Part Two: Cheating in DCPS

DC Education Reform Ten Years After, 

Part 2: Test Cheats

Richard P Phelps

Ten years ago, I worked as the Director of Assessments for the District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS). For temporal context, I arrived after the first of the infamous test cheating scandals and left just before the incident that spawned a second. Indeed, I filled a new position created to both manage test security and design an expanded testing program. I departed shortly after Vincent Gray, who opposed an expanded testing program, defeated Adrian Fenty in the September 2010 DC mayoral primary. My tenure coincided with Michelle Rhee’s last nine months as Chancellor. 

The recurring test cheating scandals of the Rhee-Henderson years may seem extraordinary but, in fairness, DCPS was more likely than the average US school district to be caught because it received a much higher degree of scrutiny. Given how tests are typically administered in this country, the incidence of cheating is likely far greater than news accounts suggest, for several reasons: 

·      in most cases, those who administer tests—schoolteachers and administrators—have an interest in their results;

·      test security protocols are numerous and complicated yet, nonetheless, the responsibility of non-expert ordinary school personnel, guaranteeing their inconsistent application across schools and over time; 

·      after-the-fact statistical analyses are not legal proof—the odds of a certain amount of wrong-to-right erasures in a single classroom on a paper-and-pencil test being coincidental may be a thousand to one, but one-in-a-thousand is still legally plausible; and

·      after-the-fact investigations based on interviews are time-consuming, scattershot, and uneven. 

Still, there were measures that the Rhee-Henderson administrations could have adopted to substantially reduce the incidence of cheating, but they chose none that might have been effective. Rather, they dug in their heels, insisted that only a few schools had issues, which they thoroughly resolved, and repeatedly denied any systematic problem.  

Cheating scandals

From 2007 to 2009 rumors percolated of an extraordinary level of wrong-to-right erasures on the test answer sheets at many DCPS schools. “Erasure analysis” is one among several “red flag” indicators that testing contractors calculate to monitor cheating. The testing companies take no responsibility for investigating suspected test cheating, however; that is the customer’s, the local or state education agency. 

In her autobiographical account of her time as DCPS Chancellor, Michelle Johnson (nee Rhee), wrote (p. 197)

“For the first time in the history of DCPS, we brought in an outside expert to examine and audit our system. Caveon Test Security – the leading expert in the field at the time – assessed our tests, results, and security measures. Their investigators interviewed teachers, principals, and administrators.

“Caveon found no evidence of systematic cheating. None.”

Caveon, however, had not looked for “systematic” cheating. All they did was interview a few people at several schools where the statistical anomalies were more extraordinary than at others. As none of those individuals would admit to knowingly cheating, Caveon branded all their excuses as “plausible” explanations. That’s it; that is all that Caveon did. But, Caveon’s statement that they found no evidence of “widespread” cheating—despite not having looked for it—would be frequently invoked by DCPS leaders over the next several years.[1]

Incidentally, prior to the revelation of its infamous decades-long, systematic test cheating, the Atlanta Public Schools had similarly retained Caveon Test Security and was, likewise, granted a clean bill of health. Only later did the Georgia state attorney general swoop in and reveal the truth. 

In its defense, Caveon would note that several cheating prevention measures it had recommended to DCPS were never adopted.[2] None of the cheating prevention measures that I recommended were adopted, either.

The single most effective means for reducing in-classroom cheating would have been to rotate teachers on test days so that no teacher administered a test to his or her own students. It would not have been that difficult to randomly assign teachers to different classrooms on test days.

The single most effective means for reducing school administratorcheating would have been to rotate test administrators on test days so that none managed the test materials for their own schools. The visiting test administrators would have been responsible for keeping test materials away from the school until test day, distributing sealed test booklets to the rotated teachers on test day, and for collecting re-sealed test booklets at the end of testing and immediately removing them from the school. 

Instead of implementing these, or a number of other feasible and effective test security measures, DCPS leaders increased the number of test proctors, assigning each of a few dozen or so central office staff a school to monitor. Those proctors could not reasonably manage the volume of oversight required. A single DC test administration could encompass a hundred schools and a thousand classrooms.

Investigations

So, what effort, if any, did DCPS make to counter test cheating? They hired me, but then rejected all my suggestions for increasing security. Also, they established a telephone tip line. Anyone who suspected cheating could report it, even anonymously, and, allegedly, their tip would be investigated. 

Some forms of cheating are best investigated through interviews. Probably the most frequent forms of cheating at DCPS—teachers helping students during test administrations and school administrators looking at test forms prior to administration—leave no statistical residue. Eyewitness testimony is the only type of legal evidence available in such cases, but it is not just inconsistent, it may be socially destructive. 

I remember two investigations best: one occurred in a relatively well-to-do neighborhood with well-educated parents active in school affairs; the other in one of the city’s poorest neighborhoods. Superficially, the cases were similar—an individual teacher was accused of helping his or her own students with answers during test administrations. Making a case against either elementary school teacher required sworn testimony from eyewitnesses, that is, students—eight-to-ten-year olds. 

My investigations, then, consisted of calling children into the principal’s office one-by-one to be questioned about their teacher’s behavior. We couldn’t hide the reason we were asking the questions. And, even though each student agreed not to tell others what had occurred in their visit to the principal’s office, we knew we had only one shot at an uncorrupted jury pool. 

Though the accusations against the two teachers were similar and the cases against them equally strong, the outcomes could not have been more different. In the high-poverty neighborhood, the students seemed suspicious and said little; none would implicate the teacher, whom they all seemed to like. 

In the more prosperous neighborhood, students were more outgoing, freely divulging what they had witnessed. The students had discussed the alleged coaching with their parents who, in turn, urged them to tell investigators what they knew. During his turn in the principal’s office, the accused teacher denied any wrongdoing. I wrote up each interview, then requested that each student read and sign. 

Thankfully, that accused teacher made a deal and left the school system a few weeks later. Had he not, we would have required the presence in court of the eight-to-ten-year olds to testify under oath against their former teacher, who taught multi-grade classes. Had that prosecution not succeeded, the eyewitness students could have been routinely assigned to his classroom the following school year.

My conclusion? Only in certain schools is the successful prosecution of a cheating teacher through eyewitness testimony even possible. But, even where possible, it consumes inordinate amounts of time and, otherwise, comes at a high price, turning young innocents against authority figures they naturally trusted. 

