THE D.C. ‘SCHOOL REFORM’ FIASCO: A COMPLETE HISTORY

To remain aloft, a hot air balloon must be fed regular bursts of hot air. Without hot air, the balloon falls to earth. That seems to be the appropriate analogy for the District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS) during the ten-year regime (2007–2016) of Chancellors Michelle Rhee and Kaya Henderson. Their top-down approach to school reform might not have lasted but for the unstinting praise provided by influential supporters from the center left and right—their hot air. The list includes the editorial page of the Washington Post, former U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, and philanthropist Katherine Bradley. The most recent dose is “Hot for Teachers,” (in The Washington Monthly) in which Thomas Toch argues that Rhee and Henderson revolutionized the teaching profession in D.C. schools, to the benefit of students. But this cheerleading obscures a harsh truth: on most relevant measures, Washington’s public schools have either regressed or made minimal progress under their leadership. Schools in upper-middle-class neighborhoods seem to be thriving, but outcomes for low-income minority students—the great majority of enrollment—are pitifully low.Toch is an engaging storyteller, but he exaggerates the importance of positive developments and misrepresents or ignores SEVEN key negative ones:  1) dismal academic performance; 2) a swollen central office bureaucracy devoted to monitoring teachers; 3) an exodus of teachers, including midyear resignations; 4) a revolving door for school principals; 5) sluggish enrollment growth; 6) misleading graduation statistics; and 7) widespread cheating by adults.

Academics

When they arrived in 2007, Rhee and her then deputy Henderson promised that test scores would go up and that the huge achievement gaps between minority and white students would go down. Here’s how Toch reported what has happened on their watch: “While Washington’s test scores have traditionally been among the lowest in the nation, the percentage of fourth graders achieving math proficiency has more than doubled on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) over the past decade, as have the percentages of eighth graders proficient in math and fourth graders proficient in reading.”

Those results, however, stop looking so good once we disaggregate data about different groups of students. Despite small overall increases, minority and low-income scores lag far behind the NAEP’s big-city average, and the already huge achievement gaps have actually widened. From 2007 to 2015, the NAEP reading scores of low-income eighth graders increased just 1 point, from 232 to 233, while scores of non-low-income students (called “others” in NAEP-speak) climbed 31 points, from 250 to 281. Over that same time period, the percentage of low-income students scoring at the “proficient” level remained at an embarrassingly low 8 percent, while proficiency among “others” climbed from 22 percent to 53 percent. An analysis of the data by race between 2007 and 2015 is also discouraging: black proficiency increased 3 points, from 8 percent to 11 percent, while Hispanic proficiency actually declined, from 18 percent to 17 percent. In 2007 the white student population was not large enough to be reported, but in 2015 white proficiency was at 75 percent.

The results in fourth grade are also depressing. Low-income students made small gains, while “others” jumped to respectable levels. As a consequence, the fourth-grade proficiency gap between low-income and “other” students has actually increased, from 26 to 62 percentage points, under the Rhee/Henderson reforms.

Results of the Common Core tests known as PARCC, first administered in 2015, are similarly unimpressive. The black/white achievement gap is 59 percentage points. Although DCPS students achieved 25 percent proficiency system-wide, the average proficiency in the forty lowest-performing schools was 7 percent. In ten of the District’s twelve nonselective, open-enrollment high schools, somewhere between zero and four students—individuals, not percentages—performed at the “college and career ready” level in math; only a few more achieved that level in English. This is a catastrophic failure, strong evidence that something is seriously wrong in Washington’s schools.

Remember that these students have spent virtually their entire school lives in a system controlled by Rhee and Henderson. In short, despite promises to the contrary, the achievement gap between well-to-do kids and poor kids as measured by the NAEP has widened under their watch and is now over twice as high in fourth grade and two and a half times as high in eighth as it was a decade ago. White proficiency rates now run 55 to 66 percentage points above black proficiency rates and 42 to 66 percentage points above Hispanic rates.

Toch asserts, “Scores have risen even after accounting for an influx of wealthier students.” However, evidence suggests that the test score increases in some grades are most likely a by-product of gentrification. The percentage of white test takers has increased steadily over the last decade (5 percent to 16 percent in fourth grade and 5 percent to 9 or 10 percent in eighth grade), as has the percentage of Hispanic students (9 percent to 16 percent in fourth grade and 7 percent to 15 percent in eighth grade). In the nation’s capital, almost all white kids are from well-to-do families, while Hispanic and black kids in public schools are mostly from low-income households. A 2015 report by the National Research Council pointed out that most of the recent academic gain was likely the result of more affluent families moving into Washington and enrolling their children in public schools.

Central Office Bloat 

Under Rhee and Henderson, spending on non-teaching personnel has swollen dramatically. According to the latest statistics from Census Bureau fiscal reports, DCPS central office spending in 2015 was 9.5 percent of total current expenditures, compared to 1 percent or less in surrounding districts. Today DCPS central offices have one employee for every sixty-four students, a striking change over the pre-Rhee/Henderson-era ratio of 1 to 113 students. Those central office dollars could have been used to provide wraparound social services for children, services that would have allowed teachers to be more effective.

Many of these highly paid non-teachers spend their days watching over teachers in scheduled and unscheduled classroom observations, generally lasting about thirty minutes—not even an entire class meeting. Why so many of these teacher watchers? Because those who subscribe to top-down management do not trust teachers—which leads to the next part of the DCPS story that its admirers misrepresent, downplay, or ignore.

Teacher Turnover and Resignation

Toch writes about Washington’s success in recruiting teachers, even poaching them from surrounding districts. He attributes this to higher salaries and increased professional respect and support. And he adds, in a carefully qualified sentence, that “the school system’s strongest teachers are no longer leaving in droves for charter schools.” Well, perhaps they’re not leaving for charter schools, but they sure as heck are leaving—in droves. Toch fails to mention the embarrassingly high annual turnover of 20 percent system-wide and a staggering 33 percent every year over the last five years in the forty lowest-performing schools. This means that in the neediest schools, one out of every three teachers is brand new every year. And all newly hired teachers, whether novices or poached from elsewhere, leave DCPS at the rate of 25 percent annually. In a recent study of sixteen comparable urban districts, the average turnover rate was just 13 percent.

Defenders of the D.C. approach would have you believe that these teachers have failed to increase test scores. While that is true in some cases, other evidence should be considered. Student journalists at Woodrow Wilson High School interviewed this year’s departing teachers, who expressed frustration with “DCPS’s focus on data-driven education reforms” and “lack of respect and appreciation.” Teachers, including those rated “highly effective,” cited the stress of frequent changes in the demands of the IMPACT teacher evaluation system as well as the absence of useful feedback.

Nor does Toch discuss the large number of resignations during the school year, always a sign that something is amiss. The Washington Post reported recently that nearly 200 teachers quit their jobs after the school year began. “It is an emergency when a quarter or more of the teachers in some schools have resigned during the school year,” D.C. council member Robert C. White wrote in a letter to the chairman of the council’s education committee. According to the Post’s analysis, half the schools in the system had three or more midyear resignations.

The Revolving Door of the Principal’s Office

Every year about 25 percent of DCPS schools open with a new principal. Research finds that principal turnover generally results in lower teacher retention and lower student achievement, particularly at high-poverty and low-achieving schools. Research also suggests that principals must be in place for at least five years to accomplish large-scale change, but only twenty-five of the 115 DCPS schools in the 2016–17 school year had principals who had served five years or more, and most DCPS schools have had two or three principals in the past five years. Unfortunately, the greatest upheavals are in schools serving large numbers of low-income children, kids who need stability wherever they can find it.

Enrollment

Toch makes much of the recent enrollment increase, calling it evidence of the success of the Rhee/Henderson approach. It’s true that PS enrollment, after bottoming out at 44,718 in 2009, had risen to 48,555 in fall 2016. But over the same span, charter enrollment grew by more than 11,000 students. If parents are voting with their feet, then DCPS acolytes ought to be concerned.

