by John Merrow:
Michelle Rhee lobbies across the country for greater test-based accountability and changes in teacher tenure rules. She often appears on television and in newspapers, commenting on a great range of education issues. Easily America’s best-known education activist, she is always introduced as the former Chancellor of the public schools in Washington, DC, the woman who took on a corrupt and failing system and shook it up. The rest of the story is rarely mentioned.
The op-ed below has been rejected by four newspapers, three of them national publications. One editor’s rejection note said that Michelle Rhee was not a national story.
Today, too many of America’s children are not getting the quality education they need and deserve. StudentsFirst is helping to change that with common sense reforms that help make sure all students have great schools and great teachers.(StudentsFirst press release, emphasis added)
Michelle Rhee created StudentsFirst after leaving her post as Chancellor of Washington, DC’s Public Schools in the fall of 2010. She announced her intentions on “Oprah” that December: to fix America’s schools by enrolling one million members and raising one billion dollars.
Easily America’s most visible education activist, she has been crisscrossing the country lobbying for change and donating money to candidates whose policies she supports. StudentsFirst claims to have helped pass 110 ‘student-centered policies’ in 18 states.
Because Ms. Rhee is trying to persuade the rest of the country to do as she did in Washington, it’s worth asking what her ‘common sense reforms’ accomplished when she had free rein to do as she wished.
She was definitely in charge. Her boss, a popular new mayor, told his Cabinet that trying to block his Chancellor was a firing offense. The business community, a public fed up with school failure, and the editorial pages of The Washington Post were enthusiastic supporters. Moreover, she had virtually no opposition: the local school board had been abolished when the Mayor took over, and the teachers union, reeling from its own financial scandals, had an untested rookie president. She knew how lucky she was.
I’m living what I think education reformers and parents throughout this country have long hoped for, which is, somebody will just come in and do the things that they felt was in the best interest of children and everything else be damned. (Interview, fall 2007)
She lived that dream for 40 months. She opened schools on time, added social workers, beefed up art, music and physical education, and dramatically expanded preschool programs. The latter may represent her greatest success, because children who began their schooling in the expanded preschool program tend to do well on the system’s standardized test in later years.
Ms. Rhee made her school principals sign written guarantees of test score increases. It was “Produce or Else” for teachers too. In her new system, up to 50% of a teacher’s rating was based on test scores, allowing her to fire teachers who didn’t measure up, regardless of tenure. To date, nearly 600 teachers have been fired, most because of poor performance ratings. She also cut freely elsewhere–closing more than two-dozen schools and firing 15% of her central office staff and 90 principals.
When Ms. Rhee departed in October 2010, her deputy, Kaya Henderson, took over. She has stayed the course for the most part, although test scores now make up–at most–35% of a teacher’s rating score.
Some of the bloom came off the rose in March 2011 when USA Today reported on a rash of ‘wrong-to-right’ erasures on standardized tests and the Chancellor’s reluctance to investigate. With subsequent tightened test security, Rhee’s dramatic test scores gains have all but disappeared. Consider Aiton Elementary: The year before Ms. Rhee arrived, 18% of Aiton students scored proficient in math and 31% in reading. Scores soared to nearly 60% on her watch, but by 2012 both reading and math scores had plunged more than 40 percentile points.
But it’s not just the test scores that have gone down. Six years after Michelle Rhee rode into town, the public schools seem to be worse off by almost every conceivable measure.
For teachers, DCPS has become a revolving door. Half of all newly hired teachers (both rookies and experienced teachers) leave within two years; by contrast, the national average is understood to be between three and five years. Veterans haven’t stuck around either. After just two years of Rhee’s reforms, 33% of all teachers on the payroll departed; after 4 years, 52% left.
It has been a revolving door for principals as well. Ms. Rhee appointed 91 principals in her three years as chancellor, 39 of whom no longer held those jobs in August 2010. Some chose to leave; others, on one-year contracts, were fired for not producing quickly enough. Several schools are reported to have had three principals in three years.
Child psychiatrists have long known that, to succeed, children need stability. Because many of the District’s children face multiple stresses at home and in their neighborhoods, schools are often that rock. However, in Ms. Rhee’s tumultuous reign, thousands of students attended schools where teachers and principals were essentially interchangeable parts, a situation that must have contributed to the instability rather than alleviating it.
Although Ms. Rhee removed about 100 central office personnel in her first year, the central office today is considerably larger, with more administrators per teachers than any of the districts surrounding DC. In fact, the surrounding districts reduced their central office staff, while DC’s grew. The greatest growth in DCPS over the years has been in the number of central office employees making $100,000 or more per year, from 35 when she arrived to 99 at last count.
Per pupil expenditures have gone up sharply, from $13,830 per student to $17,574, an increase of 27%, compared to 10% inflation in the Washington-Baltimore region. So have teacher salaries; DC teachers now earn on average more than their counterparts in nearby districts in Virginia and Maryland.
