Network News

X My Profile
View More Activity

Don't Get Too Excited About Jump in D.C. Scores

Admit it. A lot of us are deeply invested in the argument over Michelle A. Rhee's tenure as chancellor of the D.C. schools. Is she a miracle or a monster? A smart educator or a bad administrator? So when we saw my colleague Nick Anderson's story Thursday revealing that D.C. students have made significant gains in mathematics since Rhee got here, we probably had a pronounced emotional reaction.

I think we should chill out. It is not a bad thing that D.C. math score increases were well above the national average, and that D.C. showed gains in both fourth and eighth grade math in the National Assessment of Educational Progress. But it doesn't mean that the city is anywhere near getting out of the deep hole of apathy and dysfunction that has characterized its schools for the last several decades.

One snapshot test result does not make Rhee a genius, as I am sure she would agree. We journalists give big play to such results. That is our job. They are news. People want to read about them. But I don't think they advance the argument between the anti-Rhee people and pro-Rhee people (I am in the latter camp) in any useful way.

I spent some time Wednesday with a team of very smart educators, led by New York schools veteran George Leonard, who are in their first year running two D.C. high schools, Coolidge and Dunbar. They are part of Rhee's experiment in having outsiders who have succeeded in raising achievement for low-income kids take over D.C. schools. They are making many changes. They have gotten the staffs of both schools to make sure that students are in their classrooms when class is in session, not wandering the halls as many did in previous years. But they know that the important improvements they want to make in teaching and student motivation are not going to happen overnight. What they want is for each student to make progress, and that is what participants in the Rhee-or-no-Rhee argument should want too.

I liked my colleague Bob McCartney's column Thursday on private funders in D.C. complaining that Rhee hasn't worked hard enough to win their support, and I liked my friend Richard Whitmire's oped Wednesday on why Rhee has to act fast to keep families from abandoning the regular public schools in favor of charters. They made good arguments that helped me understand what is going on.

But I think it would help the schools more if we focused less on what the chancellor is doing right or wrong, and focused more on what educators like the teachers at Dunbar and Coolidge are doing to help each child learn. If they establish healthy and encouraging relationships with all of their students, the test scores will take care of themselves.

By Jay Mathews  | October 15, 2009; 8:42 AM ET
Categories:  Jay on the Web  
Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   StumbleUpon   Technorati   Google Buzz   Previous: Washington Post Raises Money for Students
Next: The Pros and Cons of Squelching Gifted Students



Are Coolidge and Dunbar accepting all students, or do they have the choice to exclude some? I ask because schools that have to accept every student always score lower on test scores than schools who don't have to.

If they don't have to accept all students, they should do pretty well. But if they do, they may not do so well. Not because they didn't try but because of the difficulty of working with emotionally disturbed students.

By the way, the national math test scores improved most between 2000 and 2003. This was before Fenty and Rhee.

Posted by: resc | October 15, 2009 1:42 PM | Report abuse

"why Rhee has to act fast to keep families from abandoning the regular public schools in favor of charters. "

What would wrong with that?

That the very low performing and unmotivated students would be left behind and abandoned?

Posted by: edlharris | October 15, 2009 4:47 PM | Report abuse

For resc: Coolidge and Dunbar are neighborhood schools and have to accept whomever shows up from their enrollment areas. Like most DC high schools, their buildings have more capacity than they have students, due to the distaste of many parents for putting their kids in what have until now been chaotic situations.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | October 15, 2009 5:46 PM | Report abuse

What about the teachers who actually taught the 4th and 8th graders who are showing continuous advancement irrespective of who's in charge of the schools? Are they geniuses? Are they competent? Are they worthy of some praise for having scores go up instead of stay level or decrease?

These scores and the teachers predate the Rhee firing sprees of June and Oct'09, so of course she shouldn't take any credit for the scores. These are among the teachers she's been promising to "remove" if she could find a way (and lately, she has) yet they managed to get the scores up. I bet if she had been able to purge the teaching ranks 2 years ago, she'd be taking all the credit now, for her "reforms" having worked.

Jay, How about you find out the ages and terms of service and educational backgrounds of all the 4th and 8th grade teachers. Don't take Rhee's word for it - you know how she is with numbers - look in the files yourself and report back to us. Please.

