The Woman Behind Shutting Down Schools: A Hero Of America’s Education System?

By @TrishaMarczakMP |
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    (MintPress) – Michelle Rhee has emerged as a symbol of the American education system — a smiling face with a list of accomplishments relating to the improvement of education in Harlem and Washington, D.C.

    For union advocates in the teaching profession, she’s anything but a hero. Rhee’s hard-line school management policies have left hundreds of teachers out of a job and have driven the movement toward privatization of schools — an issue Rhee has worked on, alongside the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a business-oriented organization known for its pro-business, anti-union model legislation.

    In her first year as chancellor of the Washington, D.C. schools system, Rhee shut down 23 schools and fired more than 130 employees, 30 of whom were principals.

    “She divided teachers against each other, and that doesn’t help the children,” retired D.C. history teacher Maureen O’Conner told the Daily Free Press. “Her methods are punitive when they should be supportive.”

    She also lobbied the D.C. City Council in 2007 to change the rules relating to the chancellor’s firing power. The controversial move was passed by the council by a vote of 10-3, sparking outrage among teachers in the community. Parents eventually joined that outrage when a proposal to shut down more than 20 schools was leaked to the Washington Times. In a Frontline documentary aired Jan. 8 on PBS, she admits that, when lobbying for rules to be changed, it was her motive to close the schools, but said it would have been “unwise” to spread that plan throughout the community.

    From 2007-2011, she ran the school with an unwavering strict policy of measuring teachers’ and principals’ success through year-end Comprehensive Assessment System tests, mandated through the 2002 No Child Left Behind legislation. Rhee stepped down as chancellor after Mayor Adrian Fenty was defeated by council president Vincent Gray.

    The tests measure proficiency in math, science, English and reading through a scale system that determines proficiency. Students who test at levels that meet or exceed proficient levels get a green light. Schools are then collectively characterized as meeting or not meeting expectations based on overall student achievement.

    While unpopular, her “take no prisoners” approach seemed to work, at least by testing standards at one school in particular: Noyes Elementary.


    Questions surrounding test cheating

    Noyes Elementary saw fourth graders’ math scores increase from 22 percent proficiency in 2007 to 84 percent in 2008.  But in 2011, an explosive investigative piece published by USA Today challenged the validity of those — and many more — test scores.

    Documents obtained by the newspaper through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) showed high levels of wrong-to-right answers on the standardized tests. This is monitored by the testing company (McGraw-Hill) when a machine detects that the wrong circle had first been filled, but had then been erased and changed to the correct answer.

    The documents show extremely high rates of wrong-to-right detections — higher than state averages, with 103 schools flagged as having wrong-to-right ratios higher than the state average. The erasure rates at Monroe Elementary School, for example, occurred at a rate of 13.00 (222 wrong-to-right erasures). The state average erasures among third graders in reading, for example, was 2.3.

    The high rates of erasures were noted by the Washington, D.C. Office of the State Superintendent of Education, prompting an investigation into the matter.

    “It is important to note that these analyses do not suggest reasons for the high erasure rates. There are many reasons that a class could have more erasures than other classes,” State Superintendent Deborah A. Gist said in a 2008 letter to Rhee. “However, it is important that we can ensure that all procedures available to us are employed to guarantee the validity of the state assessment system. Therefore, please take appropriate steps to investigate the results enclosed and provide a report to the Office of the State Superintendent of Education within 60 calendar days.”

    As pointed out by USA Today, the practice of high rates of wrong-to-right erasures continued, with 80 percent of classrooms at Noyes Elementary flagged between 2008-2010.

    The success at Noyes, in particular, was rewarded. Rhee handed out bonuses of $8,000 to teachers and $10,000 to the principal, according to USA Today. It was part of Rhee’s pay-for-performance model of education.

    Under the direction of Rhee, the district hired a security company to investigate test score meddling. Caveon, the investigative company, indicated it found no evidence of foul play. However, the investigations, according to an interview with former president John Fremer, included interviews with teachers about possible cheating within their own ranks. Fremer told USA Today that teachers by-and-large said they had done nothing wrong — and so it was dropped.

    Yet three leading, independent statistical analysts told USA Today that the high rates of erasures in the district’s favor were extremely rare — rare enough to warrant a thorough examination. And other statistics obtained showed that some classrooms that saw tremendous increases in scores from 2007 to 2008 also saw a tremendous drop-off in 2010. One Noyes fourth-grade class raised from 22 percent proficiency in math to 84 percent in 2008 — and then back to 52 in 2010. A Frontline documentary on Rhee indicated that test scores dropped when security measures were put in place to guard the tests from teachers and staff members.

    Rhee acknowledged in the Frontline story the possibility that meddling could have occurred, but pointed to other schools that had not been flagged as also showing success, although not as dramatic.

    Rhee was unapologetic in her hard-lined approach and open to discuss this with the media. Known for her transparency, she even invited PBS education reporter John Marrow to sit in and record the termination of a principal. Yet she refused to speak with USA Today reporters about allegations of cheating.

    USA Today reporters hit a roadblock when it came to discussing the issue with Rhee. At the time of their inquiry, she was no longer in service as D.C. chancellor, and was instead in full-swing with her own operation: StudentsFirst, an organization dedicated to the furthering of education reform, including pay-for-performance salary models for teachers.

    These policies promoted by the organization are opposed by teachers’ unions. Its policies include those mirrored in ALEC legislation, with bills intent on dismantling teachers unions through increased methods of pay-for-performance salary models, based on test scores.

    StudentsFirst and Rhee herself played a major role in the film, “Waiting for Superman,” a movie, funded in part by Wal-Mart, that encourages the “parent trigger” movement, which essentially motivates parents to take back their failing schools. It’s a movement supported by ALEC. And while the movie draws on emotions and seems to make sense from the outside, it promotes the privatization of schools.

    While lucrative for businesses, the implications of privatizing schools are very dangerous, according to New York University professor Diane Ravitch, a staunch opponent of a privatized school system. He looks at test scores as the major force driving toward privatization. Provisions in NCLB even indicate that schools that consistently fall into the “failing” category are required to hire outside consultants to help them improve.

    “This is the new frontier,” Ravitch told Reuters. “The private equity guys and the hedge fund guys are circling public education.”

    The move toward privatization is also being seen within the private charter schools. These are schools that continue to receive public funding — it’s still costing the taxpayers, yet the oversight is absent. As for teachers’ unions, they’re often not allowed to organize in the charter system.

    Proponents of movements toward models of education similar to this point to Rhee as their success story — their hero. Under her hard-nosed reign of governing based on standardized tests, she seemingly raised the test scores, improving the education experience in a tangible way. This is why allegations of potential cheating on test scores has been highlighted by teachers and others concerned about education. It could shine light on an issue touted as a success, calling into question the merit of the practices she preaches.

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    • rosswilliams

      The idea is very similar to how the finance industry made money from the housing bubble. You set up a system with huge incentives to cheat and very loose controls. In the housing bubble this produced junk mortgages that could be turned into AAA bonds. In this case it will produce junk education at a profit.