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Michelle Rhee’s legacy

June 8, 2015

Lately, as background research for my book, I’ve been looking into the 2008 cheating scandal associated with Michelle Rhee’s high stakes Value-Added Model regime in the D.C. area,

Specifically, I’m talking about the high erasure rates associated to certain standardized tests that had cash bonuses attached to large improvements, and the consequential investigation that was smothered.

Let me break it down. Certain high poverty schools weren’t doing so well. Michelle Rhee came in as chancellor and suggested that the teachers and principals simply needed some more incentives to achieve better student learning. Her theories got boosted by various academics. Teachers would get $8,000 for really great scores, and principals $10,000.

In addition to Rhee giving certain teachers bonuses, she fired hundreds of others, sometimes for bad scores, sometimes without explaining why.

Against this backdrop, you might not be surprised to hear, there was widespread cheating, or at least suspiciously high scores and suspiciously high erasure marks on student tests (12.7 erasures on average, compared to the average of less than 1).

An investigation followed but came up pretty empty. Compare that to the Atlanta cheating scandal, where a bunch of teachers were sent to jail for cheating. They were also working under a high-stakes testing regime of bonuses and firings.

I’m not suggesting we want more jailings, by the way. I’m suggesting that the original high-stakes regime was fundamentally flawed and naturally gave rise to the cheating in the first place.

Moreover, I’m suggesting that Michelle Rhee’s legacy was one were she was very happy to fire people but very reluctant to admit that her educational reform successes were based on lies.

Categories: Uncategorized
  1. June 8, 2015 at 8:28 am

    By the way, in Atlanta the Superintendent was also charged but died before she could be tried. http://www.nytimes.com/aponline/2015/03/02/us/ap-us-atlanta-schools-cheating-superintendent.html

    MAYBE your book will resurrect this issue… NPR reporter John Merrow tried to get some attention on this as did Diane Ravitch. Good luck!

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  2. June 8, 2015 at 8:30 am

    Reblogged this on Network Schools – Wayne Gersen and commented:
    Rhee’s legacy? VAM leads to cheating but PR can cover it up in DC.

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  3. June 8, 2015 at 9:01 am

    Correlation does not imply causality. Is cheating isolated to places using Value-Added Models and bonuses? Is cheating new? From what I’ve seen and heard it’s always been there.

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    • June 8, 2015 at 9:14 am

      Not just bonuses, also firings. And of course I think teaching to the test has occurred for a while, but I think you really need a reason to put your liberty on the line for a higher score.

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      • June 8, 2015 at 9:20 am

        When cheating is encouraged by unprincipled principals, teachers feel that to do otherwise is to put their career on the line. Unfortunately that is something that is not new.

        Note that I’m not defending Value-Added Models, just saying that cheating occurs without them. It may in fact exacerbate the problem.

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  4. June 8, 2015 at 9:33 am

    Reblogged this on The Art of Teaching Science and commented:
    Dr. O’Neil provides important comparisons between the Atlanta cheating scandal and the cheating scandal in Washington, D.C. under Michelle Rhee. The difference was the scandal in D.C. was buried.

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  5. June 8, 2015 at 10:26 am

    One of the issues that is rarely looked at is what “improved” scores mean. Often there is a cut score that certain children will not achieve – new immigrant students (those here for only a few months and in sheltered classes still have to take tests in English, and their scores count), students with significant disabilities, but not in the bottom 2% IQ also count. Schools are not comparing a child’s score this year to that same child’s score the year before. This creates an atmosphere where some teachers and students feel the system is rigged against them, leaving them with few options. I’m not in favor of cheating, but those trying to rationalize this level of high stakes testing need to work in a regular, public school for a while. Reality is different than a political speech or controlled research.

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    • June 8, 2015 at 11:41 am

      Improved scores are often a result of state level educrats redefining grading curves. Sometimes they define downwards, resulting in the following report

      http://hypertextbook.com/eworld/curve.shtml

      but more often they define it upwards to make themselves look good and take credit where none is due.

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  6. Guest2
    June 8, 2015 at 10:11 pm

    The focus here is much too narrow, I think.

