Last week, high-stakes testing queen Michelle Rhee, was exposed. Thanks to the impressive investigative work of reporter John Merrow, the final dots have been connected making it clear that when Rhee was superintendent of Washington D.C.’s public schools, serious levels of cheating were occurring spurred on by the unrealistic pressure she put on principals and that she was fully aware of what was happening. This news comes on the heels of the Atlanta Public School cheating scandal in which the principals and teachers acted together to change students’ test answers in order to improve standardized test scores under the pressure of threats by that district’s superintendent, Beverly Hall.
Hall and the others went to jail earlier this month once their malfeasance was exposed – but only after receiving tremendous accolades from Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and President Obama about the “success” represented by these test score gains. The value of those gains would have been questionable on their own, but the fact that they were fabricated and that Hall’s resultant professional success came at the expense of children’s education is reprehensible. Because of public exposure, those involved in Atlanta are being held accountable, and the same should be done for Michelle Rhee, especially given her continued self-assigned role as supreme evangelist for the central role of high-stakes testing and a punitive approach towards education.
Rhee actually needs to be held accountable on so many more grounds than just the cheating in D.C., which is bad enough. Her slash-and-burn model of leadership was simplistic, not based in an understanding of child development or knowledge of how people learn. According to Merrow’s interview, Rhee demanded that principals commit to a specific percentage gain in standardized testing scores, at threat of losing their jobs. The insanity of such a demand is hard to accept. A basic knowledge of the educational process – not to mention just plain common sense – should have made it extremely obvious that there would be no way to guarantee a certain percentage increase in test scores without direct intervention in the tests themselves. People are just not that predictable or malleable, and no matter how much drill and kill one forces on a group of students, there is simply no way to guarantee any particular number jump.
Though Rhee has been able to market herself as being child-centered, the blind test score demand on her part reveals just how little she really is focused on students. Getting good numbers for a school and a district on tests that are not particularly useful for educative purposes tells us that she is focused on success for herself, in the eyes of administrators and policy makers. If Rhee had been really interested in Washington D.C.’s struggling students, she would have demanded that principals go consult with their teachers and their students families and bring back to her an honest, rigorous assessment of where students were and why, along with the sources of data used to make that determination. The second part of that demand should have been a suggested plan from each principal, devised with that principal’s teachers and again the students families, about what they needed to help students improve and what they needed from Rhee as superintendent to make that happen.
This approach is much harder, more time-consuming, and potentially less consistent from school to school, or even student to student, than focusing on one test that everyone takes. No doubt these efforts would have resulted in suggestions about reducing class-sizes, having a more engaging curriculum, expansive access to the arts, a range of extracurricular activities, and experienced teachers who have sufficient time to focus on the needs and interests of individual students. These are the qualities to be found in the schools where Rhee has sent one of her own children.
All of this is maddening, but some may wonder why families and public education supporters in California should care about Rhee, when we have more than enough to be concerned with right here. Two significant reasons make her a significant force to be aware of: her influential position and her relatively new home base in California.
Despite her corruption, Rhee is amazingly still held up as a success story for what she “accomplished” in Washington D.C. Anyone who questions the quality and appropriateness of any standardized test is immediately challenged by the “Rhee” example, either by proxy or directly, as is anyone who believes that the professional education of teachers is important for the children they teach. Take for instance the teachers in Seattle who boycotted the administration of a test known to be invalid for their students. Such an action should have been lauded by their school district – why spend time, money, and student energy on a test that will tell you nothing? Instead, the teachers had to mount a boycott and faced suspension – and then drew the public ire of Michelle Rhee who attempted to discredit them via specious claims about the motivations of the teachers that failed to address any of their critiques of the test or efforts to address those critiques with the district. Sadly, people listen to Rhee even when there is no substance behind what she says, because of her faux-success in D.C. That falsely won reputation is allowing her to bring her corrupt approach wherever she feels like landing.
Which brings us to the second reason Californians need to be concerned about Rhee. She’s returned to California and has established a non-profit for the purpose of promulgating her special restricted brand of education. The grossly misnamed “Students First” aims to broaden and deepen the use of standardized tests, from student evaluation to principal evaluation – just the way she did in Washington D.C. Despite the growing evidence and outcry against the overuse of standardized tests and the tremendous number of problems they are creating within our educational system, for the moment at least, policy makers are eating this up. At the same time, and not just by coincidence, huge educational corporations like Pearson are reaping great financial benefits, so the economic incentives of expanding testing into all areas of education are only becoming more attractive. Rhee’s high-profile campaigning for the centrality of high-stakes standardized testing (among other things) is a key ingredient behind all of this.
This background is what we need to bring to the foreground as San Francisco students endure another testing cycle this month. Students across the school district have been sharpening their pencils and prepping for the annual exercise of California’s suite of tests, known collectively as the STAR test, which they will collectively complete in early May. The youngest test-takers are second-graders, who, along with their older counterparts, will spend hours over just about a week getting tested in math, language arts, and – for older kids – science and history.
Putting the major flaws of the standardized testing approach into the foreground means questioning the premise and value of these tests and their current role within our school system. Parents around the country are beginning to organize to opt their students out of tests in growing numbers, not because they don’t want their students assessed, but because they want those assessments to be meaningful and useful. In San Francisco, the discussion about the use of standardized testing is just beginning. An upcoming town hall organized by a caucus of the teachers’ union, “Educators for a Democratic Union” (EDU), is intended to be an opportunity for teachers, parents, students and the general community concerned with public education to come together in such a conversation, starting from the very essential question posed in the event’s title – “Does Standardized Testing Improve Our Children’s Education.” The event will be held at Mission High School in San Francisco on Thursday May 2nd, from 6-8pm. Anyone in the Bay Area concerned about this issue should attend, from those just beginning to get a handle on it, to those with clear ideas about what is working and what isn’t.
There should be no doubt that Michelle Rhee could put her sights on San Francisco if parents and teachers begin to have more in-depth discussions about the problems with standardized testing and the alternatives that could be better. Such a conversation is a threat to Rhee’s view of the world – most directly because it challenges the formulaic mode of education she is foisting on all public school children – but also because a growing partnership between parents and teachers threatens the current misplaced effort to demonize teachers. That nascent partnership faces many challenges in its path to maturity – many areas of disagreement and cultural gaps need to be worked through slowly and thoughtfully – but it will be a powerful means towards creating the next transformation of our public schools.