Posted by: efavorite | October 15, 2009 6:41 PM | Report abuse

It is most objectionable to give credit to an administrator for goals achieved by classroom practitioners. The whole school reform movement is wrong-headed. Cracking the whip over teachers is not producing good results. Our kids are suffering from martinets whose sole goal is improved test scores.

Posted by: dwyerj1 | October 15, 2009 7:44 PM | Report abuse

It's really too bad that DC cannot celebrate the NAEP good news without it turning into a political food fight. Leaving aside short-term pronouncements on Rhee, over the longer term DC students have continuously improved math performance on several rounds of the NAEP. In fact, their gains have been so great over the past 6-8 years that it puts DC among the top few states in terms of improvement. I have yet to see any thoughtful discussion in the DC media about what produced this positive trend.

Posted by: dz159 | October 15, 2009 11:20 PM | Report abuse

Dz159 – I agree – let’s study some patterns to investigate how the system with the worse scores in the nation is steadily improving, despite regular upheaval in the system’s leadership. Here is a good story for educational writers and an essential story, I would think for understanding and improving student achievement.

Among other things, we should look at specific teachers and schools. It would be easy enough to determine how long certain teachers had been at certain schools and what the DC-CAS math scores at those schools had been since 2000 to look for trends and reasons. Let’s especially look at 4th and 8th grade teachers who have been teaching those grades at the same school since 2000 and talk to them. Get their perspective on what’s happening. Let’s ask them what changes they’ve seen in curricula, etc. and what they think has worked or not.

Let’s look at the other states where math scores have increased and look for patterns there. What teaching techniques are they using? What role does changing demographics play?

It seems like no one is curious enough to ask the obvious questions and instead just wants to heap praise on school leaders or blame on teachers. I heard Rhee on NPR last night taking credit for the rise and defending use of her “controversial” tactics, because ultimately they work!

I find this revolting. She is using a rise in scores, which is actually a smaller increase than the trend over the past nine years, to promote her “anything goes” attitude. She attributed the increase to her introduction of math coaches and innovative teaching techniques. Maybe so, but what was happening before that to account for the greater increase in scores? She’s not curious about that – doesn’t even mention it. It’s complete self-promotion.

Posted by: efavorite | October 16, 2009 8:17 AM | Report abuse

"Michael Moody, a special assistant to Rhee for academics, noted that more math instructional specialists have been in place in schools in the past two years and that teachers have been trained in how to make the subject more fun for students, especially through games. "It got them to push into higher-level thinking rather than just memorizing their times tables," Moody said."

Check out Core Knowledge and its link to Russ Whitehurst's latest, and see how the above statement is consistent with research.

The Education Next article on Rhee says that she has quietly accomplished a great deal on the administrtive side. What if she'd followed the wisdom of taking the log out of her own eye (by reforming administration as she did) before taking the motes out of everyone elses' eyes before she knew what she was doing?

Now she says she wasn't trying to nationalize her reforms just fix DC. If she'd taken that approach in the past (given DC's unique challenges and unique legal status) who would have needed to worry about her combativeness? If she, or anyone else want to reduce learning to measurable scores, that's none of my business.

But if she wants to impose her prejudices on my classroom, I want my union to fight her to the end.

And as your commenters have said, a lot of reforms can work if you "cream," but don't assume that those successes have relevance for the neighborhood schools that are left behind. Its great when some poor kids get the engaging instruction they deserve. But don't force the rest to endure even more chaos and rote instruction and test prep.

What if she'd put her considerable talents and the talents of the educators she recruited to "lighting a candle" as opposed to cursing the darkness and seeking scapegoats? In a district with "more money than god" with ability to get resources beyond anything my school could ever dream of, she could have lit a lot of candles.

Maybe Richard Whitmire wants us all to run a two minute offense nonstop through every game and through the entire season. If he tried teaching in an inner city neighborhood school, though, he'd understand that the time it takes to do a job right is the time it takes to do a job right. Like it or not, teaching is a reality-based exercise.

