Meet Adell Cothorne

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Michelle Rhee is, of course, the central character in our Frontline film, “The Education of Michelle Rhee,” but I want to tell you more about Adell Cothorne, the former DC principal who appears at the end of our film. She was one of a small handful of DC educators willing to speak on the record about the widespread erasures that occurred during Michelle Rhee’s tenure in Washington–and I think what she has to say is important.

It’s not an exaggeration to say that producer Mike Joseloff, researcher Catherine Rentz and I made hundreds of phone calls to teachers and principals at schools with high erasures rates (with answers almost always changed from ‘wrong’ to ‘right’) on the District’s standardized test, the DC-CAS, and to those in Michelle Rhee’s central office. Many of those we called either hung up the phone, said ‘no comment,’ or ask to go ‘off-the-record.’ I think some changed their phone numbers, and a few managed to disappear from sight.

Why the code of silence? One person explained that she wouldn’t be able to find work in education if she spoke out—and then hung up. Others told much the same story.

So let me tell you more about Adell Cothorne, in her own words.

“I grew up in poverty. I’m a minority, of course, (laughs). (And the daughter of a) teenage mother. So I absolutely understand the value of a strong public school education. It will take you places you’ve never been before.”

Education enabled Adell Cothorne to rise from those unpromising circumstances, and she ended up as an Assistant Principal in Montgomery County, Maryland. For those unfamiliar with the Washington, DC, area, Montgomery County is a wealthy suburb of the Capital with excellent ‘Blue Ribbon’ public schools. It’s one of the top-ranked school districts in the nation.

Adell Cothorne, former principal of Noyes Education Campus

Her idealism burned brightly, and so she applied for a job in Washington, largely, she told Frontline, because of her admiration for Michelle Rhee.

“I still have the Time Magazine with Michelle Rhee on the cover,” Cothorne told Frontline. “I had been following her for a while, and I admired what I saw on the media and the news. And so to have the opportunity to dialogue and sit across from her and then have her say to me, you know, ‘It’s not a matter of when you’re coming to D.C., but where I’m going to put you,’ that was absolute confirmation for me. And I was over the top.”

Rhee installed Cothorne as principal of Noyes Education Campus, a ‘Blue Ribbon’ school that had achieved remarkable gains on the DC-CAS in previous years. In October Cothorne met again with the Chancellor, one-on-one, to discuss her plans for the year. (Rhee’s practice was to meet with every principal to get their written guarantees.)

She told Frontline that meeting, which took place early in school year 2010-2011. “You are to ‘goal set.’ You are to tell her, you know, ‘I will raise math scores by 5%. I will raise reading scores by 6%.’ And so, yes, she and I had that conversation. And I said to her in early October, ‘I’m very comfortable with a 6% gain in math and a 7% gain in reading.’”

JOHN MERROW: But … if you make the commitment for 6%, 7%, is it understood that if you don’t make it you are not going to be around?
ADELL COTHORNE: Yes.
JOHN MERROW: Produce or else?
ADELL COTHORNE: She– yes, she said that to me. Yes.
JOHN MERROW: She said–
ADELL COTHORNE: In a joking fashion, absolutely joking fashion, but she did say, ‘You know, Cothorne, if you don’t make this, don’t be upset if you get a pink slip.’ Those were her words to me. In a joking manner.
JOHN MERROW: Did you take it as a joke?
ADELL COTHORNE: No. (LAUGH) That’s my livelihood. No I did not.

Even as she was making that commitment, Cothorne knew she had a problem. What she had already seen in her new school did not jibe with the test scores that had been recorded. Here’s what she told Frontline:

“As any good administrator should, I visited classrooms and just made my presence known, (and) noticed a disconnect for myself and what was going on in the classroom. The level of instruction, because I’ve worked at Blue Ribbon Schools before, so the level of instruction that I know is needed for a Blue Ribbon School, I was not seeing on a daily ongoing basis. … There’s these huge disconnects. They’re struggling academically. Yet the data that I have been given is showing great gains. But what I see with my own eyes on a daily basis is not a true picture of great gains.”

