Erase to the Top

by Robert Pondiscio
March 28th, 2011

“On the 2009 reading test, for example, seventh-graders in one Noyes classroom averaged 12.7 wrong-to-right erasures per student on answer sheets; the average for seventh-graders in all D.C. schools on that test was less than 1. The odds are better for winning the Powerball grand prize than having that many erasures by chance, according to statisticians consulted by USA TODAY.”

A USA Today investigative piece looks at high erasure rates on standardized tests at Washington, DC’s Crosby S. Noyes Education Campus, which went from a school in need to one of DC’s ‘shining stars.’”  The report notes that three years ago, DC’s Office of the State Superintendent of Education asked test-maker McGraw-Hill to do “erasure analysis” after some schools showed big gains in in proficiency rates on April 2008 tests.  “Among 96 schools flagged for wrong-to-right erasures were eight of the 10 campuses where [DC Superintendent Michelle] Rhee handed out so-called TEAM awards ‘to recognize, reward and retain high-performing educators and support staff,’ as the district’s website says. Noyes was one of these.”

The Fierce Urgency of Eventually

by Robert Pondiscio
December 24th, 2010

A version of this piece appears in the most recent edition of Fordham’s Education Gadfly.

Last Wednesday in New York City, Michelle Rhee was awarded the Manhattan Institute’s 2010 Urban Innovator Award.  In her acceptance speech, the former Washington, DC Chancellor discussed her new high-profile initiative, Students First, and its goal of raising $1 billion to advocate for “real change,” which she defined as putting students’ needs “before those of special interests or wasteful bureaucracies.”

Reflecting on her attempt to turn around Washington’s schools, Rhee said she ultimately learned that she was “playing the wrong game.” 

“I would spend my time, as many education reformers across the country do, talking to politicians and trying to appeal to their sense of what is good and right for children and meanwhile you’ve got the interest groups like the teachers unions funding their campaigns.  So at the end of the day, who are you going to go with?  The nice little lady over here who says you can do good for kids?  Or the people who are going to get you re-elected?”

Fordham’s Checker Finn see Rhee’s move from educator to advocate as part of a broader trend.  There has been, he notes, a “profound shift” away from the research and education agenda of non-profit groups toward “political hardball—cash contributions to campaigns, outright advocacy of this candidate and denunciation of the other one, the shrewd use of paid lobbyists, influence-peddlers, campaign consultants, marketing experts, and public relations firms,” Finn wrote.  It is, he observes wistfully, not an entirely welcome development.

“Part of me wishes this weren’t happening in education, as it has and is in just about every other sector of American life. Part of me wishes the old model would endure and in time prevail by virtue of its powerful analyses, moral superiority, and irrefutable arguments.”

After the Manhattan Institute event, I had the opportunity to talk briefly with Rhee about my reform game –curriculum, teaching and learning.  I wondered out loud whether it made sense to reach conclusions about the effectiveness of individual teachers who are poorly trained and have no say over their curriculum or, more often than not, no curriculum at all. 

“I know you have a lot on your plate,” I concluded. “But I’d urge you to at least keep curriculum in mind.” 

“The last thing we’re going to do,” she replied with a chuckle, “is get wrapped up in curriculum battles.”

A stunning reply if you think about it.  The poster child for bare-knuckle reform, who moments earlier was urging her listeners to “embrace conflict,” has no stomach for a debate about what kids should learn in school.  Is it that difficult or controversial, for example, to say that all kindergarteners should learn shapes, colors and to count to 20?   Confronting the teachers unions on pay and tenure  is worth a fight, yet it is too heavy a lift to say what third graders should know about American history, geography or science—or whether they need to know anything at all?

It is not my intention to single out Michelle Rhee.  She is merely the most vocal and visible representative of a theory of change that sees structures, and increasingly political power, as the coin of the realm.  I have no illusions:  Education reform may be sexy, but curriculum is not.  It doesn’t get you on Oprah or the cover of Newsweek.  We are unlikely, now or ever, to see a bold initiative to raise one billion dollars to advocate for a coherent, knowledge-rich curriculum for every child in the early grades, even though, for high-mobility, low-income children in particular, it would surely be among the most impactful reforms we could offer. 

What I cannot accept, however, is that to focus on instruction—on curriculum and teaching—is to play the “wrong game.”  To accept this argument is to believe that the educational outcome of Jose or Malik in the South Bronx or Detroit is more deeply affected by who wins a primary for a House race somewhere in California than what they learn in school all day.  It is to believe that electing the “right people” matters more than what teachers teach and what children learn.

