Ruh Roh

This WaPo article in my morning email caught my eye: Request For Review Of D.C. Tests Languished

…The analysis was commissioned last summer by then-State Superintendent Deborah A. Gist after more than 20 public and public charter schools showed gains of 20 points or more in reading or math proficiency on D.C. Comprehensive Assessment System (DC-CAS) tests.

The study of student answer sheets, conducted by the test’s publisher, CTB McGraw-Hill, eventually “flagged” classrooms in more than 40 schools because the number of wrong answers changed to right answers was significantly above the citywide average.

Aside from the cheating, why is this so important? Because the powers-that-be are pointing to D.C. as a model for the rest of the nation to increase student learning.

The high-stakes tests are used by the federal government to assess the yearly academic progress of schools under the No Child Left Behind law. The results from the 2007-08 academic year, Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee’s first full year in office, were touted by Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) as evidence of early progress in her efforts — closely watched by urban education reform advocates nationwide — to transform the struggling 45,000-student system.

The percentage of public elementary students demonstrating proficiency rose an average of 11 points in math and eight points in reading; among public secondary students, the percentages increased by nine points in reading and math. Teachers and administrators at public schools received cash awards if proficiency levels increased by 20 points or more in both reading and math.

Michelle Rhee…if that name isn’t familiar to you, it should be. Somerby was all over this woman’s “miracles” two years ago when the D.C. city council was considering bringing her on as Schools Chancellor. Writing of her first educational “miracle” in Baltimore when she was just fresh out of college (1992-95):

A bit more background is called for. In the following passage, Stewart summarizes Rhee’s three-year teaching career at Baltimore’s Harlem Park Elementary (roughly a mile from our own sprawling campus). Rhee arrived in the fall of 1992, straight out of college:

STEWART: From 1992 to 1995, Rhee taught at Baltimore’s Harlem Park Elementary, one of the worst-performing schools in the city and among nine schools run by a private company, Education Alternatives. During her first year there, she taught second grade. In her final two years there, she received approval to teach the same group of students in second and third grades.

In an interview, Rhee said the improved scores were seen in a comparison of results on the California Comprehensive Test of Basic Skills, which students took at the end of first grade before she had them and at the end of third grade.

In short, Rhee taught at Harlem Park for three years, starting at age 22 or 23. (This represents her entire teaching experience.) In her first year, she taught second grade. She then taught a group of kids for two consecutive years, covering second and third grades. These are the kids who recorded the test scores which are now being questioned. And yes, the alleged score gains are so phenomenal that obvious questions should be asked.

Let’s make this simple: According to that claim on Rhee’s resume, a group of kids at one of Baltimore’s lowest-performing schools recorded phenomenal levels of achievement at the end of third grade. Ninety percent of these students scored at the 90th percentile or higher (presumably, that’s in reading and/or math). In a wealthy suburban school district, that would be a remarkable record—one a principal ought to verify. In a school like Harlem Park, it would be an educational miracle—a revolution. About those test scores, we’ll only ask this:

Did anyone at Harlem Park really believe that those test scores were real? If so, Michelle Rhee should have been arrested and held for further study. If those deserving Harlem Park kids really did achieve at those levels, a young teacher had authored an educational miracle; she had somehow managed to solve a heart-breaking, decades-long educational puzzle. The school should have been crawling with researchers, trying to figure out what she’d done.

There’s more!  The next day Somerby writes:

It looks like The Narrative of the Miracle Cure will live to bamboozle a new generation. Did Michelle Rhee—Mayor Fenty’s choice to head the DC public schools—really produce that miracle cure at Harlem Park Elementary School, back in the mid-1990s? (See THE DAILY HOWLER, 7/2/07.) Based on yesterday’s city council meeting, it seems we may never find out. (More on that at the end of the week.) But so what? According to the Post’s Nikita Stewart, the council got to hear about another of Rhee’s endless inspiring cures:

STEWART (7/3/07): Former NBA star Kevin Johnson, who personally called nearly all 13 council members last week, flew from California to tell council members yesterday that Rhee is a hands-on executive who works round-the-clock. He credited her with helping to turn around Sacramento High School, where he said 80 percent of the first graduating class under the nonprofit group’s control was accepted into four-year colleges. Four years earlier, the rate was 20 percent, Johnson said.

