountability policies have had on gold-standard NAEP test scores over time.”

    This is a good response to the criticism that Rhee gives the highest grades to low-performing states, but it can’t answer for states like Vermont and Massachusetts, which Rhee grades poorly despite their being among the highest-scoring on national tests.

    Implicit in Rhee’s criticism of these states, given her organization’s name, is that those states’ policies don’t put “students first”—and given that those states she gives poor grades are those that have kept the traditional public education system in place, it would suggest that at the very least, Rhee misunderstands the problems with education.

    In other words, in states like Massachusetts and Vermont, their education policies *have* been given time to work—and the evidence shows that despite having never implemented Rhee’s proposed policy changes, they are among the best in the nation. I think that is a much more damning indictment of Rhee’s policy proposals than low-performing states that get high grades from Rhee.

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  3. Peter Dodington

    Dana, you have so many good ideas about public education, why not take it to another level, and start working on some tasks that will actually improve all the schools in the long run. After 30 years in public education, I have come to realize that there is no improvement possible under our state-run system. We have to eventually change to a national one, like the rest of the world, or we will always be stuck in the mediocre status quo.
    Answer me this: Why is it that we do not call any of our government or college programs “departments of public education,” like we call them “public health” or “public safety”? Isn’t it because everyone knows, deep down, that public education in this country doesn’t work? The states are supposed to be in charge of it, but they cannot do the job. Their graduates move away too often to make it reasonable for them to ever educate anyone above an average level. The people who pay for the education in any one state are not getting a full benefit from this support, so they will never fund excellent schools. A national system would solve this, and allow the system to improve.
    So, fine, you say, but no one will ever do away with state control of public ed. I don’t believe that. Stranger things have happened. Anyway, it is time to try. I have more arguments at nationalpubliceducation.com.

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