Michelle Rhee’s D.C. Education Revolution Continues to Collapse

The Associated Press‘s Ashraf Khalil explains: “As recently as a year ago, the public school system in the nation’s capital was being hailed as a shining example of successful urban education reform and a template for districts across the country. Now…. after a series of rapid-fire scandals including one about rigged graduation rates, Washington’s school system has gone from a point of pride to perhaps the largest public embarrassment of Mayor Muriel Bowser’s tenure… A decade after a restructuring that stripped the decision-making powers of the board of education and placed the system under mayoral control, city schools in 2017 were boasting rising test scores and a record graduation rate for high schools of 73 percent, compared with 53 percent in 2011… Then everything unraveled.”

Teachers jobs were threatened if they didn’t raise test scores and increase graduation rates by passing students no matter what. Money was an incentive, with bonuses rewarding successful teachers. The Washington Post revealed that last year, while the district bragged about declining suspension rates, the reports were a fake. Many high schools were suspending students  without documentation.

Then an investigation by Washington, D.C.’s NPR station WAMU, uncovered that Ballou High School had been covering up massive student absences. Many students had been chronically absent and missed so many days of classes that mandatory course failure should have followed. But teachers failed to mark students absent, and students who were failing classes were being allowed to complete inadequate credit recovery projects so that they would pass courses and be allowed to graduate.

A district-wide investigation into practices during the 2016-2017 school year revealed that the problem wasn’t just at Ballou, but had spread district-wide. Khalil reports that, “about half of those Ballou graduates had missed more than three months of school and should not have graduated due to chronic truancy. A subsequent inquiry revealed a systemwide culture that pressured teachers to favor graduation rates over all else—with salaries and job security tied to specific metrics.  The internal investigation concluded that more than one-third of the 2017 graduating class should not have received diplomas due to truancy or improper steps taken by teachers or administrators to cover the absences.  In one egregious example, investigators found that attendance records at Dunbar High School had been altered 4,000 times to mark absent students as present. The school system is now being investigated by both the FBI and the U.S. Education Department.”

The school district responded this past winter by tightening attendance monitoring and enforcing course requirements.  In April of this year, the Washington Post‘s Perry Stein reported that, “Fewer than half of the seniors in the District’s traditional public school system are on track to receive their diplomas in June…. The city released a first batch of data in February, which showed that 42 percent of seniors attending traditional public schools were on track to graduate, while 19 percent were considered ‘moderately off track.'”

Last week Stein updated the story, reporting that 60 percent of seniors earned diplomas on time this month: “The school system said this week that 415 students who were considered ‘moderately off track’ in April received their diplomas in June. Forty students who were ‘significantly off track’ graduated… Many of the off-track students enrolled in credit-recovery courses to graduate on time.”  She adds that some students are likely to graduate after completing summer school.

Stein tracks the graduation rates by student demographics and finds them to be predictable and unfortunate: “At Banneker High, a selective-application school, 99 percent of seniors graduated this month—the highest rate in the District. The lowest rates belonged to Anacostia (42 percent), Coolidge (44 percent) and Ballou (45 percent).

In a puzzling development, Stein reports: “The D.C. Council passed emergency legislation last week allowing high school seniors who missed more than six weeks of class to receive their diplomas by discounting absences from the first three quarters of the school year.” The members of the Council are reported to have reasoned that students shouldn’t be held accountable for attendance rules that were tightened only after the graduation crisis was discovered.  Mayor Muriel Bowser has said she is not supportive of the emergency law, but she has not yet made a choice to sign or not to sign it.  Stein added : “But Bowser, whose signature is necessary for the reprieve to go into effect, has said she opposes it.  She said last week she is considering her options, and her office said Wednesday there is no update on her decision.”  If the law is signed, students will receive their diplomas late, as commencement exercises have already taken place.

What has been occurring in the D.C. public schools in recent years—allowing students to miss so much school they become chronically absent and hiding the fact that they are not in school—assigning short and easy credit recovery projects when students are failing classes—has been driven by promises to make the D.C. Public Schools a model. Michelle Rhee set up a system to pressure teachers and school administrators to by threatening to fire those who failed and paying merit bonuses to those who can make themselves look successful.  In a new book, The Testing Charade: Pretending to Make Schools Better, Harvard University’s Daniel Koretz explains why making graduation rates the primary measure of success, will taint the process and undermine the results. Koretz writes about Campbell’s Law, 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.” (The Testing Charade, p. 38)

