The Empty Harvest From Michelle Rhee

T.S. Eliot had it wrong. October is the cruelest month. Far crueler than Spring’s “lilacs out of a dead land” Eliot wrote about in “The Waste Land” is a harvest season of failed crops. All that work and hope for this? “This” we confront is the empty yield from promises made by people in leadership … Continue reading “The Empty Harvest From Michelle Rhee”

T.S. Eliot had it wrong. October is the cruelest month.

Far crueler than Spring’s “lilacs out of a dead land” Eliot wrote about in “The Waste Land” is a harvest season of failed crops. All that work and hope for this?

This” we confront is the empty yield from promises made by people in leadership positions.

In economic terms, the failures are obvious.

Despite a generation of pledges to advance American prosperity, the economic conditions of typical Americans continue to deteriorate: more widespread poverty among children, persistently high uninsured rates among the elderly, more people who lack the savings to cover basic expenses for three months if they lose their job, more wage earners in low-pay jobs barely able to cover basic needs, and explosive growth in income inequality.

It should not surprise anyone, then, that the same cycle of promise-to-failure that has been at work in national economic policy has been playing out in education policy too, most notably in the work of the so-called reform movement that continues to promise great things for the nation’s school children but delivers disappointing results over and over again.

Without doubt the poster person for the reform movement has been ex-chancellor of the Washington, D.C. public school system Michelle Rhee, who rocketed to the limelight of American consciousness with her grandiose portrayals in the popular press and the major documentary film “Waiting for Superman.”

Rhee is known as none other than “America’s most famous school reformer.”

But it is Rhee’s spectacular rise and fall that in many ways symbolizes the fallen arc of the education reform movement. This month, that trajectory sank even lower.

Rhee’s Reform Gambit

As PBS education correspondent John Merrow has reported, Rhee exemplified the reform creed of “data-driven decision making” and a “produce or else” mentality relying on student test scores as accurate measurements of teacher performance

Simply put, in Rhee’s brave new world of education reform, how students did on a standardized test would help determine in a significant way if schools stayed open, if teachers and principals received bonuses or pay increases, and if educators even kept their jobs.

The assessment system Rhee employed then, called DC-CAS, was not the only such system in use at the time. But the significance of Rhee’s implementation of a test-based assessment system of this type cannot be underestimated.

As Merrow wrote, “[Rhee] knew that her actions were being watched beyond the District of Columbia. ‘All the eyes of the country are now on D.C,.’ she said.”

In fact, even before results of DC-CAS or similar assessment systems were analyzed, the idea of evaluating teachers and schools on the basis of test score data became a cornerstone of the Obama administration’s education policy. States receiving Race to the Top grant money and waivers of the now discredited No Child Left Behind law had to pledge to impose teacher evaluation systems that incorporated results of student standardized exams to some significant extent.

These assessment systems have been rolled out across the country in Indiana, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Florida, New York, and elsewhere.

In hindsight, Rhee’s decision to embrace the “new science” of judging teacher performance based extensively on how students performed on tests “was a mistake,” as Merrow has observed.

“At least 25 states have adopted her ‘produce or else’ test-score based system of evaluating teachers,” Merrow noted. “But politicians (and citizens) in those 25 states might want to take a closer look at what she actually accomplished. Sadly, DC’s schools are worse by almost every conceivable measure.”

Merrow has ticked off a litany of Rhee’s failed results:

  • A “revolving door” personnel situation where newly hired teachers and principals come and go at much higher rates than the national average.
  • A bloated central office staff.
  • Little or no gain in academic achievement comparing pre- to post-Rhee test scores.
  • High truancy rates and the lowest high school graduation rate in the nation.
  • No change in D.C.’s rate of progress on the National Assessment of Educational Progress – D.C.’s NAEP levels remain at or near the bottom of the nation.
  • A widening gap in academic performance between low-income and upper-income students.

Nevertheless, education reform fans continue to try to reform Rhee’s failed record.

Rhee’s Skimpy IMPACT

Before Rhee’s departure from public office to lead a lobbying and political fundraising group called StudentsFirst, her administration instituted a revised test-based assessment system, called IMPACT, that “relies on a complex mix of factors to score each teacher,” according to Education Week’s Stephen Sawchuck.

Combining “measures of student achievement” (read: test score data) with “multiple observations” and a tiered rating system – deeming teachers as ineffective, developing, minimally effective, or highly effective – IMPACT was the original D.C. assessment system on steroids with bigger rewards for teachers rated high and more dire punishments for teachers rated low.