Deceptive Graduation Numbers

Toch cites DCPS graduation rates as having climbed to 69 percent, “the highest in the city’s history.” But even education reform enthusiasts dispute the validity of claims about graduation rates. Analyst Robert Pondiscio calls graduation percentage “the phoniest statistic in education,” and veteran Washington Post reporter Jay Mathews suggests that reported improvements are “a mirage.” They argue that increased pressure on teachers and principals to pass students, and highly suspect “credit recovery” practices that allow students to complete a semester’s course work online in a week, combine to inflate the graduation numbers. By some estimates, at least 25 percent—and perhaps as many as 50 percent—of DCPS’s graduating seniors are helped across the line by at least one credit recovery class.

Even if the graduation rate increase is real, given the minuscule percentages of students in most high schools who are proficient by the Common Core PARCC standards, what significance could it possibly have? If undereducated students are being graduated, how is that anything but a hollow triumph?

Cheating by Adults

Toch dismisses D.C.’s cheating scandals in just two sentences: “In March 2011, USA Today ran a front-page story headlined ‘When Standardized Test Scores Soared in D.C., Were the Gains Real?,’ an examination of suspected Rhee-era cheating. The problem turned out to be concentrated in a few schools, and investigations found no evidence of widespread cheating.”

Contrary to Toch’s assertions, cheating—in the form of suspiciously high rates of erasures of wrong answers and filling in the right ones—occurred in more than half of DCPS schools. The changes were never thoroughly investigated beyond an initial analysis by the agency that had corrected the exams in the first place, CTB/McGraw-Hill. Deep erasure analysis was never ordered by Rhee, her then deputy Henderson, or the mayor. The “investigations” Toch refers to were either controlled by Rhee and, later, Henderson or conducted by inept investigators—and sometimes both. The first two were conducted by a company that had failed to detect cheating in Atlanta, the epicenter of cheating. Rhee, and subsequently Henderson, tightly controlled the inquiries, limiting the number of schools that could be visited, the number of interviews that could be conducted, and even the questions that could be asked.

Why would so many schools be driven to cheat? In her one-on-one meetings with all her principals, Rhee insisted that they guarantee test score increases and made it clear that failing to “make the numbers” would have consequences. The adults who subsequently changed answers, coached students during testing, and shared exams before the tests were intent on keeping their jobs, which depended on higher test scores.

As noted, Toch makes two factual errors in his second sentence.  Cheating–erasing wrong answers and replacing them with correct ones–occurred in more than half of DCPS schools, and every ‘investigation’ was either controlled by Rhee and later Henderson or conducted by inept investigators–and sometimes both.  All five investigations were whitewashes, because no one in power wanted to unmask the wrongdoing that had produced the remarkable test score gains.

Four essential background points: The rookie Chancellor met one-on-one with all her principals and, in those meetings, made them guarantee test score increases.  We filmed a number of these sessions, and saw firsthand how Rhee relentlessly negotiated the numbers up, while also making it clear that failing to ‘make the numbers’ would have consequences.

Point number two: The test in question, the DC-CAS, had no consequences for students, none whatsoever. Therefore, many kids were inclined to blow it off, which in turn forced teachers and principals to go to weird extremes to try to get students to take the test seriously. One principal told his students that he would get a tattoo of their choice if they did well on the DC-CAS (They could choose the design; he would choose the location!).

Point number three: For reasons of bureaucratic efficiency, the DC-CAS exams were delivered to schools at least a week before the exam date and put in the hands of the principals whose jobs depended on raising scores on a test the kids didn’t care about. This was a temptation that some school leaders and some teachers found irresistible. Test books were opened, sample questions were distributed, and, after the exams, answers were changed. Some schools had ‘erasure parties,’ we were reliably told.

Point number four: Predictably, test scores went up, and the victory parties began.

Contrary to Toch’s assertions, the ‘wrong-to-right’ erasures in half of DCPS schools were never thoroughly investigated beyond the initial analysis done by the agency that corrected the exams in the first place, CTB/McGraw-Hill.  Deep erasure analysis would have revealed any patterns of erasures, but it was never ordered by Chancellor Rhee, Deputy Chancellor Henderson, or the Mayor, presuming he was aware of the issue.

When the erasures continued in Ms. Rhee’s second year on the job, she came under pressure to investigate, and so in December 2009 she hired Caveon, a security firm that is based in Utah. Why Caveon?  Ms. Henderson explained to a City Council subcommittee, “The reason that we hired Caveon was because we thought that we needed an objective third party to actually do the investigation and to make recommendations to us.”

Caveon was the perfect choice–if one wanted to turn a blind eye to any wrongdoing. Prior to its work for DCPS, Caveon had been hired by the (so-called) “Blue Ribbon Committee” established to look into allegations of cheating in Atlanta.  Caveon looked–and reported finding nothing wrong in what turned out to be the epicenter of cheating by adults on standardized tests.  Dr. John Fremer, the head of Caveon, told me that while he ‘knew’ there was widespread cheating going on, that was not mentioned in his final report. “We did not try to find out who was cheating,” he said.  “Our purpose was to rank order the schools beginning with those with the most obvious problems (of unbelievably dramatic score increases), in order to make the task of investigating more manageable.” In other words, Caveon produced a list!

Dr. Fremer admitted that he knew some Atlanta teachers were lying to him, but he said his hands were tied because he didn’t have subpoena power.

Georgia’s investigators were contemptuous of Caveon’s efforts, labelling it a ‘so-called investigation.’  Richard Hyde, one of the three leaders of the investigation, told me that “either by coincidence or design, it was certain to fail.”  Mr. Hyde denied that Caveon needed subpoena power because its investigators were representing a governmental agency, and under Georgia law it is a felony to lie to someone representing the government.  What’s more, Mr. Hyde said, Caveon had a fundamental conflict of interest–it was investigating its employer, at least indirectly, because the “Blue Ribbon Commission” (which Mr. Hyde dismisses as “The Whitewash Commission”) included a deputy superintendent of schools.

Robert Wilson, another leader of the Georgia investigation, was even blunter. Of course Caveon didn’t find cheating because “Caveon couldn’t find its own ass with either hand,” he scoffed.  Why anyone would hire Caveon was, he said, beyond him–unless they didn’t want to find out anything.

Dr. Fremer seemed hurt and offended by the criticism. “We try to be non-emotional,” he said, acknowledging that “People who listen only to the law enforcement side do not respect us.”

And so DCPS hired Caveon, which found nothing wrong in DC.  And, almost predictably, that first Caveon investigation became the linchpin for all that followed, from DC City Council Chairman David Catania’s giving it a “Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval” to Rhee’s and Henderson’s claims that the investigations vindicate them.

But let’s dig deeper into the surreal world that Caveon inhabits.  Caveon President Fremer maintains that his firm did not conduct an investigation in the normal sense of the word because his firm does not conduct investigations.  “We use the word ‘investigation’ in our materials because everyone else does,” he said, “but we do analysis, with the goal of process improvement and quality assurance.”  Then he added, “We were not brought in to help DCPS with an analysis of what had happened.”

The contract was for a two-part project: a security audit and questioning of certain people at just eight DCPS schools (even though many more schools had been implicated). But, he emphasized again in our conversation, it was not an investigation because Caveon was hired to “review and collect information.”  He told me,  “I give advice as to where to focus attention. I am not trying to position a client to put people in jail. Instead, we give them enough information about problems to allow them to fix them in the future.”

The security audit, he said, consisted of examining DCPS’ policies and procedures around the testing.  Caveon did not seek to find out if principals and teachers actually followed the rules, and so Caveon apparently did not inform Chancellor Rhee just how easy it would be to cheat on the DC-CAS before, during and after its administration.  Caveon did make some recommendations to improve security–recommendations, he said, that DCPS did not follow.

Part Two of Caveon’s work–the questioning–is even more interesting.  Dr. Fremer told me that DCPS gave him a list of the eight schools it was authorized to go into. DCPS also gave Caveon about 50 questions to ask of teachers, proctors, principals and assistant principals.  He said DCPS indicated that Caveon was not to stray from the list.  Follow-up questions, the essence of a good investigation, were actively discouraged, according to Dr. Fremer.

He told me that DCPS’ list of questions did not include “Did you see anyone erasing answers?” or “Did you participate…” or “Are you aware of organized erasures?” or “Are you aware of cheating?”

Dr. Fremer told me that his employees never use words like ‘cheating’ or ‘illegal behavior’ because they are ‘too emotional.’  Instead, he said, they asked individuals if they could explain huge discrepancies in wrong-to-right erasures between classrooms.

