Friday, August 2, 2013

The Op-ed no one wanted to print

When it comes to the education beat, this guy has one hell of a resume.
John Merrow began his career as an education reporter with National Public Radio in 1974, with the weekly series, “Options in Education.” In 1984, Merrow branched out into public television. He served as host of The Merrow Report, an award-winning documentary series, and currently is the Education Correspondent for PBS NewsHour. Merrow’s work has taken him from community colleges to kindergarten classrooms, from the front lines of teacher protests to policy debates on Capitol Hill. His varied reporting has continually been on the forefront of education journalism.
Of course, all of these qualifications don't necessarily make a person right, but they generally do make a person publishable. That's what makes this story curious, because Merrow can't seem to get anyone to publish the following op-ed. This is the second time in a row that he's found newspapers and magazines reluctant to publish reporting on Micelle Rhee.

As mentioned before, Rhee has gone from feted to indefensible so quickly that it's difficult for most journalists and pundits to cover her current activities without looking comically gullible for swallowing her previous rhetoric. (And journalists don't like looking gullible.)


"Today, too many of America’s children are not getting the quality education they need and deserve. StudentsFirst is helping to change that with common sense reforms that help make sure all students have great schools and great teachers." (StudentsFirst press release, emphasis added)

Michelle Rhee created StudentsFirst after leaving her post as Chancellor of Washington, DC’s Public Schools in the fall of 2010. She announced her intentions on “Oprah” that December: to fix America’s schools by enrolling one million members and raising one billion dollars.[2]

Easily America’s most visible education activist, she has been crisscrossing the country lobbying for change and donating money to candidates whose policies she supports. StudentsFirst claims to have helped pass 110 ‘student-centered policies’ in 18 states.

Because Ms. Rhee is trying to persuade the rest of the country to do as she did in Washington, it’s worth asking what her ‘common sense reforms’ accomplished when she had free rein to do as she wished.

She was definitely in charge. Her boss, a popular new mayor, told his Cabinet that trying to block his Chancellor was a firing offense.  The business community, a public fed up with school failure, and the editorial pages of The Washington Post were enthusiastic supporters. Moreover, she had virtually no opposition: the local school board had been abolished when the Mayor took over, and the teachers union, reeling from its own financial scandals, had an untested rookie president. She knew how lucky she was.

"I’m living what I think education reformers and parents throughout this country have long hoped for, which is, somebody will just come in and do the things that they felt was in the best interest of children and everything else be damned. (Interview, fall 2007)"

She lived that dream for 40 months.  She opened schools on time, added social workers, beefed up art, music and physical education, and dramatically expanded preschool programs.  The latter may represent her greatest success, because children who began their schooling in the expanded preschool program tend to do well on the system’s standardized test in later years.

Ms. Rhee made her school principals sign written guarantees of test score increases. It was “Produce or Else” for teachers too. In her new system, up to 50% of a teacher’s rating was based on test scores, allowing her to fire teachers who didn’t measure up, regardless of tenure.  To date, nearly 600 teachers have been fired, most because of poor performance ratings. She also cut freely elsewhere–closing more than two-dozen schools and firing 15% of her central office staff and 90 principals.

When Ms. Rhee departed in October 2010, her deputy, Kaya Henderson, took over. She has stayed the course for the most part, although test scores now make up–at most–35% of a teacher’s rating score.

Some of the bloom came off the rose in March 2011 when USA Today reported on a rash of ‘wrong-to-right’ erasures on standardized tests and the Chancellor’s reluctance to investigate.  With subsequent tightened test security, Rhee’s dramatic test scores gains have all but disappeared. Consider Aiton Elementary: The year before Ms. Rhee arrived, 18% of Aiton students scored proficient in math and 31% in reading. Scores soared to nearly 60% on her watch, but by 2012 both reading and math scores had plunged more than 40 percentile points.

But it’s not just the test scores that have gone down. Six years after Michelle Rhee rode into town, the public schools seem to be worse off by almost every conceivable measure.