Posted by: johnt4853 | October 16, 2009 10:06 AM | Report abuse

I am uncharacteristically enthused about these results. The improvement in test scores relative to the national average is really unprecedented, and reflects increases not only in those meeting basic achievment, but also proficient and advanced. It is always important to look to demographics to explain a change like this, but a first glance would suggest that the modest demographic shifts aren't nearly enough to account for an improvement of this magnitude. Perhaps Rhee is doing something right. We should examine this closely.

But we must remember that test scores are the metric that matters, not the number of people whining about how Rhee hasn't sufficiently kissed up to rich people or teachers unions or whatever.

Posted by: qaz1231 | October 16, 2009 10:15 AM | Report abuse

qaz1231 - If you really think that "test scores are the metric that matters" then you should be less impressed with Rhee's role in the improved NAEP scores, as the rate of increase has not gone up since she's been here and has been rising through the tenure of all her predecessors.

I'm happy too that DC scores are improving while most other states are stagnant and that's why I think it's important to truly examine it - not just examine what Rhee is doing right to then use the results as a green light for whatever she wants to do next.

This is not logical, do you realize that?

Posted by: efavorite | October 16, 2009 10:29 AM | Report abuse

efavorite: These results are unprecedented. Yes, increases have occured in the past, but they've been narrower and roughly in step with increases in the national average. Look at the data: We see a combined 11 point rise in 4th+8th grade scores, compared to a national increase of 2 points. Nothing like that has ever occured before.

Posted by: qaz1231 | October 16, 2009 10:47 AM | Report abuse

qaz1231 - that's fine - let's study it. Let's not assume it's Chancellor Rhee's victory, especially since there's no reason to think that, given that DC scores have been increasing for years -- and they needed to - DC is still at the bottom of the heap. Given the existing upward DC trend and the fact that the teacher corps didn't change during that time, the way Rhee says it need to, her influence seems slight. Then again, maybe her new math programs had some measurable effect. Let's study it. We need to understand these things to actually help our children. That's what it's about, isn't it, not giving Rhee or anyone carte blanche.

What about those other states that have increasing scores despite the leveling trend across the country? How are their administrators reacting. Maybe there’s something to learn from them, instead of pressing on with little information or insight.

Posted by: efavorite | October 16, 2009 11:14 AM | Report abuse

efavorite: I absolutely agree. I said in my first post that this bears closer scrutiny, and fiddling with the NAEP data explorer I see that DC saw especially large score gains among whites, hispanics, and those NOT eligible for school lunch programs (although blacks and the poor did see better-than-average gains). I wish the Post had an education reporter with the time, inclination, and ability to delve into the data further. Ah well, blogs are replacing newspapers anyway...

Posted by: qaz1231 | October 16, 2009 11:43 AM | Report abuse

"DC saw especially large score gains among whites, hispanics, and those NOT eligible for school lunch programs... "

Wow - I bet we won't hear the chancellor or her supporters point that out - though I'm sure if the stats were reversed, they'd be trumpeting it to the skies. It makes me sick, really, the more I see that she's all about manipulating data to make herself look good.

Can you provide a link to that info, or do I have to fiddle with explorer myself? Can you print it out or copy it?

Have you checked or would you check on data from past years to see if the racial/ethnic ratios have changed?

Thanks for engaging with me on this, qaz1231.

As someone once mentioned in an earlier comments section - they found more insight and verifiable info in readers' comments than in the article.

Posted by: efavorite | October 16, 2009 1:07 PM | Report abuse

The results of the 2009 National tests were no better than the results of the previous Chancellor. In 2009 the results showed an increase of 5 points in averages. In 2005 there was an increase of 6 points. In 2007 there was an increase of 5 points.

Only the Washington Post heralds these test scores in an editorial yesterday and then have a columnist today tells us not to get excited about them.

The only difference between Ms. Rhee in regard to these National tests and the previous Chancellor was that the previous Chancellor showed better results without finding it necessary to totally disrupt the system.

Ms. Rhee has disrupted the school system and totally demoralized experienced teachers and even new teachers in the public school system. New teachers can only wonder about a system where 5 percent of teachers are fired 6 weeks into the start of the school year.