I asked her to tell me more.

ADELL COTHORNE: Well, for instruction, I saw students who were struggling to read, which is absolutely what does not happen in a Blue Ribbon School. And did not coincide or line up with the data that I had been given as the new principal. I just really saw a lack of instruction across the board. There were only very few instances where I could go into a classroom and feel comfortable that instruction was going on and kids were learning. Wholesale, that was not happening at my school.
JOHN MERROW: It must’ve been upsetting.
ADELL COTHORNE: It was upsetting and it was a little nerve-wracking because I knew (LAUGH) it was my responsibility to raise the achievement of that school.

Her predecessor, Wayne Ryan had led Noyes with great success. In fact, Rhee had promoted him to her central office largely because of his school’s success on the DC-CAS. In 2007, for example, only 44.14% of Noyes’ students had scored at a proficient level in reading, but under Ryan’s leadership that number nearly doubled, to 84.21%, in just two years. Math scores had also nearly doubled, from 34.24% to 62.79.

What Cothorne did not know was that an awful lot of answers had been changed from ‘wrong’ to right,’ on DC-CAS answer sheets from Noyes–and in nearly half of Rhee’s other schools. At Noyes 75% of the classrooms were flagged for high erasure rates. (This problem began in Rhee’s first year, and she learned of it early in her second year. She had been urged to investigate the 2007-2008 erasures but did not, as the film details.)

Cothorne told Frontline that she inadvertently discovered a possible explanation for the discrepancy between the high test scores and the students’ daily performance: Adults were changing answers on the tests. She had stayed late one night and heard noises coming from one classroom.

“So I walked into the room and I saw three staff members. There were test books everywhere, over 200 test books spread out on desks, spread out on tables. One staff member was sitting at a desk and had an eraser. And then there were two other staff members at a round table and they had test books out in front of them.
And one staff member said to me, in a light-hearted sort of way, ‘Oh, Principal, I can’t believe this kid drew a spider on the test and I have to erase it.’ … That was a little strange to me. I mean, the whole situation of all of these test books, over 200 test books being spread out in this room after school hours with three staff members. It’s not the way a testing situation is supposed to happen.”

This was not an isolated incident, Cothorne told Frontline.

JOHN MERROW: Were there any other indications?
ADELL COTHORNE: Yes.
JOHN MERROW: Of– that– teachers or staff members were behaving inappropriately on testing situations?
ADELL COTHORNE: Oh, in testing situations. Yes. … I personally walked into two different classrooms and saw two separate teachers giving instruction, trying to frontload students with information while test books are open and out. So I saw that with my own eyes.

That created a crisis for Cothorne. She felt compelled to report the incident, but her immediate supervisor was Wayne Ryan, her predecessor at Noyes. How could she call him up and accuse his former colleagues of erasing answers, without implying that he may have been part of the scheme? In the end, she told Frontline, she called someone else, who, she says, told her ‘not to worry’ but that was the last she heard from him.

She also told Frontline that one administrator summoned her to his office. She would not reveal his identity but told Frontlne about the conversation.

ADELL COTHORNE: When I was meeting with this higher up– the statement was made to me, ‘You don’t respect the legacy that has been built at Noyes.’ Once again, I processed, and looked at the person and said, ‘Could you repeat that?’ The person again moved closer and said, ‘You don’t respect the legacy that has been built at Noyes.’ And I answered with, ‘You know, I thought I was doing a very good job of looking at instruction and giving support.’ And the person just kind of smirked and set back.
JOHN MERROW: And how did you interpret that?
ADELL COTHORNE: “Be quiet.” That was my interpretation.

(Cothorne would not tell Frontline the name of that administrator, but in court documents that were unsealed the day before our broadcast she names Wayne Ryan as the individual. He was, of course, her predecessor at Noyes and the person she reported to directly at DCPS. Back in May 2011, Cothorne filed a ‘whistleblower’ action with the US Department of Education alleging widespread cheating and, therefore, fraudulent awards of federal funding. However, on the afternoon before our broadcast the Department of Education’s Inspector General reported that she had not found cheating by adults and therefore the Department of Justice would not pursue Cothorne’s case. Her full complaint can be found here (.pdf).  In it she names the DCPS officials she says she spoke to. We have not be able to contact those men, and DCPS claims it has no records of phone calls from Cothorne. Cothorne’s attorney says that one call was made on Cothorne’s cell phone and that she has supporting documentation.)