Cheating blueprints

Arguably the most widespread and persistent testing malfeasance in DCPS received little attention from the press. Moreover, it was directly propagated by District leaders, who published test blueprints on the web. Put simply, test “blueprints” are lists of the curricular standards (e.g., “student shall correctly add two-digit numbers”) and the number of test items included in an upcoming test related to each standard. DC had been advance publishing its blueprints for years.

I argued that the way DC did it was unethical. The head of the Division of Data & Accountability, Erin McGoldrick, however, defended the practice, claimed it was common, and cited its existence in the state of California as precedent. The next time she and I met for a conference call with one of DCPS’s test providers, Discover Education, I asked their sales agent how many of their hundreds of other customers advance-published blueprints. His answer: none.

In the state of California, the location of McGoldrick’s only prior professional experience, blueprints were, indeed, published in advance of test administrations. But their tests were longer than DC’s and all standards were tested. Publication of California’s blueprints served more to remind the populace what the standards were in advance of each test administration. Occasionally, a standard considered to be of unusual importance might be assigned a greater number of test items than the average, and the California blueprints signaled that emphasis. 

In Washington, DC, the tests used in judging teacher performance were shorter, covering only some of each year’s standards. So, DC’s blueprints showed everyone well in advance of the test dates exactly which standards would be tested and which would not. For each teacher, this posed an ethical dilemma: should they “narrow the curriculum” by teaching only that content they knew would be tested? Or, should they do the right thing and teach all the standards, as they were legally and ethically bound to, even though it meant spending less time on the to-be-tested content? It’s quite a conundrum when one risks punishment for behaving ethically.

Monthly meetings convened to discuss issues with the districtwide testing program, the DC Comprehensive Assessment System (DC-CAS)—administered to comply with the federal No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act. All public schools, both DCPS and charters, administered those tests. At one of these regular meetings, two representatives from the Office of the State Superintendent of Education (OSSE) announced plans to repair the broken blueprint process.[3]

The State Office employees argued thoughtfully and reasonably that it was professionally unethical to advance publish DC test blueprints. Moreover, they had surveyed other US jurisdictions in an effort to find others that followed DC’s practice and found none. I was the highest-ranking DCPS employee at the meeting and I expressed my support, congratulating them for doing the right thing. I assumed that their decision was final.

I mentioned the decision to McGoldrick, who expressed surprise and speculation that it might have not been made at the highest level in the organizational hierarchy. Wasting no time, she met with other DCPS senior managers and the proposed change was forthwith shelved. In that, and other ways, the DCPS tail wagged the OSSE dog. 

* * *

It may be too easy to finger ethical deficits for the recalcitrant attitude toward test security of the Rhee-Henderson era ed reformers. The columnist Peter Greene insists that knowledge deficits among self-appointed education reformers also matter: 

“… the reformistan bubble … has been built from Day One without any actual educators inside it. Instead, the bubble is populated by rich people, people who want rich people’s money, people who think they have great ideas about education, and even people who sincerely want to make education better. The bubble does not include people who can turn to an Arne Duncan or a Betsy DeVos or a Bill Gates and say, ‘Based on my years of experience in a classroom, I’d have to say that idea is ridiculous bullshit.’”

“There are a tiny handful of people within the bubble who will occasionally act as bullshit detectors, but they are not enough. The ed reform movement has gathered power and money and set up a parallel education system even as it has managed to capture leadership roles within public education, but the ed reform movement still lacks what it has always lacked–actual teachers and experienced educators who know what the hell they’re talking about.”

In my twenties, I worked for several years in the research department of a state education agency. My primary political lesson from that experience, consistently reinforced subsequently, is that most education bureaucrats tell the public that the system they manage works just fine, no matter what the reality. They can get away with this because they control most of the evidence and can suppress it or spin it to their advantage.

In this proclivity, the DCPS central office leaders of the Rhee-Henderson era proved themselves to be no different than the traditional public-school educators they so casually demonized. 

US school systems are structured to be opaque and, it seems, both educators and testing contractors like it that way. For their part, and contrary to their rhetoric, Rhee, Henderson, and McGoldrick passed on many opportunities to make their system more transparent and accountable.

Education policy will not improve until control of the evidence is ceded to genuinely independent third parties, hired neither by the public education establishment nor by the education reform club.

The author gratefully acknowledges the fact-checking assistance of Erich Martel and Mary Levy.

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Citation:  Phelps, R. P. (2020, September). Looking Back on DC Education Reform 10 Years After, Part 2: Test Cheats. Nonpartisan Education Review / Testimonials. https://nonpartisaneducation.org/Review/Testimonials/v16n3.htm


[1] A perusal of Caveon’s website clarifies that their mission is to help their clients–state and local education departments–not get caught. Sometimes this means not cheating in the first place; other times it might mean something else. One might argue that, ironically, Caveon could be helping its clients to cheat in more sophisticated ways and cover their tracks better.

[2] Among them: test booklets should be sealed until the students open them and resealed by the students immediately after; and students should be assigned seats on test day and a seating chart submitted to test coordinators (necessary for verifying cluster patterns in student responses that would suggest answer copying).

[3] Yes, for those new to the area, the District of Columbia has an Office of the “State” Superintendent of Education (OSSE). Its domain of relationships includes not just the regular public schools (i.e., DCPS), but also other public schools (i.e., charters) and private schools. Practically, it primarily serves as a conduit for funneling money from a menagerie of federal education-related grant and aid programs

What did Education Reform in DC Actually Mean?

Short answer: nothing that would actually help students or teachers. But it’s made for well-padded resumes for a handful of insiders.

This is an important review, by the then-director of assessment. His criticisms echo the points that I have been making along with Mary Levy, Erich Martel, Adell Cothorne, and many others.

Nonpartisan Education Review / Testimonials

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Looking Back on DC Education Reform 10 Years After, 

Part 1: The Grand Tour

Richard P Phelps

Ten years ago, I worked as the Director of Assessments for the District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS). My tenure coincided with Michelle Rhee’s last nine months as Chancellor. I departed shortly after Vincent Gray defeated Adrian Fenty in the September 2010 DC mayoral primary

My primary task was to design an expansion of that testing program that served the IMPACT teacher evaluation system to include all core subjects and all grade levels. Despite its fame (or infamy), the test score aspect of the IMPACT program affected only 13% of teachers, those teaching either reading or math in grades four through eight. Only those subjects and grade levels included the requisite pre- and post-tests required for teacher “value added” measurements (VAM). Not included were most subjects (e.g., science, social studies, art, music, physical education), grades kindergarten to two, and high school.