The predecessor of Ms. Rhee in National tests showed better gains in improvement than Ms. Rhee. This school leader was able to achieve these improvements without the turmoil and chaos that Ms. Rhee has brought to the school system.

The National test results show absolutely no significant improvement from the management techniques of "slash and burn" experienced teachers.

The view of Ms. Rhee is to fire teachers that do not show continuously greater improvement or improvement better than their predecessors. Based upon this Ms. Rhee should fire herself.

Posted by: bsallamack | October 16, 2009 2:49 PM | Report abuse

efavorite: It's probably easiest to go to this page:
and build your own queries. Here's one that I made (hopefully this link will work) showing a 14.54 (!!!) point gain in math among 8th-grade hispanics in DC, vs 3.59 for blacks:

It's good talking with you about this; I wish more people in education (and education journalism) looked critically at the numbers.

Posted by: qaz1231 | October 16, 2009 3:59 PM | Report abuse

for efavorite: I would love to see that data on 4th and 8th grade math teachers but when I have tried that in the past, in many other school districts, I have been told that violates privacy rules, or that they don't have the manpower to cull the files in that way. In some future nirvana, this stuff will all be on electronic data bases, but we aren't there yet. As for getting into the test data, and how they relate to demographics, that is also a good idea, but as you have pointed out yourself, one time test results don't tell us that much, and the same goes for demographic analysis of one time test results. We need a longitudinal survey that gives us more years of data, and we need real experts to look at it. This takes years of professional training. What reporters do when we get such data is to show it to pros, like our Dan Keating at the Post. It is a good idea, but we need more than these one time results.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | October 16, 2009 4:00 PM | Report abuse

Jay - Correct me if I'm wrong, but it's not that the raw data you describe doesn't exist. It's all there, the state DOEs have it going back years and years and years. And it's not that there's a lack of expertise either. I can only imagine the number of ed school and economics professors and doctoral students who wouldn't kill to have the opportunity to analyze that sort of longitudinal data. The issue is that the inclination to actually analyze it in a meaningful way isn't there. Or to your point, the inclination to provide the necessary access is missing. Who knows, hopefully with Tom Kane where he is now, things will change in this regard, but I''m not holding my breath.

Posted by: proxy_knock | October 16, 2009 4:21 PM | Report abuse

efavorite: Re demographics: this suggests that the racial changes have been small and not enough to account for this improvment; however it is possible that there have been within-race changes (are we getting smarter/more English-proficient hispanics, for instance?) The data is certainly out there; it just takes a critical mind and a certain amount of work to get it. If the Post has EVER published an article asking these types of questions, I've missed it.

Posted by: qaz1231 | October 16, 2009 4:32 PM | Report abuse

Jay, perhaps you or someone else here can explain to us what a gain of 6 points means in terms of student academic expertise. But I don't think such an explanation is in the cards.

Celebrating or bashing the "gains" is an idle exercise of positive vs. negative spin. The results tell us nothing either about student status/performance or about the instruction that is producing current conditions.

Posted by: DickSchutz | October 16, 2009 5:50 PM | Report abuse

For 2007 demographic data go to the bottom of the page for DC data

"Trial Urban District Assessment Snapshot Reports:
Mathematics, Reading, Science, Writing"

Press Mathematics or Reading.

Then press DC.

A report will appear that shows demographic data.

The system is a horror and there is no simple way to see results of Title 1 schools in comparison to non Title 1.

To see actual results for a State or DC look at your right most area of the screen and under the heading of Graphics press "Achievement Levels".

The reading National tests scores for 2009 must be really horrible since they will not be released until next year. There is no other explanation of this inability to release the data.

The national tests are the only real indicators of education in this country and these tests are not given yearly.

Instead of yearly national tests billions will be given for individual "standardized" tests that are meaningless.
Instead of wasting these billions on worthless test it would be better to simply stop this testing farce and use the money for additional teachers.

Posted by: bsallamack | October 16, 2009 5:52 PM | Report abuse

An excellent source of historical state testing data is available from the Center on Education Policy (CEP). Go to and click on the state testing data link.

