The Three Rhing Circus of "Education Reform"

There's still one born every minute!

Guess what?  When you make people’s jobs and bonuses contingent on the performance of their students on high-stakes standardized tests, they have a really strong incentive to cheat!  Check out the details of Michelle Rhee’s tenure as Chancellor of the Washington, D.C. schools as reported by USA Today this week:

Michelle Rhee, then chancellor of D.C. schools, took a special interest in [the Crosby S. Noyes Education Campus, a school in northeast Washington]. 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.

A closer look at Noyes, however, raises questions about its test scores from 2006 to 2010. Its proficiency rates rose at a much faster rate than the average for D.C. schools. Then, in 2010, when scores dipped for most of the district’s elementary schools, Noyes’ proficiency rates fell further than average.

A USA TODAY investigation, based on documents and data secured under D.C.’s Freedom of Information Act, found that for the past three school years most of Noyes’ classrooms had extraordinarily high numbers of erasures on standardized tests. The consistent pattern was that wrong answers were erased and changed to right ones.

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.

Gee, who ever could have predicted this?  Let me just quote high-stakes testing apostate Diane Ravitch:

[Rhee’s] celebrity is not built on her success in D.C., however, which now appears to be a chimera.

Her celebrity results from the fact that she has emerged as the national spokesman for the effort to subject public education to free-market forces, including competition, decision by data, and consumer choice. All of this sounds very appealing when your goal is to buy a pound of butter or a pair of shoes, but it is not a sensible or wise approach to creating good education. What it produces, predictably, is cheating, teaching to bad tests, institutionalized fraud, dumbing down of tests, and a narrowed curriculum.

See also Dana Goldstein’s article on what The Daily Beast calls “Michelle Rhee’s Cheating Scandal.”   And of course, Bob Somerby at The Daily Howler has been all over this Rhee-search this week.  Ravitch is correct:  it’s Rhee’s glibertarian free-marketeerism that is responsible for her celebrity, because there is no evidence that her methods produce results.  She’s touting a faith-based scheme to reform schools.  No one wants to hear what honest educators know, which is that standardized tests are a pretty poor measure of “learning,” and that better education costs more money, not less.  (Any honest person knows this, too.  They understand why Dana Hall costs $37,375 this year for the day school and Greeley-Evans District 6 schools here in Colorado spend $7,645 per year per student [2007-08 figures].  Most people know that generally speaking, we get what we pay for.  Those parents with the spare coin to send their daughters to the tony private school–do we think they’re stupid, or do we think they’re lucky?)  For more on the race to the bottom of “educational reform,” see Tenured Radical this week, too.

Dig this, from the USA today story:

From the start, Rhee emphasized a need to raise scores, restore calm to chaotic schools and close those with lagging scores and small enrollments. She paid bonuses to principals and teachers who produced big gains on scores. She let go dozens of principals and fired at least 600 teachers. Others retired or quit.

Turnover was brisk. Richard Whitmire, author of The Bee Eater, a biography of Rhee, reported that Rhee hired 1,918 teachers during her three years in office –– about 45% of those on the payroll last October. Only 2,318 current teachers had been hired before Rhee took charge.

The pressure on principals was unrelenting, says Aona Jefferson, a former D.C. principal who is now president of the Council of School Officers, representing principals and other administrators. Every year, Jefferson says, Rhee met with each principal and asked what kind of test score gains he would post in the coming school year. Jefferson says principals told her that Rhee expected them to increase scores by 10 percentile points or more every year. “What do you do when your chancellor asks, ‘How many points can you guarantee this year?’ ” Jefferson says. “How is a principal supposed to do that?”

Rhee churned through principals. TheWashington Post reported that Rhee appointed 91 principals in her three years as chancellor, 39 of whom no longer held those jobs in August 2010. Some left on their own, either resigning or retiring; other principals, on one-year contracts, were let go for not producing quickly enough.

