Skip to content Skip to footer

Michelle Rhee’s Empty Harvest

The spectacular rise and fall of Michelle Rhee, known as u201cAmericau2019s most famous school reformer,

Truthout doesn’t take corporate funding – that’s how we’re able to confront the forces of greed and regression, with no strings attached. Instead, we need your support: make a donation today by clicking here.

T.S. Eliot had it wrong. October is the cruelest month.

Far crueler than Spring’s “lilacs out of a dead land” Eliot wrote about in “The Waste Land” is a harvest season of failed crops. All that work and hope for this?

“This” we confront is the empty yield from promises made by people in leadership positions.

In economic terms, the failures are obvious.

Despite a generation of pledges to advance American prosperity, the economic conditions of typical Americans continue to deteriorate: more widespread poverty among children, persistently high uninsured rates among the elderly, more people who lack the savings to cover basic expenses for three months if they lose their job, more wage earners in low-pay jobs barely able to cover basic needs, and explosive growth in income inequality.

It should not surprise anyone, then, that the same cycle of promise-to-failure that has been at work in national economic policy has been playing out in education policy too, most notably in the work of the so-called reform movement that continues to promise great things for the nation’s school children but delivers disappointing results over and over again.

Without doubt the poster person for the reform movement has been ex-chancellor of the Washington, D.C. public school system Michelle Rhee, who rocketed to the limelight of American consciousness with her grandiose portrayals in the popular press and the major documentary film, “Waiting for Superman.”

Rhee is known as none other than “America’s most famous school reformer.”

But it is Rhee’s spectacular rise and fall that in many ways symbolizes the fallen arc of the education reform movement. This month, that trajectory sank even lower.

Rhee’s Reform Gambit

As PBS education correspondent John Merrow has reported, Rhee exemplified the reform creed of “data-driven decision making” and a “produce or else” mentality relying on student test scores as accurate measurements of teacher performance

Simply put, in Rhee’s brave new world of education reform, how students did on a standardized test would help determine in a significant way if schools stayed open, if teachers and principals received bonuses or pay increases, and if educators even kept their jobs.

The assessment system Rhee employed then, called DC-CAS, was not the only such system in use at the time. But the significance of Rhee’s implementation of a test-based assessment system of this type cannot be underestimated.

As Merrow wrote, “[Rhee] knew that her actions were being watched beyond the District of Columbia. ‘All the eyes of the country are now on D.C,.’ she said.”

In fact, even before results of DC-CAS or similar assessment systems were analyzed, the idea of evaluating teachers and schools on the basis of test score data became a cornerstone of the Obama administration’s education policy. States receiving Race to the Top grant money and waivers of the now discredited No Child Left Behind law had to pledge to impose teacher evaluation systems that incorporated results of student standardized exams to some significant extent.

These assessment systems have been rolled out across the country in Indiana, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Florida, New York and elsewhere.

In hindsight, Rhee’s decision to embrace the “new science” of judging teacher performance based extensively on how students performed on tests “was a mistake,” as Merrow has observed.

“At least 25 states have adopted her ‘produce or else’ test-score based system of evaluating teachers,” Merrow noted. “But politicians (and citizens) in those 25 states might want to take a closer look at what she actually accomplished. Sadly, DC’s schools are worse by almost every conceivable measure.”

Merrow has ticked off a litany of Rhee’s failed results:

  • A “revolving door” personnel situation where newly hired teachers and principals come and go at much higher rates than the national average.
  • A bloated central office staff.
  • Little or no gain in academic achievement comparing pre- to post-Rhee test scores.
  • High truancy rates and the lowest high school graduation rate in the nation.
  • No change in D.C.’s rate of progress on the National Assessment of Educational Progress – D.C.’s NAEP levels remain at or near the bottom of the nation.
  • A widening gap in academic performance between low-income and upper-income students.

Nevertheless, education reform fans continue to try to reform Rhee’s failed record.

Rhee’s Skimpy IMPACT

Before Rhee’s departure from public office to lead a lobbying and political fundraising group called StudentsFirst, her administration instituted a revised test-based assessment system, called IMPACT, that “relies on a complex mix of factors to score each teacher,” according toEducation Week’s Stephen Sawchuck.

Combining “measures of student achievement” (read: test score data) with “multiple observations” and a tiered rating system – deeming teachers as ineffective, developing, minimally effective, or highly effective – IMPACT was the original D.C. assessment system on steroids with bigger rewards for teachers rated high and more dire punishments for teachers rated low.