At Noyes, however, she was in charge of the building itself. I asked her to talk about the coming DC-CAS. Here’s our conversation:

JOHN MERROW: You, as principal of the school, had something to say about the DC-CAS and security. And did you do anything to make sure that DC-CAS would be a secure test?
ADELL COTHORNE: Yes. So I did speak with downtown, and– on a regular basis, after I witnessed what I saw earlier in the year, I had ongoing conversations with downtown. “Don’t forget, when DC-CAS comes around, I need extra, you know, monitors. I need some other people besides my staff in the building to ensure that everything is okay.”
And at that point, downtown was more willing to help because the USA Today article had come out, and so Noyes had gotten lots of publicity about an erasure scandal. So when CAS came around in 2011, I did have two extra people from downtown to help monitor to– the test, and then I had another two extra people who helped with, you know, having the test checked in to make sure all the tests came in. We had locks changed on doors so that myself and my assistant principal were the only two people that had the key to the room to get in to testing. No one– the test coordinator did not have it. No one else had the keys.
JOHN MERROW: So are you convinced that that DC-CAS in the spring of your year there, that that was a secure test?
ADELL COTHORNE: I would honestly say that was a secure test.
JOHN MERROW: So you– you’re certain there were no erasures on that test?
ADELL COTHORNE: Now, I cannot be certain because I did not stay at the school 24 hours (LAUGH) a day. But while I was there, and what I saw, I do think it was a secure test.

With heightened security, Noyes’ DC-CAS scores dropped 52 points in reading (from 84.21% in 2009 to 32.40%) and 34 points in math (from 62.79% to 28.17%). In fact, in 2010-2011 Noyes performed below its 2007, pre-Rhee, level.

JOHN MERROW: How do you explain the drop?
ADELL COTHORNE: Those were the true test scores.
JOHN MERROW: I’m sorry?
ADELL COTHORNE: Those were the true test scores, in my opinion. Those were what the students in that school actually were able to produce.

Take note, readers. The decline at Noyes was not an exception among ‘high erasure’ schools. At the 14 schools with erasure rates of 50% or higher, scores declined at 12, often precipitously, after security was tightened. For example, reading scores at Aiton fell from 58.43% in 2007-2008 to 20.80%; in math from 57.87% to 16%. Reading scores at Raymond went from 70% to 42.44%, while its math score dropped from 68% to 45.71%.

By the time the 2010-2011 DC-CAS was administered, everyone knew of the widespread erasures, thanks to USA Today’s brilliant and thorough investigation. Rhee was gone by then, but, under public pressure, Rhee’s successor asked DC’s Inspector General to investigate. He began at Noyes, where he had little success. Cothorne told Frontline, “At first, they tried to interview staff members after school, but then staff members would find a reason not to be interviewed.”

JOHN MERROW: Why would teachers play cat and mouse?
ADELL COTHORNE: That would be speculation, but I guess they had something that they didn’t want to be forthcoming.

Of course, Cothorne expected to be questioned. After all, she had filed a complaint, and Noyes was the epicenter of the story.

JOHN MERROW: Were you interviewed?
ADELL COTHORNE: No, I was not.
JOHN MERROW: Why weren’t you interviewed?
ADELL COTHORNE: Again, my speculation, they didn’t want to hear what I had to say.

The Inspector General spent 17 months but investigated only one school, Noyes. Oddly, he did not examine data from 2007-2008, the year with the largest number of erasures but looked only at Rhee’s second and third years. At Noyes, the IG finally managed to interview 32 school personnel–but not Cothorne–and 23 parents. He reported finding a number of problems with test security but on the issue of Noyes personnel erasing answer sheets, “investigators found no evidence to corroborate these allegations.”

The Inspector General would not agree to an interview with Frontline.