Left in the hands of Rhee’s lieutenant Kaya Henderson, IMPACT “won accolades in policy circles,” according to Sawchuck, even before any results were in.

Indeed, Rhee may be long gone but praise continues to roll in despite her failed legacy.

As a preliminary report – a “working paper” – on the results of Rhee’s IMPACT system were made known in the pages of Politico and The Washington Post, reform enthusiasts were quick to assert that the chimera of test-based accountability was definitively proven to be “working.”

A system reliant upon “rewards and punishments” has been proven to affect a teacher’s “performance,” a reporter in The Washington Post wrote. And the editorial board of that paper called the report’s findings evidence of an “improving record” for D.C.’s public schools.

But peel away the veneer of positive spin and what’s revealed is something a good bit less promising.

Writing at the blog site for the Albert Shanker Institute, Matt DiCarolo did the best job possible of balancing whatever good news can be ferreted from the report with its much heavier weight of disappointment.

This was, after all, the “first high quality assessment of one of the new teacher evaluation systems sweeping across the nation,” DiCarlo wrote. So surely much is at stake, and evenhandedness is in order.

Yet what DiCarlo found seems underwhelming to say the least: Teachers with evaluation ratings that put them on the verge of being terminated were “substantially (emphasis original) more likely to quit,” while those whose ratings put them in line “for a large, permanent salary increase . . . seemed to improve their performance.”

Finding it, “not particularly surprising” DiCarlo concluded, “It is not really shocking that the promise of a huge, permanent raise or especially the threat of dismissal would influence teachers’ labor market choices and behavior.

Rutgers professor Bruce Baker put it a little more bluntly: “Put simply, what this study says is that if we take a group of otherwise similar teachers, and randomly label some as ‘ok’ and tell others they suck and their jobs are on the line, the latter group is more likely to seek employment elsewhere. No big revelation there and certainly no evidence that DC IMPACT ‘works.’”

Further, any questions of the real effects these teachers’ actions may have had on their students – “whether these behavior changes have anything to do with … ‘good teaching,’” as Baker concluded – seemed to have simply not been part of the analysis.

Rhee’s IMPACT In Perspective

For nearly a generation, we’ve been told that an elaborate system of incentives and punishments would engineer improved results in student achievement, particularly for those students who have been the most marginalized and underserved.

This was deemed necessary in order to make schools “accountable” – an imperative begun during the presidential administration of Ronald Reagan, which eventually became bipartisan as conservatives convinced left-leaning people that resources devoted to education were wasted unless they could be balanced with a metric result showing “improvement.”

With the advent of No Child Left Behind, the accountability had its mechanism for targeting individual schools, but with the Obama administration’s Race to the Top program, the accountability arsenal aimed at individual classroom teachers too.

With Michelle Rhee as its celebrity cheerleader, the school accountability movement became the perfect PR campaign promising a way forward to ever increasing education “effectiveness.”

But all those years of promises for this: Studies can prove that teachers are capable of being manipulated by coercive management systems, but the wealth of improvement stemming from expensive new assessment systems has yet to fill the account left barren by the nation’s reluctance to invest in our children’s education.

Michelle Rhee-like accountability systems that have been in place a substantial amount of time have done no better than the one in D.C. A long-standing system in Tennessee, for instance, has done nothing to improve academic achievement and has revealed “almost nothing about teacher effectiveness.”

The most ardent reform enthusiasts now admit to “overselling, and underthinking [sic]” their cause, even as they try to dispel whatever is being proposed as a positive alternative.

Parents and public officials in places as diverse as rural Virginia and uptown New York City are more boisterously questioning the whole premise of ramping up more tests on students to determine the value of their teachers.

As the education reform movement’s empty harvest leads us into a winter of discontent, what’s needed are more proposals from multiple sources for a more positive way forward.

Far beyond the media spotlights focused on reform celebrities like Rhee, other credible voices are calling for a different course for accountability and an agenda based on opportunity and support for learning. No wonder more people are listening.


