With states from New Jersey to Indiana searching for ways to modify teacher compensation and teacher tenure laws, the pioneering work by Michelle Rhee, former chancellor of schools for the District of Columbia, has come under increasing scrutiny.
Not only have newspapers claimed cheating at a few specific schools in the District, but two separate studies have sought recently to cast doubt on the distinctiveness of the gains achieved by D.C. students during Ms. Rhee’s tenure in office - one by Alan Ginsburg, a former director of policy and program studies at the Department of Education, the other by a committee constituted by the National Research Council (NRC).
According to Mr. Ginsburg, Ms. Rhee was no more effective than her predecessors. Not surprisingly, his argument has been picked up quickly by American Federation of Teachers President Randy Weingarten, who asserts in a Wall Street Journal interview that Ms. Rhee “had a record that is actually no better than the previous two chancellors.” The NRC committee says gains in the District were no greater than those in 10 other big-city school districts for which comparable information is available.
Where’s the evidence that Ms. Rhee was no better than her predecessors? And that other cities are doing just as well?
In my report, released today by Education Next, I put to one side data from the District’s own assessments now subject to cheating allegations. Instead, I consider the performance of District students on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), a low-stakes test for which incentives to cheat are minimal, as the performance of no student, teacher or school is identified and about which no cheating allegations have been raised.
Mr. Ginsburg and the NRC committee also rely upon the same NAEP data, but neither excludes (when possible) the scores of students attending charter schools beyond Ms. Rhee’s control, and Mr. Ginsburg, when comparing Ms. Rhee with predecessors, does not adjust for national trends in performance. 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.
But perhaps the NRC report makes a more persuasive case. NRC agreed to a 2007 request coming from Vincent C. Gray, then-D.C. Council president and future mayoral candidate, to carry out an independent evaluation of D.C. public schools. Despite the obvious political shoals, NRC raised matching funds to the city council’s own grant of $325,000 from private foundations and from the National Science Foundation (which contributed $200,000) and the World Bank (which contributed $25,000).
The committee’s leadership makes the claim 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 downplays any signs of improvement as not scientifically proved to be due to Ms. Rhee’s efforts. At one level, this obviously is true, as one cannot know - without a randomized experiment - precisely what affects student achievement. But then the committee makes no effort to find out if signs of progress might have been due to her efforts.
Take, for example, the decline in student and teacher truancy. According to eighth-grade student self-reports, the rate of absenteeism declined significantly between 2007 and 2009. Over the same period of time, the days on which 98 percent or more of the teachers were at school climbed from about 67 percent to approximately 85 percent of all school days.
Unimpressed, the committee says “the fact that teacher absenteeism is correlated with achievement does not mean that the absenteeism causes the low achievement. There are many other factors, such as school safety, that affect both teacher absenteeism and student achievement.”
Perhaps school safety did improve, as suggested. But the committee makes no effort to explore that possibility or check to see whether Ms. Rhee made any safe-school efforts. We simply are left with the caution that a drop in the rate of absenteeism might not prove anything and with the troublesome feeling that in the view of NRC, a strong, stable teacher presence in the classroom is unnecessary.
Strong educational leaders are known for their impact on school culture. If we take Ms. Rhee at her word, changing culture was what she was trying to do and those falling absenteeism indicators suggest that she may have had an effect, even in a short period of time. It’s even possible that a change in the D.C. school climate accelerated learning gains. About that one cannot be certain when just two years of NAEP data are available. But one can be quite sure that a case against Ms. Rhee has yet to be established.
Paul E. Peterson is director of Harvard’s Program on Education Policy and Governance and a Hoover Institution fellow. His report can be found at educationnext.org.