Chancellor Rhee wanted many more teachers included. So, I designed a system that would cover more than half the DCPS teacher force, from kindergarten through high school. You haven’t heard about it because it never happened. The newly elected Vincent Gray had promised during his mayoral campaign to reduce the amount of testing; the proposed expansion would have increased it fourfold.

VAM affected teachers’ jobs. A low value-added score could lead to termination; a high score, to promotion and a cash bonus. VAM as it was then structured was obviously, glaringly flawed,[1] as anyone with a strong background in educational testing could have seen. Unfortunately, among the many new central office hires from the elite of ed reform circles, none had such a background.

Before posting a request for proposals from commercial test developers for the testing expansion plan, I was instructed to survey two groups of stakeholders—central office managers and school-level teachers and administrators.

Not surprisingly, some of the central office managers consulted requested additions or changes to the proposed testing program where they thought it would benefit their domain of responsibility. The net effect on school-level personnel would have been to add to their administrative burden. Nonetheless, all requests from central office managers would be honored. 

The Grand Tour

At about the same time, over several weeks of the late Spring and early Summer of 2010, along with a bright summer intern, I visited a dozen DCPS schools. The alleged purpose was to collect feedback on the design of the expanded testing program. I enjoyed these meetings. They were informative, animated, and very well attended. School staff appreciated the apparent opportunity to contribute to policy decisions and tried to make the most of it.

Each school greeted us with a full complement of faculty and staff on their days off, numbering a several dozen educators at some venues. They believed what we had told them: that we were in the process of redesigning the DCPS assessment program and were genuinely interested in their suggestions for how best to do it. 

At no venue did we encounter stand-pat knee-jerk rejection of education reform efforts. Some educators were avowed advocates for the Rhee administration’s reform policies, but most were basically dedicated educators determined to do what was best for their community within the current context. 

The Grand Tour was insightful, too. I learned for the first time of certain aspects of DCPS’s assessment system that were essential to consider in its proper design, aspects of which the higher-ups in the DCPS Central Office either were not aware or did not consider relevant. 

The group of visited schools represented DCPS as a whole in appropriate proportions geographically, ethnically, and by education level (i.e., primary, middle, and high). Within those parameters, however, only schools with “friendly” administrations were chosen. That is, we only visited schools with principals and staff openly supportive of the Rhee-Henderson agenda. 

But even they desired changes to the testing program, whether or not it was expanded. Their suggestions covered both the annual districtwide DC-CAS (or “comprehensive” assessment system), on which the teacher evaluation system was based, and the DC-BAS (or “benchmarking” assessment system), a series of four annual “no-stakes” interim tests unique to DCPS, ostensibly offered to help prepare students and teachers for the consequential-for-some-school-staff DC-CAS.[2]

At each staff meeting I asked for a show of hands on several issues of interest that I thought were actionable. Some suggestions for program changes received close to unanimous support. Allow me to describe several.

1. Move DC-CAS test administration later in the school year. Many citizens may have logically assumed that the IMPACT teacher evaluation numbers were calculated from a standard pre-post test schedule, testing a teacher’s students at the beginning of their academic year together and then again at the end. In 2010, however, the DC-CAS was administered in March, three months before school year end. Moreover, that single administration of the test served as both pre- and post-test, posttest for the current school year and pretest for the following school year. Thus, before a teacher even met their new students in late August or early September, almost half of the year for which teachers were judged had already transpired—the three months in the Spring spent with the previous year’s teacher and almost three months of summer vacation. 

School staff recommended pushing DC-CAS administration to later in the school year. Furthermore, they advocated a genuine pre-post-test administration schedule—pre-test the students in late August–early September and post-test them in late-May–early June—to cover a teacher’s actual span of time with the students.

This suggestion was rejected because the test development firm with the DC-CAS contract required three months to score some portions of the test in time for the IMPACT teacher ratings scheduled for early July delivery, before the start of the new school year. Some small number of teachers would be terminated based on their IMPACT scores, so management demanded those scores be available before preparations for the new school year began.[3] The tail wagged the dog.

2. Add some stakes to the DC-CAS in the upper grades. Because DC-CAS test scores portended consequences for teachers but none for students, some students expended little effort on the test. Indeed, extensive research on “no-stakes” (for students) tests reveal that motivation and effort vary by a range of factors including gender, ethnicity, socioeconomic class, the weather, and age. Generally, the older the student, the lower the test-taking effort. This disadvantaged some teachers in the IMPACT ratings for circumstances beyond their control: unlucky student demographics. 

Central office management rejected this suggestion to add even modest stakes to the upper grades’ DC-CAS; no reason given. 

3. Move one of the DC-BAS tests to year end. If management rejected the suggestion to move DC-CAS test administration to the end of the school year, school staff suggested scheduling one of the no-stakes DC-BAS benchmarking tests for late May–early June. As it was, the schedule squeezed all four benchmarking test administrations between early September and mid-February. Moving just one of them to the end of the year would give the following year’s teachers a more recent reading (by more than three months) of their new students’ academic levels and needs.

Central Office management rejected this suggestion probably because the real purpose of the DC-BAS was not to help teachers understand their students’ academic levels and needs, as the following will explain.

4. Change DC-BAS tests so they cover recently taught content. Many DC citizens probably assumed that, like most tests, the DC-BAS interim tests covered recently taught content, such as that covered since the previous test administration. Not so in 2010. The first annual DC-BAS was administered in early September, just after the year’s courses commenced. Moreover, it covered the same content domain—that for the entirety of the school year—as each of the next three DC-BAS tests. 

School staff proposed changing the full-year “comprehensive” content coverage of each DC-BAS test to partial-year “cumulative” coverage, so students would only be tested on what they had been taught prior to each test administration.

