Graduation Rates & “School Reform” Fraud

The emperor has no clothes, and it’s high time that everyone acknowledged that. Proof positive is Washington, DC, long the favorite of the ‘school reform’ crowd, which offered it as evidence that test-based reforms that rewarded teachers for high student scores (and fired those with low scores) was the magic bullet for turning around troubled urban school districts.

But now we know that about one-third of recent DC high school graduates–900 students– had no business receiving diplomas, and that they marched across the stage last Spring because some adults changed their grades or pushed them through the farce known as ‘credit recovery,’ in which students can receive credit for a semester by spending a few hours over a week’s time in front of a computer.

The reliable Catherine Gewertz of Education Week provides a through (and thoroughly depressing) account of the DC story, which she expands to include data from DC teachers:  “In a survey of 616 District of Columbia teachers conducted after the scandal broke, 47 percent said they’d felt pressured or coerced into giving grades that didn’t accurately reflect what students had learned. Among high school teachers, that number rose to 60 percent. More than 2 in 10 said that their student grades or attendance data had been changed by someone else after teachers submitted them.”

The DC story was initially reported by Kate McGee of WAMU for NPR. That led to an investigation by the DC City Council and action by Mayor Muriel Bowser.

If you have read “Addicted to Reform: A 12-Step Program to Rescue Public Education,” you have read about Arne Duncan’s “Raise the Graduation Rate” effort, which is prime example of phony reform (along with W’s earlier “Raise the Test Scores” campaign).  Both superficial reforms proved to be malignant in their impact upon students, teachers, and schools.  Students were lied to about their proficiency, administrators and teachers cheated, school curricula were debased, standards were lowered, and confidence in public schools dropped.

The response to the graduation scandal from members of the ‘school reform’ establishment (which includes Republicans and Democrats) has been to blame “a few bad apples” for misbehaving. Wrong, wrong, wrong! This outcome was inevitable and entirely predictable, because this always happens when a system puts all its eggs in one basket.  Too much pressure on a single metric renders that metric unreliable and untrustworthy.  But Education Establishment figures from the (right leaning) American Enterprise Institute and the (left leaning) Center for American Progress call for greater accountability, more early intervention for kids who do poorly on tests, and so forth. No one questions the wisdom of the test-based system, as far as I can see.

By the way, if you think I feel strongly about this, check out this opinion piece, also from Education Week.

How did the graduation scam continue for so long under the leadership of Chancellor Kaya Henderson? You will recall that Henderson succeeded the controversial Michelle Rhee, who came to DC in 2007 and left in 2010.  Henderson, Rhee’s deputy and closest friend, was routinely described in the media as “A kinder, gentler Rhee.”  Unfortunately, people focused on the adjectives, “kinder” and “gentler”and felt relieved to be free of Rhee’s sturm und drang.  Suffering from “Rhee fatigue,” everyone apparently ignored the central point of the description:  Henderson=Rhee.

Sadly, the current DC Chancellor, Antwan Wilson, has not moved quickly to take control. Perhaps this is because he–just like Rhee, Henderson, and many other school leaders–is on record as a supporter of what I call the ‘test-and-punish’ approach to education.

So, end of the day, it’s not really about the people but about a school system that is inadequate for the 21st Century.  We simply don’t have enough kids to sort them into ‘winners’ and ‘losers’ at an early age.  Our schools now look at each kid and ask, “How smart is this child?” (often getting their answer from tests, but also from appearance, income level, and race).  Instead, schools should be asking an ethically, morally and socially appropriate question, “How is this child intelligent?”  Building on strengths and interests is the right starting place.

When administrators and teachers change student scores so they can pass, the adults are lying to the students, telling them they are proficient and denying them the remedial help they were entitled to. We will never know how many lives were blighted, and those kids may never catch up.  In Atlanta educators went to jail, but in most other cheating scandals, no adults suffered.

The DC system can identify the 900+ students who received phony diplomas, but what comes next? Should those diplomas be recalled, and the students compensated with additional instruction?  Surely the kids shouldn’t be punished, but neither should they be allowed to keep their diplomas.  The principal of one DC high school has been reassigned, but that doesn’t begin to get to the heart of the problem.

The rot starts at the top, but Michelle Rhee and Kaya Henderson are long gone from Washington.  And, more importantly, they are not the top.  They were just opportunistically riding the wave.

It doesn’t make sense to spend a lot of energy looking back and casting blame.  We ought to reject test-based reform as the harmful fraud that it is.  That’s the right starting place.

(Addicted to Reform: A 12-Step Program to Rescue Public Education is available at your local bookseller and on Amazon and Barnes & Noble.)

8 thoughts on “Graduation Rates & “School Reform” Fraud

  1. I wonder who you would say is at “the top”? Who are these naked emperors to which you allude? We can certainly agree that Rhee and Henderson were opportunists, but until we identify those pulling the strings, the public will remain mystified as to the power structure at work.


    • I don’t think there are names to be named per se. This is systemic, an approach that benefits one group of people over others, and benefits certain parts of the economy. If you have read my book, you know that I name groups that are benefiting from mediocrity, and these folks are certain to continue fighting against real change of the sort that you and I favor.


  2. > Hi John,
    > Accountability systems like NCLB and ESSA that hold teachers responsible for student performance without giving them authority are irrational and immoral. You cannot require people to do something in situations over which they have no control. Teachers are prisoners of the Carnegie Units/seat time/pacing guide 20th century relics. It was in 1983 that the report “A Nation at Risk” was published and what has happened in those 35 years? What you describe below.
    > Until we change the fundamentals and we approach education as described in the attached vision document signed by 28 strange bedfellows under the aegis of Education Reimagined, ( we will be wringing our hands for the next 35 years.
    > Gisèle

    9we will be wringing our hands for the next 35 years.


    Liked by 1 person

    • I am optimistic that an alliance of progressives (like me) and libertarians (like you) can achieve great things. DeVos’s support of ‘choice’ rings hollow, and the charter school movement is in disarray. The ‘School Reform’ crowd is on the ropes, with reporters exposing the fraudulent ‘reforms’ like the graduation rates in DC.


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