For teachers, DCPS has become a revolving door. Half of all newly hired teachers (both rookies and experienced teachers) leave within two years; by contrast, the national average is understood to be between three and five years. Veterans haven’t stuck around either. After just two years of Rhee’s reforms, 33% of all teachers on the payroll departed; after 4 years, 52% left.

It has been a revolving door for principals as well.  Ms. Rhee appointed 91 principals in her three years as chancellor, 39 of whom no longer held those jobs in August 2010. Some chose to leave; others, on one-year contracts, were fired for not producing quickly enough.  Several schools are reported to have had three principals in three years.

Child psychiatrists have long known that, to succeed, children need stability.  Because many of the District’s children face multiple stresses at home and in their neighborhoods, schools are often that rock. However, in Ms. Rhee’s tumultuous reign, thousands of students attended schools where teachers and principals were essentially interchangeable parts, a situation that must have contributed to the instability rather than alleviating it.

Although Ms. Rhee removed about 100 central office personnel in her first year, the central office today is considerably larger, with more administrators per teachers than any of the districts surrounding DC.  In fact, the surrounding districts reduced their central office staff, while DC’s grew.  The greatest growth in DCPS over the years has been in the number of central office employees making $100,000 or more per year, from 35 when she arrived to 99 at last count.

Per pupil expenditures have gone up sharply, from $13,830 per student to $17,574, an increase of 27%, compared to 10% inflation in the Washington-Baltimore region. So have teacher salaries; DC teachers now earn on average more than their counterparts in nearby districts in Virginia and Maryland.

Enrollment declined on Ms. Rhee’s watch and has continued under Ms. Henderson, as families continue to enroll their children in charter schools or move to the suburbs.  The year before she arrived, DCPS had 52,191 students. In school year 2012-13 it enrolled about 45,000, a loss of roughly 13%.

Even students who have remained seem to be voting with their feet, because truancy in DC is a “crisis” situation, and Washington’s high school graduation rate is the lowest in the nation.  The truancy epidemic may be the most telling data point of all, because if young people in this economy are not going to school, something is very wrong. They are not skipping school to work–because there are no jobs for unskilled youth.

Ms. Rhee and her admirers point to increases on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, an exam given every two years to a sample of students under the tightest possible security.  And while NAEP scores did go up, they rose in roughly the same amount as they had under her two immediate predecessors, and Washington remains at or near the bottom on that national measure.

The most disturbing effect of Ms. Rhee’s reform effort is the widening gap in academic performance between low-income and upper-income students, a meaningful statistic in Washington, where race and income are highly correlated.  On the most recent NAEP test (2011) only about 10% of low-income students in grades 4 and 8 scored ‘proficient’ in reading and math. Since 2007, the performance gap has increased by 29 percentile points in 8th grade reading, by 44 in 4th grade reading, by 45 in 8th grade math, and by 72 in 4th grade math. Although these numbers are also influenced by changes in high- and low-income populations, the gaps are so extreme that is seems clear that low-income students, most of them African-American, generally did not fare well during Ms. Rhee’s time in Washington.

English Language Learners in Washington’s schools are also struggling. Title III of ESEA requires progress on three distinct measures: progress, attainment and what ‘No Child Left Behind’ calls ‘adequate yearly progress.’  DC failed on two out of three last year.

DC doesn’t fare well in national comparisons either.  Between 2005 and 2011, black 8th graders in large urban districts gained five points in reading, while their DCPS counterparts lost two points, according to a study by the DC Institute of Public Policy released this spring. Between 2005 and 2011 in large, urban districts, Hispanic eighth-graders gained six points in reading (from 243 to 249), black eighth-graders gained five points (from 240 to 245), and white eighth-graders gained three points (from 270 to 273). In District of Columbia Public Schools, however, Hispanic eighth-graders’ scores fell 15 points (from 247 to 232), black eighth-graders’ scores fell two points (from 233 to 231), and white eighth-graders’ scores fell 13 points (from 303 to 290).

The states that have adopted her approach, and others now being lobbied, might want to make their own data-driven decisions.

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