This suggestion, too, was rejected. Testing the same full-year comprehensive content domain produced a predictable, flattering score rise. With each DC-BAS test administration, students recognized more of the content, because they had just been exposed to more of it, so average scores predictably rose. With test scores always rising, it looked like student achievement improved steadily each year. Achieving this contrived score increase required testing students on some material to which they had not yet been exposed, both a violation of professional testing standards and a poor method for instilling student confidence. (Of course, it was also less expensive to administer essentially the same test four times a year than to develop four genuinely different tests.)

5. Synchronize the sequencing of curricular content across the District. DCPS management rhetoric circa 2010 attributed classroom-level benefits to the testing program. Teachers would know more about their students’ levels and needs and could also learn from each other. Yet, the only student test results teachers received at the beginning of each school year was half-a-year old, and most of the information they received over the course of four DC-BAS test administrations was based on not-yet-taught content.

As for cross-district teacher cooperation, unfortunately there was no cross-District coordination of common curricular sequences. Each teacher paced their subject matter however they wished and varied topical emphases according to their own personal preference.

It took DCPS’s Chief Academic Officer, Carey Wright, and her chief of staff, Dan Gordon, less than a minute to reject the suggestion to standardize topical sequencing across schools so that teachers could consult with one another in real time. Tallying up the votes: several hundred school-level District educators favored the proposal, two of Rhee’s trusted lieutenants opposed it. It lost.

6. Offer and require a keyboarding course in the early grades. DCPS was planning to convert all its testing from paper-and-pencil mode to computer delivery within a few years. Yet, keyboarding courses were rare in the early grades. Obviously, without systemwide keyboarding training in computer use some students would be at a disadvantage in computer testing.

Suggestion rejected.

In all, I had polled over 500 DCPS school staff. Not only were all of their suggestions reasonable, some were essential in order to comply with professional assessment standards and ethics. 

Nonetheless, back at DCPS’ Central Office, each suggestion was rejected without, to my observation, any serious consideration. The rejecters included Chancellor Rhee, the head of the office of Data and Accountability—the self-titled “Data Lady,” Erin McGoldrick—and the head of the curriculum and instruction division, Carey Wright, and her chief deputy, Dan Gordon. 

Four central office staff outvoted several-hundred school staff (and my recommendations as assessment director). In each case, the changes recommended would have meant some additional work on their parts, but in return for substantial improvements in the testing program. Their rhetoric was all about helping teachers and students; but the facts were that the testing program wasn’t structured to help them.

What was the purpose of my several weeks of school visits and staff polling? To solicit “buy in” from school level staff, not feedback.

Ultimately, the new testing program proposal would incorporate all the new features requested by senior Central Office staff, no matter how burdensome, and not a single feature requested by several hundred supportive school-level staff, no matter how helpful. Like many others, I had hoped that the education reform intention of the Rhee-Henderson years was genuine. DCPS could certainly have benefitted from some genuine reform. 

Alas, much of the activity labelled “reform” was just for show, and for padding resumes. Numerous central office managers would later work for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Numerous others would work for entities supported by the Gates or aligned foundations, or in jurisdictions such as Louisiana, where ed reformers held political power. Most would be well paid. 

Their genuine accomplishments, or lack thereof, while at DCPS seemed to matter little. What mattered was the appearance of accomplishment and, above all, loyalty to the group. That loyalty required going along to get along: complicity in maintaining the façade of success while withholding any public criticism of or disagreement with other in-group members.

Unfortunately, in the United States what is commonly showcased as education reform is neither a civic enterprise nor a popular movement. Neither parents, the public, nor school-level educators have any direct influence. Rather, at the national level, US education reform is an elite, private club—a small group of tightly-connected politicos and academicsa mutual admiration society dedicated to the career advancement, political influence, and financial benefit of its members, supported by a gaggle of wealthy foundations (e.g., Gates, Walton, Broad, Wallace, Hewlett, Smith-Richardson). 

For over a decade, The Ed Reform Club exploited DC for its own benefit. Local elite formed the DC Public Education Fund (DCPEF) to sponsor education projects, such as IMPACT, which they deemed worthy. In the negotiations between the Washington Teachers’ Union and DCPS concluded in 2010, DCPEF arranged a 3 year grant of $64.5M from the Arnold, Broad, Robertson and Walton Foundations to fund a 5-year retroactive teacher pay raise in return for contract language allowing teacher excessing tied to IMPACT, which Rhee promised would lead to annual student test score increases by 2012. Projected goals were not metfoundation support continued nonetheless.

Michelle Johnson (nee Rhee) now chairs the board of a charter school chain in California and occasionally collects $30,000+ in speaker fees but, otherwise, seems to have deliberately withdrawn from the limelight. Despite contributing her own additional scandalsafter she assumed the DCPS Chancellorship, Kaya Henderson ascended to great fame and glory with a “distinguished professorship” at Georgetown; honorary degrees from Georgetown and Catholic Universities; gigs with the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, Broad Leadership Academy, and Teach for All; and board memberships with The Aspen Institute, The College Board, Robin Hood NYC, and Teach For America. Carey Wright is now state superintendent in Mississippi. Dan Gordon runs a 30-person consulting firm, Education Counsel that strategically partners with major players in US education policy. The manager of the IMPACT teacher evaluation program, Jason Kamras, now works as Superintendent of the Richmond, VA public schools. 

Arguably the person most directly responsible for the recurring assessment system fiascos of the Rhee-Henderson years, then Chief of Data and Accountability Erin McGoldrick, now specializes in “data innovation” as partner and chief operating officer at an education management consulting firm. Her firm, Kitamba, strategically partners with its own panoply of major players in US education policy. Its list of recent clients includes the DC Public Charter School Board and DCPS.

If the ambitious DC central office folk who gaudily declared themselves leading education reformers were not really, who were the genuine education reformers during the Rhee-Henderson decade of massive upheaval and per-student expenditures three times those in the state of Utah? They were the school principals and staff whose practical suggestions were ignored by central office glitterati. They were whistleblowers like history teacher Erich Martel who had documented DCPS’ student records’ manipulation and phony graduation rates years before the Washington Post’s celebrated investigation of Ballou High School, and was demoted and then “excessed” by Henderson. Or, school principal Adell Cothorne, who spilled the beans on test answer sheet “erasure parties” at Noyes Education Campus and lost her job under Rhee. 

Real reformers with “skin in the game” can’t play it safe.

The author appreciates the helpful comments of Mary Levy and Erich Martel in researching this article. 

