Washington, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser Just Did the Right Thing for D.C. Public Schools

Washington, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser just vetoed her first bill in the three years she has served as mayor of the nation’s capital.

Washington, D.C.’s public schools are under mayoral control.  Earlier this year, a scandal was exposed in which the school district—under pressure to show rapid improvement—had been allowing thousands of students who had been missing weeks of school to graduate. Then last month, the City Council passed an emergency law to allow some of this year’s high school seniors who have missed more than six weeks of class—unexcused—to receive their diplomas.

Last week, Mayor Bowser vetoed the emergency law which applied to approximately 26 of this year’s high school seniors— as the District continues to address a major graduation crisis. The new law would have permitted the students to graduate from D.C. high schools in August, despite their poor school attendance.

In her veto statement, Mayor Bowser explains: “The Chancellor has worked diligently over the past several months to ensure that our students are attending school… D.C. Public Schools has invested substantial time and resources to ensure that all students who are off track have pathways to graduation or promotion through summer school, credit recovery, or competency-based courses at its Opportunity Academies.  Ultimately, we believe that mastering the content through one of those alternatives will set students up for long-term success in college or career, and this legislation undercuts individualized graduation plans created for each student.”

Writing for the Washington Post, Fenit Nirappil explains the significance of the legislation Bowser just vetoed: “The measure, passed by the D.C. Council on a 12-to-1 vote last month, came as the school system started enforcing long-ignored attendance policies following a graduation scandal.  Lawmakers said it was unfair to punish students by changing the rules during the school year. The legislation applied only to seniors who satisfied all other academic requirements to graduate. The measure also would have allowed students in lower grades with significant numbers of absences to advance to the next grade. At the time the measure passed, it was believed 26 seniors would be affected by the legislation… Leaders of the District’s public schools had sharply criticized the emergency reprieve.”

During the past decade, there has been enormous pressure on school principals and teachers to demonstrate rapid school improvement. District leaders have sought to make Washington, D.C.’s public schools appear to be a national model.  You’ll remember that under Michelle Rhee and her successor Kaya Henderson, teachers’ and principals’ evaluations depended on educators’ capacity to produce metrics-driven deliverables—higher test scores at first, and later an ever-rising high school graduation rate. You’ll remember that under Michelle Rhee, principals and teachers were fired if they couldn’t quickly raise test scores.

More recently, teachers report they have been instructed not to fail students, no matter what. They have been asked to ensure that students have enough credits for the District to keep on raising its graduation rate. Last winter the press discovered that many students across Washington, D.C.’s high schools were being given passing marks despite missing so much school that the District’s rules said they had been chronically absent and must be failed in their classes.  Many of last year’s high school graduates were reported to have missed so much school they were not qualified to have graduated.

The new emergency rules passed by the City Council in June—the rules Mayor Bowser just vetoed—appeared  to be designed to satisfy concerns by members of the Council about acute challenges posed for students by extreme poverty.  In June, the Washington Post’s Perry Stein reported: “(T)he proposed regulations come in the wake of a city-commissioned report that found that 1 in 3 high school graduates in 2017 received their diplomas despite accruing too many absences or improperly enrolling in makeup classes… Following the release of the city-ordered report in January, teachers and community members said that students have lives complicated by unstable homes, jobs and responsibilities for taking siblings to schools. In such an environment, attending school each day, in full, can prove challenging… The introduction of the updated rules Friday… suggests that school leaders are acknowledging the obstacles confronting students… The regulations allow schools to decide if they want to alter their academic days, including adding periods to the day to accommodate students who struggle to attend school during standard hours.”

In her veto statement, Mayor Bowser reinforces her intention to end the lax attendance policies that have plagued the District’s public schools. But at the same time, she reinforces the need for the school district to maintain consistent requirements for students.  While school leaders have created individualized assistance for students with personal challenges, Bowser declares that students’ personal needs neither diminish nor undermine the expectation that, to graduate from high school, students need to complete a full academic program.

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D.C.’s New Emergency Attendance Policy: A Compassionate Plan or Just a Way to Get Kids Over?

The Washington Post‘s Perry Stein reports that the Washington D.C. Public School District has instituted a new, emergency attendance policy to cope with chronic absence by many students—a policy that will also allow some students to graduate this year even though they missed many days of school. The District’s creation of this emergency policy surfaces some serious issues about what it means to go to school, what it means to graduate, and how schools can work with masses of students experiencing the disruptions caused by deep poverty.

It’s an important debate to have, but a graduation crisis is probably not the right context for a thoughtful resolution.

