Rhee D.C.’s person of the year?
Congratulations to D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee for being named the Federal City Council’s Person of the Year.
Now let’s look at the rationale behind the decision, explained in an advertisement in yesterday’s Washington Post on page B2 (the second page of the Outlook section) and see whether it holds together. It was signed by Frank Keating, president of the Federal City Council and former governor of Oklahoma.
For those who don’t know, the Federal City Council is an organization of business and professional leaders who take on specific projects to help local and federal agencies meet community needs in the nation’s capital. (Disclosure: Donald Graham, chairman of the board of The Washington Post Co., and my boss, is a vice president of the council.)
Ordinarily, it works quietly, and, as its Web site says, it “works without seeking publicity.”
The quarter-page ad, though, clearly explains why council members think Rhee deserves the designation. It talks about her background and what it suggests are her accomplishments since she was appointed chancellor three years ago by Mayor Adrian Fenty.
“I know that if we let Chancellor Rhee keep at it, she might make ours the best public school system in America,” the ad says. “Thank goodness for Mayor Adrian Fenty’s selection of Michelle Rhee to lead reform here in D.C.”
The ad was published a day after a story by my colleague Bill Turque about the controversy surrounding comments Rhee made in a national business magazine in which she alleges that some of the teachers laid off in October had had sex with students or had hit them. Critics asked if that were true why she waited until a layoff to get rid of them. Perhaps there is a good answer. We’d like to hear it.
The real questions lie in the Federal City Council’s own endorsement, which I think fails to give a completely accurate picture of what has and is happening. Giving credit where it is not due paints a false record and can encourage the wrong behavior.
Regarding her background as a teacher, the ad said, “Michelle Rhee steeled her focus as an idealistic Teach For America second grade instructor in the urban Baltimore school system. ... Her own experience with seventy children proved that, with the right classroom leadership and high expectations, every child could learn and be successful.”
Well, what we know about her three years in a Baltimore school--one of nine that were run by a private company, Education Alternatives--was what she put on her resume:
"Over a two-year period, moved students scoring on average at the 13th percentile on national standardized tests to 90 percent of students scoring at the 90th percentile or higher."
When asked about documentation by the D.C. Council, she said she had none, though several people said they remembered that she did improve standardized test scores in her class after teaching the same group of kids for two straight years.
Let’s say she did move those test scores as she said she did. In fact, I believe that kids who have no idea how to take a standardized test can dramatically improve their scores in a relatively short time when trained how to take it.
But that doesn’t mean they learned all that much, and, besides, teaching kids to pass standardized tests should never be the sole measure of success for anyone. Here, prominent researcher and educational psychologist David Berliner of Arizona State University explains why using a standardized test score as a single measure of academic achievement is nonsensical.
The real problem with the Federal City Council argument, however, is when it talks about the recent bump in D.C. scores in the National Assessment of Educational Progress, sometimes called “the nation’s report card” because it is the only test given in selected school systems across the country.
Indeed, my colleagues Nick Anderson and Turque wrote another story last month reporting that the D.C. system was the only one of 11 studied in 2007 and 2009 to make significant strides in fourth and eighth grade math scores. The analysis excluded charter school scores, but said that gains in fourth grade since 2003 were triple those found in the nation as a whole and roughly double those for all large cities.
The Federal City Council says this proves “that something transformational is happening in D.C.”
Let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
Surely the NAEP scores are good news. But they are only for math, not for reading, and in any case, Rhee isn’t really responsible for them. The report shows that the upward trend started before Rhee arrived, and even the chancellor felt it necessary to publicly give a nod to her predecessor, Clifford B. Janey.
It was Janey who changed the system’s math program--which emphasizes calculators and written responses that are aligned with the NAEP math test-- as well as academic standards and curriculum. Janey, however, was essentially run out of town by Fenty, and is now superintendent in the Newark public school system.
Besides, as Turque pointed out in this story, the rise in scores was noted in every student population, the biggest jump was in white students. The achievement gap between white and black students barely budged.
Change is hard and change takes time. It seems only fair to applaud Rhee her successes and point out when she falls short.
Giving her credit for things she hasn’t done doesn’t help anyone or anything, except, perhaps, her resume.
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| January 25, 2010; 10:10 AM ET
Categories: D.C. Schools | Tags: d.c. public schools, michelle rhee, school reform
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