When Michelle Rhee had been the leader of the D.C. Public Schools for several years, John Merrow, now retired from the PBS NewsHour, documented a major test score cheating scandal driven by Rhee’s demand that teachers raise test scores and her techniques for getting scores to rise: making teachers’ and principals’ evaluations, hiring and firing, and merit bonuses depend on educators’ capacity to raise scores. Later under former Chancellor Kaya Henderson, rising graduation rates became a second primary metric.  Koretz explains how Campbell’s law actually works: “(W)hen you hold people accountable using a numeric measure—vehicle emissions, scores on a test, whatever—two things generally happen: they do things you don’t want them to do, and the measure itself becomes inflated, painting too optimistic a view of whatever it is that the system is designed to improve.”(The Testing Charade, p. 38)  Koretz elaborates: “(Y)ou can take Campbell’s Law to the bank. It’s going to show up in any high-pressure accountability system that is based only on a few hard numbers.” (The Testing Charade, pp. 46-47)

Koretz predicts the consequences of the kind of school reform Michelle Rhee brought to Washington, D.C.:  cheating, lowering standards—what has happened in the D.C. graduation scandal, and excluding people with bad numbers—what may have happened in the D.C. schools when suspension rates were fudged.

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While Teachers’ Walkouts Highlight Inadequate Funding of Schools, Inequity Remains Unaddressed

This blog has recently been tracking the walkouts of teachers in states where legislators have been chronically underfunding public education, states where teachers’ pay ranks among the lowest in the nation.  (See here, hereherehere and here.) These are states in the heartland, many where the children and the teachers are mostly white.  The walkouts by teachers have been happening in all Red states that lack political checks and balances because their governors and both houses of their legislatures are dominated by far-right Republicans.  Schoolteachers are walking out to call their legislators’ attention to the fact that rampant tax cutting is cheating the children. These teachers are calling everybody’s attention to the plain fact that in these states funding for the public schools has been dropping.  The recent walkouts by teachers have put a face on the problem of inadequate school funding.

But there is another very different school funding problem across America.  Very often it is a problem not centered in the capital city of the state—the place where the legislature meets.  In Michigan where Lansing is the capital city, this problem is greatest in Detroit. In New York, where Albany is the capital city, this problem centers in New York City, Syracuse and Buffalo.  In Wisconsin, where Madison is the capital city, this problem centers in Milwaukee. And in Illinois, where Springfield is the capital city, this problem is most serious in Chicago.  This other problem, of course, is alarming school finance inequity, exacerbated when legislators from rural areas and small towns fail to grasp the challenges for children and teachers in the schools of our largest cities, all of them segregated by race, all of them struggling with concentrated poverty, and virtually all of them encircled by rings of wealthy suburban school districts.

This is, of course, not a new problem. In 1991, Jonathan Kozol lamented: “‘In a country where there is no distinction of class,’ Lord Acton wrote of the United States 130 years ago, ‘a child is not born to the station of its parents, but with an indefinite claim to all the prizes that can be won by thought and labor. It is in conformity with the theory of equality… to give as near as possible to every youth an equal state in life.’ Americans, he said, ‘are unwilling that any should be deprived in childhood of the means of competition.’  It is hard to read these words today without a sense of irony and sadness.  Denial of ‘the means of competition’ is perhaps the single most consistent outcome of the education offered to poor children in the schools of our large cities….” (Savage Inequalities, p. 83)

In the introduction to a 2005 edition of his landmark 1996 history of Detroit, Thomas Sugrue explores what he calls “the urban crisis”: “It is dangerous to let our optimism about urban revitalization obscure the grim realities that still face most urban residents, particularly people of color. Acres of rundown houses, abandoned factories, vacant lots, and shuttered stores stand untended in the shadow of revitalized downtowns and hip urban enclaves. There has been very little ‘trickle down’ from downtown revitalization and neighborhood gentrification to the long-term poor, the urban working class, and minorities…. And despite some conspicuous successes–often against formidable odds—community development corporations have made only a small dent in the urban economies and housing markets. Local nonprofits have the will but ultimately not the capacity to stem the larger processes of capital flight that have devastated the city… American cities have long reflected the hopes as well as the failures of the society at large. From the mid-twentieth century to the present, American society has been characterized by a widening gap between rich and poor, between communities of privilege and those of poverty. Despite a rhetoric about race relations that is more civil than it was in 1950, racial divisions by income, wealth, education, employment, health, and political power remain deeply entrenched.” (The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit, pp. xxv-xxvi)

In 2011, the Stanford University sociologist, Sean Reardon, used a massive data set to document the widening economic inequality that Kozol and Sugrue had been describing and to show the consequences of widening inequality for children’s outcomes at school. Reardon showed that while in 1970, only 15 percent of families lived in neighborhoods classified as affluent or poor, by 2007, 31 percent of families lived in such neighborhoods. By 2007, fewer families across America lived in mixed income communities. Reardon also demonstrated that along with growing residential inequality is a simultaneous jump in an income-inequality school achievement gap. The achievement gap between the children with income in the top ten percent and the children with income in the bottom ten percent, was 30-40 percent wider among children born in 2001 than those born in 1975, and twice as large as the black-white achievement gap.