Linda Mathews, the lawyer/journalist who supervised the USA Today investigation, told Frontline that , if one of her reporters had submitted a report like the one compiled by DC’s Inspector General, “I’d fire him on the spot.”

I asked Cothorne if she understood why an administrator or teacher might be tempted to cheat?

ADELL COTHORNE: Absolutely.
JOHN MERROW: Explain.
ADELL COTHORNE: Pressure. There’s pressure from central office to raise test scores. And that pressure is given to principals. And it is very clearly explained to you, not only in D.C., but many other school systems, your job is tied to test scores. Increase test scores. Period.

JOHN MERROW: Did you think there were people who, you know, outside of school, above the school, who knew something was wrong and maybe didn’t want to know?
ADELL COTHORNE: Not that they didn’t want to know, they wanted to keep their jobs. So I think that they knew, and, you know, because of the economic times that we’re in, decided to go along.
JOHN MERROW: Do you think that was widespread?
ADELL COTHORNE: In my opinion, yes.

I ask you to pay special attention to the next section of this piece.

Playing Devil’s Advocate, I suggested that changing a few answers was a victimless crime. She nearly jumped from her chair.

ADELL COTHORNE: No, it’s not a victimless crime. There are many victims. There are thousands of victims. It’s the students that are the victims.
JOHN MERROW: How?
ADELL COTHORNE: Someone is putting forth a picture that you are able to do something that you have no capability of doing. And so you keep moving to these different levels and the next person’s saying, “Oh, Janie can read on a fifth grade level and she can do fifth grade math.”
And Janie gets into your sixth grade middle school class, Janie can’t read, ‘See the dog run down the street.’ Janie can’t do the math. And so Janie becomes frustrated, because you are putting these sixth grade expectations on her and she has first grade ability. So then what happens to Janie? She waits her time, and when she’s 16 she’s out.

Although Cothorne became disillusioned with Michelle Rhee, she suggested that the problem went beyond the Chancellor. To Cothorne, Rhee was swept up in the national obsession with test scores everywhere, created by the 2001 federal No Child Left Behind law.

She described it in these words: “(I)nstruction shuts down in February because you have to do test prep from February until the test. So instruction in many districts was already shaky in the beginning, and now you’re basically shutting down all instruction in February to do all of this test prep. Because for many administrators and many school districts, it’s as important to make sure that kid knows how to take the test than it is, ‘Did they truly learn the content?’ “

Because Cothorne is also the mother of a young child, she also sees education from a parent’s perspective. She talked about that in our interview.

ADELL COTHORNE: My frustration as a parent is that education as a whole has lost the ability of students to be natural learners. No Child Left Behind has put in the caveat that every kid must get it by Tuesday at 2:00, and if you have an IEP, we’ll give you until 2:15. But at 2:15 we’re moving on.
And you’ve got to get it. So children who need a little more processing time, children who may be able to give you the idea, but they have to write a song about it, or they have to create a picture about, (but) … when the rubber meets the road, it’s not about differentiation at the end of the day. That teacher is judged on, ‘What scores did those children get on that test?’

And that test doesn’t look at, ‘Could you sing the information?’ or ‘Could you create a poem?’ It looks at, ‘Could you write a short essay and could you bubble in the right answer?’ So that has been the focus. How do they pass that test? Not ‘Did they learn anything?’ but ‘Are they able to pass numerous tests?’ Because we test all year long.

Adell Cothorne, a dedicated educator who was completing work on her doctorate, resigned her principalship and gave up a reported annual salary of roughly $130,000. She has opened up a bakery, “Cooks ‘n Cakes,” in Ellicott City, Maryland, surely a gamble in these difficult economic times.

I hope it’s a rousing success. When you stop by (to buy), please congratulate her on her courage.


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A Trifecta Of Sins

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A comprehensive report in late March by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution provides strong evidence that adults in as many as 200 school systems have been cheating on their students’ standardized tests.

