The Problem with Fenty and Rhee

Awhile back I suggested that Fenty lost his mayoral reelection bid mainly because schools had not performed nearly as well as had been billed in the popular press (and is still being billed--Michelle Rhee has been on Opera and even has a movie coming out).

The reality of the mayoral contest was not about those for and those against school reform.  Rather, it was between those who only heard the rhetoric and believed it versus those who actually had kids in the schools and believed their lying eyes.

What Rachel Levy describes here fits much more closely with first-hand accounts I've heard:
Here's what a lot of people are saying about Michelle Rhee as they sort out her legacy as chancellor of Washington D.C. public schools: Her policies were right on target and she moved city schools forward, but her big problem was simply that she didn’t play well with others. This assessment is wrong. Her reforms weren’t good policy, and criticism that her hard-charging style stifled her own well-intentioned reforms, such as is made here, misses the point.

Rhee's ideas about how to fix the ailing school system were largely misinformed, and it's no wonder: She knew little about instruction, curriculum, management, fiscal matters, and community relations. She was, to be sure, abrasive; she and Mayor Adrian Fenty, admitted as much here. But as education historian Diane Ravitch has said, "It’s difficult to win a war when you’re firing on your own troops.”
Rhee is the national face of the new brand of education reformer, so evaluation of her leadership is important not just for Washington D.C. but for the democratic institution of American public education.
Various reviews of her tenure have recently been written. This well-written and comprehensive report by Leigh Dingerson in Rethinking Schools, called "The Proving Grounds: School ’Rheeform’ in Washington, D.C" chronicles the history of D.C. public schools, Rhee’s belligerent approach to teachers, administrators, and parents, her connection to right-wing conservatives, the lack of attention given to curriculum and instruction, and the problems with her teacher-evaluation tool, IMPACT.
Not all of Rhee’s critics are liberal defenders of teachers unions; in this article in The American Spectator, Roger Kaplan makes several great points about problems with Rhee’s reign. Bill Turque, the fantastic education beat reporter for the Metro section of the Washington Post, published this succinct summary detailing the Rhee administration’s accomplishments and failures.
As a graduate of D.C. public schools and a former D.C. teacher, I offer my critique, point by point.

Rhee arrived in Washington D.C. in c. in 2007 with extraordinary power to do what she wanted. In fact, she only had her boss, Fenty, to answer to, and he never challenged her. Shortly after she started as chancellor, she met with the professionals and community leaders who had a long history of working to improve D.C. schools and promptly decided she didn’t have anything to learn from them. The die was cast.
Rhee never displayed an understanding of the city’s particular history--of political disenfranchisement, taxation without representation, and paternal federal control.

To the city’s black community, D.C. schools were a source of empowerment, autonomy, and even pride, for that community. People’s parents and extended families were educated and employed by D.C. schools. From Dingerson:
"The vast public sector employment created by the federal government helped establish a significant black middle class that supported its public schools. Many African American parents and grandparents remember their schools as neighborhood institutions and gateways to success."

Rhee paid no respect to members of the community whose elders had helped to build and fill the school system she was charged with leading. And that helped turn sentiment against her and Fenty.
A common refrain echoed by Fenty and his supporters is, "I know there were mistakes, but look at how Rhee has gotten people excited about urban public education."
Michelle Rhee did get a lot of people to pay attention to public education. Who? Many of them are unelected billionaires and conservative ideologues without any education expertise who have donated vast amounts of money to programs that have no basis in research. Some seek to privatize the public school system.
Rhee also drew some people into the profession of teaching, Who? Freshly minted graduates from highly selective colleges, teaching amateurs, most of whom don’t want to become professional teachers and who know very little about inner-city communities.
Rhee has been credited with improvements to the physical conditions of school facilities, but since June 2007, all capital planning, construction, renovation, and major repairs of D.C.P.S. school buildings have been the responsibility of the Office of Public Education Facilities Modernization, which is an agency separate from D.C. schools.
Facilities maintenance was moved from D.C. schools to the facilities modernization office in 2008. One of the reasons the office has been able to make so many improvements to public school facilities is that Fenty and the D.C. Council increased the schools’ capital budget to amounts unheard of prior to the takeover of the school system by the mayor in 2007.
Rhee and Fenty and their supporters claim -- and some critics even agree -- that under her leadership, test scores went up. But here, too, things aren’t what they seem.
First of all, standardized tests should only be used as one of many teaching tools, so test scores should certainly not be the only standard by which we measure student achievement or teacher effectiveness. Standardized tests may tell you something about the students who are taking the test, but virtually nothing about who is teaching the students taking the test. What’s more, an emphasis on standardized tests is problematic because standardized test-based content makes for lousy curricula.
As Kaplan puts it, "The substantive issue is whether it serves a useful educational purpose to turn schools into fill-the-bubble-test cram boxes instead of teaching content-rich courses."
"No one who has looked seriously at the way achievements in math and reading are assessed under the No Child Left Behind rules believes you can judge a district on the basis of scarcely a couple of years. The D.C. schools implemented reforms aimed at improving scores, anyway, in 2006, so at most Miss Rhee should claim credit for staying with them, notwithstanding her stated plan to break with business as usual."
Furthermore, according to Dingerson (and she has the data and analysis to back this up thanks to seven-year D.C math teacher and 2010 finalist for D.C. Teacher of the Year, Chris Bergfalk):
"There have been dramatic drops in standardized assessment scores, and, on closer analysis, the highly touted increases in D.C. National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) scores are a reflection of the changing demographics of the schools, not the result of any real improvement in the quality of education provided to D.C.’s poorest and neediest students."