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The Right Moment …

(A guest blog by Peter MacPherson on the need to revert to democratic local control of schools in Washington, DC.)

By Peter MacPherson

The right moment.

A crucial sense of timing has long been viewed as the key to successful human endeavors. Advertising keeps reminding us that it’s crucial to have the erectile-dysfunction drug Cialis on hand when the right moment strikes, otherwise the opportunity for a joyful session of lovemaking will be lost. Sometimes the right moment, at least in retrospect and in real circumstances, can be of almost incalculable importance, where the very course of history is recognized to have been altered by timing. In early June of 1944 American General Dwight Eisenhower, with the help of his fellow centurions, was desperately trying to determine when they could unleash the largest invasion force in history on the shores of France to begin the final chapter of the Second World War in Europe. Before the invasion, Eisenhower and his colleagues had been bedeviled by bad weather, and 156,000 allied troops were onboard ships in ports along the British coast waiting to be dispatched to a battle that many participants on both sides viewed as an impending struggle of almost biblical proportions.

Group Captain James Stagg, a British RAF officer who led a team that monitored the weather for Eisenhower, determined that a brief window would open for a few hours on June 6, 1944 that would allow the allied invasion force to leave port and put ashore on the beaches of Normandy in France. Upon receiving this vital information Eisenhower recognized that the quintessential right moment had arrived.

The outcome of acting in that moment could not be clearer.

The voters of the District of Columbia are entering a period that seems very much like the right moment, the zone of opportunity, to produce a badly needed change for which the city will benefit enormously over the long term. With the announcement by At-Large Councilman David Grosso that he does not intend to seek re-election and that charter school board executive director Scott Pearson is leaving his post in May, the right moment to drop the curtain on mayoral control of the schools has presented itself. For it to be the right moment, though, it has to be recognized as such.

Here, in my view, is why the way in which the stars have aligned has produced this crucial moment for the city.

Grosso is now a deeply unpopular District politician. He’s been chairman of the council’s education committee for four years and because of a prickly, dismissive personality and a seeming view that the role of the panel he oversees should be a limited one, oversight of public education has been wanting. Over the past four years the District of Columbia Public Schools has been beset by scandal. Among them are heavily inflated graduation rates, the untimely departure of and reasons for former chancellor Antwan Wilson leaving DCPS and thin to non-existent oversight of critical aspects of DCPS’ operations.

Scott Pearson has been a deeply problematic actor in the ongoing drama of public education in the city. Though nominally a public employee, Pearson advocates for public charter schools as if he were heading a trade group. He’s pushed back vigorously against even modest efforts to open the charter sector to additional scrutiny by both the council and outside groups. In recent testimony before the council on member Charles Allen’s proposed legislation that would have opened charter schools to the provisions of the District’s Freedom of Information law, Pearson expressed his adamant opposition to the bill.

And the future and health of DCPS has never seemed to be in his portfolio of concerns. Pearson has actively sought to allow the untrammeled growth in the number of charter schools in the city. During his seven-year tenure as the charter board’s executive director, the number of charter schools in the city has grown from 98 to 123. They now enroll 43,000 students. He has pressed the city to transfer closed DCPS buildings for use by charters, thus inhibiting their use as swing space during modernizations or to reopened as DCPS campuses. Essentially, on Pearson’s watch, a parallel school system has been established in the city. And until his planned departure of the charter school board in May, he will continue to press for the unabated expansion of the sector in the city.

In 2007, at the beginning of the mayoral-control era, DCPS had an enrollment of around 50,000 students, with the charters educating around 22,000. During this 12-year period DCPS has bled away a staggering level of enrollment to charters. If mayoral control was supposed to secure the future of DCPS, which was broadly represented to mean high-quality education for all District children, then the great education reform experiment has failed. DCPS has good schools, as it always has. But their location is as disparate as ever. Between stagnant enrollment and virtually non-existent test score growth, then the experiment has failed. The city not only has a failed governance model, it has also wasted an immense amount of municipal treasure pursing this model. In the surrounding jurisdictions in Maryland and Virginia that have comparable numbers of students to the District, they spend around half of what the city does [per student] and have higher performing systems. With over 22,000 vacant seats, the District is maintaining a staggering amount of excess capacity.

With the impending departures of Grosso and Pearson, the question that District stakeholders need to ask themselves is whether meaningful change will happen once they’re off the stage. If mayoral control remains in place the answer is easy to discern. For those not wearing their glasses and cannot see the writing in the sky, the answer is no.

Part of the reason that one should have no expectations of changes that will lead to school improvement is implicit in the design of mayoral control. Though the mayor has statutory responsibility for DCPS, the executive is also responsible for generating a budget that funds the charters. The mayor appoints the members of the charter school board. The mayor ultimately decides the fate of excess District school buildings. And, through the deputy mayor for education, has a strong planning role as well.

Then there’s the realpolitik aspect of the way the city government run. The mayor is beneficiary of significant campaign contributions from outside charter supporters and operators. It’s inevitable that the mayor would play both sides and that is certainly what Muriel Bowser has done.

The city council, during 12 years of mayoral control, has mostly shown great squeamishness about exercising its oversight role of the schools. Having watched and given testimony before the council, I have yet to see a major sea change in DCPS policy that resulted from that testimony. The impact of public testimony has chiefly been felt in area of school modernizations, which have often required aggressive advocacy on the part of school communities to bring equity what has been a brutally unequal process.

Going forward what we’re likely to see is a real struggle to find a council member willing to enthusiastically take on the role of education committee chairman. One frequently hears from council and their representatives that the council is not the school board, that by design oversight is supposed to be more modest. But when the council voted to eliminate the elected school board, they became de facto the school board. The public has demanded a court of last resort in education matters when they don’t like the way things are going. Virtually any education committee hearing that will accept public testimony finds itself hearing from a large number of witnesses. The public clearly wants to participate in school governance and wants its voice heard.

The obvious ambivalence of current council members to take on the education committee chairman role, and the track record the council has relative to education oversight, mean that the city is in the midst of a right moment moment.

In a city short on representative democratic institutions, the city council and mayor made a grave error in eliminating the school [board] in 2007. The experiment upon which they allowed the city to embark has proven to be one of poor quality. And the council is not telegraphing a willing desire to improve its performance relative to education oversight. District children need oversight of their school from adults who are committed to their success, who want DCPS and existing charter schools to thrive. The mayor keeps DCPS on life-support. It’s never permitted to be strong or aggressive enough to really compete in an education marketplace.