Caveon was contractually obligated to show DCPS drafts of the report before it was made final, which Dr. Fremer said was completely appropriate.  “There was no pressure to ‘sweeten the sound’ of our report,” Dr. Fremer said. “We wanted DCPS to check for mistakes and make certain that we did not reveal the identities of individuals.”

Caveon sent DCPS its final report in February 2010, saying that it had not found evidence of cheating–which it had not been looking for, as Dr. Fremer explained.

Caveon I and II were Chancellor Rhee’s first foray into ‘investigation,’ and she and Henderson regularly cite the Caveon reports as evidence that all was well–because Caveon did not find cheating–which it was not looking for.

Next in this row of dominos is DC’s Inspector General Charles Willoughby, who leaned heavily upon Caveon’s report as he exonerated DCPS. If Caveon’s work was superficial, Inspector General Willoughby’s investigation was downright inept. Just how weak was Mr. Willoughby’s effort?  As we reported on Frontline, the Inspector General’s investigation is remarkable for what it did not investigate. He chose not to investigate 2008, the year with the most erasures. He chose not to investigate Aiton, a school notable for its high rate of wrong to right erasures. He did not examine the test answer sheets or perform an electronic analysis. And he did not investigate J.O Wilson – a school with excessive WTR erasures in 100 percent of its classrooms – simply because Chancellor Henderson had assured him that it was a good school.

Although more than half of DC’s schools had been implicated, he focused only on Noyes Education Campus, the school that USA Today had made the centerpiece of its investigation. Over the course of 17 months, his team interviewed just 60administrators, teachers, parents and teachers, all from Noyes Education Campus. By contrast, Atlanta investigators interviewed over 2,000 people and reviewed 800,000 documents. Rather than seek outside experts as Atlanta investigators had, he relied heavily on information from Caveon, which had been, of course, in the employ of DCPS. He did not ask to perform erasure analysis but relied on interviews–sometimes conducted over the phone. And he produced a 17-page report, in sharp contrast to Atlanta’s (post-Caveon) 813-page report.

Without the power to put people under oath, he told City Councilman Kenyan McDuffie in February that he just asked them if they had cheated. If they said they hadn’t, that was the end of it, because, he explained, he “wasn’t conducting a fishing expedition.” Test monitors sent by the central office to patrol Noyes for the 2010 test told Mr. Willoughby that they had been barred from entering classrooms. School officials denied that charge–and Mr. Willoughby believed them, not the monitors.

At a DC City Council subcommittee hearing, Mr. McDuffie asked Mr. Willoughby why he had examined just one school, Noyes, and had not scrutinized other high-erasure schools. “Because we didn’t find evidence of a conspiracy to cheat at Noyes,” he replied, and because that was what was recommended to him. Was it prudent to take the word of firms that were paid by DCPS instead of seeking an outside, independent opinion and to rely on media reports, Mr. McDuffie asked. “Yes,” Mr. Willoughby replied.

Asked if he had tried to find an explanation for the pronounced test score drops when security was tightened, Mr. Willoughby replied, “We were told that it was caused by an influx of new students.” Mr. Willoughby found no evidence of widespread cheating at Noyes but cited some security concerns and noted that one teacher had been dismissed for coaching students on a test. The IG’s essential message: except for that one teacher, all was well.

Finally, there was the U.S. Department of Education’s Inspector General’s investigation, which leaned heavily upon Mr. Willoughby’s work when it reported in January, 2013, that “No information was obtained or developed during the course of the investigation that substantiated the allegation of false claims made to the federal government or confirmed widespread cheating on standardized tests.”

Rhee and Henderson defend their approach. The investigations “found that there was some cheating, but that it was isolated to only a few schools,” Rhee said in February, 2013. Henderson is proud of how she conducted the inquiries.  “We have had six investigations that have cleared DCPS of widespread cheating,” she said in April, 2013. “I am frustrated because people are saying I haven’t done enough,” she told ABC News. “I have used every tool in my tool kit to get to the bottom of cheating.”

The exact opposite is true. Rhee’s and Henderson’s insistence on higher test scores created a climate that encouraged people to game the system. The adults who changed answers, coached students during testing, and shared exams before the tests were not thinking about their students, just themselves, their jobs, and the appearance of success. Kids were numbers, nothing more, nothing less.  That is what Toch, once an aggressive reporter, should have told his readers, because Rhee and Henderson were stealing children’s opportunities to get a decent education.

The fantasy that top-down, data-driven, test-centric ‘reform’ works is perpetuated by articles like Tom Toch’s. Sadly, his piece has been widely distributed by the editorial pages of the Washington Post, influential blogger and co-founder of Democrats for Education Reform Whitney Tilson, and others.

What Has Gone Well

The D.C. public school system has improved in a number of ways since Rhee became chancellor in 2007, and both Rhee and Henderson deserve recognition. Full-day preschool for three- and four-year-olds has been greatly expanded. Facilities have had extensive, badly needed repairs, and a majority of schools have undergone complete modernizations. Pupil/staff ratios are smaller, more schools have extended-day or extended-year programs, and schools offer more electives, activities, and sports. More students participate in AP courses and dual-language programs than did ten years ago. Teacher salaries remain significantly higher than in almost everywhere else in the country.

But, ultimately, Rhee and Henderson lived and died by test scores, and their approach—more money for winners, dismissal for losers, and intense policing of teachers—is wrongheaded and outdated. Their conception of schooling is little changed from an industrial age factory model in which teachers are the workers and capable students (as determined by standardized test scores) are the products. The schools of the twenty-first century must operate on different principles: students are the workers, and their work product is knowledge. This approach seeks to know about each child not “How smart are you?” but, rather, “How are you smart?”

Rhee and Henderson had the kind of control other school superintendents can only dream of: no school board, a supportive mayor, generous funding from government and foundations, a weakened union, and strong public support. Yet, despite carte blanche to do as they pleased, they failed. Without the hot air of public praise, the Rhee-Henderson balloon would have plummeted to earth.

Toch’s article indicates that the stream of hot air will continue to keep the DCPS balloon aloft. The stakes are high, because other like-minded reformers around the country hold up DCPS as “proof” that a top-down, test-centric approach is the key to improving public education. It appears that under Henderson’s successor, Antwan Wilson, the failing Rhee-Henderson approach will continue. That’s sad, because Washington’s students and teachers deserve better.

(For even more about the failure of policies championed by Democrats for Education Reform (DFER) and Republican policy types, please read my book, Addicted to Reform: A 12-Step Program to Rescue Public Education.”)

(You will find Tom Toch’s reply here.)

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GREED (TECH + SCHOOLS) = A FIASCO

In a carefully reported article on the front page of The New York Times on Saturday, November 4th, reporters Natasha Singer and Danielle Ivory dissected the clever (and effective) strategies that big tech companies like Apple, Dell and HP are using to capture a huge chuck of public school dollars.  As the Times put it, “Silicon Valley is going all out to own America’s school computer-and-software market, projected to reach $21 billion in sales by 2020.”  As Singer and Ivory make clear, these tech companies are not doing it the old fashioned way (quality products, proof of effectiveness and those other passé concepts); no, they’re using good old greenback dollar bills to gain influence and, at the end of the day, win lucrative contracts.  Sometimes the money is paid directly to educators and school board members, and at other times it comes in the form of fancy trips, speaking engagements, and consulting gigs.

It’s a breathtaking story of greed, but what’s only hinted at around the edges in the Times story is the harsh truth that this would never happen if educators, politicians and policy makers were not worshipping at the altar of standardized test scores. Tech is selling–and educators are willing buyers–a fantasy: “Buy our fancy software and hardware packages, and your test scores will soar.”  

The reporters use Baltimore County (MD) public schools as their poster child, and surely (now former) Superintendent Dallas Dance has a lot of ‘splaining to do, given the coziness of his relationship with HP and other providers.   Under Dance’s leadership, his system signed a $200 MILLION contract with HP in 2014 and was also on the hook for many millions more in related contracts.   In the district’s own evaluations, the HP device scored third out of the four devices tested, with only 27 points out of a possible 46, but the County signed with HP anyway.

(The device, the Elitebook Revolve, has been plagued with problems and has been discontinued by HP, and Superintendent Dance abruptly resigned in April, no reason cited.)

