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Despite Test Scores, Shaw Is on the Right Track

On July 11, Brian Betts, principal of D.C.’s Shaw Middle School at Garnet-Patterson, was at Dulles International Airport about to leave for a vacation in Spain. He was feeling good. His first year running a school whose students struggle with poverty and neighborhood strife had gone well, he thought. Quarterly test results were encouraging. Attendance was up. Parents were happy. Some of his staff had gone so far as to enroll their own children at Shaw.

His cell phone rang. “Principal Betts? This is Chancellor Rhee.”

“Hi Chancellor,” he said.

“I wanted you to know that I am looking at the DC-CAS scores,” the D.C. Schools Chancellor said, “and you’re not going to be happy.”

“Okay,” Betts said. Uh-oh, he thought.

“You did not get the bump that you wanted to get,” she said.

“Okay,” he said. Not okay, he thought.

“But I want you to know I am not worried.”

Despite the brave words, it was not a good moment for Betts or Michelle Rhee. She considers him one of her best hires, an energetic, personable administrator stolen from Montgomery County. When celebrities or reporters asked to visit a school last year, she often sent them to Shaw. She arranged for me to visit several times for a series of columns on a principal’s first year.

Now her poster boy for reform appears to be in trouble, bringing I-told-you-so blog posts from many people who don’t like Rhee, her ideas or her brash style.

How bad was Shaw’s first year? It depends a bit on how you read the data. According to the State Superintendent of Education’s web site, Shaw dropped from 38.7 to 30.5 in the percent of students scoring at least proficient in reading, and from 32.7 to 29.2 in math.
But those were not the numbers Rhee read to Betts over the phone.

Only 17 percent of Shaw’s 2009 students had attended the school in 2008, distorting the official test score comparisons. Rhee instead recited the 2008 and 2009 scores of the 44 students who had been there both years. It didn’t help much.

The students’ decline in reading was somewhat smaller; it went from 34.5 to 29.7. Their math scores actually increased a bit, from 26.2 to 29.5. But Shaw is still short of the 30 percent mark, far below where Rhee and Betts want to be.

Is this the beginning of the decline and fall of Michelle Rhee and her pack of intense, data-spouting principals, like Brian Betts? Some experts and online commenters, smart people concerned about public education, think it is. They will not mourn the passing of this latest, and most self-confident cast in the endless melodrama of the D.C. schools.

I remain on the other side of the argument. Despite the sniping at Rhee, the best teachers I know think that what happened at Shaw is a standard part of the upgrading process. I have watched Betts, his staff, students and parents for a year. The improvement of poor-performing schools has been the focus of my reporting for nearly three decades. The Shaw people are doing nearly everything that the most successful school turnaround artists have done.

They have raised expectations for students. They have recruited energetic teachers who believe in the potential of impoverished students. They have organized themselves into a team that regularly compares notes on youngsters. They regularly review what has been learned, what some critics thoughtlessly dismiss as “teaching to the test.” They consider it an important part of their jobs.

That’s how it’s done, usually with a strong and engaging principal like Betts. His five days in Spain were marred by his worries over the test results. But after recharging his spiritual batteries at the Montserrat monastery, he came home convinced he was on the right track.

He had some good news. All of his teachers were back, except the three he fired last spring for failing to meet the school’s new standards. His first parent meeting in 2008 had only two attendees, but back-to-school night last week drew more than 100. On the DC-Comprehensive Assessment System tests in 2008, no Shaw boys scored Advanced, the top level, but this year, 15 reached that mark in reading and ten in math. Last winter, several eighth-graders begged Rhee to add a ninth grade so they could stay at Shaw. She said yes. About 100 students have enrolled.

Betts and his teachers have more plans. Last year, he said, “we weren’t a rigorous school.” His priority was to establish routines and security that would lead to academic gains. He did not emphasize homework, but that will change this year.

He is not new to disappointment. In Montgomery County 13 years ago, he was part of a team that nearly killed themselves raising standards for a new middle school full of students from low-income families. He was stunned to find that the school achieved no test score gains its first year. But the next year it began a surge that took it to a new level.

Numbers, he said, are just a way to confirm you are establishing a healthy relationship with each child. When the scores start going up, he wants to have created a culture at Shaw that will prevent them from going back down.

By Washington Post editors  | September 28, 2009; 6:00 AM ET
Categories:  Jay on the Web, Metro Monday, dc schools  
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Next: 10 Ways to Pick the Right School


One critical article on Rhee (Cheaters, call me), and then back to worshipping her and doing PR for her. Too bad.

However, one thing you did miss: based on the new teacher evaluation process, Impact, all teachers teaching subjects that tested by the DC CAS would have been rated ineffective! If you are a value-added teacher (i.e. teach a class that takes the DC CAS) then 55% of your evaluation is your student's improvement from one year to the next. Thus, all those teachers at Shaw would have been rated a 1. The Impact says that those teachers who do not meet the projected improvement in average scale score will be rated a one. No excuses, no circumstances, nothing.

Which, of course, makes your article completely invalid. Nice job. Good thing you are evaluated by Rhee.

Posted by: mfalcon | September 28, 2009 7:56 AM | Report abuse

I read your writing quite frequently and am struck by how most of the schools that you base your ideas upon on either KIPP or in DC. What schools outside the KIPP/Rhee range do you think are getting it right? Are any of them measured, successful, by something other than standardized tests?

