Michelle Rhee v. Her Critics



By 04/11/2011

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Not only have newspapers alleged cheating at a few specific schools in the District of Columbia during Michelle Rhee’s tenure as Chancellor of Schools for the District of Columbia, but Alan Ginsburg, a former director of Policy and Program Studies in the U. S. Department of Education, claims that the results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), a test where cheating is improbable, reveal her to have been no more effective than her predecessors.

In a blog post, Diane Ravitch makes the same point: “Gains under Rhee were no greater than the gains registered under her predecessor Clifford Janey, who did not use Rhee’s high-powered tactics, such as firing massive numbers of teachers.”

Yet the evidence to support such claims falls well short of its mark.

What’s the evidence that Rhee was no better than her predecessors?  And that other cities are doing just as well?

In “The Case Against Michelle Rhee,” I correct the data Ginsburg (and, presumably, Ravitch, who presents no data of her own) use and adjust it to take into account national trends.  The data need to be corrected so as to exclude the scores of students attending charter schools not under district control (whom NAEP included in 2007 but not in 2009).  And it is standard practice to correct for national trends when looking at district-specific factors that affect performance.

Once the data are both corrected and adjusted, it becomes evident that during the Rhee years, 4th grade students, in both reading and math, gained at a pace twice that observed during the tenures of her predecessors.  The gains in math by 8th grade students were nearly as great, though no 8th grade reading gains are detected.

Gains are not enormous in any one year, but over time they add up.  In 2000 the gap between D.C. and the nation in 4th grade math was 34 points.  Had students gained as much every year between 2000 and 2009 as they did during the Rhee era, that gap would have been just 7 points in 2009. Three more years of Rhee-like progress and the gap would be closed.  In 8th grade math the gap in 2000 was 38 points.  Had Rhee-like progress been made over the next 9 years, the gap would be just 14 points in 2009, with near closure in 2012.   In 4th grade reading, the gap was 30 points in 2003; if Rhee-like gains had taken place over the next 6 years, the gap would have been cut in half by 2009.

Of course, two years is too short a time to evaluate a Chancellor’s impact on student test-score performance, as Ginsburg wants to do. But his work is nonetheless taken as authoritative by Randi Weingarten, head of the American Federation of Teachers. The reality is something quite other.

For my detailed findings, read “The Case Against Michelle Rhee.” You can also read a summary of the study in this press release, or you can listen to a podcast in which I discuss the findings here.

- Paul E. Peterson




Comment on this article
  • [...] So I have an article in today’s Baltimore Sun defending the good work that Michelle Rhee did during her time as Chancellor of the D.C. public schools.  Recent allegations of cheating during her tenure have caused status-quo apologists like Diane Ravitch to call into question everything that she did.  Now, other than just the generally nasty and hostile tone taken against a woman who worked tirelessly to improve educational options for students in D.C. (who by the way supports vouchers, just btdubs), these critcisms are generally unfounded.  Ravitch and hamfistedness with data is now about as guaranteed as death and taxes, so  I’ll leave it to Paul Peterson (my mentors’ mentor at PEPG) to dismantle her argument. [...]

  • Karl Wheatley says:

    Whether Michelle Rhee was better or worse than her predecessors is not a particular hobby of mine. Perhaps she was better than her immediate predecessor (for reasons we’ll never untangle), but perhaps she would have been better still with a less adversarial stance. Perhaps she was worse than her predecessors–I’m not from DC and see no data here to help me judge either way.

    Paul, you introduce important nuance here, however, if we follow the argument you’re making to its logical conclusion, the scales may tip against Rhee, or the advantage may switch back and forth depending upon how much nuance we introduce.

    Was what she was doing in reading (and math) the kind of thing that boosts scores in early grades, but then burns kids out on reading, and perhaps 10th grade scores would show a downward trend from pre-Rhee days? The book Readicide is must reading in this regard.

    How was kids learning of science, social studies? Were the graduation rates real, or inflated, as has happened in many “miracle” districts. Why were the NAEP math scores higher–causes we value or those we don’t? To what should we attribute the gains?

    Are math gains coming from neglecting other subjects? How did Rhee and her predecessors compare in their impact on the DC teaching force? Clearly Rhee can claim some victories, but there appear to be important losses too.

    We will not make progress until we start assessing people’s efficacy on multiple indicators across the curriculum, and including life skills not in most curricula, and until we know the causes of changes in those indicators.

    Perhaps you are right, perhaps Ginsberg is right, but neither of you has the data to make the case.

  • Dave Orphal says:

    I love how you want it both ways. Perhaps the center-piece of Rhee’s reforms for DC included handing over schools to charters.

    With those charters included in the data, the gains are unimpressive, but that doesn’t work for your political agenda, so we’ll exclude data until we get the results your looking for.

    My favorite past is how you blow right past the argument that these test scores measure anything meaningful. A one shot exam about memorizing facts and procedures that are at their best only sub skills of what makes up a much broader definition of “learning.”

    Before you counter with, “Dave, what other tools would you suggest we use, if not these tests and the VAM analysis?” I would like to pose this question to you… “Would you through gasoline on a fire because that was the only liquid at hand?”

  • Karl Wheatley says:

    Yes, if we want a stronger America, we must outgrow this strange fascination with standardized testing, and with education being only about reliably quantifiable outcomes in a handful of academic subjects that we decided on a century ago.

    Historically, the weakest teachers were always the ones who relied most on tests to motivate and assess, so it logically follows that the weakest reform ideas are the ones that rely most … (fill in the blank)

    Education isn’t improved by being micro-managed by far-off bureaucrats, so we could discard all the standardized tests tomorrow, and education would immediate start to improve.

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