While the reporters for The Times do not come right out and call the public school people in Baltimore County and elsewhere ‘crooks’ or ‘prostitutes,’ they come pretty close, as in these paragraphs:

In some significant ways, the industry’s efforts to push laptops and apps in schools resemble influence techniques pioneered by drug makers. The pharmaceutical industry has long cultivated physicians as experts and financed organizations, like patient advocacy groups, to promote its products.

Studies have found that strategies like these work, and even a free $20 meal from a drug maker can influence a doctor’s prescribing practices. That is one reason the government today maintains a database of drug maker payments, including meals, to many physicians.

“If benefits are flowing in both directions, with payments from schools to vendors,” said Rob Reich, a political-science professor at Stanford University, “and dinner and travel going to the school leaders, it’s a pay-for-play arrangement.”

Sadly, this isn’t a new story. Apple sold an expensive bill of goods to Los Angeles County Public Schools years ago, and Joel Klein’s Amplify signed some lucrative contracts, deals that went south when some of the machines burst into flames.  I write about those deals and other stupidities in my new book, “Addicted to Reform: A 12-Step Program to Rescue Public Education.” (The New Press, 2017)

I devote an entire chapter to what is the 8th step of my 12-step program, “Embrace Technology (Carefully).”  Here’s an excerpt:

Because most educators have failed to recognize how technology has transformed learning, I believe that much of that money is being wasted. Unfortunately for students (and creative teachers), many districts are buying prepackaged, computer-based curricula that lead students to predetermined answers. Designed to control learning and often advertised as being “Common Core ready,” they are catnip to beleaguered school boards under pressure to raise test scores.

Education’s decision-makers also have to be wary of supposedly free stuff. The big boys—Google and Amazon—are making offers that schools and teachers will find it difficult to refuse: free tools for writing, editing, and more from Google, and free curriculum materials from Amazon.  But nothing is free, so schools must realize that using these materials gives the provider all sorts of information about its users. Google knows me inside and out, and I guess that’s okay because I’m on the exit ramp. Should Google, Amazon, Facebook, et alia know everything about your third grader? I’m not so sure about that.

Values come first, technology second, and that’s where citizens must hold the feet of educators to the fire. Children swimming in a sea of information need to learn how to sift through the flood so they can distinguish truths from half-truths and fiction. Learning how to formulate tough questions and search for answers should be central to their curriculum, not absorbing and regurgitating facts.

Unfortunately, unsophisticated school districts have tended to buy first and plan later. The poster child for this approach is the Los Angeles public schools, which signed a $1.3 billion contract with Apple and Pearson in 2012, seemingly guaranteeing that 650,000 students would get iPads. However, when the rollout began at forty-seven schools that fall, problems arose immediately.  …..

Before it cancelled the contract, the Los Angeles school district had spent more than $100 million on 120,000 iPads and 18,000 laptops, teacher training, and technical labor. (In late 2015 the district received a refund of $4.2 million from Apple and $2.2 million in credit from the computer company Lenovo.) The debacle cost Superintendent John Deasy his job and led to an ongoing FBI investigation into whether Deasy and others colluded to make it virtually impossible for vendors other than Apple and Pearson to qualify for the contract. Deasy has denied the allegations.

Los Angeles is not alone, not by a long shot. Unfortunately for students and taxpayers, “buy first, plan later” is a common modus operandi. For example, twenty-six school districts in Texas bought 81,000 iPads and 10,000 other tablets for students in just one year.  …..

Disasters abound. Guilford County, North Carolina, first shut down and later canceled its 1-to-1 program when 1,500 of the 15,000 Amplify tablets it had purchased developed problems, including broken screens and overheating battery chargers, within a few weeks. Some Amplify tablets even caught fire.  …..

Even with a full load of technology, many schools continue to conduct business as usual, with teachers doing most of the talking. According to Stanford’s Larry Cuban, “Even in computer-based classes, teacher-centered instruction with a mix of student-centered practice was the norm.”  In short, the problem goes beyond naiveté. The deeper problem is that those running public education have, for the most part, failed to recognize how technology, and particularly the Internet, have already transformed learning outside of school—just not school-based learning.

It bears repeating: Technology is fundamentally value-free. Just as an old-fashioned pencil and the coolest smartphone can be used to stay in touch with loved ones or to plan terrorist attacks, schools can use computers for “drill and kill” or for exploring new ideas. How our schools are using—and failing to use—technology reveals a great deal about what we value.

Despite having access to all the world’s knowledge on their smartphones, most students in most classrooms are expected to learn and then spit back conventional knowledge: state capitals, the periodic table, how a bill becomes law, and the like.

For me, the bottom line is clear: NO school district should EVER buy ANY pre-packaged software!  Districts need to plan first, and that process must include the early adopters among the teaching staff.  If those teachers are not on board and involved, the money is going to be wasted.  Further, the goals of any technology adoption plan CANNOT be ‘improved student achievement,’ because that’s more test score idolatry.

21st Century schools must look at each child and ask ‘How is she intelligent?’ and act accordingly.  Regurgitation education is doing more damage to public education than Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has ever contemplated, even in her wildest fantasies.

The rumor mill has DeVos resigning soon, but that won’t rescue public education.  Only a progressive reinvention will save our schools, our children, their teachers, and our future.

The Silicon Vally assault must be turned away, not because they’re bad people but because they are peddling snake oil.  If this argument resonates, please take a look at “Addicted to Reform.”  Thanks…

 

You Shoulda Been There

“The great state of Minnesota, home of 10,000 lakes and birthplace of the charter school movement, proudly casts its vote in favor of the resolution.” 

The cheers echoed across the meeting room of the Ravel Hotel in Long Island City, New York.  It resembled a political convention with lots of sign-waving and cheering, but in fact it was a gathering of close to 300 men and women who are deeply involved in running independent charter public schools in about half of our country’s 50 states.  They were participating in the 3-day gathering‘s final event, a town hall meeting (that I was moderating).  At that moment, they were voting on the following resolution:

Students, families, educators (and indeed the entire country) need a national, independent, democratically organized group to advocate for independently managed, financially transparent, community oriented public charter schools as articulated in our Statement of Principles.

(And, in case you’re wondering, it passed unanimously.)

 

The ambitious goal of the 3-day meeting was to begin the process of rescuing the charter school movement from a deepening identity crisis.  Can they succeed?  That we won’t know for some time, but they got off to a good start.

You may be surprised to learn that about 60 percent of the country’s 6,000 or so public charter schools are independent, meaning they are not part of either a non-profit Charter Management Organization (CMO) or a for-profit Education Management Organization (EMO).  These independent charter schools are often disparaged as ‘Mom and Pop’ schools, but in my experience most are centers of innovation, openness, and collegiality.  However, CMO’s like KIPP, Uncommon Schools, and Success Academies and EMO’s like K-12 get most of grant money and the public attention, sometimes for their test scores but just as often for their exclusionary policies or profiteering.

Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has brought new attention to the charter school movement–and new controversy.  She’s declared her support for charter schools, vouchers, and ‘choice’ for all students, a mixed bag that many charter school people would prefer not to be in.  DeVos has also made things harder for charter people because, while her budget sets aside dollars specifically for charter schools, it calls for big cuts in overall spending for public schools—which charters are, of course.

As I see it, the term ‘charter school’ is so overused and misused that it now borders on being meaningless.  Just as the word ‘restaurant’ tells you only that it serves food, the term ‘charter school’ means little more today than ‘a place with children and teachers that’s somehow different from most district schools.’  Is it innovative, warm and welcoming, or is it a drill-and-kill factory? Does it have certified teachers, or is it staffed by untrained but energetic young people who will leave within a year or two? Does it welcome children with special needs, or do its leaders find ways to discourage them from enrolling?  You cannot tell by the name ‘charter school;’  As with a restaurant, you have to go inside.  Given that, it’s no wonder that public support for charter schools is falling, according to the most recent Phi Delta Kappan poll.  Why would the public support what it cannot understand?

That’s one reason The Coalition of Community Charter Schools convened what it proudly declared to be ‘the first ever Independent Charter School Symposium.’  Its goals were ambitious: 1) Explore the tough issues that national charter groups would rather not discuss, especially the treatment of special needs kids and the issues of racism and segregation; 2) Develop and agree upon a set of guiding principles; and 3) Adopt a binding resolution that would start the group down the road to recovery.