“For three decades, education has been driven by special interests,” Rhee concluded in her Manhattan Institute speech.  That’s one diagnosis.  Another one belongs to E.D. Hirsch, who points out in The Making of Americans that our schools have gone six decades without a curriculum.   Earlier this year, at an Aspen Institute panel discussion, AFT head Randi Weingarten hit the nail on the head when asked why ed reformers aren’t concerned about curriculum.  “This stuff is really important,” she replied.  “And it’s really boring.” 

Playing kingmaker, by contrast, is the best, most glamorous game there is.  But it’s an expensive, time-consuming, long-term play.  It does nothing to effect change today, and essentially writes off yet another generation of children to mediocrity and underperformance.  It represents the fierce urgency of eventually. 

It is the perfect right of Michelle Rhee and others committing their careers and their dollars to ed reform advocacy groups to play whatever games they wish, under whatever terms they choose.  But forgive me if I don’t see this as the last word in “What’s Best for Kids.”  The rhetoric is a bit of a sham, frankly, since a big part of what we know works best for children is a coherent curriculum. 

Call it what you like, but don’t call it the wrong game.

Who Censored the Washington Post’s Rhee Item?

by Robert Pondiscio
January 28th, 2010

Tensions flaring over Turquemakeastand?

Late night weirdness at the Washington Post, a paper that boasts arguably the best education coverage of any daily.  A hard-hitting blog post by reporter Bill Turque, which took on both DC schools chancellor Michelle Rhee and his own newspaper’s editorial page, disappeared from the paper’s website for several hours, only to return with some of the more pointed turns of phrase removed.

Turque, who has clashed with Rhee over his tough reporting, has been covering the fallout from the chancellor’s latest controversial statements—a quote in Fast Company defending her dismissal of over 200 teachers last year.  “I got rid of teachers who had hit children, who had had sex with children, who had missed 78 days of school.  Why wouldn’t we take those things into consideration?”  she told the magazine.  Critics, including the head of the city council, erupted and demanded to know why Rhee didn’t say this at the time and whether law enforcement had been alerted. 

Turque pressed Rhee to explain her controversial statement—how many of the 266 fired teachers had abused their positions? — and got nowhere.  But on Tuesday, he read Rhee’s answer–in an editorial in his own paper.   Six teachers were suspended for corporal punishment, two had been AWOL and only one faced allegations having sex with a student.  The editorial cited “information released by the chancellor’s office on Monday.” 

Turque took to his D.C. Schools Insider blog and explained that the Post’s news desk operates independently of the editorial page, with education editorials written by Jo-Ann Armao.  That’s when it got really interesting.  Turque wrote:

The chancellor is clearly more comfortable speaking with Jo-Ann, which is wholly unsurprising. I’m a beat reporter charged with covering, as fully and fairly as I can, an often turbulent story about the chancellor’s attempts to fix the District’s public schools. The job involves chronicling messy and contentious debates based in both politics and policy, and sometimes publishing information she would rather not see in the public domain. Jo-Ann, on the other hand, sits on an editorial board whose support for the chancellor has been steadfast, protective and, at times, adoring.

Sometime around 8pm last time, Turque’s piece vanished from the Post’s website.  When it returned a few hours later, the phrase describing the Post’s editorials about Rhee as “protective and, at times, adoring” was gone.   Other sections of the piece were similarly watered down.

Here’s Turque’s original post (a cached version of which is still available):

Where this gets complicated is that board’s stance, and the chancellor’s obvious rapport with Jo-Ann, also means that DCPS has a guaranteed soft landing spot for uncomfortable or inconvenient disclosures–kind of a print version of the Larry King Show.

And the current, revised version:

Where this gets complicated is that board’s stance, and the chancellor’s rapport with Jo-Ann, means that DCPS may prefer to talk to her than me.

 Having spent the better part of my career in journalism, I was thrilled to read Turque’s original blog post, and delighted the paper showed enough respect for its readers to lift the curtain on its processes. By explaining the behind-the-scenes machinations and showing how powerful people maneuver to affect coverage and spin perceptions, they were treating readers like grownups, holding both Rhee and the paper itself accountable.   But what happened?  Why change the story?  Sounds like a great piece for Howie Kurtz, the Post’s media critic. 

I hope they let him write it.

Rock Stars vs. Breaking Rocks

by Robert Pondiscio
October 21st, 2009

Admit it.  If Baltimore schools CEO Andrés Alonso sat next to you on the subway you probably wouldn’t recognize him.  

The Baltimore Sun files an interesting editorial giving Alonso high marks for what he’s acomplished–and for not being Michelle Rhee, whose reform agenda, the paper notes, “is in many ways indistinguishable” from his.  Unlike Rhee, Alonso has won “the support of teachers, principals, parents and students as well as virtually the city’s entire political establishment,” the Sun observes.