Awesome management philosophy, Captain Hook!  When the choice is either walk the plank or join the pirates, what do you think most of the Lost Boys will do? 

How do such obvious and complete hacks like Rhee become media and municipal government darlings?  Clearly, politicians and policy-makers are much more open to hearing about how they can get something for nothing.  They’re desperate to believe that teachers (among all laborers) are economically irrational and they’ll do a better job and work harder while under vicious political attack and will not cheat on high-stakes tests even when their choice is being fired or receiving a $8,000-$10,000 bonus for getting the answers right, somehow.

As the old Hole song “Gutless” goes, “I don’t really miss God, but I sure miss Santa Claus.”  Don’t we all miss the days of our youth, when we believed that it was possible to get something for nothing?  I swear, this Three Rhing Circus (bluster, cheat, move on down the road before you’re caught) would be funny if this country weren’t so full of damn fools who believe her.

0 thoughts on “The Three Rhing Circus of "Education Reform"

  1. My son brought home a practice test for our state’s standardized test just yesterday. And lo and behold there was a question for which the “correct” answer was WRONG. On top of all of the other problems of relying on testing, they can’t even get the questions right?!


  2. Eldest is writing her provincially-mandated literacy test today which insists, among other matters, that short essays that go beyond the confines of the eight lines provided are marked down.

    While I’m the queen of concision, even I think that’s impossibly short in which to check high school students’ composition abilities. But it’s all they can afford to mark in terms of teacher time since teachers from other schools in the same district have to do the marking (talk about another unfunded mandate, eh?).

    To assess students and to teach them? It takes time and time is money except, obviously, when it comes to teachers. I am so impressed with the teachers at our schools, many of them my former students, who pour their heart and soul into the job. They’re decently but not lavishly paid. They’re generally well-administered by the principals and, thank goodness, there’s a distinct lack of political hacks running districts.

    There’s not the “teacher hate” in Canada that exists in the states, at least nowhere near to the extent that I see in the papers, blogs and television news from south of the border. Yet another reason I love my adopted country!


  3. “No one wants to hear what honest educators know, which is that standardized tests are a pretty poor measure of “learning,” and that better education costs more money, not less.”

    Yes. Yes, yes, yes.

    But what do teachers now about their jobs?


  4. Does this mean my data-based, assessment-driven scheme to raise batting averages in the National League Central this year is doomed to be exposed, on the VERY FIRST DAY of its rollout, too?!? I was going to call in my gimpy third baseman and ask how many more infield hits do you think you can leg out by, say, July 4? And that was just the start of the model!


  5. Education is not a hedge fund; you don’t make huge profits/advances overnight. One can teach k-12 in about 2 years, sadly more than 90% of the students will fail. A certain percentage can and does speed learn. Time is a double factor: it takes time to learn and it takes even more time to improve schools.

    Rhee represents the projection of our financial, and fraudulent, system into education, budgeteering, crime, drugs and everything else. Life at the speed of a microwave oven.

    Rhee left many corpses behind her, she encourages other ignorant people, e.g. Obama, to follow the wrong path, she harmed DC students that were already badly wounded by a cruel society.


  6. Re “we get what we pay for” – I agree, but beyond that I’m lost. Obviously some teachers are better than others. It doesn’t seem crazy to me to suggest that one of the things we need to “pay [more] for” is better teachers. How do we tell which ones those are? In a reasonably consistent and equitable way across millions of teachers nationwide? Or is that an impossibility?


  7. How do we tell which ones those are? In a reasonably consistent and equitable way across millions of teachers nationwide?

    Is there a nationalized system for rating and ranking any other professionals? What in this post suggested that I would find such a system deisrable? (This post is more about the fraudster-administrators like Rhee, not about my brilliant ideas for reforming American education, which I must admit are far from coherent. But then, I’m not peddling my mad skillz for reforming major municipal school systems–I’m just calling b.s. on the fraudster-administrators.)

