Live By The Sword, Die By The Sword Redux

March 30, 2011 | Blog


A USA Today investigation calls into question “dramatic” improvements in student test scores in select District of Columbia schools due to an “abnormal pattern” of erasures. This occurred during Michelle Rhee’s tenure as DC schools chancellor.

Among the 96 DC schools that were flagged for wrong-to-right erasures by the city’s testing contractor in 2008 “were eight of the 10 campuses where Rhee handed out so-called TEAM awards ‘to recognize, reward and retain high-performing educators and support staff’…. Rhee bestowed more than $1.5 million in bonuses on principals, teachers and support staff on the basis of big jumps in 2007 and 2008 test scores.

In 2008, to her credit, then-DC state superintendent (now Rhode Island education commissioner) Deborah Gist recommended that large test score gains in certain schools be investigated, but as USA Today reported, “top D.C. public school officials balked and the recommendation was dropped.”

Such allegations and instances of cheating are not unique to Washington DC of course. In 2010, a New York Times article chronicled erasures in Houston and noted investigations in Georgia (including a criminal probe in Atlanta), Indiana, Massachusetts, Nevada, and Virginia.

This latest development, however, adds a new wrinkle to my 2009 post, “Live By The Sword, Die By The Sword.”

Michelle Rhee and other education reform advocates have publicly argued that student performance as measured by test scores is basically the be all and end all….

Student learning, school leadership and teaching cannot be measured and judged good or bad based on a single set of test scores. Test scores must be part of the consideration — and supporting systems such as accountability, compensation and evaluation must be informed by such data — but they should not single-handedly define success or failure.

When such huge stakes are placed on a single metric, it raises the likelihood of monkey business. Although it is highly likely this is what occurred in DC, a former employee of DC Public Schools (who tweets as @EduEscritora) makes several smart observations on her blog:

[T]he fact that the number of flagged schools decreased so precipitously from 2008 to 2009 is encouraging, even if we don’t know why that happened.

The decreasing number of schools also doesn’t support the claim that the pay-for-performance system now in place under IMPACT has resulted in cheating; 2010 was the first year that IMPACT existed, and that had the fewest number of flagged schools out of the three years in the study and the fewest number of schools with over 50% of the classrooms flagged – only two!

The problem for an advocate like Michelle Rhee is that she has chosen to largely define success based on a single metric: the test score. If many of these DC test-score gains turn out to be illusory and succumb to what some are calling the “Erase To The Top” scandal, it may spell further trouble for Rhee as a spokesperson for the school reform movement. (Rhee has claimed the largest NAEP score gains in the nation under her leadership, although other analyses have shown that increases began and were larger under Rhee’s predecessors.) Her credibility already has been questioned by some as a result of alleged embellishments on her resume about her own teaching record. Without credibility, it is impossible to sell one’s wares to anyone but true believers.

From a PR standpoint, this erasure story would seem to call for a measured response that carefully chronicles whatever steps, if any, were taken by DCPS at the time to address the unusual frequency of erasures. Instead, through a spokesperson, Michelle Rhee chose to ‘shoot the messenger,’ bombastically placing USA Today among the “enemies of school reform.” [UPDATE: From the Washington Post‘s Jay Mathews: “Rhee calls her remarks on test erasures ‘stupid'”]

Given Rhee’s rhetoric, her policies in DC, and her current focus as head of StudentsFirst (which increasingly appears to be working solely with Republican governors and legislators at the state level), Michelle Rhee has largely pinned her credibility to the test score. If she had chosen to sit on a stool with more than a single leg, she might be sitting more comfortably right now and might not be engaged in a such a precarious and delicate balancing act. No doubt by taking on teacher tenure, she would have made enemies no matter what else she said or did. However, if she touted a more nuanced view of school improvement and student success and didn’t poo-poo collaboration, she might not face a growing anti-Rhee cottage industry and her new organization might have had a chance to be a true non-partisan force in education reform.

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