Posted by: dianalaufenberg | September 28, 2009 8:29 AM | Report abuse

to mfalcon--- I am intrigued by yr post. Please tell me more. I was under the impression that it was not just one-year gains that were to be calculated, but that they were longitudinal, so that those Shaw teachers would also get credit for any gains made by the 83 percent of Shaw students whose improvement, or lack of it, does not show up in any of the available stats. Please enlighten me. And don't I get any credit for saying those of you are the other side are good folk? We disagree. By next year we will know which of us is right, at least in the short term. (and that appeal for stories about cheating was not aimed just at people in DC.)
For dianalaufenberg, i have been impressed by the gains I have seen at the Green Dot schools, the Uncommon Schools, and schools run by other charter organizations like Yes, Aspire, Noble Street and Achievement First. I have been written often of improvements at Barcroft and Wakefield in Arlington, Mt Vernon, Annandale and Stuart high schools in Fairfax, most of the low income schools in Montgomery County, BASIS in Tucson, TAG and SEM in Dallas, the American Indian Charter in Oakland, the Benwood Iniative schools in Tennessee, University Park in Worchester, Mass. and of course Central Park East Secondary School in NYC. All of these schools have some achievement test gains, but many of the high schools have shone in my Challenge Index, which ignores test scores but instead looks at participation in college-level tests, and many have done well in reducing dropout rates and improved teaching practices, including more projects, more writing and better use of field trips. There are several more, all distinguised by success in raising the level of teaching of low income kids, and I keep looking for more. Let me know if you know of some.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | September 28, 2009 1:18 PM | Report abuse

Mr. Mathews: thank you again for reading and responding to posts. As for the new evaluation it really is based on one year to the next. So, for instance, teachers that have 4th grade this year 50% of their evaluation will be as follows:
1. They will take the average scale score on the DC CAS for last year (when they were 3rd graders), and they will only look at the scores for the kids in the current 4th grade class.
2. Rhee will provide a "predicted growth" for the students' average scale score on the DC CAS in the spring on the 4th grade test. NOTE: this is growth--meaning a positive increase.
3. In the spring, teachers that "beat the odds" and surpass the predicted growth in scale score (from 3rd grade to 4th grade) may get a 3 out of 4 for 50% of their evaluation. The example in the IMPACT evaluation guide has the teacher exceeding the predicted average scale score by 10 points and it calls that "quite respectable." Meaning a 3 NOT a 4! "RAW value-aded scores that are substantially above the prediction will be converted to final scores that are closer to 4.0.
4. For Shaw, if they were evaluated last year, their average scale scores will obviously be "substantially below the prediction" so 50% of their evaluation "will be converted to final scores that are closer to 1.0" out of 4. Additionally, another 5% of their evaluation will be on the entire school's DC CAS scores. In conclusion, for the shaw teachers in your article 55% of their evaluation will be a 1, THUS, they will have their salary frozen and will be terminated the following year.

For clarity, only those teachers Rhee calls "Educators with value added" will have 55% of their evaluation as described above. You must teach a DC CAS testing subject to be an "Educator wit value added." The rest of teachers are "General Education Teachers Without Individual Value-added." These poor teachers with no value (per Rhee) will only have 10% of their evaluation based on DC CAS results (the 10% will be based on the meeting or "Beating the odds" and exceeding the schools' predicted growth in average scale scores.

Please get a copy and Rhee's "IMPACT" or "The District of Columbia Public Schools Effectiveness Assessment System for School-Based Personnel.

I would really appreciate an article about the evaluation system, because I think there are serious problems with it. For example, the 3rd grade DC CAS is on 3rd grade skills so it cannot be compared with the 4th grade test because the 4th grade test is a test on 4th grade skills. They are two different tests! Also, it is a criterion referenced test---the scale scores cannot be compared year to year.

It would be great if you respond to this post. Thanks.

Posted by: mfalcon | September 28, 2009 9:27 PM | Report abuse

You know, I don't want Rhee or even her handpicked golden children to fail.

I'm a parent in this system and while I admittedly put my child first, I have become very attached to the children in our school. I have an enormous soft spot for them and I hope they have a good school to attend after elementary school.

What's frustrating about this article and Ms. Rhee is that Mr. Betts gets the benefit of the doubt, while the hard-working educators in our building get threats.

When I picked up my 7 year old yesterday I was told, "The chancellor's goons are the building."

Even at 7 this child can pick up on the worry of the faces of his teachers and administrators. The thing that's sad is, I've had my kids in a DCPS where the principal and most of the teachers deserved to be threatened and bullied.

What makes me disgusted is Rhee can't see the difference between a good school and a bad one.

Based on your 10 tips for selecting a school Jay, my child's present school would do awfully well. However the only thing that matters to this Chancellor is the DC-CAS.

We don't cheat at our school and we've found that some of our student body, especially ELLs struggle. Our last CAS scores were not great.

I just hope our principal sticks around until my kids are ready for a middle school. And yes, we're headed to the charters. I've grown weary of Rhee and her drama.

Posted by: Title1SoccerMom | September 29, 2009 12:02 PM | Report abuse

Jay Matthews We are awaiting your response to MFalcon.

Posted by: simplewords999 | September 30, 2009 5:07 PM | Report abuse

for simplewords999--- A question as good, and as complicated as MFalcon's deserves a good answer, which is going to take me some time, since I had no details on the plan until I saw Bill Turque's story. I am going to be talking to Jason Kamras about this, asking a lot of questions, and will do a blog post on what I learned. There is a very high level of erudition among the people who comment on this blog. I find it both exciting and exhausting.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | October 1, 2009 6:28 PM | Report abuse

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