    States license and regulate professionals like physicians, attorneys, cosmetologists, and teachers. I haven’t heard anyone indict the state licensure system or blame it for the alleged widespread ills of American K-20 education. I’m just sick of the blame-the-teachers rhetoric when it’s clear that fraudster-administrators are much more expensive and have the potential to do much greater harm.


  8. @ ik: Teachers’ pay is no where near equitable nationally anyway. Regional disparities will always exist, if only because of differences in local costs of living, etc. One area’s comfortable income is another’s barely-cost-of-living. I think when people talk about paying more, they mean generally we need to recognize that our cultural values one thing: how much people make. And if we don’t raise salaries across the board in a general sense we will never attract greater “talent” (ie the Finnish model where the best and brightest don’t become doctors and lawyers and bankers, they become teachers). Of course all of this is predicated on a cultural shift wherein Americans suddenly stop treating teachers with contempt. So I’m not holding my breath. But I disagree strenuously in the idea of “bonuses” for “good” teaching, precisely because evaluating this is pretty absurd, and incentive models don’t translate to things like teaching. No matter how highly paid or whatever bonus structure, there will always be some teachers who are better than others. While I agree that the stunningly incompetent should be shown the door, I’m troubled by the idea the circulates in some places that our goal should be only have good or “great” teachers. There’s always going to be a range. Focusing on getting only great teachers, IMO, is another, more insidious way, of treating teachers with contempt, because it’s so easy to NOT meet that standard. (Not that I’m saying that’s what your comment implies.) So for example, some people in teaching colleges have their merit raises tied to student evaluations as a method of ranking their “teaching effectiveness”. Are the teachers with the highest scores the best teachers? Maybe, and maybe not. We know there’s a correlation between higher grades and higher evals. The same problem applies looking at test scores. So what I think should happen is this (speaking in terms of pure fantasy): 1) Americans should have respect for teachers and the work they do; 2) teachers should be well-paid and not blamed for every single problem that America’s children have – ie creating incentives for people to WANT to become teachers; and 3) more young people should be encouraged and mentored to become teachers themselves. Among other things.


  9. Pingback: Goldbricking teacher’s unionist feeding at the public trough : Historiann : History and sexual politics, 1492 to the present

  10. Anyone involved in, reporting on, or policy-making about education reform should be required to read Cuban and Tyack’s *Tinkering Toward Utopia* and take a 3-question standardized T/F test on it.
    1. Actual, enduring change in schools occurs overnight.
    2. It is possible to predict what reform efforts will take root.
    3. Planned reform always works as its architect says it will.


  11. In a discussion yesterday with my high school students about standardized tests, a full 60% admitted that they maybe read the first few, then got bored and bubbled randomly or in patterns. When informed that some politicians were hoping to tie teacher evaluations to scores and improvement on those tests, possibly even firing teachers whose students failed to improve, they spent about two minutes roundly mocking the absurdity of the idea. Then, one bright child asked “Wait, so, like, if we hated a teacher we could bomb the test on purpose?!” Yep. Yes indeed. These “reform” architects are right in touch with the teenage mind.


  12. When I’m feeling foily (as in pulling my tinfoil hat down over my eyes and ears) I suspect that this is exactly the kind of Merry Pranksterism that “reform” advocates have in mind. It’s all about making teachers feel vulnerable, and all about busting up their unions.

    Any real “reform” that results from this kind of policy will be purely accidental.


  13. Wait, am I missing something here?

    “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.”

    I agree that the other data cited in the article is damning–but isn’t it a simple mathematical fact that half of the sample has to come out above the average? And then if you looked at multiple years, it’s overwhelmingly likely that more than half of schools would exceed the average at least once? (The alternative would be that the same schools exceeded the average every single year, so exactly half exceeded rather than more than half–and that seems like a much more suspicious result.)


Let me have it!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.