There’s little doubt that the personal style of both Rhee and Alonso how shaped how their reform agendas have been received, the editorial observes, but notes the only important question is, “Which leadership style is more likely to produce the kind of improvements in student achievement that people in both cities want?”

We’re betting on Baltimore getting there first, if for no other reason than that Mr. Alonso’s style seems to mesh better with the players in a city that also seems to have fewer structural obstacles in the way of reform than comparable urban school systems. It’s freer from political meddling, enjoys a more harmonious relationship with its unions and is outside the national spotlight that magnifies – and possibly distorts – everything a Washington school superintendent does.

To the Sun’s point Claus Von Zastrow at Public School Insights points out that Baltimore should be “thankful for its relative obscurity” but also spanks the national media for positioning Rhee as the last great hope for urban schools.   “It’s a bad idea to pin all our hopes on one reformer or a handful of reform strategies,” he concludes. ”It’s even worse to turn one lightning-rod superintendent into the sole standard-bearer for school reform. Let’s not forget that there are other people out there, like Baltimore’s Andres Alonzo, Aldine‘s Wanda Bamberg or Atlanta’s Beverly Hall, who can help light the way forward for urban schools.”

Two more supes you probably wouldn’t recognize on the train.

Hurry-Up. Offend.

by Robert Pondiscio
October 14th, 2009

Veteran eduscribe Richard Whitmire argues in a Wash Post op-ed that DC Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee has “no choice but to play hardball” with teachers, unions and politicians.  

Running a hurry-up education offense is the only way Rhee can maintain a viable-sized school district that has dwindled to a mere 44,000 students, while the city’s charter school population is expected to grow to 28,000 this year….In the District, charters continue to attract more new students than Rhee’s schools. If Rhee can’t stanch or reverse that trend, her district slumps into irrelevancy, a fact of life that her union opponents seem incapable of grasping. If Rhee falters, the layoffs will continue.

I get the math, but not the logic.  If DC schools face an “existential threat” from charters (which Rhee supports), doesn’t it make more sense to make allies, not enemies of teachers unions?   The pitch is simple:  work with me or we’re both out of jobs.

You Are a Highly Skilled Teacher If….

by Robert Pondiscio
August 23rd, 2009

…you never have more than five instances of “inappropriate or off-task behavior” by students within a half-hour of class time.

…you respond to students’ correct answers by “probing for higher-level understanding” of the idea being discussed at least three times every half hour.

…you lose no more than three minutes of teaching time to poor organization or planning.

Who says so?  Why, Michelle Rhee says so.

Achievement Gap or Proficiency Gap?

by Robert Pondiscio
July 15th, 2009

Lots of coverage of the latest NAEP scores and what it means for efforts to close the achievement gap.  Results show efforts to close the gap “may have a limited shelf life for kids,” notes USA Today’s Greg Toppo. 

“Since the early 1990s, schools have helped minority elementary schoolers close the achievement gap in basic math and reading skills, with real progress showing up recently on a federally administered test given to thousands of kids around the time they’re in fourth grade. But by the time they get to middle school, it seems, their progress all but vanishes.”

“Some of the scores are higher than ever, some show no gains over time,” observes Diane Ravitch, a former member of the National Assessment Governing Board, which oversees and sets policy for NAEP.  “A closer look reveals that the rate of progress is no greater than–and in some cases, less than–the pre-NCLB years.

In the New York Times, Sam Dillon fixates on evolving regional differences.  “The nation’s most dramatic black-white gaps are no longer seen in Southern states like Alabama or Mississippi,” he notes, “but rather in Northern and Midwestern states like Wisconsin, Nebraska, Connecticut and Illinois.

Why does the achievement gap persist?  “African-American students are less likely than their white counterparts to be taught by teachers who know their subject matter,” Ed Trust’s Kati Haycock tells the Associated Press.  “They are less likely to be exposed to a rich and challenging curriculum,” she said. Meanwhile Richard Whitmire, citing Haycock,  points out that states that focus on early literacy skills are making more progress. 

In a non-NAEP post over at Flypaper, Mike Petrilli tosses off an interesting and provocative comment on what we mean — or what we should mean — when we say “achievement gap.”  Mike’s eyebrows went up when he heard DC Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee say that if present trends continue “within six years we will have completely eliminated the achievement gap between black and white students in the District.”  Says Petrilli:

Now that’s quite a statement. To the man on the street, it surely sounds miraculous. You mean black students in the District of Columbia, most of whom live in abject poverty in places like Anacostia, are going to be learning at the same level as the handful of white students in the system, most of whom come from affluent, well-educated families clustered on Capitol Hill and the upscale neighborhood of Chevy Chase, where houses start in the $750,000 range? Wow! Except that’s not what she means at all. She’s referring to the proficiency gap—and by boosting the percentage of black students getting to “proficiency,” she is automatically closing said gap because almost all of the white students are already over that bar. But that doesn’t mean that the average black student will be achieving at the same level as the average white student, which is what “eliminating the achievement gap” sounds like.