    Given the evident problems when society places an emphasis on test results — incentives create conflicts with existing ethical norms — shouldn’t we also be looking at the moral perversions created by the social and cultural credentialism that lies at the heart of society?
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Credentialism_and_educational_inflation

    I’m not talking about cheating, plagiarism, fake credentials, etc., but the distortion that occurs across a society committed to defining status and prestige through the distribution of credentials. Even the popular press gets this.

    Recognition of the increasing reliance on this form of social construction, and the evils it invites (what Randall Collins describes as waiting years in the credential-queue before being allowed to enter the job market, and also being trained to conform to bureaucratic organizational demands — to say nothing of the dehumanization of teachers) raises an interesting question: WHAT will eventually replace the education system that we now have?

    Mass education had replaced the social institution of apprenticeship by about 1840 — but what will replace the increasingly dysfunctional and wasteful credentialing system that we now have? The schooling that we have now is becoming increasingly superficial and irrelevant — at what point do we change it? And, what will take its place?

    It is the moral lapse in education, the moral failings — the lies, the false promises, the raised hopes, the wasted years of young lives, the denial of a worsening situation, the institutional corruption and decay, all this — that marks credentialing institutions for replacement.

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    • June 8, 2015 at 11:13 pm

      Some of us are quite proud of our credentials, having earned them through serious study, and then having the skills required in various jobs in various industries. You reap what you sow.

      OTOH, I would like to see a return to vocational schools with apprenticeships for those who are better fit for that, rather than force them to sit through abstract instruction.

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      • Guest2
        June 11, 2015 at 12:59 pm

        I was proud of my super-elite professional degree, until I learned it was almost entirely worthless in the job market. In fact, I was soon forced to suppress it when submitting resumes; it fit so poorly with the jobs I was applying for that it worked against me. As Ivar Berg showed in the 1960s, credentials have little to do with job skills. Laura Rivera goes a step further, showing how job offers have to do with cultural capital (albeit, limited to the two super-elite schools).

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      • Guest2
        June 11, 2015 at 1:09 pm

        This Norman Rockwell painting came to mind while reading your comment.

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  7. June 9, 2015 at 10:19 am

    And what about those very smart people who are not good at multiple-choice exams ? This is from Jerome Groopman’s review of Oliver Sacks’s recent memoir:

    At Oxford, one had to take an exam called “prelims” for entry; it was considered a mere formality with me, because I already had an open scholarship. But I failed prelims; I took them a second time and I failed again. I took the test a third time and failed yet again, and at this point Mr. Jones, the Provost, pulled me aside and said, “You did splendid scholarship papers, Sacks. Why are you failing this silly exam again and again?” I said I didn’t know, and he said, “Well, this is your last chance.” So I took the test a fourth time and finally passed.

    This would prove to be only the first such academic hurdle. Sacks nearly flunked his course in anatomy. He feared informing his mother, who as a surgeon lauded such knowledge. To allay his anxiety, Sacks got drunk:

    Rolling out of the White Horse, liquored up, I was seized by a mad and impudent idea. I would try to compensate for my abysmal performance in the anatomy finals by having a go at a very prestigious university prize—the Theodore Williams Scholarship in Anatomy. The exam had already started, but I lurched in, drunkenly bold, sat down at a vacant desk, and looked at the exam paper.

    There were seven questions to be answered, and he “pounced on one”: “Does structural differentiation imply functional differentiation?” For two hours, he wrote nonstop. An hour before the exam ended, he left without answering the other six questions:

    The results were in The Times that weekend; I, Oliver Wolf Sacks, had won the prize. Everyone was dumbfounded—how could someone who had come one but last in the anatomy finals walk off with the Theodore Williams Prize? I was not entirely surprised, for it was a sort of repetition, in reverse, of what had happened when I took the Oxford prelims. I am very bad at factual exams, yes-or-no questions, but can spread my wings with essays.

    Imagine Sacks sitting for our cascade of standardized tests that culminates in the SAT. Such educational assessments narrow students’ thinking into a binary mode, allowing scant opportunity for an expansive mind that thrives on nuance.

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  8. Guest2
    June 11, 2015 at 1:07 pm

    Indeed! With no escape from bureaucratized, standardized sorting! Mass homogenization, apparently, is the implicit goal of such a meatgrinder. And here it is: http://www.morethings.com/music/pink_floyd/pink-floyd-250.jpg

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  1. June 10, 2015 at 4:44 pm
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