When Steve Zimmerman, the educator/energizer bunny behind the meeting, asked me for ideas, I suggested inviting the surviving participants from the historic 1988 meeting at Itasca, near the headwaters of the Mississippi River. It was there that the notion of chartering, which had been floated by union leader Albert Shanker, educator Ray Budde and others, was developed in some detail. That 1988 meeting led to Minnesota’s first-ever charter law in 1990 and the first charter school, in Saint Paul in 1992.

Steve invited five men and women to gather for a conversation, which I would moderate (I had been the moderator of that 1988 meeting): Sy Fliegel, Joe Nathan, Elaine Salinas, Ted Kolderie and Ember Reichgott Junge.  It was Ember, then a State Senator, who became fascinated by the idea of chartering and subsequently took it upon herself to craft a law.  She tells the fascinating story in her book, “Zero Chance of Passage.”

(In the end, Sy could not participate because of a family conflict, but I interviewed him before he had to leave and did my best to incorporate his answers into the discussion.)

The conversation is a glimpse into history, the story of chartering told by those who were (and are) in the arena.  They have some valuable insights into the current situation too, of course.  You will soon be able to watch the conversation on the website, where you can also see other sessions (such as racism in chartering and special needs and chartering) and read the Statement of Principles.

Before long, the organizers and participants will announce the creation of a new group, an Association of Independent, Community-Based Chartered Public Schools. It will stand for TRANSPARENCY in admission, retention, discipline and spending.  (As a journalist, I know how important it is to ‘follow the money.’  Many charter schools are secretive about spending, often because they are playing fast and loose with public dollars.  This group insists that has to stop.)

The original charter school law (1990) called for creating ‘different and innovative forms of measuring outcomes,’ and this new organization is enthusiastically behind that concept. Independent chartered schools want multiple measures of achievement as well as an end to the tyranny of testing.

(If you’re wondering about ‘chartered’ versus ‘charter,’ many of the original documents used the longer word, and this new group wants to signal that it is intent on going back to first principles.)

What will happen next? I’m betting on this determined group and hope you will join me in paying attention.

FAIRTEST is not a footnote

I am a fan of footnotes, including my own, and probably my favorite footnote in Addicted to Reform: A 12-Step Program to Rescue Public Education is #1 for the chapter entitled “Measure What Matters.”  The footnote reads, in its entirety: The single best source of information about testing and resistance to over-testing is the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, better known as FairTest. FairTest regularly publishes a free scorecard of developments that you can subscribe to. It’s a small non-profit, however, so I hope readers will consider contributing.  Over the years, I’ve found FairTest to be an honest and honorable advocate, and, trust me, not all advocates can be trusted.”

FAIRTEST itself is not a footnote, of course. It’s an incredibly vibrant and important organization that provides an essential service. It’s small and non-bureaucratic—and, because its cause is decidedly out of favor with the mega-foundations, wealthy hedge fund guys, and others who dabble in education, it’s always struggling.

You can help.  Every fall FAIRTEST honors those it identifies as ‘Heroes in Education’ at its annual dinner.  This year’s event will be in Cambridge, Massachusetts, on October 26th.    FAIRTEST will present the Deborah Meier Award to John H. Jackson and Barbara Madeloni. More about them follows:

Dr. John H. Jackson is President and CEO of the Schott Foundation for Public Education. Dr. Jackson leads the Foundation’s efforts to ensure a high quality public education for all students regardless of race or gender. He joined Schott after seven years at the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Dr. Jackson also served on the Obama-Biden Education Policy transition team and was Senior Policy Advisor in the Office for Civil Rights (OCR) at the U.S. Department of Education in the Clinton Administration. He holds a J.D. from the University of Illinois and a Doctorate in Education from the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

Barbara Madeloni is President of the 110,000-member Massachusetts Teachers Association and a staunch advocate for students and educators in public schools and higher education. She is committed to racial and economic justice and to building effective unions in alliance with parents, students and communities. She was a key leader in the successful 2016 Massachusetts campaign to block the expansion of charter schools. Madeloni is senior lecturer (on leave) in the Labor Studies Department at UMass-Amherst, where she previously worked at the School of Education. She also has taught high school and worked as a psychotherapist.

Please consider going. Ticket prices vary by status, but a ‘Champion’ ticket ($150) gets you into both the reception and the presentation, where you might get to swap stories and take selfies with the likes of  Nancy Carlsson-Paige, Michelle Fine, Lani Guinier, Jonathan Kozol, Karen Lewis, Deborah Meier, and Diane Ravitch.

If you cannot attend, please consider making a tax-deductible gift to FAIRTEST, which  you can do on-line or by sending a check to PO Box 300204, Boston MA 02130.

One more request: Please circulate this PDF widely.

Thank you……

John Thompson Reviews John Merrow’s “Addicted to Reform,” and Loves It!

Diane Ravitch's blog

John Thompson, historian and teacher in Oklahoma, Reviews John Merrow’s ADDICTED TO REFORM:


In “Addicted to Reform: A 12-Step Program to Rescue Public Education”, John Merrow lets it all out. Merrow, the winner of the George Polk Award and two George Foster Peabody Awards, leads us down “Memory Lane,” republishing his astonishing journalism that predates “A Nation at Risk,” and its warning against “a rising tide of mediocrity.” He also recalls successful innovators such as James Comer, E.D. Hirsch, Deborah Meier, and Henry Levin.
ADDICTED TO REFORM by John Merrow | Kirkus Reviews
But Merrow shows how high stakes testing dramatically increased our output of mediocre and even worse lessons for our kids. He tells us how the bubble-in reform “mania” got to a point where a principal told his teachers to “motor down,” to stop teaching 11th grade material to high-performing freshmen in order to prepare for the 9th…

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Coulda, Woulda, Shoulda

Friday night’s “EIF Presents: XQ Super School Live” television special was intellectually bankrupt or deliberately ahistorical–and perhaps both. The premise of the 1-hour program was that the American high school is hopelessly and dangerously behind the times.  This was demonstrated in a clever graphic using cars, phones and high schools: An early model-T, an early operator-assisted phone, and a high school classroom; then a car from the 1950’s, a dial-phone, and essentially the same high school classroom. Finally, a high tech car, a whiz-bang smart phone, and–yes–that same high school classroom.

The message couldn’t have been more obvious: high school has been standing still for too long.  However, that is demonstrably false. The American high school has been a battleground for intellectual and social issues for at least 65 years… let me begin to count the ways high schools have changed, and changed, and sometimes reverted to form…

1. Since James B. Conant published “The American High School Today” in 1959, we have gone from small high schools to huge consolidated high schools and, thanks largely to the Gates Foundation, back to small high schools. That seesaw continues

2. Since the Supreme Court Brown Decision in 1954 outlawing school segregation, we have gone (or tried to go) from segregated high schools to integrated/desegregated high schools and now, sadly, back to segregated high schools. Those chaotic times included all-white separatist ‘academies’ and ‘freedom schools’ for black children when school districts and the entire state of Virginia invoked ‘massive resistance’ and simply closed their public schools.

3. Since the passage of PL94-142, The Education of All Handicapped Children Act of 1975, we have gone from high schools that excluded handicapped kids to high schools that included them but kept them in separate classes to today’s high schools with ‘least restrictive environments.’

4. Since 1960 we have gone from rigidly tracked high schools (the one I taught at in the mid-60’s had FIVE tracks) to high schools that are—supposedly—almost track-free, except for ‘honors’ divisions.

5. Since the publication of ‘A Nation at Risk’ in 1983, we have gone from high schools with minimal requirements for graduation to high schools with much more demanding standards, followed now by high schools with ‘two-tier’ diplomas.

6. Since 2000 we have gone from high schools with no exit exams to high schools requiring students to pass an exit exam to graduate, and back to high schools without exit exams.

7. Since 2008, high schools with graduation rates in the low teens have raised their rates considerably. Overall, the nation’s high school gradation rate has climbed from 70 percent to 83 percent.  Some of that increase was due to close personal attention to students in danger of failing and dropping out, a caring approach that no doubt brightened many futures. Unfortunately, most of the increase can be traced to three reprehensible strategies: 1) persuading students to leave voluntarily to–supposedly–enroll in GED programs; 2) dubious on-line ‘credit recovery’ computer-based programs that allow students to ‘earn’ a semester’s worth of credit in less than a week’s time in front of a screen; and 3) widespread cheating by adults that boosted failing scores over the passing bar.