We looked at this for NewsHour in 2011:

Because I spent three years chronicling the tenure of Michelle Rhee in Washington, DC — another city with a spate of thus-far-unexplained ‘wrong to right’ erasures on standardized tests — I am interested in this story. I’d like to know if anyone cheated in the DC schools. If so, who and why?

But a teacher I correspond with occasionally brought me up short recently. My focus on actual, literal cheating — physically changing answers or giving kids answers in advance — is too narrow, this teacher wrote.

Here’s part of a recent letter:

“While I know that the cheating scandals may be considered important, I’m frankly a bit disappointed that this is the focus because the cheating scandal doesn’t really matter in terms of the students and their futures, which should always be the focus of anything related to education. What matters is the lasting damage that is being done to them as a result of the increased pressures being put on the school system over these tests. The lasting damage is the closing of schools with no thoughts as to the repercussions on the community, the constant rotating principals, the removal of teachers connected with the community, the privatization of public schools and property, the fact that schools budgets are getting slashed while the administrative central office expands and gives money to private contractors in huge quantities that accomplish nothing, the constant lack of knowledge about our future in the schools, the increasing class sizes and removal of resources from our neediest schools, etc. The cheating scandal is next to nothing; that is a product of the testing obsession as a whole, something that Michelle Rhee certainly fed, but it is far from the worst part of her tenure. Those test scores mean nothing about how prepared our children are for their futures–whether or not there was cheating.”

Testing
Some think we haven't hit bottom yet.

Supporting her argument that the real issue is preparing kids for their futures is a new report about the arts in our schools, hard data confirming what most reporters have known for a long time: for at least 10 years, the arts have been disappearing from schools populated largely by low-income kids. The report is from the U. S. Department of Education. It tells us that fewer public elementary schools today offer visual arts, dance and drama classes, a decline many attribute to budget cuts and an increased focus on math and reading. Most high schools with large numbers of low income students do not offer music. Dan Domenech, executive director of the American Association of School Administrators, told reporters that cuts are likely to continue into the next two years because education funding has been slow to pick back up. “We haven’t hit bottom yet,” he said.

In other words, we’re cheating kids on their tests and stealing essential courses like art and music from them! Add to that, we are lying — because when kids get phony scores telling them they are proficient when they need help, that’s an out-and-out lie.

At what point does this trifecta — lying, cheating and stealing — become a felony? Seriously!

In the face of this disheartening news, one has to ask, “who benefits?” I’m stumped. Certainly not children, parents and teachers. Could it be the testing companies? Perhaps it’s the bevy of expert ‘consultants’ who advise school systems on how to raise test scores, how to calculate the ‘value added’ that individual teachers provide, and how to make education more ‘businesslike’ and efficient?

A far more important question than ‘who benefits?’ is: What are we going to do about it?

The Values Behind ‘Value-Added’

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Does the current push for “Value Added” measures mean that education has finally figured it out, or is this yet another silver bullet that will fail — and perhaps do more harm than good along the way?

While that is an interesting question, a number of prior questions need answers:

1. What exactly do we mean by ‘value’?
2. Who adds ‘value,’ and how do they do it?
3. How can we enable the women and men now teaching to add more ‘value’?
4. How can we attract people who add value to go into teaching?
5. At the end of the day, what do we value?

Recently I was introduced to Masha Tarasyuk, who spoke no English when she immigrated from the Ukraine at age 6. Masha told me that one teacher at her public school in the Bronx took her under her wing, supported her when she got down in the dumps and never stopped believing in her. Masha eventually graduated from Barnard and the Fordham School of Education and now is a Teach for America corps member at the High School for Medical Professionals in New York. She’s giving back, helping others just as that teacher helped her (and Masha is in her third year, by the way, even though the TFA term is just two.)

Surely that teacher ‘added value’ to Masha’s education, but, judging from the way Masha told the story, the value had less to do with her academic achievement and more to do with the emotional connection.

I’d like to believe that everyone reading this had at least one teacher like that, someone who made a huge difference in your life. We did a series on it, available at our YouTube channel.

Value Added
Is value-added data truly accurate?

