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

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