Generally accurate rule of thumb: if things sound too good to be true, it almost always is.
Michelle Rhee has become a darling of the Republican privatization fetishist set after her stint as the chancellor of the DC public schools, traveling around the country to talk up busting teacher's unions, and acting as a consultant to the wingnuttiest of governors, Rick Scott of Florida.
So it's understandable that I took the glowing stories of how she revolutionized education in DC with her Schools First organization and saw dramatic test score increases with a rather large grain of salt. Turns out that was a good instinct:
Former Washington, DC schools chancellor Michelle Rhee made her name on union-busting and allegedly improving test scores in the city's public schools. The test score gains were always overhyped by her supporters—now it turns out that they may have been fraudulent. According to a major investigative piece by USA Today reporters Jack Gillum and Marisol Bello, at Crosby S. Noyes Education Campus:
Standardized test scores improved dramatically. In 2006, only 10% of Noyes' students scored "proficient" or "advanced" in math on the standardized tests required by the federal No Child Left Behind law. Two years later, 58% achieved that level. The school showed similar gains in reading.
Rhee elevated the school as an example of how successful her program was, and handed out large bonuses to teachers and administrators. But a look at the test sheets of students during the time scores at Noyes were soaring shows a startling pattern of erasures in which an initial incorrect answer was erased and replaced with a correct one:
In 2007-08, six classrooms out of the eight taking tests at Noyes were flagged by McGraw-Hill because of high wrong-to-right erasure rates. The pattern was repeated in the 2008-09 and 2009-10 school years, when 80% of Noyes classrooms were flagged by McGraw-Hill.
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.
It wasn't just this one school, either:
Among the 96 schools that were then flagged for wrong-to-right erasures were eight of the 10 campuses where 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.
Now, I wouldn't suggest that Rhee herself was responsible for those erasures, but statistically speaking, it's virtually impossible to believe that it wasn't done intentionally. Those teachers each got an $8,000 bonus and the principal got a $10,000 bonus. And despite the fact we all know what mooches on the system teachers are, I'm pretty sure that $8K was pretty dear for them.
Now a reasonable person might look at this and think, "Maybe we need to re-evaluate this system...because this is not a consequence I considered." But that's not Michelle Rhee. When Tavis Smiley asked Rhee about the USA Today report, Rhee predictably attacked the messengers.
As the Washington, DC, Board of Education announces it will be looking into news that schools former Chancellor Michelle Rhee rewarded as high performers showed suspiciously high levels of wrong-to-right erasure patterns on test sheets, Rhee is lashing out:
"It isn't surprising," Rhee said in a statement Monday, "that the enemies of school reform once again are trying to argue that the Earth is flat and that there is no way test scores could have improved ... unless someone cheated."
No, Michelle. Flat-earthers follow faith, not evidence. Just as you are doing by trying to cast this as your reform or no reform, good guys and bad guys, evidence be damned.
Michelle Rhee, Flat-earther. I like it. It's also important to note that Rhee is also lying through her teeth with Smiley. Basically, her defense boils down to two: that there was only “one school” focused on in the article, and that a third-party investigation found that nothing happened.
The first claim is just nonsense. The article focused specifically on just one school, but the investigation of cheating spanned over 100 schools, flagged because of the high erasure rates, including 96 in 2008, the year in which the vast majority of Rhee’s testing gains occurred. It wasn't an isolated incident; it was systemic.
USA Today's investigation and charges are serious enough to lead the DC Board of Education to announce a hearing April 6 to determine whether Rhee’s office turned a blind eye to parents and others who questioned the test results.
As for the “third party investigation,” Rhee was given evidence of possible cheating by CTB/McGraw Hill. Her response was to hire a consulting firm, that only looked at 8 of the flagged schools. They did no analysis – only interviews. And the president of the consulting firm admitted that it wasn’t a deep investigation. From the USA Today article:John Fremer, president of Caveon Consulting Services, the company D.C. hired, says the investigations were limited. The teachers were asked what they knew about the erasure rates but not whether cheating had taken place, Fremer says. They told Caveon that they "did what they were supposed to do and they didn't do anything wrong," he says.
The report created by Caveon was never released, so we don’t know what it actually found, but it's safe to say from Fremer's admission that this was not that serious an investigation. As a parent, I would want to be informed if my child's test was questioned, but parents were never told that their kids might have gotten faulty scores.
Rhee even tries a variation of the "librul media" smear against the paper. Make no mistake, USA Today is hardly my go-to publication, but this article was based on FOIA’d documentation and reviews by statisticians. It was part of an excellent series on cheating nationwide.
Meanwhile, Rhee has been supporting the union busting around the country. Yesterday she was in Indiana, and spoke with the Republicans who were trying some of the same tactics used in Wisconsin. She spoke to the Indianapolis Star and repeated her claims. But today, USA Today ran another piece confirming that there needs to be more examination. The current schools chancellor, Kaya Henderson, has announced an investigation. This one will hopefully actually examine and analyze the erasures and irregularities.
Maybe that's why Rhee attacks the media...because she has no real defense and her reform is as questionable as those test results.