So, what did our society do to respond?  In 2002, Congress passed the No Child Left Behind Act, which demanded that states test students every year and use the scores to evaluate schools and their teachers. Punitive turnarounds were prescribed for the bottom five percent of schools—virtually always in the poorest neighborhood of our cities where poverty is concentrated—and those turnarounds included firing principals and teachers, closing schools, or charterizing them. The law operated through threats and punishments for schools unable to raise scores quickly without acknowledging that such schools might need greater investment to build the capacity and services so that the schools themselves would not be overwhelmed by the challenges brought by concentrations of children struggling with extreme poverty.

In an extremely important 2017 book, Harvard professor Daniel Koretz describes nearly two decades of damage wrought by this test-and-punish law, which was premised on the belief that, if sufficiently pressured to raise test scores, teachers would be able to do so: The law’s framers “acted as if… (schools alone could) largely eliminate variations in student achievement, ignoring the impact of factors that have nothing to do with the behavior of educators—for example, the behavior of parents, students’ health and nutrition, and many characteristics of the communities in which students grow up.” (The Testing Charade; Pretending to Make Schools Better, p. 123-124) “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…. 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.” (The Testing Charade; Pretending to Make Schools Better, pp. 129-130)

Bill Mathis and Kevin Welner summarize the way our society responded when, despite widening inequality and growing economic and racial segregation, federal law imposed sanctions and turnarounds on urban public schools: “As policy makers and the courts abandoned desegregation efforts and wealth moved from cities to the suburbs, most of the nation’s major cities developed communities of concentrated poverty, and policy makers gave the school districts serving those cities the task of overcoming the opportunity gaps created by that poverty.  Moreover districts were asked to do this with greatly inadequate funding.  The nation’s highest poverty school districts receive ten percent lower funding per student while districts serving children of color receive 15 percent less.  This approach, of relying on under-resourced urban districts to remedy larger societal inequities, has consistently failed.  In response, equity-focused reformers have called for a comprehensive redirection of policy and a serious attempt to address concentrated poverty as a vital companion to school reform.  But this would require a major and sustained investment.  Avoiding such a commitment, a different approach has therefore been offered: change the governance structure of urban school districts.  Proposals such as ‘mayoral control,’ ‘portfolio districts,’ and ‘recovery’ districts (also referred to as ‘takeover’ or ‘achievement’ districts) all fit within this line of attack.” (“The ‘Portfolio’ Approach to School District Governance,” a brief that is part of a 2016 series from the National Education Policy Center, Research-Based Options for Education Policymaking)

Just as in today’s battles for education funding—in West Virginia, Oklahoma, and Kentucky—teachers have pushed back against the punitive school turnaround policies promoted by the federal government during the George W. Bush and Barack Obama administrations. In one memorable instance, a teachers union courageously confronted underfunded school “reform” based on school turnaround through school closure.  In the fall of 2012, the Chicago Teachers Union, having worked closely with parents and community groups across the city, went on strike to protest not only teachers’ salaries and benefits, but also Illinois’s notoriously inequitable school funding, and also the power of mayoral governance under Rahm Emanuel and his prescribed “portfolio” school reform plan.  In her book, The Teacher Wars, Dana Goldstein describes the leadership of CTU president Karen Lewis: “Lewis called Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s reform agenda—especially his policy of using low test scores to select fifty schools for closure in poor neighborhoods, sometimes replacing them with non-unionized charter schools—‘a corporate attack on public education… This is warfare now.’ ” (The Teacher Wars, p. 221)

We must hope that this month’s walkouts by teachers create enough pressure to force legislators to raise school funding that is adequate to the need to invest in schools and in teachers’ salaries in West Virginia, Oklahoma, and Kentucky. The problem of inequity, however, is more daunting. Despite an enormous body of scholarly research and writing by academics and despite decades of work by social justice activists and organizers, we have not developed the political will to distribute sufficient funding to meet the needs of public schools in urban communities where poverty is concentrated.  The Kerner Commission named the problem of inequity 50 years ago:  “No American-white or black-can escape the consequences of the continuing social and economic decay of our major cities. Only a commitment to national action on an unprecedented scale can shape a future compatible with the historic ideals of American society. The great productivity of our economy, and a federal revenue system which is highly responsive to economic growth, can provide the resources. The major need is to generate new will–the will to tax ourselves to the extent necessary, to meet the vital needs of the nation.”

Fine “Washington Post” Piece Traces Collapse of Michelle Rhee’s D.C. Legacy

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.

School Ratings Not Only Tell You Little about Schools, They Contribute to Economic Segregation

Jack Schneider, a professor and education historian at the College of the Holy Cross and director of research for the Massachusetts Consortium for Innovative Education Assessment, points out that the school district in Boston, Massachusetts encourages parents to choose from among the public schools across the district.  In a short commentary,  State School Rankings ‘Virtually Worthless,’ Schneider explains that many parents make that choice pretty much based on overall school ratings assigned by the state.

