When Methuselah Was Young

January 10, 2013

John Merrow’s documentary “The Education of Michelle Rhee" aired on many PBS stations on January 8, 2013. There was little in it that educated actual professional educators about the short, eventful, and turbulent career of Michelle Rhee as superintendent of the Washington, D.C. public schools. Diane Ravitch found the show to be disappointing, as would almost any perceptive and concerned fighter to save public education in America. Sometimes journalistic balance is mere pusillanimity.

One might naturally ask what Michelle Rhee learned from her unhappy attempt to bring her brief background as a Teach for America teacher and her managerial acumen to the job of reforming one of the toughest school districts in the nation – one of the very many toughest school districts I must add. Among other things, she undoubtedly learned that public institutions like schools cannot be run like businesses, and had she been a little older and wiser – than age 37 when she took on the job – she should have known that even businesses themselves do not run like the organizations of her fantasies. The number of brutal firings in the business world of employees who fail to make targets on single quantitative measures of “productivity” is far fewer than naive dilettantes like Rhee would imagine.

But what the viewer may have learned from watching “The Education of Michelle Rhee" is more profound. The centerpiece of Rhee’s reform of the D.C. schools was the IMPACT program. Teachers and principals were to negotiate with Rhee on targets for gains on the D.C. CAS test from beginning to end of the year. Based on hitting or missing those goals, teachers and principals were either rewarded generously with cash – as much as $10,000 for principals and $5,000 for teachers – or they were fired. Rhee christened this new program IMPACT – an acronym, perhaps, but I cannot bear to unravel its possible ugliness. Although legions of states and school districts have talked such talk, Rhee walked it. In two years, dozens, perhaps hundreds, of teachers and principals lost their jobs or were put on notice because their CAS test gains were not up to snuff, while others lined their pockets with cash for having topped their targeted gains. Apparently Rhee’s compensation was not tied to the overall district’s performance on CAS. (CAS was built by CTB McGraw-Hill; let’s get everybody’s name out in the open here. CAS is a basic skills achievement test in the one-hundred-year-old mold of "fill in the bubble.")

So far this is little more than the story of the madness of high-stakes testing that has been the stuff of school reform rhetoric for decades, and that story having been swallowed hook-line-and-sinker by a dewy-eyed outsider. But something more significant happened on the screen in John Merrow’s documentary.

In her first year on the job, Rhee met individually with each principal in the district to negotiate the CAS test gain score goal for that principal’s school. This exchange took place on screen – slightly paraphrased:

Rhee: So, what is your goal going to be? How many more kids are you going to raise from BASIC to PROFICIENT.

Principal: Well, I’m going to tell my teachers 10%, but put me down for 5%.

Rhee and the principal exchanged knowing smiles.

IMPACT blew up in two years. Allegations of cheating abounded. It was well-known that teachers and principals in certain places took over the completed answer sheets, erased incorrect answers, and marked the correct answers. One school elevated 40% of its students from BASIC to PROFICIENT in one year and walked off with a ton of cash. A year later when the principal departed under a cloud of suspicion, the scores dropped back to status two years ante. The newspapers got on the story. Two outside firms were hired to examine the situation. They white-washed it.

“The Education of Michelle Rhee” has taught us one thing above all. Actions that begin in duplicity will end in duplicity; and duplicity will eventually be found out. It is a lesson older than high-stakes testing, older than schools themselves, indeed, as old as Methuselah.

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Gene V Glass

Gene V Glass is currently a Senior Researcher at the National Education Policy Center and a Regents' Professor Emeritus from Arizona State University. Trained originally in statistics, his interests broadened to include psychotherapy research, evaluation methodology, and policy analysis. He was...