8) Since 2013, we have gone from high schools in which virtually every student fell in line and took whatever exams the school district required to high schools in which as many as 80 PERCENT of students have refused to take certain standardized tests.  And this is ongoing….

The latter may be the most important change of all because it is coming from the ground up, from the students themselves…and because it’s ongoing.  

Last night’s star-studded (Tom Hanks, Viola Davis and many dozens more) program was a production of the XQ Institute, which was founded by billionaire Laurene Powell Jobs, widow of Apple co-founder Steve Jobs, and Hollywood’s Entertainment Industry Foundation, which regularly gets behind ‘safe’ social issues.  It was an odd marriage that could have used some counseling, ideally from a few education historians.

As I see it, the program wanted to look bold without criticizing the ‘school reform’ crowd that still controls most of what happens in schools.  It could have been bold. It could–and should–have said “Most high schools treat kids like numbers, their scores on standardized tests.  That has to change…and here’s how it can happen, how it is happening.”  But in order to do that, the narrative would have had to renounce and reject not just Republican education policies of “No Child Left Behind” but also those of the Obama Administration’s “Race to the Top,” widely supported by Democrats for Education Reform and other traditional ‘school reformers.’  Given that Obama’s Education Secretary Arne Duncan now works for Powell Jobs’ Emerson Collective, that wasn’t going to happen.

Last night’s program was high energy and cute without being daring.  For example, it had a clever ‘red carpet’ segment but with teachers as the stars.  Lots of cheering, but that was it.  That’s sadly timid.  Imagine if Melissa Rivers, the host on the red carpet, had asked teachers the question she always asks the Hollywood stars: “You look marvelous. What are you wearing tonight?’  

And picture a male teacher responding:  “These old things?  I bought these khakis 12 or 13 years ago. I was going to buy a new pair for tonight, but I just spent $380 on basic supplies for my classroom.  Oh, and would it be rude of me to ask how much your outfit cost?”

Imagine a female teacher responding, “What am I wearing?  Actually, I’d rather talk about tomorrow’s field trip….I’m taking my kids to the Getty Museum, where they will….. see provocative art and meet contemporary artists.  And the next day my students will be on Skype, talking with students in a high school in Paris about climate change. We’ve been measuring the air quality here and sharing the data with them for purposes of comparison and analysis.  But I have to charge the kids for the bus to the Museum and I had to ask some wealthy parents to pay for the scientific equipment because the school district has been cutting our instructional budget.”

And another teacher could have said, “To be honest, I’m happy for this attention, but I can’t help but thinking about the fact that you make 17 or 18 times more money per year than I do.”

“EIF Presents: XQ Super School Live” was difficult for old-fashioned television watchers to avoid because Hollywood and Powell Jobs had bought or otherwise arranged for one hour–8-9PM–on all four networks CBS, NBC, ABC and Fox.  Maybe they were harking back to television’s monopoly days, thinking this would guarantee a captive audience.  That’s old-fashioned thinking, because most TV viewers today have hundreds of channels to chose from and are quick to use the remote.  My bet is that millions of people watched “Washington Week” on PBS, the US Open tennis tournament on ESPN, or a movie on Netflix.  I hope that many more millions read books, had family conversations, or took walks around the neighborhood to enjoy the full moon.

The program asked viewers to text a certain number to get involved, and perhaps XQ will be taking bolder steps.  (I signed up).  That’s a long shot, based on the program’s timid content.

In the end, the program tried to have it both ways.  The high schools they showed, funded by grants from XQ and the Emerson Collective, looked interesting. They seemed to give students much more control over their own learning, which is highly desirable. If that is what XQ wants for all kids, they need to face the fact that this approach is not the system’s M.O. because our system was designed to sort kids.  The schools in the XQ film do not do that.  Those schools seem to ask of each child ‘How are you intelligent?’ and then build on those interests to see that every student receives a well-rounded education.

Unfortunately, most of our schools continue to ask the question they have always asked:  “How intelligent are you?”  They determine the answer by testing….or by parental income and race. After that comes the sorting into what crudely could be called ‘winners’ and ‘losers.’   That is the elephant in the room that has to be addressed and changed. Unfortunately, “EIF Presents: XQ Super School Live” wasn’t up to meeting that challenge.  

Woulda, shoulda, coulda….

Learning to Hate

Hi John,

The elephant in the room….. and NO ONE WILL ADMIT IT…..is that the lower orders, including blacks, hispanics, etc. do not learn at the same rate as their white counterparts. It may be societal, or genetic…..but who cares? Deal with it as a reality. YOU CAN NOT MAKE DOGS CLIMB TREES!!

When I read this email from a high school classmate, my mind flashed back to an incident on a soccer field 62 years ago, when we were awkward or pudgy (or in my case, both) 14-year-olds.   Loud and clear as a bell, this classmate, who was on the other intramural soccer team, yelled “Happy Hanukkah” at someone on my team. I didn’t know what “Happy Hanukkah” meant, but, when the boy yelled it again, one of my teammates confronted him. They faced off and then began pushing, shoving and wrestling before others intervened to break it up.  I had no clue as to what had just happened. I didn’t know my teammate was Jewish; in fact, I knew almost nothing about Judaism.  It wasn’t until much later that I learned why the phrase, spoken by a non-Jew and delivered in a certain way, might be offensive to a Jew.  And I never figured out whether the boy who shouted “Happy Hanukkah” was being anti-Semitic or just trying to upset an opponent.

Now I think I know.  

My classmate, who must be–like me–76 years old, wrote the above email after reading a recent blog post about the schools in Washington, DC.  My central point was that two prominent researchers were jeopardizing their reputations by publishing misleading data. Despite their claims, the achievement gaps in Washington have persisted and even widened.  My point is that the ‘test-and-punish,’ test-centric, data-driven approach simply doesn’t work…and that poor and minority kids deserve to be treated with the same respect shown to children born to privilege.  My classmate, however, found confirmation of some basic belief of his….and his confirmation caused me to relive his earlier behavior.

And then the oddest thing happened: Believe it or not, the second response to my blog came from the boy he yelled at, my former teammate on that intramural soccer team. He’s someone I have stayed in touch with over the years. In high school he was hard-working and earnest.  He’s done well in life and has made a point of giving back in his small midwestern community and elsewhere.  We share a genuine wonkiness about education and a belief in trying to level the playing field.

He wrote:

John,

Amazing that academics from two serious institutions would risk such extreme distortion. Why would they make fools of themselves??

By the way, here in Smallville our K-12wide PBL installation, now in year 5, is very very successful. Parents, kids, teachers and community are convinced it works. Even silly State-mandated test scores are good, despite not teaching to them.

Seeing those two responses back-to-back, and remembering that soccer field incident from 62 years ago, has me wondering.  How do children learn racism, anti-Semitism, and other forms of hatred?  How do we learn tolerance and understanding?  Who teaches us, and can we unlearn hatred? Were my classmates already fully formed at age 14?   Was I? And, if we are, do we then view everything thereafter through that prism unless a dramatic ‘Saul on the road to Damascus’ experience changes our lives?  

The questions strike me as particularly relevant today because our 71-year-old President regularly expresses attitudes that are, at best, questionable and often objectionable.  I’m wondering whether he–or any of us–can change our basic beliefs once we reach maturity.  If so, what does it take?

And if not, what is in store for our country?

I’d love to hear your thoughts.

 

Touching the Elephant

You know the old fable about blind men touching different parts of an elephant to determine its true nature. The guy who feels just the ear draws one conclusion, the fellow who holds the trunk draws another, and so on.  That’s my reaction to the latest article touting the success of the District of Columbia’s teacher controversial evaluation system, IMPACT, appearing in Education Next, the journal published by Harvard and Stanford whose contents tend to skew right.  It’s a clear case of limited examination of the available information. Not to say that the authors are blind, just that they haven’t examined more of the elephant.

The authors, Thomas Dee of Stanford University and James Wyckoff of the University of Virginia, generally praise IMPACT, asserting that it has driven out poor teachers, rewarded successful ones, and helped the DC schools improve.