And charter students are poorly served in the existing governance structures. The city provides a significant facilities fee per student to charters. Yet that money is not required to be used for that purpose, and frequently is not. If students and parents have an issue with a charter, their route of appeal ends at the front door of the school. And once the search begins for a new charter school board executive director, the selection process will not involve the public in any meaningful way. Remember that the charter school board is appointed by the mayor, which then functions autonomously. The charter board will decide on its next executive director.

Ideally the council would vote to reestablish the elected school board. It would also vote to make the State Superintendent of Education a creature of the State Board of Education, the District’s only body related to education that is directly elected by voters. And they would also construct a more robust regulatory structure for charter schools so that parents, students and teachers have a real voice. But if the council will not act than the voters must. If a ballot initiative is required, then concerned citizens must pursue it vigorously.

This is the right moment.

 

Not So Fast, Betsy DeVos!

I attended the official roll-out of the results of the 2019 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) a couple of days ago at the National Press Club here in DC on 14th Street NW, and listened to the current education secretary, Betsy Devos, slam public schools and their administrators as having accomplished nothing while spending tons of money. She and other speakers held up DC, Mississippi, and Florida as examples to follow. Devos basically advocated abandoning public schools altogether, in favor of giving each parent a “backpack full of cash” to do whatever they want with.

Some other education activists I know here in DC shared their thoughts with me, and I decided to look at the results for DC’s white, black, and Hispanic students over time as reported on the NAEP’s official site. (You can find them here, but be prepared to do quite a bit of work to get them and make sense out of them!)

I found that it is true that DC’s recent increases in scores on the NAEP for all students, and for black and Hispanic students, are higher than in other jurisdictions.

However, I also found that those increases were happening at a HIGHER rate BEFORE DC’s mayor was given total control of DC’s public schools; BEFORE the appointment of Michelle Rhee; and BEFORE the massive DC expansion of charter schools.

Here are two graphs (which I think show a lot more than a table does) which give ‘average scale scores’ for black students in math at grades 4 and 8 in DC, in all large US cities, and in the nation as a whole. I have drawn a vertical red line at the year 2008, separating the era before mayoral control of schools (when we had an elected school board) and the era afterwards (starting with appointed chancellor Michelle Rhee and including a massive expansion of the charter school sector). These results include both regular DC Public School students and the charter school sector, but not the private schools.

I asked Excel to produce linear correlations of the average scale scores for black students in DC starting in 1996 through 2007, and also for 2009 through 2019. It wasn’t obvious to my naked eye, but the improvement rates, or slopes of those lines, were TWICE AS HIGH before mayoral control. At the 4th grade level, the improvement rate was 2.69 points per year BEFORE mayoral control, but only 1.34 points per year afterwards.

Yes, that is a two-to-one ratio AGAINST mayoral control & massive charter expansion.

At the 8th grade level, same time span, the slope was 1.53 points per year before mayoral control, but 0.77 points per year afterwards.

Again, just about exactly a two-to-one ratio AGAINST the status quo that we have today.

pre and post Rhee, 4th grade NAEP, black students in DC, nation, large cities

pre and post Rhee, 8th grade NAEP, black students in DC, large cities, and nation

NATIONAL TEST SCORES IN DC WERE RISING FASTER UNDER THE ELECTED SCHOOL BOARD THAN THEY HAVE BEEN DOING UNDER THE APPOINTED CHANCELLORS

 

Add one more to the long list of recent DC public education scandals* in the era of education ‘reform’:

DC’s NAEP** test scores are increasing at a lower rate now (after the elected school board was abolished in 2007) than they were in the decade before that.

This is true in every single subgroup I looked at: Blacks, Hispanics, Whites, 4th graders, 8th graders, in reading, and in math.

Forget what you’ve heard about DC being the fastest-growing school district. Our NAEP scores were going up faster before our first Chancellor, Michelle Rhee, was appointed than they have been doing since that date.

Last week, the 2017 NAEP results were announced at the National Press Club building here on 14th Street NW, and I went in person to see and compare the results of 10 years of education ‘reform’ after 2007 with the previous decade. When I and others used the NAEP database and separated out average scale scores for black, Hispanic, and white students in DC, at the 4th and 8th grade levels, in both reading and math, even I was shocked:

In every single one of these twelve sub-groups, the rate of change in scores was WORSE (i.e., lower) after 2007 (when the chancellors took over) than it was before that date (when we still had an elected school board).

I published the raw data, taken from the NAEP database, as well as graphs and short analyses, on my blog, (gfbrandenburg.wordpress.com) which you can inspect if you like. I will give you two examples:

  • Black 4th grade students in DC in math (see https://bit.ly/2JbORad ):
    • In the year 2000, the first year for which I had comparable data, that group got an average scale score of 188 (on a scale of 0 – 500). In the year 2007, the last year under the elected school board, their average scale score was 209, which is an increase of 21 points in 7 years, for an average increase of 3.0 points per year, pre-‘reform’.
    • After a decade of ‘reform’ DC’s black fourth grade students ended up earning an average scale score of 224, which is an increase of 15 points over 10 years. That works out to an average growth of 1.5 points per year, under direct mayoral control.
    • So, in other words, Hispanic fourth graders in DC made twice the rate of progress on the math NAEP under the elected school board than they did under Chancellors Rhee, Henderson, and Wilson.

 

  • Hispanic 8th grade students in DC in reading (see: https://bit.ly/2HhSP0z )
    • In 1998, the first year for which I had data, Hispanic 8th graders in DC got an average scale score of 246 (again on a scale of 0-500). In 2007, which is the last year under the elected board of education, they earned an average scale score of 249, which is an increase of only 3 points.
    • However, in 2017, their counterparts received an average scale score of 242. Yes, the score went DOWN by 7 points.
    • So, under the elected board of education, the scores for 8th grade Latinx students went up a little bit. But under direct mayoral control and education ‘reform’, their scores actually dropped.

 

That’s only two examples. There are actually twelve such subgroups (3 ethnicities, times 2 grade levels, times 2 subjects), and in every single case progress was worse after 2007 than it was beforehand.

 

Not a single exception.