How does Massachusetts calculate its school ratings?  “Each year, the state classifies schools into one of five levels, with the ‘highest performing’ designated Level 1. This practice, though distinct in its details, is in keeping with what is done in the vast majority of states. The theory behind such rankings, whether devised as numerical scores, A-F grades, or narrative labels, is that parents and communities want a clear and simple indicator of school quality. Unfortunately, there are… flaws that make these levels virtually worthless. The first and most obvious problem with state-issued ratings of schools is that they are based primarily on a flawed measure: student standardized test scores.”

Schneider believes such school “grades,” “report cards” and rating systems show parents very little about the quality of schools. Schneider explains all the factors about school quality that test-based ratings omit: “Last fall, MassINC conducted a poll of Boston parents and found that more than two-thirds of them identified as ‘very important’ or ‘extremely important’ all of the following: the quality of the teachers and administrators; school safety and discipline; the school’s academic programming; college and career readiness; class sizes; facility quality; the values promoted by the school; the school’s approach to discipline; and the diversity of the teachers and administrators. These critical dimensions of school quality are mostly ignored in the vast majority of statewide rating systems….”

Also, explains Schneider, “(S)chools are not uniformly good or bad. As most of us know from experience, schools—as structures, organizations, and communities—have different strengths and weaknesses. Schools that are struggling in some ways may be thriving in others. And schools with illustrious reputations often have a lot to work on.”

And finally, Schneider names the reality that school ratings are shaping our society: “Perhaps most importantly, ratings shape the decisions parents make about where to live and where to send their children to school.”  Although Schneider does not explore the details of this important observation,  academic research demonstrates the reasons why school ratings are likely to reinforce growing housing segregation by family income.

Over a half century of sociological research (dating back to the landmark 1966 Coleman report) demonstrates a strong correlation between overall school achievement and aggregate family income. When states rate schools by their aggregate test scores, the schools whose students are wealthy tend to get an A, and the schools serving very poor children too frequently get a D or an F.  Here are academic experts discussing how test scores reflect a community’s aggregate economic level, not school quality.

In 2011, the Stanford University educational sociologist Sean Reardon showed here that while in 1970, only 15 percent of families lived in neighborhoods classified as affluent or poor, by 2007, 31 percent of families lived in such neighborhoods. By 2007, fewer families across America lived in mixed income communities. Reardon also demonstrated here that along with growing residential inequality is a simultaneous jump in an income-inequality school achievement gap. The achievement gap between the children with income in the top ten percent and the children with income in the bottom ten percent, was 30-40 percent wider among children born in 2001 than those born in 1975, and twice as large as the black-white achievement gap.

Based on Reardon’s research, in a 2016 report from the National Education Policy Center warning against the continued reliance on No Child Left Behind’s strategy of testing children, rating schools by scores, and punishing the schools and teachers unable quickly to raise scores, William Mathis and Tina Trujillo caution policymakers: “We cannot expect to close the achievement gap until we address the social and economic gaps that divide our society… Low test scores are indicators of our social inequities… Otherwise, we would not see our white and affluent children scoring at the highest levels in the world and our children of color scoring equivalent to third-world countries.  We also would not see our urban areas, with the lowest scores and greatest needs, funded well below our highest scoring suburban schools. With two-thirds of the variance in test scores attributable to environmental conditions, the best way of closing the opportunity gap is through providing jobs and livable wages across the board. We must also deal with governmentally determined housing patterns that segregate our children… One of the frequently heard phrases used to justify annual high-stakes disaggregated assessment is that ‘shining a light’ on deficiencies of particular groups will prompt decision-makers to increase funding, expand programs, and ensure high quality. This has not happened. Shining a light does not provide the social and educational learning essentials for our neediest children.”

William Mathis and Kevin Welner, in another 2016 National Education Policy Report, summarize what was misguided about school accountability policy imposed by No Child Left Behind and the Every Student Succeeds Act: “As policymakers and the courts abandoned desegregation efforts and wealth moved from cities to the suburbs, most of the nation’s major cities developed communities of concentrated poverty, and policymakers gave the school districts serving those cities the task of overcoming the opportunity gaps created by that poverty. Moreover, districts were asked to do this with greatly inadequate funding. The nation’s highest poverty school districts receive ten percent lower funding per student while districts serving children of color receive 15 percent less. This approach, of relying on under-resourced urban districts to remedy larger societal inequities, has consistently failed.”

