Michelle Rhee and Florida Governor Rick Scott, for whom she is an education advisor
Michelle Rhee is the former superintendent of the D.C. School District. Chris Christie, New Jersey's Republican governor is pushing her to become the head of the New Jersey public school systems. Ms. Rhee is the new darling of the privitization of schools movement, and a national critic of teachers unions for impeding school improvement. She is also now under suspicion of having done far less for improvement of the D.C. schools than she has claimed.
USA Today just reported that a number of the schools in the D.C. school district have very questionable academic achievement tests results, with schools showing inordinate amounts of erasures on test forms that transferred answers for erroneous ones to correct ones:. The report focused on the results at one school that Ms. Rhee particularly touted as a success story:
Standardized test scores improved dramatically. In 2006, only 10% of Noyes' students scored "proficient" or "advanced" in math on the standardized tests required by the federal No Child Left Behind law. Two years later, 58% achieved that level. The school showed similar gains in reading.
Because of the remarkable turnaround, the U.S. Department of Education named the school in northeast Washington a National Blue Ribbon School. Noyes was one of 264 public schools nationwide given that award in 2009.
Michelle Rhee, then chancellor of D.C. schools, took a special interest in Noyes. She touted the school, which now serves preschoolers through eighth-graders, as an example of how the sweeping changes she championed could transform even the lowest-performing Washington schools. Twice in three years, she rewarded Noyes' staff for boosting scores: In 2008 and again in 2010, each teacher won an $8,000 bonus, and the principal won $10,000.
Noyes is one of 103 public schools here that have had erasure rates that surpassed D.C. averages at least once since 2008. That's more than half of D.C. schools. Erasures are detected by the same electronic scanners that CTB/McGraw-Hill, D.C.'s testing company, uses to score the tests. When test-takers change answers, they erase penciled-in bubble marks that leave behind a smudge; the machines tally the erasures as well as the new answers for each student. In 2007-08, six classrooms out of the eight taking tests at Noyes were flagged by McGraw-Hill because of high wrong-to-right erasure rates. The pattern was repeated in the 2008-09 and 2009-10 school years, when 80% of Noyes classrooms were flagged by McGraw-Hill.
Although all of the experts consulted by USA TODAY said such aberrations should trigger investigations at the school level, that did not happen in D.C. in 2008. No schools were investigated.
In November 2008, Deborah Gist, then the state superintendent of education, recommended that D.C. public schools and several charter schools investigate why their erasure rates were so high. "It is important to note that these (data) analyses do not suggest reasons for the high erasure rates," Gist wrote to the schools. "However, it is important that all procedures available to us are employed to guarantee the validity of the state assessment system."
Seven charter schools responded to OSSE and carried out probes. Gist's proposal met resistance from Rhee's staff, documents obtained by USA TODAY show. Memoranda flew back and forth for five months as D.C. school officials questioned the methodology and the rationale for an investigation.
Union officials say the pressure for high test scores may have tempted educators to cheat.
"This is like an education Ponzi scam," says Nathan Saunders, head of the Washington Teachers' Union. "If your test scores improve, you make more money. If not, you get fired. That's incredibly dangerous."
A former Noyes parent, Marvin Tucker, says he suspected something was wrong in 2003, when the test scores his daughter, Marlana, brought home from school showed she was proficient in math.
Tucker says he was skeptical because the third-grader was getting daily instruction from a private tutor yet struggled with addition and subtraction. "She was nowhere near where they said she was on the test," he says. "I thought something was wrong with the test."
He questioned Ryan, the principal, and teachers about his daughter's scores but no one could explain how she had scored so high, Tucker recalls. Ultimately, Ryan barred him from the school for a year, saying he had threatened staff members, Tucker says. Tucker denies that.
Tucker also points out that if his daughter was proficient as a third-grader, that didn't last. When Marlana moved on to middle school elsewhere in D.C., her test scores fell and she no longer was considered proficient in math, he says.Dana Goldstein, writing for The Daily Beast, discusses the revelations regarding the D.C. schools in relation to Campbell's Law, which speaks to the corrupting influence of incentives and punishments in the area of school testing:
In the social sciences, there is an oft-repeated maxim called Campbell’s Law, named after Donald Campbell, a psychologist who studied human creativity. Campbell’s Law states that incentives corrupt. In other words, the more punishments and rewards—such as merit pay—are associated with the results of any given test, the more likely it is that the test’s results will be rendered meaningless, either through outright cheating or through teaching to the test in a way that narrows the curriculum and renders real learning obsolete.
In the era of No Child Left Behind, Campbell’s Law has proved true again and again. When the federal government began threatening to restructure or shut-down schools that did not achieve across-the-board student “proficiency” on state reading and math exams, states responded by creating standardized tests that were easier and easier to pass. Alabama, for example, reported that 85 percent of its fourth-graders were proficient in reading in 2005, even though only 22 percent of the state’s students demonstrated proficiency on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the gold standard, no-stakes exam administered by the federal government.
Michelle Rhee came to her job as head of the D.C school district with 3 years teaching experience with Teach for America and no prior principal or superintendent experience. She had run a non-profit group, The New Teacher Project, which recruited and trained teachers for underachieving school districts.Simultaneously, instances of outright cheating were rising nationwide. The USA Today investigation on the probable cheating in Washington, D.C. is just one article in a must-read series based on student achievement data culled from 24,000 public schools across the country. The paper found 1,610 instances in which test score gains from year to year exceeded three standard deviations—a jump greater than that of 99.7 percent of all test-takers annually in any given state, the threshold at which statisticians agree that test results may be suspect.
One of the concerns I have with the Governor's plans for education, apart from the massive cuts, is over who is advising him. The people of Wisconsin hear him claiming that he is going to be providing tools for placing the focus back on quality instruction, but he really hasn't shared the plans with the public. I wonder if the governor has some competent studies that will satisfy the public that the changes he wants will be successful in ways that aren't illusory.