You’ll remember that in Washington, D.C., under Michelle Rhee and her successor Kaya Henderson, teachers’ and principals’ evaluations depended on educators’ capacity to produce metrics-driven deliverables—higher test scores at first, and later an ever-rising high school graduation rate. You’ll remember that under Michelle Rhee, principals and teachers were fired if they couldn’t quickly raise test scores. More recently, teachers report they have been instructed not to fail students, no matter what.  They have been asked to ensure that students have enough credits for the District to keep on raising the graduation rate.

You’ll also remember that last winter the press discovered that many students across Washington, D.C.’s high schools were being given passing marks despite missing so much school that the District’s rules said they had been chronically absent and must be failed in their classes.  Many of last year’s high school graduates were reported to have missed so much school they were not qualified to have graduated. There had also been lots of emphasis on superficial projects that had been assigned for so-called credit recovery.

Earlier this month, Perry Stein reported, that as the 2018 school year ended, the Washington, D.C. City Council passed a law permitting chronically absent students to graduate: “High school seniors who missed more than six weeks of class would still receive their diplomas under an emergency measure approved by the D.C. Council, even as the city remains mired in a graduation scandal… The vote set up a potential showdown between the council and Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D), whose signature is necessary for the reprieve to go into effect. Bowser’s administration has said it opposes the measure….” By mid-June, Bowser still had not decided whether to sign the emergency law.

The school district’s new emergency rules announced last week would appear to be designed to appease members of the Council without Bowser’s having to sign the law. The new rules appear to be designed to satisfy concerns by members of the Council about acute challenges posed for students by extreme poverty: “(T)he proposed regulations come in the wake of a city-commissioned report that found that 1 in 3 high school graduates in 2017 received their diplomas despite accruing too many absences or improperly enrolling in makeup classes… Following the release of the city-ordered report in January, teachers and community members said that students have lives complicated by unstable homes, jobs and responsibilities for taking siblings to schools. In such an environment, attending school each day, in full, can prove challenging… The introduction of the updated rules Friday… suggests that school leaders are acknowledging the obstacles confronting students… The regulations allow schools to decide if they want to alter their academic days, including adding periods to the day to accommodate students who struggle to attend school during standard hours.” The new rules would still fail students with more than 30 unexcused absences during the school year.

Here are some questions that occur to me as I read about this new policy:

  • Should there be different expectations for students who cut school because they don’t care and students who cut school because they have to be responsible for a younger sibling or who cut school because they accompany their mother to eviction court?
  • If students are working jobs during school hours, can they be said in any way to be attending school?
  • Does it matter if students come to class regularly?
  • How does chronic absence by a large number of students affect the work of teachers and the dynamics of any classroom?
  • How can a school accommodate a large number of chronically absent students coming and going on different schedules?
  • What sort of makeup projects or exams can be designed that require the same sort of understanding of a subject that students regularly participating in class would likely gain?

Our nation’s school accountability policies under No Child Left Behind and its replacement, the Every Student Succeeds Act evaluate and rate schools and teachers by the test scores of their students and school graduation rates. What does this year’s Washington, D.C. graduation scandal—reflecting outrageous rates of chronic absence—expose about a national policy that judges school improvement by factors that are not a reflection of what is happening in school? Washington, D.C. is not the only school district that has struggled with chronic absence. Other districts are coping with this challenge by creating incentives and outreach programs to try to increase the number of students who are in school.

It seems important that Washington, D.C. is being forced to acknowledge publicly the kind of challenges students bring to school—family issues we pretend do not exist as we assume that all schools address the same sort of student needs. A wealthy suburban school district can set rules for students whose primary life responsibility during adolescence is attending school. But what about school serving students with a mass of other challenges?  If the D.C. Public Schools can meet students’ needs with more flexible scheduling and other accommodations to help students participate fully and do the work, that would be a welcome innovation other school districts could consider. But surely flexibility and accommodation should not reduce or replace academic rigor.

While we might understand why D.C. Council members sympathize with students who, due to their family challenges, cannot get to school, aren’t there good reasons for expecting students to be in school—especially if we expect to award a diploma to mark each student’s accomplishment of finishing high school?  Doesn’t society have a responsibility to set a better economic foundation for families so that students can comfortably fulfill their responsibility to be in school?  If that were the case, we could assume that students’ cutting school ought to be an infraction with clear cut consequences.