How does this relate to test-based school accountability?  Last fall, in The Testing Charade: Pretending to Make Schools Better, Harvard University’s Daniel Koretz explains: “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…. 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.” (pp. 129-130) Policymakers decided that, if sufficiently pressured to raise test scores, teachers would be able to do so: “(T)hey acted as if… (schools alone could) largely eliminate variations in student achievement, ignoring the impact of factors that have nothing to do with the behavior of educators—for example, the behavior of parents, students’ health and nutrition, and many characteristics of the communities in which students grow up.” (p. 123-124)

Test-and-punish accountability since 2002, when No Child Left Behind was enacted, has condemned as “failing” the poorest schools and school districts whose test scores, according to academic research, are undermined by the economic circumstances of their communities and families. In lock-step, states have bought in to holding schools accountable and exacerbated the problem by ranking schools with numerical rankings or letter grades—again based on standardized test scores—that encourage wealthier families who can afford it to move to affluent communities that brag about A-rated schools and to abandon the schools in poor communities. For sixteen years, school accountability policies mandated by federal and state governments have been contributing to the economic resegregation of America’s metropolitan areas.

New D.C. School Cheating Scandal: This Time It’s About Graduating Students Who Didn’t Do the Work

Last November, right after Thanksgiving, National Public Radio and WAMU in Washington, D.C. exposed a scandal at the District’s Ballou High School.  Last May the school had made headlines for graduating all of its seniors and getting every one admitted to college.  You would think we’d have caught on about such promised miracles by now, but apparently we are a gullible society when we want to believe.

Here is what WAMU reported: “An investigation by WAMU and NPR has found that Ballou High School’s administration graduated dozens of students despite high rates of unexcused absences.  WAMU and NPR reviewed hundreds of pages of Ballou’s attendance records, class rosters and emails after a DCPS employee shared the private documents.  The documents showed that half of the graduates missed more than three months of school last year, unexcused. One in five students was absent more than present—missing more than 90 days of school… Another internal e-mail obtained by WAMU and NPR from April shows that two months before graduation, only 57 students were on track to graduate, with dozens of students missing graduation requirements, community service requirements or failing classes needed to graduate. In June, 164 students received diplomas.”

You’ll remember that an earlier Washington, D.C. cheating scandal was exposed during Chancellor Michelle Rhee’s tenure. In March of 2011,  USA Today broke the story about teachers erasing and correcting students’ answers on standardized tests. The problem was never fully investigated because Michelle Rhee controlled the contractor she hired to do the investigation, but John Merrow, the education reporter for the PBS NewsHour eventually confirmed that massive cheating had occurred under Rhee.

While Rhee was never held accountable, the impact on the D.C. public schools is well known—both the long repercussions of Rhee’s leadership style and of the IMPACT plan she instituted for formal teacher evaluations. Despite that Rhee left D.C. in 2012, the IMPACT evaluation plan and promises for rapid school improvement have been maintained by her successors—first Kaya Henderson and now Antwan Wilson.  Last week in the Washington Post, Moriah Balingit, Peter Jamison and Perry Stein reported that Kaya Henderson announced she would raise graduation rates by 22 points in five years, and Wilson, her successor made a similar commitment when he was hired.

In her Washington Post column, Valerie Strauss recently reviewed the history of Rhee’s influence on the D.C. public schools: “On Oct. 28, 2015, the D.C. Public Schools district put out a statement lauding itself with this headline: ‘D.C. Public Schools Continues Momentum as the Fastest Improving Urban School District in the Country.’  For years, that has been the national narrative about the long-troubled school district in the nation’s capital: After decades of low performance and stagnation, the system was moving forward with a ‘reform’ program that was a model for the nation. The triumphant story included rising standardized test scores and ‘miracle’ schools that saw graduation rates jump over the moon in practically no time.  Arne Duncan, President Barack Obama’s education secretary for seven years, called it ‘a pretty remarkable story’ in 2013…  Policymakers and school reformers—in the District and across the nation—chose to believe the ‘miracle’ narrative and ignore warning signs that were there all along… Meanwhile, the graduation rate—nationally and in the District—continued to rise, despite scandals revealing that schools were essentially juicing the books to make it seem like they were graduating more students. Scams included phony ‘credit recovery’ programs, failing to count all students, and, as the District just found out, letting kids graduate without the qualifications required for a diploma.”

Specifically, Strauss comments on the IMPACT teacher evaluation plan instituted by Rhee—and kept in place by Henderson and now Wilson: “The assessment system, known as IMPACT, that was introduced by Rhee… drew serious concerns from teachers and principals, who found it unworkable and unfair, with performance goals that were impossible to meet and metrics that were questionable… The pressure that IMPACT placed on educators and administrators—pressure that led to cheating on tests and phony graduation rates—was never acknowledged, at least until the new scandal.”