However, Dee and Wyckoff gloss over and withhold critical information, material that their readers really ought to be made aware of.  Just consider their bold assertion that DCPS is “the fastest-improving large urban school system in the United States as measured by the National Assessment of Educational Progress.”   Maybe so, but why don’t the authors disaggregate the data and dig a little deeper?  Probably because the results contradict their thesis.

Mary Levy and I have disaggregated the data. Here’s one small bite:  “Despite small overall increases, minority and low-income scores lag far behind the NAEP’s big-city average, and the already huge achievement gaps have actually widened. From 2007 to 2015, the NAEP reading scores of low-income eighth graders increased just 1 point, from 232 to 233, while scores of non-low-income students (called “others” in NAEP-speak) climbed 31 points, from 250 to 281. Over that same time period, the percentage of low-income students scoring at the “proficient” level remained at an embarrassingly low 8 percent, while proficiency among “others” climbed from 22 percent to 53 percent. An analysis of the data by race between 2007 and 2015 is also discouraging: black proficiency increased 3 points, from 8 percent to 11 percent, while Hispanic proficiency actually declined, from 18 percent to 17 percent. In 2007 the white student population was not large enough to be reported, but in 2015 white proficiency was at 75 percent.”

You got that, right?  The so-called Achievement Gap is wider today than when IMPACT was introduced.

Dee and Wyckoff lavish praise on IMPACT’s approach, noting that it has changed and evolved. What they do not tell their readers is the enormous cost of IMPACT.  Mary Levy and I ran the numbers:

“Under Rhee and Henderson, spending on non-teaching personnel has swollen dramatically. According to the latest statistics from Census Bureau fiscal reports, DCPS central office spending in 2015 was 9.5 percent of total current expenditures, compared to 1 percent 4 or less in surrounding districts. Today DCPS central offices have one employee for every sixty-four students, a striking change over the pre-Rhee/Henderson era ratio of one to 113 students. Those central office dollars could have been used to provide wraparound social services for children, services that would have allowed teachers to be more effective.

Many of these highly paid non-teachers spend their days watching over teachers in scheduled and unscheduled classroom observations, generally lasting about thirty minutes—not even an entire class meeting. Why so many of these teacher watchers? Because those who subscribe to top-down management do not trust teachers.”

Those excerpts are from Mary’s and my piece in the forthcoming issue of The Washington Monthly, which just published Thomas Toch’s paean to DCPS, an equally misleading essay.  Perhaps it’s not a coincidence that Education Next also printed Toch’s piece. It’s all part of a fairly well-designed campaign to convince the world that the top-down, data-driven, test-and-punish approach to fixing schools is just what the doctor ordered. It’s the reform that Democrats for Education Reform and most Republicans favor, despite strong evidence that it does not work.

All three writers–Toch, Wyckoff, and Dee–whitewash or completely ignore the widespread cheating by adults, even though it occurred in more than half of the DC schools.  I wrote about that in a recent post and hope you will revisit that sordid story about the flood of wrong answers being changed to right.  Threats from the Chancellor to “get the scores up or get out,” erasure parties, and more

I’m sure you know that the fable about the blind men and the elephant is also a joke. In that version, one more blind man is walking behind the elephant, picking up its poop, examining it, and then drawing his own conclusions about the true nature of an elephant.  It seems to me that’s where both of these articles, Toch’s and the Dee/Wyckoff piece, belong.

(PS: MY NEW BOOK, ADDICTED TO REFORM: A 12-STEP PROGRAM TO RESCUE PUBLIC EDUCATION, WILL BE PUBLISHED BY THE NEW PRESS IN A FEW DAYS.  PLEASE PICK UP A COPY AT  YOUR LOCAL BOOKSELLER.  THE ELECTRONIC VERSION, AVAILABLE ON AMAZON, INCLUDES HUNDREDS OF MY VIDEOS.)

 

School Reform’s Hot Air Balloon

The current issue of The Washington Monthly contains an article by former journalist Thomas Toch, “Hot for Teachers,” the latest in continuing string of pieces designed to prove the “truth” of the school reform movement’s four Commandments: top-down management, high stakes testing, more money for teachers and principals whose students do well, and dismissal for those whose students do not.

In his article, Toch distorts or omits at least eight issues.  The distinguished education analyst Mary Levy and I have written a rebuttal, which is scheduled to appear in the next issue of The Washington Monthly.  In this blog post, I want to consider in detail just one of Toch’s distortions: widespread cheating by adults: He glibly dismisses DC’s cheating scandals in just two sentences:  In March 2011, USA Today ran a front-page story headlined “When Standardized Test Scores Soared in D.C., Were the Gains Real?,” an examination of suspected Rhee-era cheating. The problem turned out to be concentrated in a few schools, and investigations found no evidence of widespread cheating.

There are two factual errors in his second sentence.  Cheating–erasing wrong answers and replacing them with correct ones–occurred in more than half of DCPS schools, and every ‘investigation’ was either controlled by Rhee and later Henderson or conducted by inept investigators–and sometimes both.  All five investigations were whitewashes, because no one in power wanted to unmask the wrongdoing that had produced the remarkable test score gains.

Four essential background points: The rookie Chancellor met one-on-one with all her principals and, in those meetings, made them guarantee test score increases.  We filmed a number of these sessions, and saw firsthand how Rhee relentlessly negotiated the numbers up, while also making it clear that failing to ‘make the numbers’ would have consequences.

Point number two: The test in question, the DC-CAS, had no consequences for students, none whatsoever. Therefore, many kids were inclined to blow it off, which in turn forced teachers and principals to go to weird extremes to try to get students to take the test seriously. One principal told his students that he would get a tattoo of their choice if they did well on the DC-CAS (They could choose the design; he would choose the location!).

Point number three: For reasons of bureaucratic efficiency, the DC-CAS exams were delivered to schools at least a week before the exam date and put in the hands of the principals whose jobs depended on raising scores on a test the kids didn’t care about. This was a temptation that some school leaders and some teachers found irresistible. Test books were opened, sample questions were distributed, and, after the exams, answers were changed. Some schools had ‘erasure parties,’ we were reliably told.

Point number four: Predictably, test scores went up, and the victory parties began.

Contrary to Toch’s assertions, the ‘wrong-to-right’ erasures in half of DCPS schools were never thoroughly investigated beyond the initial analysis done by the agency that corrected the exams in the first place, CTB/McGraw-Hill.  Deep erasure analysis would have revealed any patterns of erasures, but it was never ordered by Chancellor Rhee, Deputy Chancellor Henderson, or the Mayor, presuming he was aware of the issue.

When the erasures continued in Ms. Rhee’s second year on the job, she came under pressure to investigate, and so in December 2009 she hired Caveon, a security firm that is based in Utah. Why Caveon?  Ms. Henderson explained to a City Council subcommittee, “The reason that we hired Caveon was because we thought that we needed an objective third party to actually do the investigation and to make recommendations to us.”

Caveon was the perfect choice–if one wanted to turn a blind eye to any wrongdoing. Prior to its work for DCPS, Caveon had been hired by the (so-called) “Blue Ribbon Committee” established to look into allegations of cheating in Atlanta.  Caveon looked–and reported finding nothing wrong in what turned out to be the epicenter of cheating by adults on standardized tests.  Dr. John Fremer, the head of Caveon, told me that while he ‘knew’ there was widespread cheating going on, that was not mentioned in his final report. “We did not try to find out who was cheating,” he said.  “Our purpose was to rank order the schools beginning with those with the most obvious problems (of unbelievably dramatic score increases), in order to make the task of investigating more manageable.” In other words, Caveon produced a list!

Dr. Fremer admitted that he knew some Atlanta teachers were lying to him, but he said his hands were tied because he didn’t have subpoena power.

Georgia’s investigators were contemptuous of Caveon’s efforts, labelling it a ‘so-called investigation.’  Richard Hyde, one of the three leaders of the investigation, told me that “either by coincidence or design, it was certain to fail.”  Mr. Hyde denied that Caveon needed subpoena power because its investigators were representing a governmental agency, and under Georgia law it is a felony to lie to someone representing the government.  What’s more, Mr. Hyde said, Caveon had a fundamental conflict of interest–it was investigating its employer, at least indirectly, because the “Blue Ribbon Commission” (which Mr. Hyde dismisses as “The Whitewash Commission”) included a deputy superintendent of schools.

