In January of 2002, the No Child Left Behind Act was signed into law, establishing a high stakes testing regime with all children tested in grades 3-8 and once in high school. Test-and-punish school accountability meant annual testing and also a set of punishments for so-called failing schools and their staffs. The punishments eventually put in place were closing schools, firing teachers and principals, and privatizing or charterizing schools. States were eventually required to use students’ standardized test scores as a significant percentage of their formal evaluation process for teachers. The assumption behind all this was that incentives and punishments would make educators work harder and that standardized test scores would rise and achievement gaps would close. But test scores didn’t rise and achievement gaps didn’t close.
No school district epitomized this sort of data-driven, standardized test-based school reform like Washington, D.C. In 2007, Michelle Rhee was brought in as appointed schools chancellor by Adrian Fenty, a new mayor who was given authorization for mayoral control of the school district. Fenty and his appointed chancellor created the grand illusion of success through mayoral governance and data-driven school reform. Washington, D.C. was said to be the symbol of school district turnaround. Now we know most of it was a mere illusion.
Last weekend, three reporters for the Washington Post collaborated to trace the history of the supposed Washington, D.C. school miracle and summarize the tragic results: “In the decade after the city dissolved its elected local school board and turned management of the schools over to the mayor, Rhee and her successor, Kaya Henderson, created a system that demanded ever-higher accomplishments—higher test scores, higher graduation rates. They used money as an incentive: Principals and teachers were rewarded financially if they hit certain numbers. And with only weak oversight from the D.C. Council and other city education agencies—which report to the same mayor who is politically liable for the schools—there was no strong check on any impulse to gloss over shortcomings and pump up numbers. City lawmakers repeatedly boasted that the District’s schools had become the fastest-improving in the nation. Philanthropic dollars poured in… And one of the most dysfunctional school systems in America became known as a model for education reform efforts nationwide.”
Here is what the Post‘s reporters conclude: “If there is any simple truth about urban school reform, it may be this: It’s really hard. There are no miracles. The District’s scores have risen faster on national math and reading tests than anywhere else, but the improvements were driven in part by an influx of affluent families who enrolled children in the schools, helping boost scores. City officials invested billions of dollars to construct gleaming buildings, but that did not help close what remains the largest achievement gap between black and white students in a major U.S. city.”
The latest scandal, a subject this blog has previously covered, is a massive graduation rate crisis, where students in the city’s poorest high schools have been pushed toward graduation despite a pattern of chronic absence and teachers allowing students to make up work through short extra-credit assignments and superficial credit recovery programs. Now that officials have begun investigating and enforcing attendance and course completion requirements, it has become clear that the District’s graduation rate will plummet this year.
But there have been earlier warning signs.
Last weekend’s Washington Post report describes a history of practices aimed at improving the district’s appearance, if not the reality for its students:
- “The District claimed a dramatic decline in suspensions, but a Washington Post investigation last summer showed that many city high schools were suspending students off the books, kicking students out without documentation—and in some cases even marking them present.”
- Then there was the recent firing of the District’s newest Chancellor, Antwan Wilson, when he jumped a lottery waiting list to get his own daughter into the District’s highest scoring high school. Wilson had himself created some of the rules to tighten up on what had been a practice of letting powerful parents use their influence to secure special admissions for their own children.
- A 2015 report by the National Research Council found that, “Eight years after Rhee’s arrival, and five years after her departure, poor and minority students were still far less likely to have an effective teacher in their classroom and perform at grade level. Achievement gaps were as wide as ever. About 60 percent of poor black students were below proficient in math and reading and had made only marginal gains since the changes were made.”
- The reporters gloss over a significant cheating scandal under Michelle Rhee; it was difficult for reporters to conclusively document it because Rhee herself controlled the investigation. The retired PBS reporter, John Merrow has amassed the evidence, however.
The Washington, D.C. public schools have been the nation’s poster child for the idea that schools themselves can change the trajectory of children’s lives, and that test scores are the mark of a school’s success or failure. In his new book, The Testing Charade: Pretending to Make Schools Better, Harvard’s Daniel Koretz demonstrates the problem with that assumption:
“One aspect of the great inequity of the American educational system is that disadvantaged kids tend to be clustered in the same schools. The causes are complex, but the result is simple: some schools have far lower average scores—and, particularly important in this system, more kids who aren’t ‘proficient’—than others. Therefore, if one requires that all students must hit the proficient target by a certain date, these low-scoring schools will face far more demanding targets for gains than other schools do. This was not an accidental byproduct of the notion that ‘all children can learn to a high level.’ It was a deliberate and prominent part of many of the test-based accountability reforms… Unfortunately… it seems that no one asked for evidence that these ambitious targets for gains were realistic. The specific targets were often an automatic consequence of where the Proficient standard was placed and the length of time schools were given to bring all students to that standard, which are both arbitrary… (T)his decision backfired. The result was, in many cases, unrealistic expectations that teachers simply couldn’t meet by any legitimate means.” (pp. 129-134)
Challenging another of Michelle Rhee’s assumptions—the one about driving school reform through punishment, firing, and merit bonuses— Daniel Koretz attributes the kind of deception that has happened in Washington, D.C. to a well-known principle in the social sciences: “The more any quantitative social indicator is used for social decision making the more subject it will be to corruption pressures and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it is intended to monitor.” (p. 38)
Michelle Rhee set up a system in which educators were incentivized almost exclusively through carrots and sticks to meet ever rising demands. Rhee created a teacher evaluation process that either rewarded or fired teachers and principals according to the test score and graduation rate increases they produced. Last weekend’s Washington Post evaluation of the past decade’s D.C. school reform depicts the details of the kind of pressure that Rhee and her successors have put on the District’s educators: “The District’s teachers are among the highest paid in the nation and can earn merit bonuses. In exchange, they also are more vulnerable to losing their jobs than teachers just about anywhere else. Since 2007, hundreds have been fired. Dozens of schools have been closed. Other struggling schools have been ‘reconstituted,’ meaning everyone had to reapply for their jobs and many were not rehired.” The reporters describe the annual “goal meeting” every principal was required attend. Each year principals, meeting with their own superiors, were forced to promise they and their teachers would meet goals set by higher-ups, goals that leaders at individual schools knew were not realistic. “The focus on data carried the promise of a scientific approach to improvement. But it came with fierce pressure to produce gains that critics said failed to take into account the influences on a child’s life outside of school.”
In Washington, D.C., each school’s accomplishments in raising test scores and each high school’s progress in raising graduation rates have been tracked by data. Merit bonuses have been tied to records of raising scores and raising graduation rates, but principals and teachers have been fired if they couldn’t raise test scores and graduation rates. People under pressure found ways to meet the targets.
Now, as the Washington Post reporters conclude: “The revelations—coupled with the resignation of the chancellor after his own personal scandal and separately, allegations of enrollment fraud at one of the city’s most sought-after selective high schools—have shattered the simple narrative of success. Now, there is a groundswell of skepticism among parents, taxpayers and elected officials who are questioning how much of the touted progress is real. It is the most prominent surge of such skepticism since 2008, when Rhee appeared on the cover of Time magazine with a broom to sweep away the old culture of failure and low expectations.” Many are now questioning the wisdom of mayoral control of schools, a system that lacks the checks and balances provided by an elected school board.