After WAMU and NPR exposed problems at Ballou High School, including permitting students to make up for long, unexcused absences by doing an extra project and the school’s instituting slick and insufficient credit-recovery sessions after school, a study of graduation practices was undertaken to determine if what happened at Ballou might be widespread. The Post‘s Perry Stein and Moriah Balingit describe findings of the new report, released on January 29: “Out of 2,758 students who graduated from D.C. public schools last year, more than 900 missed too many classes or improperly took makeup classes.” In a separate story, Stein reports the numbers for particular high schools: “At Anacostia High School in Southeast Washington, nearly 70 percent of the 106 graduates last year received their diplomas despite violating some aspect of city policy—the worst violation rate among comprehensive schools in the city.  At Ballou, the school whose mispractices spurred the investigation, 63 percent of graduates missed more classes than typically allowed, or inappropriately completed credit recovery…. One of the most damning findings came from Dunbar High School in Northwest Washington.  Teacher-centered attendance records at the school were modified from absent to present more than 4000 times for the senior class, which numbered fewer than 200.  Dunbar’s principal, Abdullah Zaki, was removed from the school in the wake of the findings.  Zaki… was named D.C. Public Schools’ principal of the year in 2013….”  The principal and assistant principal at Ballou High School have been fired along with the district’s Chief of Secondary Schools.

It is hard to know exactly how this sad story will end.  The FBI and the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Inspector General both launched investigations last week.  But while we don’t know the outcome, we don’t have far to look for where the story began.  Once again, Harvard’s Daniel Koretz describes the problem driven almost entirely by faith in rapid school improvement as measured by data—this time using promises of miraculous graduation rate increases instead of rapid test score increases.  Remember that as a measure of school accountability, the 2015 federal Every Student Succeeds Act (the law that replaced No Child Left Behind) requires that states report not only disaggregated test scores on annual standardized tests, but also each secondary school’s graduation rate.

Daniel Koretz clearly explains the impact of trying to drive education policy through pressure to raise scores or graduation rates in his excellent new book, The Testing Charade: Pretending to Make Schools Better: “More than forty years ago, Don Campbell, one of the founders of the science of program evaluation wrote: ‘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.’  In other words, when you hold people accountable using a numerical measure—vehicle emissions, scores on a test, whatever—two things generally happen: they do things you don’t want them to do, and the measure itself becomes inflated, painting too optimistic a view of whatever it is that the system is designed to improve.” (The Testing Charade, p. 38)

Of course we want more high school students—especially students in places like Washington, D.C.’s poorest neighborhoods—to thrive at school and graduate. High school graduation is a worthy accomplishment.  However, the current practice of pressuring teachers to push students through school to amp up the graduation statistics hurts both the students and the teachers.

Yes! Rethinking the Value of Testing and of Graduation Tests, Ohio Joins More Progressive States

At its meeting on Tuesday, the Ohio State Board of Education discussed ways to reduce standardized testing along with the urgent need to amend the state’s current demand that high school students pass an overly tough set of end-of-course exams in order to qualify for high school graduation. The board had already eased the graduation requirement for the class of 2018. Now its members have agreed to ask the legislature to add an alternative path to graduation for students in the classes of 2019 and 2020.

The Plain Dealer‘s education reporter Patrick O’Donnell explains: “Statewide requirements that students score well on state tests in order to earn a diploma took effect with the class of 2018, this year’s senior class. But worries about a graduation ‘apocalypse’ or ‘trainwreck’ because of low scores led the board and state legislature to ease the requirements earlier this year, just for the senior class… After debate the last few months, board members now want to extend the same exemptions for the classes of 2019 and 2020… Those include graduating, even if state test scores are poor, by reaching some career training goals, having strong attendance or classroom grades as seniors, doing a senior capstone project or working at a job or on community service.”

On Tuesday, the Ohio State Board of Education also discussed ways to reduce the overall heavy test burden on students and teachers: “The state school board is asking the Ohio legislature to wipe out three items that add a testing burden to teachers and students—the high school English I exam, WorkKeys tests for some career training students, and requirements that some tests be given just to evaluate teachers.  State Superintendent Paolo DeMaria and an advisory panel he appointed recommended these and other changes to the board in June, after statewide outcry over the time spent on standardized testing in schools… Board members voted nearly unanimously for the three reductions Tuesday afternoon… (T)he board and DeMaria agreed that the state needs only the high school English II exam, usually given to sophomores, to meet the federal requirement for an English test in high school. They also agreed strongly with DeMaria’s recommendation to wipe out tests that are given just to measure the effectiveness of teachers.  Districts often give a pre-test at the start of the year, then another at the end of the year, to see how much a teacher taught over the year.”

O’Donnell adds that State Superintendent DeMaria recommends eliminating a number of other tests considered extraneous by his advisory panel.

Ohio’s beginning steps to cut back on the standardized testing that has dominated schools since 2002, when No Child Left Behind became federal law, reflect a broader trend, according to Monty Neill and Lisa Guisbond of the National Center for Fair and Open Testing (FairTest).  FairTest just released a major report, Test Reform Victories Surge in 2017: What’s Behind the Winning Strategies?, which summarizes the effects of broad public opposition to over-testing and some relaxation of federal pressure now that No Child Left Behind has been replaced by the Every Student Succeeds Act: “Widespread opposition to the overuse and misuse of standardized testing is producing a marked shift in attitudes about high-stakes assessments and, increasingly, state and district practices… The drumbeat of concerns includes: the amount of testing; the time it consumes; the outsized consequences for students, teachers and schools attached to test scores; the negative impacts on educational equity for low-income and minority students; and the damage to teaching, learning and children’s futures from the testing fixation.”

