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February 25, 2011

Debating Michelle Rhee

Richard Kahlenberg

 Earlier this week, I reviewed in Slate Magazine a new biography of former D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee called The Bee Eater, written by former USA Today editorial writer Richard Whitmire.  In my review, I noted that Rhee is wildly popular among members of the elite media, even though there is very little evidence to back up Rhee’s claim that low quality teachers, and their union protectors, are bigger impediments to equal educational opportunity than poverty and segregation.  I was critical of Whitmire’s highly favorable treatment of Rhee’s tenure.
In the old days, authors took their lumps when their books were reviewed, but now they routinely respond, which is a healthy development.  Whitmire, who is a good and clear writer, responded to my review on his Bee Eater blog.  He makes some interesting points and raises some good questions, which I’ll try to respond to here.

The two central questions posed by Whitmire’s book are: Why do D.C. schools perform so much worse than many other big city school districts?  And was Rhee’s the right approach to improving the schools? 

Why Do D.C. Schools Perform Poorly?

In comparing school districts, virtually every education researcher will point to poverty levels and segregation as the key factors in why certain districts do better than others.  Districts are made up of schools, and schools which have high levels of poverty consistently perform far worse than those with lower levels of poverty.  These differences outstrip the much-discussed achievement gap between the U.S. and other countries.  For example, on the recently-released 2009 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), Stephen Krashen, professor emeritus at the University of Southern California, notes that 15-year-old Americans in low poverty schools (those with less than 10 percent of students eligible for free or reduced price lunch) scored 551 on reading, higher than the overall average of any participating country.  By contrast, students in schools with more than 75% of students from low-income families, scored  446 on average, second to last among the 34 nations in the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).

The biggest reason that D.C. scores poorly overall is that it has higher numbers of students coming from low-income backgrounds and attending high poverty schools than most other American school districts.  But Whitmire then narrows the question to ask, if we take poverty and race off the table, why do poor black students in D.C. perform two years behind poor black students in places like New York?

For Whitmire the answer is obvious: teacher quality.  He says that “experts” inside and outside of the D.C. school system estimated that two-thirds of teachers needed to be fired when Rhee came in. He provides no explanation for how this astonishing figure was arrived at, nor does he provide a comparable figure for the percentage of teachers he considers sub-par in New York City.  Whatever one thinks of Rhee’s IMPACT teacher evaluation program, it didn’t exist when she first came on so it can’t be the source of the two-thirds figure.

Whitmire spent many hours visiting Washington D.C. public schools – something I have not done – and so it should count for something when he indicates that based on his visits he found “no reason to dispute” the two-thirds figure.  But I would be far more convinced if Whitmire’s observations and interviews were backed up by published research.  I don’t think the evidence presented by Whitmire supports his declaration that Rhee “fired too few teachers, not too many.”

Whitmire is correct that teacher quality is very important, but other factors are also relevant – such as the standards and curriculum in a district, the availability of support services and pre-K programs, access to extended learning time, levels of segregation, class size in the early grades, the quality of professional development provided to teachers, and on and on. According to Diane Ravitch’s analysis of research, teacher quality, by itself, accounts for between 10 and 20 percent of overall achievement outcomes.  

Was Rhee’s the right approach to reform?

Let’s assume, however, that Whitmire is right and the central reason that D.C. performs worse than  systems like New York City's is that it has a lower quality of teacher on average.  Does that vindicate Rhee’s approach?

Hardly.  As I pointed out in the Slate review, there are good ways and bad ways to get rid of poorly performing teachers.  Peer review programs can weed out low performers in a way that is considered fair and doesn’t demoralize large segments of the teaching population.  Likewise, merit pay can be structured in a way that encourages, rather than discourages, the sharing of good teaching ideas.  Rhee didn't go about her program of upgrading teacher quality in the right ways.

Moreover, once a school district removes poor performers and institutes a credible system of rewarding high performers, there is still the question of how to connect the best teachers with the disadvantaged students who need them most.   In D.C., there is evidence that using Rhee’s own measure of teacher effectiveness – the IMPACT analysis – the strongest teachers are in the most affluent schools.  According to the Washington Post, the District’s most affluent ward has four times as many “highly effective” teachers as the poorest ward.

Rhee instituted a good and progressive program to provide the biggest bonuses to highly effective teachers who go into higher poverty schools.  But there are limits to this approach.  Research finds that teachers care more about working conditions than salary, which is why bonuses have to be very large – as much as 40% of salary – to effectively keep great teachers in high poverty schools for sustained periods of time. 

A more cost-effective way to connect strong teachers and low-income students is to integrate schools by economic status.  That’s part of why I wish Rhee had followed through on her good and productive efforts to attract more middle-class families to the public schools with a conscious strategy of school integration that would reassure low-income families that the middle-class influx would help, not hurt, them.  It’s telling that in a recent interview with Seyward Darby of The New Republic, Rhee declined to spell out a position in favor of integration.  Integration is “a very tricky situation,” Rhee told Darby.  “StudentsFirst is not at this point going to take a policy stance on the issue.”