Rright now in the Washington, D.C. Public Schools—a school district that has made raising the graduation rate the single metric by which the District can tout itself as a national model—it will be important to ensure this emergency plan isn’t just a way to get students over and brag about raising the District’s graduation rate. The District will need to study carefully the reasons for seemingly outrageous rates of chronic absence among adolescents and announce clear rules for student attendance.

Most important, the District will need to demonstrate that any new policies designed to accommodate students’ personal needs neither diminish nor undermine the expectation that, to graduate from high school, students will complete a full academic program.

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.

D.C. Schools Chancellor Resigns After Jumping Daughter over 639 Students in High School Lottery

Antwan Wilson, the Chancellor of the Washington, D.C. Public Schools, resigned yesterday afternoon after a scandal caused when he jumped his daughter over 639 other students in a competitive lottery for the exclusive Wilson High School.  His family chose not to send her to her neighborhood’s zoned high school, Paul Lawrence Dunbar High School, one of Washington, D.C.’s lowest performing schools. Chancellor Wilson himself had created the policy that governed enrollment lotteries for the city’s selective schools to clean up cheating by the city’s powerful who have previously received the spaces they demanded in selective schools.

In their article last night reporting on Chancellor Wilson’s resignation, The Washington Post‘s Perry Stein, Peter Jamison and Fenit Nirappil describe the enrollment lottery policy for which Chancellor Wilson set new regulations early in his tenure: “The citywide lottery system allows families who are unhappy with their neighborhood schools to win a seat at a different D.C. public school or charter school, if there is excess capacity in that school.  But demand is great for the best-performing schools, where hundreds of families might compete for a handful of seats.  The notoriously competitive lottery system has been a long standing source of tension, and was mired in scandal not even a ear ago when investigators discovered that a previous chancellor allowed well-connected parents and government officials to evade lottery rules.”

Here is the Washington Post‘s editorial last Friday after Wilson’s action to privilege his daughter over others in the lottery became known: “SERIOUSLY? THAT has to be every Washingtonian’s reaction to the revelation that D.C. Schools Chancellor Antwan Wilson bypassed the city’s competitive lottery process to place his daughter in one of the city’s most desirable public high schools. Did he forget the scandal—less than a year ago!—that surrounded his predecessor’s use of discretionary transfers to circumvent the lottery for parents with influence? Did he not read the regulation he himself signed in response to that scandal prohibiting D.C. officials from requesting special treatment for their children?”

This week’s scandal merely compounds an ongoing high school graduation scandal and builds upon the record of a test cheating scandal under former Chancellor Michelle Rhee, a scandal whose full investigation Rhee prevented that has been confirmed by now-retired PBS NewsHour education reporter John Merrow.

After Michelle Rhee and Kaya Henderson, Wilson is the third in a string of corporate-reformer chancellors promising to raise school achievement and high school graduation in Washington, D.C., where the public and charter schools are managed as a “portfolio” under mayoral control.  Wilson, taught for a year in Raleigh, NC before serving as assistant principal or principal in Wichita, Kansas, Lincoln, Nebraska, and Denver,Colorado before earning a superintendent’s certificate from the unaccredited Broad Superintendents’ Academy.  He served as school superintendent in Oakland, California from July, 2014 until coming to Washington, D.C. on February 1, 2017.  As the Washington Post‘s Perry Stein reported on Saturday, “Wilson—who comes from the same education circle as Henderson and her predecessor as chancellor, Michelle Rhee—believes in testing and graduation metrics and supports the controversial evaluation system enacted by Rhee,which ties teacher bonuses and job security to the educator’s annual assessments. When he took over the school system last year, Wilson pledged to boost the four-year graduation rate to 85 percent by 2022, an ambitious goal he still stands by. The graduation rate—its validity thrown into doubt after the city-commissioned investigation—stood at 73 percent in 2017.”

After WAMU and NPR exposed a graduation scandal at the District’s Ballou High School last November, a situation in which students were being permitted to make up for sometimes weeks-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 across the District to determine if what had happened at Ballou might be widespread.  The Post‘s Perry Stein and Moriah Balingit describe findings of a 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.” Perry Stein adds: “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 4,000 times for the senior class, which numbered fewer than 200.” As the scale of the scandal has unfolded, Chancellor Wilson fired the District’s Chief of Secondary Schools and the principal and two assistant principals at Ballou High School.