Rhee “helped” turn around Sacramento High, Johnson said. For ourselves, we admire Johnson for the work he has done at his formerly floundering alma mater; it was considered one of the worst high schools in California when he took it charter in the fall of 2003. But as the Sacramento Bee explained last year, Sac High’s academic improvement “is unquestionably attributable to a number of factors, including shifting enrollment as the school, amid much controversy, went to a charter foundation” (our emphasis). Indeed, the state of California ranks Sacramento High slightly below average among California high schools “with similar demographic profiles.”

Wow! Rhee just goes from school district to school district waving her magic wand. And no one questions it. Somerby goes on to chastise the credulous press corp who accept these miracle stories and spread them gleefully.

But then, the nation’s journos—like other elites—simply adore this narrative. It has driven coverage of urban schools at least since the mid-1960s, when we ourselves read about miracle cures in the feel-good urban educational literature of that hopeful era. Such “miracle cures” are typically myths; for example, Rhee’s test score claims are most likely fake, and her resume includes claims about the “acclaim” she won from the nation’s media that are flatly bogus. But so what? The nation’s elites are in love with this harmful narrative—and city councils aren’t willing to fight it.


But the narrative of the miracle cure seems to be surviving this week. For reasons we will explain, we doubt that Rhee produced the test scores she has bruited about—the test scores which helped her gain a crucial job, for which she may or may not be prepared. But so what! They make the nation’s elites feel good. And they help our nation’s darlings land jobs, big jobs with exciting new salaries.

Back to the current story. Rhee’s name pops up again.

A spreadsheet summary of the CTB McGraw-Hill study shows that Bowen Elementary in Southwest Washington was one of schools where test results improved dramatically in 2008. The percentage of children showing proficiency in reading grew by 27 points, from 36.2 to 63.2 percent. The 34 students in one class averaged more than 10 wrong-to-right erasures on the exam. The citywide average for wrong-to-right erasures on the reading test in elementary grades was between 1.4 and 2.3, according District officials.

Some schools with only modest gains in 2008 also had high rates of wrong-to-right erasures. At Bruce-Monroe Elementary School at Parkview in Northwest, where the reading proficiency level edged up from 40.5 to 42.5, the 17 students in one third-grade class had 223 wrong-to-right erasures, an average of 13 per student.

The research scientist who led the McGraw-Hill study, Steve Ferrara, recommended in a March 2009 memo that the superintendent’s office “not draw conclusions about cheating” from the data. That recommendation was at least part of the basis for the decision by Gist’s successor, Kerri L. Briggs, not to press the matter with Rhee.

In an interview Thursday, Rhee said: “Given that the people who actually developed the test said that it was inconclusive, we just didn’t think it was necessary” to investigate possible cheating.

Really? Not necessary? How about a basic curiosity? Wouldn’t you want to know if your “method” was the cause for these improved test scores? Wouldn’t you want to rule out anything else?  A recommendation “not to draw conclusions” is not necessarily an admonition to not to investigate further. There could be other reasons why so many wrong-right answers were popping up, so one would think that further investigation would be necessary,  which is exactly the line of thinking Gist followed.

… In a Nov. 20, 2008, memo to Rhee, Gist said the data did not automatically point to cheating. “There are many reasons that a class could have more erasures than other classes,” she wrote.

But to guarantee the validity of the scores, she asked Rhee to “please take the appropriate steps to investigate the results enclosed and provide a report” within 60 days.

Got that? The outgoing Superintendent asked Rhee to investigate the anomalies and it appears she did not.