In his blogpost, Whitmire suggests that Rhee had to be tough on teachers because “Michelle Lite,” which he defines as “Rhee’s reforms with more cooperation and smiles,” has not produced “Rhee-like gains” in other districts.  But as I noted in the Slate review, recent research by Alan Ginsburg, the former Director of Policy and Program Studies at the U.S. Department of Education, finds that in fact the two prior superintendents in D.C., Paul Vance, and Clifford Janey, produced “Rhee-like gains” without all the fireworks.  What does that do to Whitmire’s unsubstantiated theory that “Part of the resentment against Rhee in some parts of D.C. appears rooted in the fact that it took a Korean American to actually improve schools—after a long string of black schools chiefs produced no improvements”?


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Richard Whitmire

My response, posted on The Bee Eater. Richard Whitmire



Richard has been acting strange. He went off on a bender at Politics and Prose last Sunday afternoon, later attacking "Rhee-haters" as he calls them , for not answering a question he never asked.
Richard has also compared those who suspected (and now we all know) that Michelle Rhee lied about her time in Baltimore where she performed her "Baltimore Miracle" to "birthers".
Well, unlike the "birthers", the Rhee skeptics have her "birth certificate" that show she lied when
she claimed that she took 63 of her 70 students from scoring at the 13th percentile on the CTBS to scoring at the 90th percentile.

In his book, Richard failed to write anything about Brian Betts.
Richard left out the need to get back at Patrick Pope, the principal of Hardy Middle School, for pulling his school out of Michelle's Capital Gains program to pay students for great grades. Richard didn't even report on the failure of the Capital Gains program.
Richard didn't point out that under Rhee, the achievement gap between races widen due to the better performance of whites and asians. The performance of the African American students didn't increase. (The NAEP test)
Richard did not mention that at Sousa Middle School, the test scores increased dramatically during the first year of Dwan Jordon as principal and that Mr. Jordon responded by getting rid of the teachers responsible. The next year, the increases were more modest.

Here's another great take on Mr. Whitmire:
bob somerby Says:
February 25th, 2011 at 4:30 pm
Whitmore’s book is amazingly sycophantic. His performance at Politics and Prose was remarkably poor.

RE Rhee’s test scores as a teacher:

Her whole theory of reform is built around the idea that children will succeed at the highest level if you just get up there and teach. She has always offered those stunning test scores as the proof of this theory. Her claims were implausible on their face, and by now they have been debunked. It’s stunning that she got away with making this claim so long.

RE Rhee’s NAEP scores in DC:

These scores are a bit hard to break down, in large part because of the NAEP’s approach to charter schools, which changed as of the 2009 testing. There are quite a few apples-to-oranges comparisons floating around, in which scores for all DC schools (including charters) are compared to scores which exclude charters. Be careful, whether you’re dealing with pro-Rhee or anti-Rhee assessments. This represents a bit of a glitch in the NAEP’s current procedures. They ought to clean it up.

RE DC’s nationwide standing on the NAEP:

For me, the problem with Whitmnire’s book starts right on its cover. Like Rhee, he pimps the idea that DC was “the nation’s worst school district” in 2007, when Rhee came to town. He bases this claim on DC’s NAEP scores, even though the NAEP was limited to about eight actual urban districts in 2007 (and DC’s scores were tied with LA’s). Detroit wasn’t included, for instance; neither was New Orleans, St. Louis, Kansas City and a very long list of others. The notion that Rhee conquered “the nation’s worst school district” makes the hero-tale that much better, so people like Whitmire go out and pimp it, even though he has no idea what DC’s real ranking was.

Simple story: Rhee is a toy and a tool of power, and power dissembles a lot.

Harry Travis

The uselessness of focus on individual teachers is clear from comparison of DCPS schools with the charter schools that now enroll over 40% of public school students in the same city. With very few exceptions among over 50 charter schools, the performance of students in charters on the DC standardized test, one for which extensive preparation materials are available, including pre-tests. Across grades, and across schools, the students in the charters rarely perform better than comparable students in DCPS schools.

Yes several charter schools can be pulled out as exceptions. The inexpensive research which might be done is to observe the teachers in those schools to discover how they are better than their peers. The tools by which Rhee and her evaluation system score teachers, from expert observation, should make that easy. But, it will not. The reason, sadly for all poorly performing poor students is that Rhee never new how to find and cultivate good principals. She has no more ability to find them than many presidents have had in finding generals, except by firing and replacing them. Even then, either the good principals are rare, or they,too are like lucky stock pickers and portfolio managers, mostly lucky.

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