 

You can see my last blog post on this, with links to other ones, here: https://gfbrandenburg.wordpress.com/2018/04/20/progress-or-not-for-dcs-8th-graders-on-the-math-naep/ or https://bit.ly/2K3UyZ1 .

 

Amazing.

 

Why isn’t there more outrage?

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*For many years, DC officials and the editorial board of the Washington Post have been bragging that the educational ‘reforms’ enacted under Chancellor Michelle Rhee and her successors have made DCPS the fastest-improving school district in the entire nation. (See https://wapo.st/2qPRSGw or https://wapo.st/2qJn7Dh for just two examples.)

It didn’t matter how many lies Chancellor Rhee told about her own mythical successes in a privately run school in Baltimore (see https://wapo.st/2K28Vgy ).  She also got away with falsehoods about the necessity of firing hundreds of teachers mid-year for allegedly being sexual predators or abusers of children (see https://wapo.st/2qNGxqB ); there were always acolytes like Richard Whitmire willing to cheer her on publicly (see https://wapo.st/2HC0zOj ), even though the charges were false.

A lot of stories about widespread fraud in the District of Columbia public school system have hit the front pages recently. Examples:

  • Teachers and administrators were pressured to give passing grades and diplomas to students who missed so much school (and did so little work) that they were ineligible to pass – roughly one-third of last year’s graduating class. (see https://bit.ly/2ngmemi ) You may recall that the rising official (but fake) high school graduation rate in Washington was a used as a sign that the reforms under direct mayoral control of education had led to dramatic improvements in education here.
  • Schools pretended that their out-of-school suspension rates had been dropping, when in actual fact, they simply were suspending students without recording those actions in the system. (see https://wapo.st/2HhbARS )
  • Less than half of the 2018 senior class is on track to graduate because of truancy, failed classes, and the like. ( see https://bit.ly/2K5DFx9 )
  • High-ranking city officials, up to and including the Chancellor himself, cheated the system by having their own children bypass long waiting lists and get admitted to favored schools. (see https://wapo.st/2Hk3HLi )
  • A major scandal in 2011 about adults erasing and changing student answer sheets on the DC-CAS test at many schools in DC in order to earn bonuses and promotions was unfortunately swept under the rug. (see https://bit.ly/2HR4c0q )
  • About those “public” charter schools that were going to do such a miraculous job in educating low-income black or brown children that DCPS teachers supposedly refused to teach? Well, at least forty-six of those charter schools (yes, 46!) have been closed down so far, either for theft, poor performance on tests, low enrollment, or other problems. (see https://bit.ly/2JcxIx9 ).

 

=========================================================================

**Data notes:

  1. NAEP, or the National Assessment of Educational Progress, is given about every two years to a carefully chosen representative sample of students all over the USA. It has a searchable database that anybody with a little bit of persistence can learn to use: https://bit.ly/2F5LHlS .
  2. I did not do any comparable measurements for Asian-Americans or Native Americans or other such ethnic/racial groups because their populations in DC are so small that in most years, NAEP doesn’t report any data at all for them.
  3. In the past, I did not find big differences between the scores of boys and girls, so I didn’t bother looking this time.
  4. Other categories I could have looked at, but didn’t, include: special education students; students whose first language isn’t English; economically disadvantaged students; the various percentiles; and those just in DCPS versus all students in DC versus charter school students. Feel free to do so, and report what you find!
  5. My reason for not including figures separated out for only DCPS, and only DC Charter Schools, is that NAEP didn’t provide that data before about 2011. I also figured that the charter schools and the regular public schools, together, are in fact the de-facto public education system that has grown under both the formerly elected school board and the current mayoral system, so it was best to combine the two together.
  6. I would like to thank Mary Levy for compiling lots of data about education in DC, and Matthew Frumin for pointing out these trends. I would also like to thank many DC students, parents, and teachers (current or otherwise) who have told me their stories.

 

Comparing DC’s 4th Grade White, Black, and Hispanic Students in the Math NAEP

4th grade math naep, DC, w + B + H

Here we have the average scale scores for DC’s white, black, and Hispanic fourth graders in math on the National Assessment for Educational Progress, prompted by the data rollout earlier this week of the 2017 results.

The vertical, blue, dashed line at the year 2007 shows where DC changed from having an elected school board with real power, to having a mayor who sets educational policy on his/her own, appointing a Chancellor (starting with the serial fabulist, Michelle Rhee).

If mayoral control of the schools, along with the firing or forcing out of hundreds or thousands of teachers, and all the other ‘reforms’ that have been instituted since 2007, were such a great success, then you would see the purple, orange, and green lines going sharply upwards to the right after the year 2007.

But you don’t.

In fact, let’s do a little math here, and look at rates of change pre- and post-mayoral control

For black 4th graders in math in DC, under the elected school board, the average scale scores went from 188 in the year 2000 to 209 in the year 2007. That is an increase of 21 points in 7 years, or about 3.0 points per year. After mayoral control, those scores went from 209 in year 2007 to 224 in year 2017. That is a rise of 15 points in 10 years, or a rate of change of 1.5 points per year.

That’s worse, not better.

For Hispanic students, during period under the school board, the scores went from 190 to 220 in 7 years, which is a growth of about 4.3 points per year. After mayoral control, their scores went from 220 to 230, which is an increase of 1.0 points per year.

Once again, that’s worse under mayoral control, not better.

For white students in DC, pre-Rhee, the scores went from 254 to 262 in 7 years, or a growth of  roughly 1.1 points per year. After mayoral control (and under Rhee and her successors), their scores went from 262 to 273 in 10 years, which is exactly 1.1 points per year.

No change.

So, to sum things up: for black and Hispanic students, who are obviously the two main groups of economically-deprived students in DC, if we look at scores on the NAEP over the past 20 years, there has been LESS improvement under mayoral control (and under IMPACT, VAM, PARCC and everything else) than there was before.

Is anybody paying any attention to this?

Or will the beatings continue and intensify until morale somehow, miraculously, improves?