The latest crisis in the D.C. Public Schools leadership is certainly a matter of poor judgement by Chancellor Antwan Wilson. The alarming and much broader high school graduation crisis—ramping up the graduation rate by pushing students through graduation when then have not met the requirements or have missed weeks or months of the senior year of high school—is far more indicative of deep problems.  With their annual IMPACT evaluations and their jobs at stake, teachers have systematically been pressured to make it look as though the D.C. Public Schools are a school district miracle.  In the title of his new book, Harvard’s Daniel Koretz captures the reality of what’s been happening in D.C. and other places when miracles are proclaimed: The Testing Charade: Pretending to Make Schools Better.

John Merrow and Thomas Toch Debate Michelle Rhee’s Strategy for Running Urban Schools

A debate about school reform has been raging on the pages of The Washington Monthly—between Thomas Toch, a defender of what is frequently called “corporate school reform” and John Merrow, the retired education reporter for the PBS NewsHour.  The subject: Washington, D.C. school reform as launched by Michelle Rhee and further evolved during the tenure of Kaya Henderson and others whom Henderson hired.  This now-old story about the D.C. public schools still matters, because the theories and practices introduced by Michelle Rhee a decade ago in the nation’s capital continue to drive the operation of urban school districts across the United States.

Thomas Toch formerly led the think tank Education Sector and now serves as the director of FutureEd, an education think tank at Georgetown University. The July-August, Washington Monthly published Toch’s  Hot for Teachers, a paean to what he believes is a decade of public school improvement between 2007 and 2016 in the nation’s capital. Toch is careful to point out that his subject is broader than Michelle Rhee’s tenure that ended with her resignation in October of 2010. As Toch describes the elevation of test scores across the District, however, and as he celebrates a crackdown on “bad teaching,” improved recruitment and retention of teachers, and broad-scale, data-driven school management, Toch’s rhetoric betrays a pro-corporate-school-reform bias, which must filtered as one reads his story:

Toch appreciates charter schools: “Some 43 percent of D.C. students were enrolled in charters in 2013, up from less than 15 percent a decade earlier.  Many of these schools, with names like DC Prep, KIPP DC, and Achievement Prep, were earning attention for their innovative strategies and strong results.  Foundations heaped money onto them, and the young talent entering teaching through prestigious pipelines like Teach for America were keen to work in the schools.” He also celebrates Michelle Rhee and Kaya Henderson’s strategy for working with school teachers: “Rhee’s successors at DCPS have redesigned teaching through some of the very policies that teachers’ unions and other Rhee adversaries opposed most strongly: comprehensive teacher evaluations, the abandonment of seniority-based staffing, and performance-based promotions and compensation.”  Before Rhee resigned, “Kaya Henderson, who had been Teach for America’s D.C. director and then managed Rhee’s New Teacher Project work in the city, supervised the project as the new chancellor’s chief of human capital.  She worked with Jason Kamras, a Princeton graduate who had arrived in Washington a decade earlier through Teach for America…. At the beginning of the 2009-10 school year, Henderson and Kamras launched the most comprehensive teacher measurement system ever implemented in public education.  It set citywide teaching standards for the first time ever… Under the new system, every teacher would be observed five times a year—three times by the administrators in their schools and twice by ‘master educators’ from the central office who would provide an independent check on principals’ ratings.”  Toch believes that fear is a useful strategy for making people work harder: “Rhee’s team deepened teachers’ angst…. Henderson ordered that student test scores make up 50 percent of teachers’ ratings if they taught tested subjects and grades. That turned out to be only 15 percent of the school system’s teaching force, but the move stoked anxiety and resentment throughout the city’s teaching ranks.”

Toch’s analysis continues beyond the transition from Chancellor Rhee to Chancellor Henderson. Noting that Henderson learned from Rhee’s mistakes, Toch emphasizes that after Rhee’s exit, Henderson introduced more support for good teaching—career ladders, for example, and collaboration among grade-level teams of teachers.  Toch does betray the top-down reformer’s bias, however: “There’s no doubt that the school reform stars aligned in Washington over the past decade: There was a rare infusion of talent in the central office; stable leadership enabled by mayoral control of city schools; freedom from key collective bargaining obstacles, and substantial funding, first from grants, then from savings from improvements in the city’s special education system.”

John Merrow, the retired PBS NewsHour reporter who has repeatedly investigated Michelle Rhee’s contentious tenure as the D.C. Chancellor, collaborated with Mary Levy to publish, in the September-October Washington Monthly, a rebuttal to Toch’s story.  Merrow has also expanded this story on his personal blog.  Merrow’s response to Toch centers on the Rhee years, because that is the subject Merrow knows best and because Merrow believes Toch’s distorted portrayal of a D.C. school improvement miracle is grounded in a biased understanding of Rhee’s troubled tenure.