Unless you have been living under a rock, you have to be aware of the recent value-added study by economists from Harvard and Columbia, positing that students who have truly effective teachers for a few years of their education end up making lots more money. Much of their findings are conjecture or at least extrapolation, and the authors were careful to warn against basing policy decisions on their study.

The economists measured ‘value’ with test scores, of course, because that’s what is available. Bubble tests results are how we keep score, at least for the moment. And if the kids in Teacher X’s classroom always seem to do well on those tests, while the students in Teacher Z’s classroom always seem to do poorly, why shouldn’t we draw some conclusions about the value each teacher is adding?

It is a stretch to connect better test scores to attending a better college, getting a better job and eventually making more money, but even if the connections are flimsy, we surely need more teachers who can motivate their students to do well.

Nick Kristof, the well-respected columnist for the New York Times, ignored the caveat about policy recommendations and made some: pay effective teachers lots more and fire ineffective ones. But it didn’t take Kristof’s words to energize politicians like New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, New York’s Andrew Cuomo and New York City’s Mayor Michael Bloomberg, all of whom are pushing value-added measurement as a way of doing what Kriistoff recommends.

That’s a Republican, a Democrat and an Independent, if you’re keeping score, which suggests that ‘value-added’ is either a non-partisan idea whose time has come — or a mad rush to judgment.

But let’s dig deeper? What do truly effective teachers do that adds value? Can those skills be taught?

The father of “value-added” measurement is Dr. William Sanders, now nearly retired in North Carolina but still very much engaged. He has not been fond of some of what I have been writing in this blog about bubble tests and, ever the gentleman, asked if I would be open to having a conversation.

Which we had recently.

A good deal of what follows is based on our 96-minute phone meeting, several days ago. What Dr. Sanders wanted to explore was the ‘how’ of value added. What is it that excellent teachers do that adds value to their students’ learning? Can a trained observer see what excellent teachers do that no-so-good teachers do not?

Here’s where it got interesting. Bill told me that teams of observers cataloguing the classroom behaviors of teachers from both groups could not find differences in their behavior. ‘Look again,’ he told them. Still no luck, they reported. ‘Look some more,’ he directed.

Eureka. The truly effective teachers, his observers finally figured out, were able to provide what’s called ‘differentiated instruction’ (treating kids individually according to their needs) and able to disguise what they were doing, so that the children were not aware of the different treatment.

These teachers, Bill said, don’t see a classroom of 25 students; instead, they see 25 different kids and figure out the best ways to reach them. And then they camouflage the different treatment lest some kids feel like Robins and others like Crows in those infamous reading groups.

They do not spend hours or days on test preparation. (Administrators, please read that sentence again!)

Do some teachers intuitively know how important it is to disguise what they are doing? If not, how did they learn to do that? He’s a fan of Teach for America because, he says, the data tells him that those teachers are more likely to be truly effective than teachers from traditional schools of education.

What’s the evidence, I wanted to know? The old Tennessean cited his research in Memphis, where, he said, for three years in a row the cadre of TFA teachers outperformed teachers who attended Vanderbilt, Middle Tennessee and Tennessee, using student achievement scores as the measure of performance.

Bill suggested that it was not the TFA summer training that makes the difference as much as the caliber of their recruits. When society opened up more opportunities for women, he reminded me, the entering ACT scores of those enrolling in education and home economics fell dramatically. Since the late 1960s, he said, talented young women are likely to enroll in other departments. Today, women make up half or more of those studying to be lawyers, doctors and veterinarians.

“TFA is bringing capable people back into the teaching pool,” he told me. If Bill is correct, then one sure-fire way to ‘add value’ in education is to recruit more people like the men and women who apply to Teach for America.

How do we entice them to become classroom teachers? With about one million teachers approaching retirement, TFA’s corps of 15,000 teachers is not the answer. We have to appeal to hundreds of thousands of talented young men and women and convince them that teaching is a respected and rewarding career.

