On School Reform Michelle Rhee and Democracy

Jeff Bryant

On Tuesday Sam Seder and I had a brief discussion during his daily web broadcast The Majority Report that touched on some points I made in my post here last week The Empty Rhetoric of School “Reform” (with broken links fixed – my apologies). We ventured into other topics related to education policy as well, including the news story in Monday’s USA Today about a cheating scandal in Washington, DC that occurred during Michelle Rhee’s tenure as leader of that school system.

I invite you to listen to the discussion and then return to my comments . . .

 

Just a brief back story and follow-up on Ms. Rhee: Rhee has been lionized in print and in film as the “warrior woman” who would “save DC schools” mostly by firing teachers and closing schools based on standardized test scores.

But according to the USA Today investigation, based on documents and data secured under D.C.’s Freedom of Information Act, during much of her tenure, there were a number of schools that had “extraordinarily high numbers of erasures on standardized tests. The consistent pattern was that wrong answers were erased and changed to right ones.” The fact that during her reign there was such a high rate of erasures on standardized bubble tests now makes her supposed record of achievement in the District highly suspect.

In her initial response to the USA Today article, in an interview with Tavis Smiley , Rhee made it appear that there was just a problem with one school, Crosby S. Noyes, and that the USA Today story was “distorted” and “unfounded.”

But as the article states, “Noyes is one of 103 public schools here that have had erasure rates that surpassed D.C. averages at least once since 2008. That’s more than half of D.C. schools.” Also, the report notes that three years ago, upon the urging of DC’s Office of the State Superintendent of Education, the test-maker McGraw-Hill did an “erasure analysis” and found that “among 96 schools 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.'”

My point to Sam was that the prevalence of cheating is inevitable when you impose a public policy system where devotion to a single metric – like scores on standardized tests – ends up distorting how all the active players in the system do their work. As Jim Horn at Schools Matter explains, this is:

a classic case study of what happens when high stakes, high pressure, and big bucks corrupt social policy, per Campbell’s Law, which states that
“The more any quantitative social indicator is used for social decision-making, the more subject it will be to corruption pressures and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it is intended to monitor.”
Not only have social processes been corrupted, but children have been damaged, too, as noted in this remarkable news story.

(emphasis his)

As I said to Sam, all this distortion, scandal, and acrimony is an outcome of these top-down mandates – such as high-stakes tests and enforced firing of teachers and closing of schools based on their results – that continue to be enforced on our schools by an out of touch establishment of elites in Washington DC and Wall St. As I said to Sam, the process of public education should be essentially democratic. And right now, it’s sadly becoming less so.

One of the reasons that America has a system of public schools that most countries of the world, such as China, try to emulate, is because of the bottom-up, generally democratic process that is the backbone of successful neighborhood schools. Without a doubt, it is America’s most widely shared collaborative endeavor.

True, the federal government has a role to play, primarily in ensuring that education services are distributed to children equitably and that creating and improving our schools remains fundamentally democratic and fair. Unfortunately, right now, what our leaders in DC are doing is mostly the exact opposite.

When the progressive educator Deborah Meier looks out across this current landscape of confusion, what she sees in Michelle Rhee and other self-anointed “reformers” are not people with good intentions with just mistaken notions or unclear agendas; she sees something far more “villainous.”

If collective action—unions—seems un-American, why do the rich create institutions in which they, too, pool their wealth with their peers in order to lobby for their self-interests and bargain with their legislators for more favors?
We do them a favor to call it merely hypocrisy. It’s more villainous.

Faced with such inequality, our current government demurs to act and continues to blame public schools for not addressing the widening gaps between rich and poor. This is not only unfair, it’s cowardly. Sure, public education, operating under the principles of democracy, has a role to play. But standardization and high-stakes testing aren’t going to be the enablers of a better education system. As Meier concludes:

[Public education] can offer the “capital” needed to make sense of the world as it is, and recognize when we are being conned and stupefied—something we do not yet have any “objective” test for measuring. The best we can do is place our unwarranted trust in the school community, within the widest and least onerous boundaries. There is not a single “best” curriculum nor a single best way of governing democratically. Out of such diversity we will learn, although we may never find consensus on the details, nor need we.

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