Data are available for each state, unfortunately not the District of Columbia, showing trends from 1999-2008 or the most recent comparable years. One caveat is states often make changes in their tests such that data cannot be compared from year to year. The data currently available do not include 2009 results which in general have just recently been released by states.

Posted by: mgribben | October 16, 2009 5:56 PM | Report abuse

It's really too bad that DC cannot celebrate the NAEP good news without it turning into a political food fight. Leaving aside short-term pronouncements on Rhee, over the longer term DC students have continuously improved math performance on several rounds of the NAEP. In fact, their gains have been so great over the past 6-8 years that it puts DC among the top few states in terms of improvement. I have yet to see any thoughtful discussion in the DC media about what produced this positive trend.

Posted by: dz159
At one point there has to be recognition that improvement means no longer being at the bottom. DC still is at the bottom.

So far under Ms. Rhee the average score out of 500 from 2007 to 2009 has risen 5 points.

The DC score is still the lowest in the country and the failure rate of DC is still the highest in the country.

This is no better than the predecessor of Ms. Rhee and no cause for celebration.

If Ms. Rhee can do no better after firing teachers she should resign. Contrary to the belief of some, individuals should not be treated as garbage and simply fired on whim.

Ms. Rhee has not produced results to justify her actions and should resign or be forced out.

Posted by: bsallamack | October 16, 2009 6:34 PM | Report abuse

(although blacks and the poor did see better-than-average gains).

Posted by: qaz1231
I do not know where individuals are coming up with these statements.

Fourth grade math 2009
The lowest score for blacks in all states and the District of Columbia was 213.
The District of Columbia score was 213.
Tenn. and Nebraska also had a score of 213 for blacks.

According to NCES in 2007 the percentage of of blacks in the fourth grade was 84 percent.

The total score for all students in DC was 219 and has the distinction of being the lowest score in the nation.

It appears that whites in DC had the highest scores in the nation at 270 and that DC has the highest score difference in the nation between white and black students.

According to 2007 data whites made up only 6 percent of the school population.

Posted by: bsallamack | October 16, 2009 7:18 PM | Report abuse

But I think it would help the schools more if we focused less on what the chancellor is doing right or wrong,
Same message as the last time.

Ignore the actions of Ms. Rhee who runs the school system and pretend her actions make no difference to the school system.

The management style of Ms. Rhee is to demand performance and fire any teacher that she wants to fire.

I would call this the "inspire them with a whip" technique.

Ms. Rhee has made a name for herself proclaiming the evils of strong teacher unions in New York and other large cities. This is the whole rationale for her harsh management approach.

Apparently no one in Washington D.C. has recognized that DC does not have a strong teacher's union. If DC did have a strong union Ms. Rhee would have never been able to fire so many teachers.

The ideas of Ms. Rhee do not even fit the reality of DC.

Ms. Rhee has created an educational environment of work or die.

Intelligent educators try to motivate teachers to stretch out and allow children to grow. Ms. Rhee concept is to instill in teachers the idea that they will either produce or be fired.

It is time for Jay Mathews to avoid the issue and indicate whether he believes in the "inspire them with a whip" management technique of Ms. Rhee.

Oh I hope those new principals enjoyed the task of firing teachers six weeks into the new school year.

Posted by: bsallamack | October 16, 2009 7:45 PM | Report abuse

What they want is for each student to make progress, and that is what participants in the Rhee-or-no-Rhee argument should want too.
Yes but no progress will be made until Ms. Rhee goes.

Like it or not teachers are what make up a school system. Ms. Rhee has created a chaotic system where any teacher no matter their real performance might be fired. She has totally demoralized the entire teaching staff. Even new teachers are probably wondering at significant firings 6 weeks into the new school year.

At this point it is a matter of firing Ms. Rhee or immediately replacing every teacher in the system. Teachers in the system will only give lip service to educating children until Ms. Rhee is gone. There is no longer any illusion among teachers that their job is safe based upon their work. When experienced teachers see that the only reason experienced teachers are fired is because they were experienced they quickly understand the message.

When a general destroys the morale of the troops it is either get rid of the general or bring in all new troops.

Columnist continuously call for the firing of supposedly incompetent teachers but appear to want everyone to ignore a situation where a school administrator has destroyed a school system.