Enrollment declined on Ms. Rhee’s watch and has continued under Ms. Henderson, as families continue to enroll their children in charter schools or move to the suburbs. The year before she arrived, DCPS had 52,191 students. In school year 2012-13 it enrolled about 45,000, a loss of roughly 13%.
Even students who have remained seem to be voting with their feet, because truancy in DC is a “crisis” situation, and Washington’s high school graduation rate is the lowest in the nation. The truancy epidemic may be the most telling data point of all, because if young people in this economy are not going to school, something is very wrong. They are not skipping school to work–because there are no jobs for unskilled youth.
Ms. Rhee and her admirers point to increases on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, an exam given every two years to a sample of students under the tightest possible security. And while NAEP scores did go up, they rose in roughly the same amount as they had under her two immediate predecessors, and Washington remains at or near the bottom on that national measure.
The most disturbing effect of Ms. Rhee’s reform effort is the widening gap in academic performance between low-income and upper-income students, a meaningful statistic in Washington, where race and income are highly correlated. On the most recent NAEP test (2011) only about 10% of low-income students in grades 4 and 8 scored ‘proficient’ in reading and math. Since 2007, the performance gap has increased by 29 percentile points in 8th grade reading, by 44 in 4th grade reading, by 45 in 8th grade math, and by 72 in 4th grade math. Although these numbers are also influenced by changes in high- and low-income populations, the gaps are so extreme that is seems clear that low-income students, most of them African-American, generally did not fare well during Ms. Rhee’s time in Washington.
English Language Learners in Washington’s schools are also struggling. Title III of ESEA requires progress on three distinct measures: progress, attainment and what ‘No Child Left Behind’ calls ‘adequate yearly progress.’ DC failed on two out of three last year.
DC doesn’t fare well in national comparisons either. Between 2005 and 2011, black 8th graders in large urban districts gained five points in reading, while their DCPS counterparts lost two points, according to a study by the DC Institute of Public Policy released this spring. Between 2005 and 2011 in large, urban districts, Hispanic eighth-graders gained six points in reading (from 243 to 249), black eighth-graders gained five points (from 240 to 245), and white eighth-graders gained three points (from 270 to 273). In District of Columbia Public Schools, however, Hispanic eighth-graders’ scores fell 15 points (from 247 to 232), black eighth-graders’ scores fell two points (from 233 to 231), and white eighth-graders’ scores fell 13 points (from 303 to 290).
The states that have adopted her approach, and others now being lobbied, might want to make their own data-driven decisions.
That’s the op-ed you didn’t get to read elsewhere. Perhaps you will share it with friends, colleagues and any editors you might be acquainted with.
Roughly 50% of DC students are now scoring at a ‘proficient’ level, a significant improvement over 2007, the year before Rhee arrived; however, a closer examination of the data suggests that the increase may be largely attributable to changes in the socio-economic status of the student body and to growth in charter school enrollment (now over 40%). (The data [.pdf])
For example, take a look at the individual schools plagued by excessively high ‘wrong to right’ erasures rates on the DC-CAS during Rhee’s tenure: At Aiton, the school referenced in the unpublished op-ed, DC-CAS scores went down again, from 19.1% in 2012 to 15.9% in 2013. That composite math/reading score is below Aiton’s performance level before Rhee’s appointment.
At Noyes Education Campus, the epicenter of the erasure scandal, scores continued to decline, from 32.4% to 29.8%.
Ron Brown Middle School declined from 27.1% to 24.7%;
Shaw’s scores fell from 32.3% to 28.6%;
Garrison Elementary dropped an astonishing 15.9 percentile points, from 47.8% to 31.9%;
And at Dunbar High School, once the District’s flagship high school, DC-CAS scores went from 23.7% to 17.3%. Most of those high school students have probably been in the DC schools for their entire academic careers, and, as they prepare to leave school for the adult world, only 17.3% are ‘proficient’ in reading and math. And DC’s graduation rate remains at the bottom nationally, while dropout and truancy rates remain unacceptably high.
Spin it as energetically as they wish, Mayor Gray, Chancellor Henderson and former Chancellor Rhee cannot run from these numbers.
School failure in the Nation’s Capital is national news. Covering up failure is also a national story. Urging other states and districts to “do as we did in Washington” is rank hypocrisy.
Footnotes (↵ returns to text)
1. There seems to be a pattern. Earlier this year, a meticulously researched and painstakingly footnoted exposé called “Michelle Rhee’s Reign of Error” was rejected by a national magazine and two national newspapers. I suspect the mainstream media is ignoring this version of the Michelle Rhee story because it doesn’t fit the popular narrative of school reform, which asserts that extraordinary “Produce or Else” pressure on principals and teachers is the best way to improve schools.↵
2. She seems to have fallen well short. Last year she raised just over $28 million. Students First doesn’t release membership numbers but is rumored to count anyone who responds to prompts on its website as a ‘member.’↵
From; Taking Notes - Thoughts on Education. John Merrow.