In his retirement, John Merrow has turned into a tiger, pulling apart the frauds that are regularly reported by the mainstream media.
In this marvelous post, he punctures the great hot air balloon of “reform” in the District of Columbia under Michelle Rhee and Kaya Henderson.
It begins like this:
The current issue of The Washington Monthly contains an article by former journalist Thomas Toch, “Hot for Teachers,” the latest in continuing string of pieces designed to prove the “truth” of the school reform movement’s four Commandments: top-down management, high stakes testing, more money for teachers and principals whose students do well, and dismissal for those whose students do not.
Just as a hot air balloon needs regular burst of hot air to remain afloat, the DCPS ‘success story’ needs constant celebrations of its alleged success. Sadly, it has had no trouble finding agents willing to praise Michelle Rhee, Kaya Henderson, and their work. Absent good data, Toch, former Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, philanthropist Catherine Bradley, Mike Petrilli of Fordham, Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute, and writers Richard Whitmire and Amanda Ripley have lavished praise upon DCPS, often twisting or distorting data and omitting damaging information in order to make their case.
In his article, Toch distorts or omits at least eight issues. The distinguished education analyst Mary Levy and I have written a rebuttal, which is scheduled to appear in the next issue of The Washington Monthly. In this blog post, I want to consider in detail just one of Toch’s distortions: widespread cheating by adults: He glibly dismisses DC’s cheating scandals in just two sentences: In March 2011, USA Today ran a front-page story headlined “When Standardized Test Scores Soared in D.C., Were the Gains Real?,” an examination of suspected Rhee-era cheating. The problem turned out to be concentrated in a few schools, and investigations found no evidence of widespread cheating.
There are two factual errors in his second sentence. Cheating–erasing wrong answers and replacing them with correct ones–occurred in more than half of DCPS schools, and every ‘investigation’ was either controlled by Rhee and later Henderson or conducted by inept investigators–and sometimes both. All five investigations were whitewashes, because no one in power wanted to unmask the wrongdoing that had produced the remarkable test score gains.
Four essential background points: The rookie Chancellor met one-on-one with all her principals and, in those meetings, made them guarantee test score increases. We filmed a number of these sessions, and saw firsthand how Rhee relentlessly negotiated the numbers up, while also making it clear that failing to ‘make the numbers’ would have consequences.
Point number two: The test in question, the DC-CAS, had no consequences for students, none whatsoever. Therefore, many kids were inclined to blow it off, which in turn forced teachers and principals to go to weird extremes to try to get students to take the test seriously. One principal told his students that he would get a tattoo of their choice if they did well on the DC-CAS (They could choose the design; he would choose the location!).
Point number three: For reasons of bureaucratic efficiency, the DC-CAS exams were delivered to schools at least a week before the exam date and put in the hands of the principals whose jobs depended on raising scores on a test the kids didn’t care about. This was a temptation that some school leaders and some teachers found irresistible. Test books were opened, sample questions were distributed, and, after the exams, answers were changed. Some schools had ‘erasure parties,’ we were reliably told.
Point number four: Predictably, test scores went up, and the victory parties began.
Contrary to Toch’s assertions, the ‘wrong-to-right’ erasures in half of DCPS schools were never thoroughly investigated beyond the initial analysis done by the agency that corrected the exams in the first place, CTB/McGraw-Hill. Deep erasure analysis would have revealed any patterns of erasures, but it was never ordered by Chancellor Rhee, Deputy Chancellor Henderson, or the Mayor, presuming he was aware of the issue.
Merrow followed Rhee closely for years. No journalist knows her methods better than he. It took a long time for him to figure out that the balloon was full of hot air, but figure it out he did.
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