Posted by: bsallamack | October 16, 2009 8:04 PM | Report abuse

Terence C. Golden, chairman of the Federal City Council, an influential organization of business leaders active in education issues, said ...

"The facts get distorted in a situation like this," Golden said in an interview before his scheduled testimony. "No one is recognizing the contribution that Michelle Rhee is doing to make this school system better. Her decisions leading DCPS forward are really driven by a focus on children and student outcome."

I would not question the accuracy of that statement (except for the words "no one") but it is irrelevant. Its possible/probable that Rhee's moves produced an increase of X in effective teachers and a decrease of y in ineffective teachers. So do the ends justify the means?

The chaos Rhee has created will kill any chance of making her improvements sustainable. "Reformers" can now blame age and disability discriminaton laws along with the union, but they should look in the mirror. All of this was predictable.

I have no doubt Rhee asked her lawyers if she could win on this issue. But did she ask whether her policies are legally correct?

By the way, DC's unique status not only effects the law. It also provides a unique status in determining whether NAEP scores have increased for the kids who need the most help. I have no doubt that Post reporters will do their job. But when they report the facts on NAEP, will Rhee and her supporters pay attention to bad news as well as good? Facts may be stupid things, but if you want to help kids you need to confront reality and not just cultivate editorial support.

Posted by: johnt4853 | October 17, 2009 9:48 AM | Report abuse

Don't Get Too Excited About Jump in D.C. Scores
I think we should chill out. It is not a bad thing that D.C. math score increases were well above the national average,

Blacks in the DC public school system scored the lowest score in the country with a score of 213. Whites in the DC public school system scored the highest score in the country with a score of 270.
Blacks account for 84 percent of students in the school system while whites accounts for 6 percent.

The total score for all students for DC was 219. This was the lowest score in the nation.

Claims that "D.C. math score increases were well above the national average" are ludicrous when DC is still at the bottom. This may work for fans of the worst performing baseball team but it does not work for public schools.

These scores indicate that under Ms. Rhee there has been no change in a public school system that has the distinction of being at the bottom in performance in regard to the entire nation.

Posted by: bsallamack | October 17, 2009 1:43 PM | Report abuse

"if you want to help kids you need to confront reality and not just cultivate editorial support.'

That’s not how it works in Rhee's world. But there is hope that journalists will be more careful when reporting Rhee propaganda. Writer Michael Petrilli recently acknowledged that I made “a fair point about the achievement increases preceding Michelle Rhee’s time in DC” at

Journalists are quick to follow a popular storyline – it’s a lot easier than doing independent investigation. But they ultimately can’t argue with facts, once they have them. Now that verifiable facts are more available to the public, it’s more possible to keep journalists on track. Pity that we need to do it, however.

Thanks to all here for the research you’ve done on this topic.

Posted by: efavorite | October 19, 2009 8:27 AM | Report abuse

Jay - while access to NAEP data might be limited, access to DCPS data, teachers and teaching methods would be available if the Chancellor allowed it, or more to the point, if she thought it would serve her cause.

It's entirely possible to conduct an aboveboard, objective investigation into the rising DCPS math scores over the last 10 years. Maybe you can use your influence to help make it happen.

Posted by: efavorite | October 19, 2009 10:09 AM | Report abuse

efavorite - My guess is that access to student data in DC is an OSSE issue, not a DCPS issue. So the person you'd want to lean on is Kerri Briggs, not Michelle Rhee.

I would also guess that the WTU would fight tooth and nail to prevent any such student-level data analysis from being authorized and conducted. Unions in other parts of the country certainly have at least. The problem is that they see this type of analysis as a precursor (to the extent that it's a necessary precondition)to merit pay and related evaluation systems.

Posted by: proxy_knock | October 19, 2009 10:36 AM | Report abuse

bsallamack---people were fired, but it is a myth that Rhee fired them. i have talked to several principals about this. they made the decisions, based on what they could afford after their budgets were cut. the choice of whom to fire was totally theirs.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | October 20, 2009 7:03 PM | Report abuse

The comments to this entry are closed.

RSS Feed
Subscribe to The Post

© 2010 The Washington Post Company