==============================================================

You can see my previous posts on this topic at these links:

  1. https://gfbrandenburg.wordpress.com/2018/04/20/how-dcs-black-white-and-hispanic-students-compare-with-each-other-on-the-naep-over-the-past-20-years/
  2. https://gfbrandenburg.wordpress.com/2018/04/17/the-one-area-where-some-dc-students-improved-under-mayoral-control-of-education/
  3. https://gfbrandenburg.wordpress.com/2018/04/17/more-flat-lines-4th-grade-reading-for-hispanic-and-white-students-dc-and-nationwide/
  4. https://gfbrandenburg.wordpress.com/2018/04/17/one-area-with-a-bit-of-improvement-4th-grade-math-for-black-students-on-the-naep/
  5. https://gfbrandenburg.wordpress.com/2018/04/16/was-there-any-progress-in-8th-grade-math-on-the-naep-in-dc-or-elsewhere/
  6. https://gfbrandenburg.wordpress.com/2018/04/16/progress-perhaps-with-8th-grade-white-students-in-dc-on-naep-after-mayoral-control/
  7. https://gfbrandenburg.wordpress.com/2018/04/16/maybe-there-was-progress-with-hispanic-students-in-dc-and-elsewhere/
  8. https://gfbrandenburg.wordpress.com/2018/04/16/just-how-much-success-has-there-been-with-the-reformista-drive-to-improve-scores-over-the-past-20-years/

 

 

The One Area Where Some DC Students Improved Under Mayoral Control of Education

You have all heard the propaganda saying that test scores in DC have improved tremendously ever since the citizens lost the right to vote for their school board, and after foundations like the Broad, Arnold, Walton and Gates family fortunes took over. The editorial staff of the Washington Post never tires of repeating this line.

If you’ve been following this series of blogs on the latest (2017) NAEP scores for DC and elsewhere, you have found no evidence of that.

In this last installment on this topic, I finally found a group of students who DID see their scores rise under mayoral control.

White fourth-grade students in math.

Ain’t it ironical?

The highest-scoring group of white students in the entire nation (that I can find scores for) actually improved their scores when the citizens of DC lost democratic control of the school board. But no other group did.

See for yourself.

First, black fourth graders in DC and elsewhere in math:

4th gr math black naep dc + nation

Here is what I mean: the dotted lines are for African-American fourth graders in math. From 2000 through 2007 (just 7 years) their scores went up from 188 to 209, which is an increase of 21 points (or 3 points per year). However, from 2007 through 2017, their scores went from 209 to 224, which is 15 points (or 1.5 points per year). Or, if you only count students enrolled in DC public schools (and not the charter or private schools) fom 2003 through 2007, their scores went from 202 to 209, which is 7 points in 4 years, or 1.75 points per year. From 2007 through 2017, their scores went from 209 to 218, which is a rise of 9 points in 10 years, which means 0.9 points per year.

Clearly, mayoral control did NOT mean improved increases for black fourth grade math students in DC – using the standard national yardstick.

Now let’s look at Hispanic fourth graders in math:

4th grade math, naep, hispanic, dc + elsewhere, 1996-2017

Once again, we see that Hispanic students at the fourth grade level in DC were making bigger improvements in math BEFORE mayoral control than they were after Mayor Fenty got that power.

However, the reverse is true for white students in DC:

4th grade math naep white students DXC + elsewhere, 1996-2017

Yup: to those who have much already, even more has been given.

I’m pretty sure that Perry Stein of the Washington Post will not reprint these graphs. How about Valerie Strauss?

Progress Perhaps With 8th Grade White Students in DC on NAEP After Mayoral Control?

I continue working my way through the various subgroups in DC and elsewhere, trying to see if the imposition of mayoral control back in 2007 has been a success or a failure. This post has to do with white (Caucasian) students in DC and elsewhere in the US.

What do you see:

8th grade reading, white students, naep, 1998-2017, dc and elsewhere

Here you will notice that the scores for European-American (white) students in DC are quite a bit higher than those of similar origins elsewhere in the US. For that, the explanation is relatively simple. Washington, DC is rather unique among large American cities in that virtually all of its white working class citizens moved out to the suburbs and later to the exurbs several decades ago. Even if white students in DC don’t live in luxury and wealth, a very large fraction of them have parents with graduate or professional degrees and more books around the house than the average American household — and so my own kids, who went through DCPS from K through 12, are and were quite different from the children of carpenters or mechanics that I grew up with in far Montgomery County, MD, sixty years ago. The reason that there are so many blanks in the table is that the number of white students in DC used to be so small that the statisticians at NCES could not draw valid conclusions. (My own kids graduated before 2000).

Again, this chart does not show any real signs of success for Mayoral control in DC, or for the entire ‘reform’ agenda which was supposed to revolutionize American education.

Maybe there was progress with Hispanic students in DC and elsewhere?

Continuing to look at 8th grade NAEP reading scores, I now concentrate on those for Hispanic students in DC and elsewhere in the nation. Here is the graph and the raw data, which I and other cobbled together by using the NCES website and the NAEP data explorer, and also from what I gleaned at the presentation at the National Press Club building on 14th St NW last week.

 

8th grade hispanic reading scores, 1998-2017, DC and US

Here, it is possible to see slight changes: NAEP reading scores for Hispanic 8th graders in DC are actually a bit LOWER than they were before mayoral control. Not better.

Has Mayoral Control In DC Caused A Miracle Regarding Hispanic Students?

I will now post graphs showing how Hispanic students in fourth and eighth grade in DC have scored in math and reading in comparison to other US large cities and the nation’s public schools. As with the previous post, I drew a thick, vertical, red, dotted line showing where the previous, democratically-elected school board was replaced by mayoral control under a law called PERAA.

Here are the ‘average scale scores’ for eighth-grade Hispanic students in math and reading in DC (green), the NAEP sample of Hispanic 8th graders in US large cities (orange), and the NAEP sample of all Hispanic 8th grade students in public schools:

Do you see a miracle that happened to the right of that dotted red line?

I don’t.

What I do see is that in math, the rate of improvement for DC’s Hispanic 8th graders from 2000 to 2007 (under democratic local control of schools) seems considerably faster than the corresponding rate afterwards (under mayoral control).

In reading, it seems like Hispanic 8th grade students in DC were scoring generally higher than their national peers, but after PERAA, they scored lower than their peers. Some miracle.

Let’s look at 4th grade:

Once again, from 2000 through 2007 (under local democratic control of schools), the rate of increase in DC Hispanic students’ scores in both math and reading was considerably higher than after the mayor took over.

Some miracle.

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