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DC Miracle Story Evidence of Traction of “Fake News”

June 30, 2018

A few days ago AP writer Ashram Kahlil wrote an article titled “DC’S Public Schools Go from Success Story to Cautionary Tale“, a story that was picked up by NPR and some other mainstream news outlets. But alas, Time magazine is unlikely to run a cover story with Michelle Rhee sitting on a dunce stool or holding a broken broom.

In 2008, both Time and Newsweek offered overs depicting then rising star Michelle Rhee, the no-nonsense DC Superintendent who pledged to clean up the public schools in that city by implemented a test-and-punish policy that garnered support among those who thought schools needed to be operated using a no nonsense “business” approach and negative attention from anyone who actually worked in schools and realized that instead of a clean sweep their schools needed new floors, new lighting, and more money.

Since 2008, funding for schools has diminished, in some cases in real dollars and in all cases in terms of actual funding… and the consequences of test-and-punish has not been the improvement of test scores but rather the expansion of corruption in the administration of those high stakes tests. And DC has had its eyes blackened badly. As Mr. Kahlil reports:

As recently as a year ago, the public school system in the nation’s capital was being hailed as a shining example of successful urban education reform and a template for districts across the country.

Now the situation in the District of Columbia could not be more different. After a series of rapid-fire scandals, including one about rigged graduation rates, Washington’s school system has gone from a point of pride to perhaps the largest public embarrassment of Mayor Muriel Bowser’s tenure.

This stunning reversal has left school administrators and city officials scrambling for answers and pledging to regain the public’s trust.

A decade after a restructuring that stripped the decision-making powers of the board of education and placed the system under mayoral control, city schools in 2017 were boasting rising test scores and a record graduation rate for high schools of 73 percent, compared with 53 percent in 2011. Glowing news articles cited examples such as Ballou High School, a campus in a low-income neighborhood where the entire 2017 graduating class applied for college.

Then everything unraveled.

An investigation by WAMU, the local NPR station, revealed that about half of those Ballou graduates had missed more than three months of school and should not have graduated due to chronic truancy. A subsequent inquiry revealed a systemwide culture that pressured teachers to favor graduation rates over all else — with salaries and job security tied to specific metrics.

The internal investigation concluded that more than one-third of the 2017 graduating class should not have received diplomas due to truancy or improper steps taken by teachers or administrators to cover the absences. In one egregious example, investigators found that attendance records at Dunbar High School had been altered 4,000 times to mark absent students as present. The school system is now being investigated by both the FBI and the U.S. Education Department, while the D.C. Council has repeatedly called for answers and accountability.

It takes a long time to inculcate a culture of support, but a culture of fear can be implemented rapidly… and once that culture is in place it is hard to change. And that culture is especially hard to change when “salaries and job security tied to specific metrics” and those metrics can be manipulated by those who will be damaged the most: the administrators and politicians who based their careers and campaigns on their ability “…to improve public education.”

And who implemented this culture that resulted from salaries and job security tied to specific metrics?

As Mr. Kahlil reports in his closing paragraphs… it was none other than Michelle Rhee:

Critics view the problems, particularly the attendance issue, as an indictment of the entire data-driven evaluation system instituted a more than a decade ago when then-Mayor Adrian Fenty took over the school system and appointed Michelle Rhee as the first chancellor. Rhee’s ambitious plan to clear out dead wood and focus on accountability for teachers and administrators landed her on the cover of Time magazine holding a broom. But now analysts question whether Rhee’s emphasis on performance metrics has created a monster.  

Readers of this blog know the answer to that question: there is no doubt that the test-and-punish methods supported by Ms. Rhee and her follow reformers created a monster… but it’s serving their purposes: it is creating the impression that public schools are not only “failing” based on those test scores, but they are now “corrupt” because of the actions of a handful of administrators whose continued employment required them to boost them.

And here’s one fact that remains the same today as it was in 2008: the teachers who work in poverty stricken urban and rural districts like DC are giving their hearts and should to the jobs and the administrators in those same schools are being over backwards to support them. But a cover article lionizing public school teachers and principals is not nearly as compelling as one showing that an inexpensive one-size-fits-all solution is the best way to fix schools.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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