Somerby, ever the dog with the proverbial bone, writes about Rhee’s browbeating supervisory style as Chancellor  (Nov 21, 2007):

Interesting! You mean there are tenth-grade students at Anacostia High who are reading on traditional third-grade level? And you mean their teachers don’t have appropriate, readable textbooks to give them—textbooks they can actually read and learn from? We cheered Balton, and agreed with her final statement—you should address the needs of these students’ souls. But you should also address their need for textbooks—readable textbooks, lots of such textbooks, dealing with appropriate topics. Anacostia High doesn’t have such books, if Balton can be believed. And she can.

When we taught in Baltimore’s public schools (mostly fifth grade), we were struck by this problem above all others (and by its near-relations). Indeed, we wrote about this groaning, unaddressed problem in the Baltimore Sun more than 25 years ago! (Excerpts below.) We were struck by Merrow’s report Monday night because Balton made such a spot-on observation—and because Rhee seemed to have no earthly idea about how to help students improve.

Throughout this program, Rhee didn’t say a single world about ways to improve DC’s instruction—by providing readable textbooks, for instance. Instead, her basic theory was defined by a succession of threats. Merrow opened with a creepy sequence. We seemed to see Rhee, on videotape, firing an unidentified principal:

MERROW: In Washington, D.C., the new leader of the public schools is putting her house in order.

RHEE (videotape, apparently speaking with principal): The bottom line is I don’t believe that you are going to be the leader who is going to take this school in the direction that we need it to go in and have the highest expectations for the kids.

MERROW: Michelle Rhee spent the first weeks of the school year meeting one-on-one with all 156 principals under her charge.

RHEE (speaking to Merrow): In any other sector, employees are expected to meet certain outcomes or deliverables, and everybody knows that if you don’t meet those numbers, you go. That’s what we’re creating.

RHEE (videotape): No. I’m terminating your principalship now.

MERROW: Any compassion?

RHEE: Compassion? I think that when you’re doing the kind of work that I’m doing in public education, where the lives and futures of children hang in the balance, you can’t play with that.

We’ll go along with that. But if the lives of children hang in the balance, what does it mean when you hire a chancellor who shows no sign of knowing how to improve their instruction?

Rhee’s whole theory seems to be this: As chancellor, she will threaten the teachers and principals—and they will then provide better “deliverables.” This is based on a tired old theory—the theory that teachers aren’t doing their best as things currently stand. This is a deeply cynical theory, offered here by a superintendent who seems to lack instructional ideas of her own. I will threaten the others, Rhee says. They will figure out what to do.

Nice work—if you can get overpaid for it.

In fact, this has always been the one-stop theory of urban education—a theory in which teachers are scape-goated. Back in the 60s, we were told this: Kids are failing in urban schools because the teachers are a bunch of racists. When it turned out that the teachers in a lot of our urban schools were black, we were told a second story: Kids are failing because the teachers aren’t trying. Rhee seemed to be working from that second theory all through Monday’s report.

Today, Rhee is stamping her feet at Washington’s teachers, assuming they’ll rush off and solve their schools’ problem. But, to cite just one basic problem, these teachers can’t produce their own readable textbooks. Gloria Balton cited a problem—but Balton has no way to fix it. Rhee would be able to address such a problem—but her mind seems to be somewhere else.

We groaned when DC hired Rhee despite her highly implausible resumé. Later, we saw her do an hour with Brian Lamb; we were very impressed by her leadership attitude. But on Monday, we seemed to have Rhee the Terrible she assumes that teachers just haven’t been trying—and that they’ll finally roll up their sleeves if she just scares them enough. But guess what? If your students are reading on third grade level, you really can’t give them good instruction if your textbooks are written on tenth-grade reading level! Monday night, Rhee showed no sign of knowing that—or much else, except the uses of fear.

So Rhee threatens the principals, who, one could justifiably assume, probably went back to their schools and brought the same hammer down on their teachers. It’s not beyond the realm of possibility to consider that a teacher or principal so threatened would consider cheating. And Rhee, apparently so sure that her “method” is effective cannot seem to see that. Or doesn’t want to. It would screw up the narrative.