Left in the hands of Rhee’s lieutenant Kaya Henderson, IMPACT “won accolades in policy circles,” according to Sawchuck, even before any results were in.

Indeed, Rhee may be long gone, but praise continues to roll in despite her failed legacy.

As a preliminary report – a “working paper” – on the results of Rhee’s IMPACT system were made known in the pages of Politico and The Washington Post, reform enthusiasts were quick to assert that the chimera of test-based accountability was definitively proven to be “working.”

A system reliant upon “rewards and punishments” has been proven to affect a teacher’s “performance,” a reporter in The Washington Post wrote. And the editorial board of that paper called the report’s findings evidence of an “improving record” for D.C.’s public schools.

But peel away the veneer of positive spin and what’s revealed is something a good bit less promising.

Writing at the blog site for the Albert Shanker Institute, Matt DiCarolo did the best job possible of balancing whatever good news can be ferreted from the report with its much heavier weight of disappointment.

This was, after all, the “first high quality assessment of one of the new teacher evaluation systems sweeping across the nation,” DiCarlo wrote. So surely much is at stake, and even-handedness is in order.

Yet what DiCarlo found seems underwhelming to say the least: Teachers with evaluation ratings that put them on the verge of being terminated were “substantially (emphasis original) more likely to quit,” while those whose ratings put them in line “for a large, permanent salary increase . . . seemed to improve their performance.”

Finding it “not particularly surprising,” DiCarlo concluded, “It is not really shocking that the promise of a huge, permanent raise or especially the threat of dismissal would influence teachers’ labor market choices and behavior.”

Rutgers professor Bruce Baker put it a little more bluntly: “Put simply, what this study says is that if we take a group of otherwise similar teachers, and randomly label some as ‘ok’ and tell others they suck and their jobs are on the line, the latter group is more likely to seek employment elsewhere. No big revelation there and certainly no evidence that DC IMPACT ‘works.’”

Further, any questions of the real effects these teachers’ actions may have had on their students – “whether these behavior changes have anything to do with … ‘good teaching,’” as Baker concluded – seemed to have simply not been part of the analysis.

Rhee’s IMPACT In Perspective

For nearly a generation, we’ve been told that an elaborate system of incentives and punishments would engineer improved results in student achievement, particularly for those students who have been the most marginalized and underserved.

This was deemed necessary in order to make schools “accountable” – an imperative begun during the presidential administration of Ronald Reagan, which eventually became bipartisan as conservatives convinced left-leaning people that resources devoted to education were wasted unless they could be balanced with a metric result showing “improvement.”

With the advent of No Child Left Behind, the accountability had its mechanism for targeting individual schools, but with the Obama administration’s Race to the Top program, the accountability arsenal aimed at individual classroom teachers, too.

With Michelle Rhee as its celebrity cheerleader, the school accountability movement became the perfect PR campaign promising a way forward to ever-increasing education “effectiveness.”

But all those years of promises for this: Studies can prove that teachers are capable of being manipulated by coercive management systems, but the wealth of improvement stemming from expensive new assessment systems has yet to fill the account left barren by the nation’s reluctance to invest in our children’s education.

Michelle Rhee-like accountability systems that have been in place a substantial amount of time have done no better than the one in D.C. A long-standing system in Tennessee, for instance, has done nothing to improve academic achievement and has revealed “almost nothing about teacher effectiveness.”

The most ardent reform enthusiasts now admit to “overselling, and underthinking [sic]” their cause, even as they try to dispel whatever is being proposed as a positive alternative.

Parents and public officials in places as diverse as rural Virginia and uptown New York Cityare more boisterously questioning the whole premise of ramping up more tests on students to determine the value of their teachers.

As the education reform movement’s empty harvest leads us into a winter of discontent, what’s needed are more proposals from multiple sources for a more positive way forward.

Far beyond the media spotlights focused on reform celebrities like Rhee, other credible voices are calling for a different course for accountability and an agenda based onopportunity and support for learning. No wonder more people are listening.

A critical message, before you scroll away

You may not know that Truthout’s journalism is funded overwhelmingly by individual supporters. Readers just like you ensure that unique stories like the one above make it to print – all from an uncompromised, independent perspective.

At this very moment, we’re conducting a fundraiser with a goal to raise $13,000. So, if you’ve found value in what you read today, please consider a tax-deductible donation in any size to ensure this work continues. We thank you kindly for your support.