8 thoughts on “The Empty Harvest From Michelle Rhee”

  1. Thank God someone other than real teachers are starting to realize the bs that reformers have sold us for so long.

  2. Another article critical of the “no excuses” test-driven “reformers” by Elaine Weiss at the Economic Policy Institute can be found here, Oct. 14, 2013:
    I taught in east Oakland for over a decade. These annual state tests were anathema to any reasonable teaching strategy, mostly because I was teaching Spanish speaking children who barely spoke English much less could read with comprehension. I saw they were required to identify an adverb on one of those tests. I was shocked, as any bilingual teacher would be. For the other teachers the tests had some relevance. Tests have a place, but they are a cheap way out, they rationalize the misplacing of attention and resources. Brutal is a strong word, but the lives of children in these neighborhoods often is brutal. Teachers in those conditions are generally very dedicated and helpful. I remember Jerry Brown up before a crowd shouting “No excuses” at teachers. Yes, it happened. I lost respect for him. I knew my co-workers. I knew the conditions that parents endured to survive. Diane Ravitch seems to have it right. The education editor at EPI has some interesting success stories about public education, it’s refreshing to read them.

  3. I’m a 41-year veteran teacher. Although I teach in a relatively good school district
    in terms of the funding of local public schools and the fact that we have relatively
    good community support, I’m afraid that our new superintendent of schools may
    be too much interested in standardized test scores. Beyond that, it is my belief
    that affect is a quite important variable in terms of being able to help students
    learn the material that they are studying. If students don’t trust their teachers
    and if principals and “central office” administrators don’t trust their teachers,
    then I’m afraid that academic progress and student learning will not improve.

  4. Fair to say something other than genuine education reform was “inspiring” Rhee. Why reporters didn’t challenge her shady and baggage-laden ideology is baffling. “Phony” is the first adjective that springs to mind when I recall the first time I heard her speak, followed shortly by “Climber”. She used her position and her hazy and methodologically shoddy “reform” platform to pad her resume and ascend to a position with less accountability and better perks. Like a parrot, she can squawk in ways that suggest coherent thought, but there is no substantive content and plenty of unexamined premises in her “edu-speak”.

  5. The most effective way of assuring that our schools have good teachers is to pay them well. Why do most people want to cut corners on teachers’ salaries, when the next most influential adults in their children’s lives are teachers??
    Most school districts are willing to shell out for the newest, most “shiny” equipment for schools, but completely overlook the glaring fact that it is good teachers who influence the children’s future more than anyone else.
    This is the reason behind mediocre teachers! The best and brightest at colleges & universities will never be drawn to teaching, when salaries are so low. Because of the huge investment of time and money that most students put into higher education, they simply can’t afford to go into teaching, because of the ridiculously low pay.
    Another point made in this article is the explosion of clerical jobs this new “teach to the test” methodology requires. Someone has to be there to deal with all of the statistics generated by the testing!
    Wake up people!

  6. So when does “learn from history, or be doomed to repeat its failures” find its way into an action objective for our Institution?

    Measurement is a consistent product of a man at the top of the pyramid pedagogy. Attempting to quantify the innate qualities integral to whole human intelligence serves only to divide us as we seek solution to short termed needs. Adult leadership, recognizing that this time, energy and resource wasting strategy is a bi-product of the obsolete Victorian model, needs to begin conversation shifting movement to an Earth based education model as a remedy in the long term.

    Finding common ground begins with systemic recognition of man’s heritage. As we are all made of air, water and soil products, each of us is born innately connected to the Earth. Giving every child at every grade level experiences associating state learning objectives with hands on, multi-sensory, inter-disciplinary activities in every community’s natural settings, led by educational specialists, will support both learned and innate aspects of intellectual growth in balance.

    Nature versus nature is moot; all of us are a result of both. Basics and enrichment are each important in our development, both individually and as a culture. Gambling that man will be able to solve every problem he faces by competing for a limited resource is a strategy that may have served us well historically. But this is the 21st Century and we’re facing a population number that needs a long termed solution unrecognizable when the old pattern of education became established. Let the discussion begin!

  7. My elementary education was conducted in very small rural schools in southeastern Ohio in the 1940’s and early 1950’s.. From the fourth through eighth grades, I attended a two-room school; the two teachers taught kindergarten through fourth grades in one room and fifth through eighth grades in the other. Our school averaged five to six children per grade. My high school graduating class, which included the students from two elementary schools, consisted of thirteen students. We had four full-time teachers (including the principal) and one teacher who was shared with a neighboring high school,

    Despite these limitatiions, I competed for and won a four-year scholarship to an excellent college in Cleveland, Ohio, from which I earned both bachelor’s and master’s degrees. What I learned from this, and from my later experience as a teacher, is that a person who loves to teach, and who is free to teach creatively, can teach effectively under almost any circumstances. Burdening good teachers with excessive paperwork and other such requirements, however, is counter-productive.

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