Letter From DC: Michelle Rhee, Grade "Promotions," and Education Reform

By , Columnist

Michelle Rhee, the "Sarah Palin of the education reform movement"?

At early childhood, primary and middle schools across the country, an emerging cottage industry is budding to support the "promotion" of students as they progress from one school level to the next.  Decked out in new suits, white dresses, new hairdos, and even mini cap-and gowns, the celebration of the end of school is turning into some pretty decent coin.

"It's the fastest growing area of our business," Richard Spear, owner of the American Cap and Gown in New Jersey, told the Washington Post.  Elementary and kindergarten sales now approach half of his overall revenue.  No longer the domain of high school and college graduations, restaurants are cashing in on the trend as well.  "A happy meal will no longer do," said a restaurateur in affluent Tyson's Corner, VA.  $200 bling for "graduation gifts" is becoming common upon the earlobes of six year olds. 

Yet, with all this attention, time, and money focused on a possible overindulgence of pomp, there is little awareness of the next wave of "education reform" currently under consideration by Congress.  The landmark "No Child Left Behind" legislation, the result of odd couple bi-partisanship between former President George W. Bush and the late Senator Ted Kennedy (D-MA), is up for re-authorization and President Obama wants it done by the start of next school year.

Tens of billions of federal funding and billions in annual revenue for the education industry are at stake, not to mention the philosophical basis for educating the next generation of the 50 million public school students in the US. 

The pendulum appears to be swinging in "Ed Reform 2.0." The education policy community is starting to question the all-or-nothing "data-driven assessment" mantra of former Washington DC School Chancellor -- and national poster child of the reform movement -- Michelle Rhee.

Rhee -- the menacing broom-wielding cover girl of Time in 2008 and Oprah favorite for her portrayal in Waiting for Superman -- gave great panel and quote and never turned down an opportunity to prove it, now has some explaining to do. 

While an appreciation for Rhee should be offered -- she transformed the national conversation about educational expectations and demanded teacher accountability -- her beloved "data" revealed shortcomings in her execution. It also revealed an over-reliance on teacher-union bashing as political red meat and polarizing rhetoric to intimidate.

The primary criticism of Rhee's platform is its insistence upon constant "data-driven assessments" of students that measured student abilities with two-page data synopses made up of color graphs and pie charts. "We didn't have time to instruct them on the material on the assessments, because we were always taking assessments," said a DCPS teacher. 

Teachers also started to note more "vendor solutions" to address the issues the vendors' own assessments were "identifying." "It appeared that the procurement office was driving the curriculum, not best practices," added the teacher. 

DCPS student tests were scrutinized for unusually large "wrong-to-right" correction rates, with pressure to perform and fear of a public and humiliating firing by Rhee credited as the cause. The "data" could not confirm nor deny Rhee's self-serving mythology of her time as a Baltimore teacher.  Most DC schools across the system complying with NCLB "Adequate Yearly Progress" benchmarks before Rhee's tenure saw test scores actually start to go down and some became NCLB non-compliant. 

The city of Washington, tired of her polarizing and demonizing manner, voted her patron saint, former Mayor Adrian Fenty out of office, largely because of her, polls revealed.  She quit, called the election a "travesty for children" and skipped town before the bad data started to appear. 

This week, she launched a PAC in Sacramento, CA, the home of her fiancé, Mayor Kevin Johnson, according to the Sacramento Bee.  It has the aim of raising $1 billion for political candidates that share her view that education's current state is solely the fault of teacher unions.  Girlfriend just can't let go, still making the rounds on the media circuit to drum up money to assert herself upon the reform movement.  Michelle Rhee has solidly positioned herself as the Sarah Palin of the reform movement.

Meanwhile, the DC City Council just held confirmation hearings for her replacement, acting Chancellor Kaya Henderson, a Rhee deputy, as a formality.  She is largely credited with doing the actual grunt work on Rhee's oft-cited accomplishment, a new teacher's contract with an evolving evaluation system for teachers.  It seeks to reward highly-effective teachers and those that teach in difficult fields and neighborhoods.  Henderson is now reviewing the heavy emphasis on the time-consuming and redundant tests and thinks alienation is a bad thing, not sport. 

The reconsideration of Rhee's Reform Agenda, which just a year ago was the cause du jour, is extending to the federal level. Educational Secretary Arne Duncan, who is leading the effort at NCLB re-authorization, is talking about "growth" rather than absolute test scores.  "In some places, we over test.  What I want to know is: How much are you improving each year, every single child?," he told a NPR forum this week. 

It's an exciting time for many parents of the nation's 50 million public school students.  June is the month to commit resources and time to satin, hair, $12 chicken fingers, and that perfect gift to the child that really affirms the parent's accomplishment.  But it's also an exciting time to determine - perhaps over a Happy Meal - whether the nation wants its children to evolve into professional test takers for policy makers to compare data to Sweden and China.  The tide appears to be changing.

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Marc Osgoode Smith has covered – and participated in - Washington DC policy circles for more than two decades as a journalist covering media and as an association and think tank executive. Smith now enjoys his role as a “cultural observer” of DC Politics and the people that engage in them.

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