Finally, in this timeline of events that was developed from a series of Washington Post articles and a July 2009 D.C. schools press release, former D.C. math teacher Guy Brandenburg shows that there were questions raised about possible cheating on the D.C. Comprehensive Assessment System tests. Though asked to investigate by Deborah A. Gist, then the state superintendent of education for the District of Columbia, the Rhee administration failed to do so.
Rhee emphasized teachers over the practice of teaching. There was no focus on what or how teachers were teaching. Wrote Dingerson:
"It is worth noting that, as a so-called ’education reformer,’ Rhee has not focused on content or pedagogy. There have been no initiatives to improve teacher induction or strengthen instructional practice. The focus has remained on management and staffing, and the tone has been judgmental rather than supportive."
And Kaplan wrote:
"The core of the matter is not this or that lapse of judgment or a clumsy manner with people. She is said to be abrasive, texts even while in the midst of formal meetings. Well, you can put that down to an American get-to-the-point spirit. However, Miss Rhee never bothered to explain just what all this reform and professional development and search for ’excellent’ teachers is supposed to mean. She did not explain it to the parents. Or to anybody.”
Rhee displayed questionable knowledge of teaching practices in this stunningly inappropriate account told during a Welcome to Teachers address ( I highly recommend listening to this) of taping shut the mouths of her inner-city Baltimore students such that she caused them to bleed.
Rhee was having a classroom management crisis in her classroom and chose to respond in an unprofessional and crude way. Similarly chose narrow and crude solutions to the crisis in D.C. schools.
Although Rhee’s teacher evaluation system called IMPACT has been touted by some as "ground-breaking," it’s a flawed instrument. Valerie Strauss, a long-time education journalist at The Washington Post, discusses the flaws of IMPACT in this post on this blog.
"IMPACT is actually a collection of 20 different evaluation systems for teachers in different capacities and other school personnel. In its first iteration, teachers were to be evaluated five times a year by principals and master teachers who went into the classroom unannounced for 30 minutes and scored the teacher on 22 different teaching elements. They were, for example, supposed to show that they could tailor instruction to at least three ’learning styles,’ demonstrate that they were instilling student belief in success through "affirmation chants, poems and cheers," and a lot more. It was so nutty to think that any teacher would show all 22 elements in 30 minutes that officials modified it. Now the number is a still unrealistic 10 or so. Some teachers, fearing that their professional careers were being based on an unfair system, got someone in the front office to alert them to when the principal or master teacher was to show up, according to interviews with a number of teachers who spoke on the condition of anonymity. Then they would send difficult kids out of the classroom, and, in some cases, pull out a specially prepared lesson plan tailored to meet IMPACT requirements. Meanwhile, some teachers never got five evaluations, apparently because a number of master teachers hired to do the jobs quit, according to sources in the school system."
Many teachers deemed "ineffective" by IMPACT were actually solid, experienced teachers, while others who were deemed "effective" were some of the weakest teachers in their schools.

The ultimate questions to ask about Rhee are not about whether she was liked or disliked, nice or mean.
They are, instead: Did she have sound and informed ideas about curriculum, fiscal and personnel management, education, and the craft of teaching? Were her policies and reforms effective? Did they improve the quality of public education in the District of Columbia? Did she adequately serving the communities and families she was hired to serve?
The answer to those questions is "no."
Rhee’s successor, Interim Chancellor Kaya Henderson was Rhee’s right hand woman. Henderson is similarly inexperienced (a few years of teaching in Teach for America before going into administration) and holds carbon-copy ideas about education to her former boss.
Rhee supporters are pleased, saying that she will continue the reforms but is more likely than Rhee to be collaborative. But collaboration and consensus would require that Henderson compromise on the reform narrow, ideological, and inflexible platform.
Is Henderson prepared to give up her ideology or will she continue along the same path as Rhee, but just be kinder along the way?
We’ll be watching.

It's a shame Rhee made such a mess of things and wasted so much money in the process.

I, for one, am a big fan of school reform and high-powered pay-for-performance incentives for teachers, even though I'm not fan of Rhee.  While I'm no expert on education, it seems Rhee wasn't either; and worse, she didn't take the time to talk to those who were experts.  Nor did she do her homework on the unique aspects of the District.

Going forward, the one specific thing I can constructively comment about is the IMPACT evaluation.   It seems way too complex, haphazard, and easily corruptible.  More importantly, it's untested.  I'd prefer evaluations that placed far more weight on standardized tests, imperfect though they may be, since there are practical solutions to the most egregious problems, as I suggested here. Specifically:

1) Evaluate students based on performance on standardized tests in the subsequent grade or class.
2) Randomly assign students to teachers.
3) Use student performance in the previous class as a baseline, so that only "value added" measures of student performance are attributed to any given teacher.

More explanation following the link.


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