Merrow points to gentrification as the source of much of the test score improvement in Washington, D.C.  He documents that achievement gaps by race, ethnicity and income have not closed: “Those results, however, stop looking so good once we disaggregate data about different groups of students.  Despite small overall increases, minority and low-income scores lag far behind the NAEP’s big-city average, and the already huge achievement gaps have actually widened.  From 2007 to 2015, the NAEP reading scores of low income eighth graders increased just 1 point, from 232 to 233, while scores of non-low-income students (called ‘others’ in NAEP-speak) climbed 31 points, from 250-282.  Over that same time period, the percentage of low-income students scoring at the ‘proficient’ level remained an embarrassingly low 8 percent, while proficiency among ‘others’ climbed from 22 to 53 percent.  An analysis of the data by race between 2007 and 2015 is also discouraging: black proficiency increased 3 points, from 8 percent to 11 percent, while Hispanic proficiency actually declined from 18 percent to 17 percent.  In 2007 the white student population was not large enough to be reported, but in 2015, white proficiency was at 75 percent.”

Merrow describes what he calls “central office bloat”: “Many of these highly paid non-teachers spend their days watching over teachers in scheduled and unscheduled classroom observations, generally lasting about thirty minutes…. Why so many of these teacher watchers?  Because those who subscribe to top-down management do not trust teachers.” Merrow bemoans the result: a collapse of morale along with widespread resignations of teachers and school leaders.  Some of this is because staff are being moved among schools, enhancing disruptive change, but he notes: “Unfortunately, the greatest upheavals are in schools serving large numbers of low-income children, kids who need stability wherever they can find it.”

As he re-posts his Washington Monthly article on his personal blog, Merrow adds several pages of what he has documented over the years in his investigation of a years’ long cheating scandal in Washington DC, a scandal exposed by U.S.A. Today in March of 2011, but, as Merrow has documented repeatedly, never investigated.  He castigates Toch for (in his July-August article) dismissing the extent of the pressure Rhee was placing on school principals and the widespread reach of the cheating.

Here is some of Merrow’s rebuttal: “Contrary to Toch’s assertions, cheating—in the form of suspiciously high rates of erasures of wrong answers and filling in the right ones—occurred in more than half of DCPS schools.  The changes were never thoroughly investigated beyond an initial analysis by the agency that had corrected the exams in the first place, CTB/McGraw-Hill.  Deep erasure analysis was never ordered by Rhee, her then deputy Henderson, or the mayor.  The ‘investigations’ Toch refers to were either controlled by Rhee and, later Henderson or conducted by inept investigators—and sometimes both… Rhee, and subsequently Henderson, tightly controlled the inquiries, limiting the number of schools that could be visited, the number of interviews that could be conducted, and even the questions, that could be asked.”

Merrow poses the essential question: “Why would so many schools be driven to cheat?  In her one-on-one meetings with all her principals, Rhee insisted that they guarantee test score increases and made it clear that failing to ‘make the numbers’ would have consequences.  The adults who subsequently changed answers, coached students during testing, and shared exams before the tests were intent on keeping their jobs, which depended on higher scores… The rookie Chancellor met one-on-one with all her principals and, in these meetings, made them guarantee test score increases. We filmed a number of these sessions, and saw firsthand how Rhee relentlessly negotiated the numbers up, while also making it clear that failing to ‘make the numbers’ would have consequences.”

Merrow dismisses Toch’s piece as corporate-school-reform hot air: “To remain aloft, a hot air balloon must be fed regular bursts of hot air.  Without hot air, the balloon falls to earth.  That seems to be the appropriate analogy for the District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS) during the ten-year regime (2007-2016) of Chancellors Michelle Rhee and Kaya Henderson.  Their top-down approach to school reform might not have lasted but for the unstinting praise provided by influential supporters from the center left and right—their hot air.  The list includes the editorial page of the Washington Post, (and) former U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan….”

Merrow dubs Toch’s article this summer as merely another draft of hot air.  He blasts Toch’s argument “that Rhee and Henderson revolutionized the teaching profession in D.C. schools, to the benefit of students. ”  And he calls Toch a cheerleader who, “obscures a harsh truth: on most relevant measures, Washington’s public schools have either regressed or made minimal progress under their leadership.  Schools in upper-middle-class neighborhoods seem to be thriving, but outcomes for low-income minority students—the great majority of enrollment—are pitifully low.”

Thomas Toch responds to Merrow’s allegations.  His response is printed by The Washington Monthly at the end of Merrow and Mary Levy’s report, Has D.C. Teacher Reform Been Successful?