FairTest’s report is particularly scathing about the damage for young adults when failure of state-mandated tests denies them a high school diploma: “For tens of thousands of students who don’t drop out but stay in school and complete their other high school graduation requirements, exit exams unjustly confer the status and diminished opportunities of high school dropouts. The National Research Council of the National Academy of Sciences concluded that the graduation tests have done nothing to lift student achievement but have raised the dropout rate. Since 2012, the number of states that had or planned to have standardized high school exit exams has plunged from 25 to 13.”

FairTest adds that “seven states have made their elimination of graduation testing retroactive,” creating the opportunity for students previously denied diplomas in Georgia, South Carolina, California, Alaska, Arizona, Texas, and Nevada to apply for the diplomas they were denied as long as they successfully completed all other graduation requirements.

Public opinion has been changing as it has been more widely understood that “passing” cut scores on standardized tests are in many ways aspirational, not realistic. Cut scores that determine children’s futures have not been based on some kind of scientifically determined amount of knowledge children must master; instead they have been set by politicians for the purpose of driving teachers to work harder and faster.  High stakes standardized testing has been particularly punitive for students who start much farther behind.

Here is Daniel Koretz, the Harvard University professor whose new book, The Testing Charade: Pretending to Make Schools Better, exposes the damage inflicted by high stakes testing: “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…. 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.” (pp. 129-130)

Sorting Out the Debate About Educational Accountability

The watchword for the last quarter century’s school reform has been accountability: holding schools and school teachers accountable for quickly raising students’ scores on standardized tests. Sanctioning schools and teachers who can’t quickly raise scores was supposed to be an effective strategy for overcoming educational injustice. Test-and-punish has enabled us at least to say we’ve been doing something to hold schools accountable.

The politics of this conversation are pretty confusing—all going back to the federal education law, the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), and the debate about its replacement, the 2015 Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA).  There was bipartisan agreement in 2001-2002 when NCLB was debated, passed, and signed into law that our society could close racial and economic achievement gaps by testing all students and then demanding that schools quickly raise the scores of underachieving students. In 2015 when Congress debated the law’s reauthorization, accountability-hawk Democrats stood by test-and-punish accountability; many Republicans, led by Senator Lamar Alexander instead pushed to expand states’ rights by lifting the heavy hand of the federal government and allowing states to design their own plans to improve so-called failing schools. Worrying that removal of universal testing would let schools off the hook, the Civil Rights Community has stood by NCLB’s testing plan. Many have continued to assume that universal testing exposes achievement gaps and that the exposure will motivate politicians and educators to address racial and economic disparities.

Test-and-punish school reform has been at the center of a conversation between Republican Senator Lamar Alexander, the chair of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, and Republican Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.  An article by Caitlin Emma published over the weekend by POLITICO examines the history of No Child Left Behind vs. the Every Student Succeeds Act as a background for looking at how policy around school accountability has been evolving in the Trump administration. Emma describes the new ESSA, passed by a Republican Congress in 2015 and designed to return at least some authority for accountability back to the states. But Democrats prodded by Civil Rights leaders and some Republicans have stood by federally imposed accountability: “Critics… worry whether states will adequately track and provide equal opportunities for at-risk kids…. (Even) former Republican Rep. John Kline… an architect of the measure, has said he’s worried states are now getting away with testing plans that violate a key requirement of the law—that states administer the same test to all students annually.  The provision is critical (Kline believes) so that states are forced to report the performance of all students and the results for poor and minority students are not hidden from view, as they were for decades before federal testing requirements were enacted.”

Emma explains: “The Every Student Succeeds Act, which passed in 2015, was widely viewed by Republicans as a corrective to the federal overreach that followed… No Child Left Behind.”  Emma reports that last summer, when Jason Botel, an official in Betsy DeVos’s Department of Education began reviewing the states’ applications for federal funds under the ESSA, Botel demanded that before he would approve some states’ plans, they must toughen their standards and demand more.  Powerful Republican Senator Lamar Alexander, who had—during the 2015 reauthorization—supported a return of control to the states, formally complained to Betsy DeVos—“furious that a top DeVos aide was circumventing a new law aimed at reducing the federal government’s role in K-12 education. He contended that the agency was out of bounds by challenging state officials, for instance, about whether they were setting sufficiently ambitions goals for their students.”

For many of us who have, for fifteen years, closely followed educational accountability as mandated under No Child Left Behind and the Every Student Succeeds Act, the entire debate seems wrong-headed and bizarre.  I am writing about those of us who care deeply about expanding opportunity for children segregated in schools where poverty is highly concentrated— schools where intense segregation by poverty is overlaid on segregation by ethnicity and race. The schools these children attend have, under federal policy, been derided by accountability hawks as “failing” schools.  Widespread blaming—of schools and school teachers—now dominates discussions of school reform even as sociologists increasingly document that family and neighborhood poverty pose overwhelming challenges for these children and their schools.