Robert Wilson, another leader of the Georgia investigation, was even blunter. Of course Caveon didn’t find cheating because “Caveon couldn’t find its own ass with either hand,” he scoffed.  Why anyone would hire Caveon was, he said, beyond him–unless they didn’t want to find out anything.

Dr. Fremer seemed hurt and offended by the criticism. “We try to be non-emotional,” he said, acknowledging that “People who listen only to the law enforcement side do not respect us.”

And so DCPS hired Caveon, which found nothing wrong in DC.  And, almost predictably, that first Caveon investigation became the linchpin for all that followed, from DC City Council Chairman David Catania’s giving it a “Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval” to Rhee’s and Henderson’s claims that the investigations vindicate them.

But let’s dig deeper into the surreal world that Caveon inhabits.  Caveon President Fremer maintains that his firm did not conduct an investigation in the normal sense of the word because his firm does not conduct investigations.  “We use the word ‘investigation’ in our materials because everyone else does,” he said, “but we do analysis, with the goal of process improvement and quality assurance.”  Then he added, “We were not brought in to help DCPS with an analysis of what had happened.”

The contract was for a two-part project: a security audit and questioning of certain people at just eight DCPS schools (even though many more schools had been implicated). But, he emphasized again in our conversation, it was not an investigation because Caveon was hired to “review and collect information.”  He told me,  “I give advice as to where to focus attention. I am not trying to position a client to put people in jail. Instead, we give them enough information about problems to allow them to fix them in the future.”

The security audit, he said, consisted of examining DCPS’ policies and procedures around the testing.  Caveon did not seek to find out if principals and teachers actually followed the rules, and so Caveon apparently did not inform Chancellor Rhee just how easy it would be to cheat on the DC-CAS before, during and after its administration.  Caveon did make some recommendations to improve security–recommendations, he said, that DCPS did not follow.

Part Two of Caveon’s work–the questioning–is even more interesting.  Dr. Fremer told me that DCPS gave him a list of the eight schools it was authorized to go into. DCPS also gave Caveon about 50 questions to ask of teachers, proctors, principals and assistant principals.  He said DCPS indicated that Caveon was not to stray from the list.  Follow-up questions, the essence of a good investigation, were actively discouraged, according to Dr. Fremer.

He told me that DCPS’ list of questions did not include “Did you see anyone erasing answers?” or “Did you participate…” or “Are you aware of organized erasures?” or “Are you aware of cheating?”

Dr. Fremer told me that his employees never use words like ‘cheating’ or ‘illegal behavior’ because they are ‘too emotional.’  Instead, he said, they asked individuals if they could explain huge discrepancies in wrong-to-right erasures between classrooms.

Caveon was contractually obligated to show DCPS drafts of the report before it was made final, which Dr. Fremer said was completely appropriate.  “There was no pressure to ‘sweeten the sound’ of our report,” Dr. Fremer said. “We wanted DCPS to check for mistakes and make certain that we did not reveal the identities of individuals.”

Caveon sent DCPS its final report in February 2010, saying that it had not found evidence of cheating–which it had not been looking for, as Dr. Fremer explained.

Caveon I and II were Chancellor Rhee’s first foray into ‘investigation,’ and she and Henderson regularly cite the Caveon reports as evidence that all was well–because Caveon did not find cheating–which it was not looking for.

Next in this row of dominos is DC’s Inspector General Charles Willoughby, who leaned heavily upon Caveon’s report as he exonerated DCPS. If Caveon’s work was superficial, Inspector General Willoughby’s investigation was downright inept. Just how weak was Mr. Willoughby’s effort?  As we reported on Frontline, the Inspector General’s investigation is remarkable for what it did not investigate. He chose not to investigate 2008, the year with the most erasures. He chose not to investigate Aiton, a school notable for its high rate of wrong to right erasures. He did not examine the test answer sheets or perform an electronic analysis. And he did not investigate J.O Wilson – a school with excessive WTR erasures in 100 percent of its classrooms – simply because Chancellor Henderson had assured him that it was a good school.

Although more than half of DC’s schools had been implicated, he focused only on Noyes Education Campus, the school that USA Today had made the centerpiece of its investigation. Over the course of 17 months, his team interviewed just 60 administrators, teachers, parents and teachers, all from Noyes Education Campus. By contrast, Atlanta investigators interviewed over 2,000 people and reviewed 800,000 documents. Rather than seek outside experts as Atlanta investigators had, he relied heavily on information from Caveon, which had been, of course, in the employ of DCPS. He did not ask to perform erasure analysis but relied on interviews–sometimes conducted over the phone. And he produced a 17-page report, in sharp contrast to Atlanta’s (post-Caveon) 813-page report.

Without the power to put people under oath, he told City Councilman Kenyan McDuffie in February that he just asked them if they had cheated. If they said they hadn’t, that was the end of it, because, he explained, he “wasn’t conducting a fishing expedition.” Test monitors sent by the central office to patrol Noyes for the 2010 test told Mr. Willoughby that they had been barred from entering classrooms. School officials denied that charge–and Mr. Willoughby believed them, not the monitors.

At a DC City Council subcommittee hearing, Mr. McDuffie asked Mr. Willoughby why he had examined just one school, Noyes, and had not scrutinized other high-erasure schools. “Because we didn’t find evidence of a conspiracy to cheat at Noyes,” he replied, and because that was what was recommended to him. Was it prudent to take the word of firms that were paid by DCPS instead of seeking an outside, independent opinion and to rely on media reports, Mr. McDuffie asked. “Yes,” Mr. Willoughby replied.

Asked if he had tried to find an explanation for the pronounced test score drops when security was tightened, Mr. Willoughby replied, “We were told that it was caused by an influx of new students.” Mr. Willoughby found no evidence of widespread cheating at Noyes but cited some security concerns and noted that one teacher had been dismissed for coaching students on a test. The IG’s essential message: except for that one teacher, all was well.

Finally, there was the U.S. Department of Education’s Inspector General’s investigation, which leaned heavily upon Mr. Willoughby’s work when it reported in January, 2013, that “No information was obtained or developed during the course of the investigation that substantiated the allegation of false claims made to the federal government or confirmed widespread cheating on standardized tests.”

Rhee and Henderson defend their approach. The investigations “found that there was some cheating, but that it was isolated to only a few schools,” Rhee said in February, 2013. Henderson is proud of how she conducted the inquiries.  “We have had six investigations that have cleared DCPS of widespread cheating,” she said in April, 2013. “I am frustrated because people are saying I haven’t done enough,” she told ABC News. “I have used every tool in my tool kit to get to the bottom of cheating.”

The exact opposite is true. Rhee’s and Henderson’s insistence on higher test scores created a climate that encouraged people to game the system. The adults who changed answers, coached students during testing, and shared exams before the tests were not thinking about their students, just themselves, their jobs, and the appearance of success. Kids were numbers, nothing more, nothing less.  That is what Toch, once an aggressive reporter, should have told his readers, because Rhee and Henderson were stealing children’s opportunities to get a decent education.

The fantasy that top-down, data-driven, test-centric ‘reform’ works is perpetuated by articles like Tom Toch’s. Sadly, his piece has been widely distributed by the editorial pages of the Washington Post, influential blogger and co-founder of Democrats for Education Reform Whitney Tilson, and others.

Please share this, and our Washington Monthly rebuttal when it appears, with everyone you know who believes that public education ought to focus on children and youth, not test scores and adult aggrandizement.

 

 

 

 

Affluenza — The 20th Anniversary

OnWord

(Originally written for the blog of my Secular Franciscan Order fraternity in Mishawaka, Indiana)
This is the 20th anniversary of the broadcast of a documentary that has lodged itself in my heart and my mind. May I recommend it to you as a powerful reminder of the wisdom that comes to us from St. Francis, as well as Holy Scripture even more directly, and from Pope Francis more recently?
The inspirational one-hour report, called “Affluenza,” was shown on PBS and narrated by an NPR host, so you know this was not a “faith-based initiative” or a TV tract propounding Franciscanism. This was a classic, secular piece of insight from the intersection of faith and reason that passes the test of time. Although there are portions of content to which I might append a modest disagreement or cautionary note, it captures well the insights emerging in some circles in 1997…

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