Talk of closing the achievement gap is “sloppy and misleading,” Petrilli notes.  “Let’s stop talking about the achievement gap entirely, and instead focus on raising achievement across the board,” he concludes. ”It’s more honest, and, in my view, more equitable, too.”

One, Two, Three All Eyes on Rhee

by Robert Pondiscio
June 15th, 2009

Fame can backfire.  Money doesn’t always talk.  Politics matter.  Beware of unintended consequences.  The Washington Post’s Bill Turque sums up the lessons learned by Washington, DC’s lightning rod Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee.   “Two years into the job, Rhee has lost none of her zeal,” Turque reports.  “But those who know her well say she’s found that converting conviction into sustainable change requires more patience, indulgence and attentiveness to politics than may come naturally to her.”

Turque’s piece opens with Rhee being called on the carpet by D.C. Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray over her decision to pose for the cover of TIME Magazine holding a broom.  “What does it get you, to constantly bash those you’re trying to get to help you? he asked her (a question also asked by this blog).  Turque’s piece describes how Rhee’s “rising celebrity alienated key constituencies at home” including teachers and parents.   He also reports that Rhee “expected to be hailed as a hero last summer by the Washington Teachers’ Union” for her proposal to raise pay into the stratosphere for those willing to forego tenure.  And although he notes Rhee has earned points for more tactful recent management of her relationship with the City Council and other constituencies, she still sounds unrepentant:

If I go down at the end of the day because I didn’t play the political game right, that’s okay with me,” she tells the Post. “At least when you’re making decisions that you believe are in the best interests of kids, you may not win in the end, but at least you can operate with a good conscience.”

“By major measures of progress, the jury on Rhee remains out,” Turque concludes.  “It will take at least three sets of annual standardized test scores to assess whether her changes are making a difference in classrooms, experts say. The second set is due this summer.”

At Teacher Beat, guest blogger Liana Heitin focuses on Rhee’s status as an outsider to DC and education politics, concluding “it’s possible she will continue to remain ‘outside’ as long as she stays pinned to a self-imposed agenda, resists collaborating with stakeholders, refuses to sugarcoat the dismal realities of the system, and aims recruitment efforts at a ‘new breed’ of idealists who are willing to sacrifice their personal lives to make a splash themselves.”  Finally, the Post’s Jay Mathews says Turque nails the list of Rhee’s “lessons learned” and invites readers to add on their own.  The comments predictably fall into two categories:  “You go, girl!”  or simply ”You, go.”

Update:  Eduflack, engaging in expectation management, predicts a downturn in DC test scores this summer.

Horses and Carts

by Robert Pondiscio
April 15th, 2009

Over at Public School Insights, Claus von Zastrow wonders why Eli Broad, in a Detroit Free Press op-ed piece, lists Washington, DC among urban school districts that “have successfully turned around after producing abysmal student outcomes.”  Broad is “confusing the implementation of his favored reforms with their success,” Claus writes.   Perhaps we should chalk it up to the power of advertising

“Rhee herself argued quite reasonably that it would take a few years for her reforms to show results,” Claus notes.   Indeed.  How is claiming victory prematurely different than being happy with the status quo?

“A Great Free Education!”

by Robert Pondiscio
April 9th, 2009

The Washington Post takes note of a radio ad campaign aimed at “stemming the decline in public confidence” in DC schools:

“Did you know,” the announcer intones on the ads, which aired last month on WPGC (95.5 FM) and are scheduled to run again next month, “that the only school in D.C. to earn a national ribbon for excellence last year was a D.C. public school? Go public and get a great free education!”

The ribbon of excellence bit refers to Key Elementary, which as one commenter on the Post’s piece notes, is not a demographically typical DC school, with only 9% eligible for free lunch, and 16% Latino and African American compared to a 92% average for District schools.

 ”It ain’t bragging if you can do it,” the great Dizzy Dean once quipped.  But the bragging is supposed to come after the doing it. I want to see Washington, DC’s schools go from worst to first as much as anybody, but claims about a “great free public education” are a tad premature.   If you’re providing a great free public education, you won’t need a radio campaign to spread the word. 

PR 101:  Underpromise and overdeliver.  If there’s a problem, tell people how you’re addressing it, not that there’s no problem.