Much of the confusion and rancor arises because the public debate about school accountability conflates two very different questions:

  • Should the federal government be involved at all in telling states what to do about education?
  • Is test-and-punish accountability an effective strategy for improving public schools and closing opportunity gaps?

The original federal education law, the 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act, addressed the first question as a response to the needs of children in primarily southern states, where schools serving black children had been underfunded and inadequate for generations. There are similar problems of inequity across cities today and forgotten rural areas. Poor children and children of color segregated in particular areas remain under served. The debate about this first question involves states’ rights vs. what has come to be accepted (by many of us) as the federal government’s responsibility to protect the rights of all children and ensure they are all well served. It is a heated question that remains underneath much of the debate about school reform.

The second question involves the strategy Congress chose for reforming schools in the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act. Congress blamed teachers and schools and devised a law that was supposed to force schools and teachers to work harder and faster to improve test scores in schools where achievement lagged when all children in each state were tested on a single standardized test.  It is becoming clearer all the time that when Congress jumped behind test-and-punish accountability, it chose the wrong strategy.  A long and growing body of research demonstrates that test scores are far more aligned with a school’s aggregate economic level than with the work of the teachers or the curriculum being offered to students. Economists like Bruce Baker at Rutgers University also document enormous opportunity gaps as these same public schools in our nation’s poorest communities receive far less public investment than the schools in wealthy suburbs, schools serving children whose families also invest heavily in enrichments at home.

Here is just some of the prominent research from the past ten years that tries to answer the second question.

In 2010, Anthony Bryk and educational sociologists from the Consortium on Chicago School Research at the University of Chicago described the challenges for a particular subset of schools in Chicago, Illinois that exist in a city where many schools serve low income children. The Consortium focused on 46 schools whose students live in neighborhoods where poverty is extremely concentrated.  These “truly disadvantaged” schools are far poorer than the norm. They serve families and neighborhoods where the median family income is $9,480. They are racially segregated, each serving 99 percent African American children, and they serve on average 96 percent poor children, with virtually no middle class children present. The researchers report that in the truly disadvantaged schools, 25 percent of the children have been substantiated by the Department of Children and Family Services as being abused or neglected, either currently or during some earlier point in their elementary career. “This means that in a typical classroom of 30… a teacher might be expected to engage 7 or 8 such students every year.”  “(T)he job of school improvement appears especially demanding in truly disadvantaged urban communities where collective efficacy and church participation may be relatively low, residents have few social contacts outside their neighborhood, and crime rates are high.  It can be equally demanding in schools with relatively high proportions of students living under exceptional circumstances, where the collective human need can easily overwhelm even the strongest of spirits and the best of intentions. Under these extreme conditions, sustaining the necessary efforts to push a school forward on a positive trajectory of change may prove daunting indeed.” (Organizing Schools for Improvement, pp. 172-187)

Then in 2011, Sean Reardon of Stanford University released a massive data analysis confirming the connection of school achievement gaps to growing economic inequality and residential patterns becoming rapidly more segregated by income. Reardon documented that across America’s metropolitan areas the proportion of families living in either very poor or very affluent neighborhoods increased from 15 percent in 1970 to 33 percent by 2009, and the proportion of families living in middle income neighborhoods declined from 65 percent in 1970 to 42 percent in 2009.  Reardon also demonstrated that along with growing residential inequality is a simultaneous jump in an income-inequality school achievement gap among children and adolescents.  The achievement gap between students with income in the top ten percent and students with income in the bottom ten percent is 30-40 percent wider among children born in 2001 than those born in 1975.

In The Testing Charade, a book published just last month, Daniel Koretz of Harvard University blames test-and-punish accountability for enabling our society to pretend that we have been overcoming educational inequity at the same time we avoid making the public investment necessary even to begin addressing the problem: “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…. 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.” (pp. 129-130)  “If we are going to make real headway, we are going to have to confront the simple fact that many teachers will need substantial supports if they are going to markedly improve the performance of their students… And the range of services needed is broad. One can’t expect students’ performance in schools to be unaffected by inadequate nutrition, insufficient health care, home environments that have prepared them poorly for school, or violence on the way to school.” (p. 201)

The second question involves the overall direction of education policy, and it is important because we desperately need a better strategy. Blaming and punishing the schools with the lowest scores—by closing “failing” schools or privatizing them or firing their teachers and principals—has only further undermined the public schools in the poorest neighborhoods of our big cities without addressing the opportunity gaps the tests identify.

Today’s Republican tax slashing agenda will only further reduce public investment in education.  And we are likely to keep on blaming the victims.