Ask yourself if what’s going on in the public arena now is likely to attract people into teaching. Are the heavy-handed campaigns by politicians like Governors Christie and Cuomo (and the Governors of Wisconsin and Ohio) helpful? Is Mayor Bloomberg’s effort a step in the right direction? Is Michelle Rhee’s campaign to restrict collective bargaining and tenure likely to persuade talented young men and women that teaching is an appealing career? Are union leaders who oppose charter schools ‘on principle’ adding value to the teaching profession? When union leaders insist that teachers cannot be held accountable for student learning, are they elevating the teaching profession?

As the lawyers say, asked and answered.

Surely an important part of the value of an effective teacher is her ability to connect with individual children, her willingness to become emotionally attached to her students as individuals. (I write about this at some length in The Influence of Teachers.)

Those teachers need the time and space to make connections, but today teaching seems to be all about higher test scores. In an earlier piece, we explored the impact of test pressures on young readers:

Maybe it’s time to figure out the impact on young teachers, too?

Because evaluating teachers using student achievement scores is here to stay, it’s in teachers’ interests to argue for better measures of achievement. We need better ways of assessing the value that teachers add to the lives the children they teach, beyond test scores.

What do we value?

Michelle Rhee Resigns: What’s in store for DC schools now?

The sudden resignation of Michelle Rhee actually makes perfect sense.  It was inevitable, so why wait around?  It’s easy to imagine Ms. Rhee coming to that conclusion once she recognized that she and the next Mayor, Vincent Gray, would not be able to work together the way she did with the current Mayor, Adrian Fenty.

Michelle Rhee ResignsWhat happens next in Washington is the big story, although most of the attention will be on Ms. Rhee. She’s a national figure, subject of much speculation. Will she go to California if Meg Whitman wins the gubernatorial race?  What about New Jersey?  Iowa?  Funny how the Republicans love her to death now, even though she was chosen by an ardent Democrat and has been praised to the skies by President Obama.

We’ve followed Ms. Rhee closely during the three plus years she’s been in Washington, airing a total of 12 segments on PBS NewsHour about the changes she’s made there. Scores and enrollment are up locally, but, make no mistake about it, she also has altered the national conversation about how teachers are paid and evaluated.  No one can defend the current system, which bases everything on years in the classroom and number of graduate credits, as appropriate or rational.  That approach is history, even though it may take years for it to be removed for good.

What is going to replace the old way is now the question. Continue reading

A New Song for Michelle Rhee?

A few years ago, people were singing “Michelle, My belle, these are words that go together well.”

Today people are singing a different tune, “Should she stay, or should she go?”

Now that Adrian Fenty has lost his bid for a second term, the education world is buzzing about the fate of Michelle Rhee, his outspoken schools chancellor.  Ms. Rhee has become a national figure, much beloved by many outside the district.  At home, however, she is a lightning rod and a polarizing personality.  In her 3+ years she has closed nearly two-dozen schools, fired more than 15% of her central office staff, and let over 100 teachers go for inadequate performance.

Michelle Rhee and Adrian FentyWhile many say that Ms. Rhee has made long overdue changes in a dysfunctional system, others—including both the local and national teachers unions—have campaigned to get rid of her and, by extension, some of the changes she has made.  By some reports, the unions spent over $100,000 to defeat Mr. Fenty and, by extension, Ms. Rhee and her policies.

What about Michelle Rhee herself?  Would she want to stay on and report to Fenty’s probable successor, City Council Chairman Vincent Gray? Continue reading

MOVIE REVIEW: Waiting for Superman

Note: I hesitated to review Waiting for Superman because of our dispute with Mr. Guggenheim about our PBS NewsHour footage, but that dispute was resolved (there’s no truth to the rumor that I threatened to picket the Hollywood opening in my skivvies). It’s an important film about education, a subject I have been reporting on for 35 years, and those two facts outweigh the other consideration.

Waiting for SupermanThere’s much to admire about Waiting for Superman, Davis Guggenheim’s new film about public education. He and his colleagues know how to tell a story, the graphics are sensational, and some of the characters—notably Geoff Canada—just jump off the screen.

And I hope it does well at the box office, because that would demonstrate that a significant number of us care enough about education to spend a few bucks to see a documentary about it.

That said, the film strikes me as a mishmash of contradictions and unsupportable generalizations, even half-truths. And while it may make for box office, its message is oversimplified to the point of being insulting.

