Rhee’s record

The case against Michelle Rhee is full of holes, writes Paul Peterson of Harvard’s Program on Education Policy and Governance in the Washington Times. Ed Next has his full analysis.

Rhee was more effective than her predecessors, he writes, contradicting a recent study (pdf) by Alan Ginsburg, a former director of Policy and Program Studies in the U.S. Department of Education.  And, contrary to a National Research Council (NRC)  committee’s preliminary analysis, which downplays progress, there’s reason to believe Rhee’s reforms made a difference.  

Like Ginsburg and the NRC committee, Peterson looks at NAEP data, since it’s a low-stakes test with no incentive to cheat. He excludes the scores of charter schools beyond Rhee’s control, which caused a blip in the data in 2007, inflating pre-Rhee progress. He finds progress accelerated after Rhee took over as chancellor.

 Once the data are corrected and adjusted for national trends, it becomes evident that during the Rhee years, fourth-grade students gained at a pace twice that seen under her predecessors in both reading and math. The gains in math by eighth-grade students were nearly as much, although no eighth-grade reading gains are detected.

Gains are not enormous in any one year, but over time, they add up. In 2000, the gap between the District and the nation in fourth-grade math was 34 points. Had students gained as much every year between 2000 and 2009 as they did during the Rhee era, that gap would have been just 7 points in 2009. Three more years of Rhee-like progress and the gap would have been closed. In eighth-grade math, the gap in 2000 was 38 points. Had Rhee-like progress been made over the next nine years, the gap in 2009 would have been just 14 points, with near closure in 2012. In fourth-grade reading, the gap was 30 points in 2003; if Rhee-like gains had taken place over the next six years, the gap in 2009 would have been cut in half.

The NRC committee claims that District gains “were similar” to those in 10 “other urban districts” for which comparable data is available.

In fact, D.C. students gained 6 points between 2007 and 2009 in both math and reading, while the average gain for the other 10 cities was just 1 point in reading and 2 points in math. In eighth-grade math, D.C. gains were 7 points, as compared to an average of three points for 10 other cities. Only in eighth-grade reading did the District lag behind, dropping a point while elsewhere, students gained 2 points.

The committee also admits that student and teacher attendance improved significantly during Rhee’s tenure, but questions the significance of the change.

Rhee said she wanted to change the culture, Peterson notes.  When students show up to learn and teachers show up to teach, that’s considered a very good sign. But Rhee’s enemies don’t want to give her credit for anything.

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  1. There’s no question that Rhee cleaned up a great deal of the chaos and incompetence that plagued D.C. schools, right down to textbook distribution. And although you didn’t identify any person who would be an “enemy” of Rhee who doesn’t “want to give her credit for anything”, I’ll assume that you could identify such a person if pressed. (And you could probably get them to grudgingly admit that, “okay, Rhee did some things right” if you then asked about specific accomplishments.)

    But from where I sit, Rhee was every bit as hard and unfair on her perceived enemies as the worst of them are toward her. She did not appreciate criticism and did not hesitate to question the competence and motives of anybody who disagreed with her. It didn’t much help that had she applied the same standards to the administrators on her staff who at various times dropped the ball that she was happy to apply for teachers, a good percentage would have been fired or sent to retraining.

    If I missed an introspective analysis by Rhee of where her administration took wrong turns, where her ideology proved to be flawed, or what she would have done differently were she to have the opportunity for a do-over, please let me know. Until then, what you describe seems to be a case of “As ye sow, so shall ye reap.” Fortunately for Rhee, she’ll be judged by her legacy and not her personality, and by her measure that should mean the test scores going forward in a school district that has largely perpetuated her policies.