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.
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.
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.)