I realize that I am swimming against the stream on this, given that the movie has been glowingly reviewed by Tom Friedman in the New York Times and others, but please hear me out. Continue reading

Tabula Rasa does not mean Carte Blanche

What are the emerging education stories in the months ahead? What continuing stories should we be tracking? What issues aren’t being covered in the proper depth?

What's next?I know it’s the dog days of summer, hardly the best time for jumping up and down with intellectual energy, but I hope you will give us a hand, because Learning Matters is at another crossroads, another decision point.

I hope you have noticed that we have devoted lots of time, resources and energy over the past three years to two important school reform stories: the efforts to bring about change in Washington, DC and New Orleans, LA, two of the lowest performing school systems in the nation, by Michelle Rhee and Paul Vallas, respectively. In a few weeks the final episode of this series will air on PBS NewsHour. In total we will have produced twelve stories about NOLA and twelve about DC. That’s unprecedented reporting, particularly for television, and it’s been worthwhile.

Now, however, we have the opportunity to cover other stories.

Continue reading

Changes in Detroit, DC and Beyond

These are amazing times in public education. For openers, there’s the huge competition for $4.35 billion in federal money. Of the 41 competitors in the Race to the Top, only two were chosen in the first round. The message seems clear: go home and clean up your act.

Michelle RheeNow, I don’t know how many of you out there looked at any of the original proposals. I read into four of them and can tell you that the writers (using that term loosely) have invented a wonderful substitute for Ambien, a perfect cure for insomnia. I think the average proposal came in at somewhere between 800-900 pages—of turgid prose. Had I been sentenced to read all of that stuff, I think I would have thrown up my hands, torn out my hair, screamed, and then given the money to the states with the shortest proposals.

I hope this time the Duncan team will tell the competitors in the second round: “30 pages max! If you can’t say it in 30 pages or less, don’t bother. Put all the rest in appendices, thank you.” (I recall the wisdom of “If I had more time I would have written a shorter letter,” attributed to Mark Twain and others.)

A second remarkable event is the new contract between the Washington Teachers Union and Michelle Rhee. It took 2+ years, but it may have been worth the wait. Continue reading

Waiting for Something

“I’m going to fire somebody in a little while,” the young school superintendent declared. “Do you want to see that?”

In the world of film documentary, the word ‘see’ means ‘video tape,’ and Washington DC Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee was actually inviting us to run our cameras as she fired one of her employees.

Michelle RheeMy colleagues Jane Renaud and Cat McGrath accepted the invitation on the spot. As Jane recalls, “She told us to come back at a specific time, and so we got a sandwich, returned to her office, set up the equipment, and shot the meeting.”

Jane and Cat had spent the morning with Chancellor Rhee, filming her meetings with parents, and with community groups and principals. Rhee was a dynamo, moving easily from meeting to meeting, and from scene to scene, and always seemingly unaware of the presence of our cameras, including the scene where she fires a school principal.

Our film of that event was broadcast nationally on PBS NewsHour and helped to illuminate the persona of Michelle Rhee as a fearless and determined reformer who puts the interests of children first.

Now an Academy Award-winning filmmaker has inserted the footage into his new feature film, without our permission.
For me it is more than just another spat between filmmakers. It is a matter of principle and respect. Continue reading

The Super Bowl, A Sea of Media and Control

Several seemingly unrelated subjects have been floating around in my head lately.  The first involves New Orleans, a city that’s gone crazy about its football team’s first appearance in the Super Bowl on Sunday, February 7th.

Saints

Some school districts and private and parochial schools around New Orleans have canceled school for the Monday after the game, reasoning that most students would be partying hard all weekend and wouldn’t show up anyway.

Call me an old fogey, but I find closing schools to be irresponsible behavior on the part of the adults. Are the 2nd, 3rd and 4th graders going to be worn out from partying? What are working parents supposed to do, or are they also exempt from going to work?

Worse, however, the educators are bypassing a remarkable teachable moment, a chance to connect learning with the city’s obsession with the Saints. Continue reading