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.

Access this testimonial in .pdf format

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

Access this testimonial in .pdf format

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. 

Access this testimonial in .pdf format

Teachers Quitting In DC

Valerie Jablow points out that there is an enormous problem with DC public and charter teachers being so harassed that they quit: around 70% of them quit by their 5th year of employment. (She adds that this is probably not a bug, but a feature of the DC teacher evaluation program.) I am reprinting her entire column, but you should subscribe to it yourself.

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

 

Let’s Be Clear: DC Teacher Retention Isn’t Just A Problem. It’s A Crisis.

by Valerie Jablow

This Wednesday evening, October 23, at 5:30 pm, the DC state board of education (SBOE), DC’s only elected body with a direct (if relatively powerless) voice on our schools, will take public testimony on teacher retention in DC’s publicly funded schools. (See more information here.)

While public voice is sorely needed in every conversation about our public schools, in this case it’s a bit akin to choosing wallpaper for a burning building.

But that’s hardly SBOE’s fault.

In the wake of years of testimony about horrific treatment of DC teachers, SBOE last year commissioned a study by DC schools expert Mary Levy, which showed terrible attrition of teachers at our publicly funded schools, dwarfing attrition rates nationally.

An update to that 2018 study was just made available by SBOE and will be discussed at the meeting this week.

The update shows that while DCPS teacher and principal attrition rates have dropped slightly recently, they remain very high, with 70% of teachers leaving entirely by the 5-year mark (p. 32). Retention rates for DC’s charter schools are similar to those at DCPS–with the caveat that not only are they self-reported, but they are also not as complete and likely contain errors.

Perhaps the most stunning data point is that more than half of DCPS teachers leaving after 6 years are highly rated (p. 24). This suggests that the exodus of teachers from DC’s publicly funded schools is not merely a matter of weeding out poor performers (as DCPS’s response after p. 70 of this report suggests). Rather, it gives data credence to the terrifying possibility that good teachers are being relentlessly harassed until they give up and leave.

Sadly, that conclusion is the only one that makes sense to me, given that most of my kids’ teachers in my 14 years as a DCPS parent have left their schools–with only a few retiring after many years of service. Most of my kids’ teachers were both competent and caring. Perhaps not coincidentally, they almost always also lacked basic supplies that they ended up buying with their own money; were pressured to teach to tests that would be the basis of their and their principals’ evaluations; and feared reprisal for saying any of that.

(I’m hardly alone in that observation–read some teacher testimony for the SBOE meeting here, including that of a special education teacher, who notes that overwork with caseloads; lack of supplies; and increased class sizes for kids with disabilities are recurring factors at her school that directly lead to teacher burnout.)

In other words, high teacher attrition in DC’s publicly funded schools isn’t a bug but a feature.

Now the real question is why is SBOE apparently the only school leadership body undertaking this work in this manner?

To be fair, DC’s office of the state superintendent of education (OSSE) recently commissioned a report, which showed even higher rates of attrition in DC’s publicly funded schools.

Yet, despite a situation that resembles a full-blown crisis of longstanding proportions, OSSE’s report was weirdly anodyne.

For instance, only 50 of 68 LEAs participated and then, even after citing horrific retention rates, OSSE’s report noted (boldface mine) that “some evidence suggests that DC teacher retention rates may be slightly lower than other cities across the country.”

The report went on to note that “a study of 16 large urban districts found that 81 percent of teachers remained at their schools after one year, compared to 70 percent in DC. National figures suggest that about 84 percent of public school teachers remained at the same school between 2011-12 and the 2012-13 school year.”

Gotta ask:

Is anyone at OSSE at all given pause by the fact that their own citation shows that DC’s teachers are leaving at annual rates more than 10% higher than in comparable urban areas? Or that DC’s 70% annual retention figure above means that a third of DC’s teachers are leaving every year?

Or how about the fact that OSSE’s collaborator on this study, TNTP (founded by former DCPS chancellor Michelle Rhee), has long been the beneficiary of DCPS contracts on teacher performance and training–as well as one of the cheerleaders for rating schools and teachers with test scores, while a former staffer for TNTP recently co-authored a report on DC teacher retention that happily concluded that high teacher turnover can actually increase test scores?

(Yeah–but only for students with teachers receiving the lowest ratings. Yay for us! Oh, and no worries about those kids with those low-rated teachers! Despite the fact that both recent OSSE and SBOE retention reports show that at risk kids in DC are much more likely to have less effective and less experienced teachers who stay for shorter terms, if churning teachers makes for good test scores, perhaps we shouldn’t worry about the collateral damage of taking away the little stability that these kids might otherwise have in their lives. Outcomes, baby, outcomes!)

In fact, OSSE’s recent report on teacher retention appears to be an outgrowth of its recent collaboration with TNTP, the stated goal of which is to “help LEAs develop effective strategies to attract, develop, and retain great teachers to serve their students through robust analysis of staffing data from across the District.”

Of course, that “robust analysis” is only with “LEAs who opt to participate”–which is a charming way to say that whatever OSSE and TNTP have together done on this subject is all, well, voluntary.

Which is kind of like seeing the burning building that is DC teacher retention and not worrying whether everyone has evacuated because choices!

(Or freedom? Hard sometimes to suss out right-wing talking points.)

Indeed, the charter board’s response to the latest SBOE report echoed this (see response after p. 70), noting that “each school pursues its own approach, including its own human capital strategies. In this context, there is no universal “right” rate of attrition, just as there is no universal rate that is too high or too low. The right attrition rate for each school will depend on that school’s approach, their needs and their situation in any given year.”

Despite such official unconcern with the recurring devastation of human capital in our schools, the SBOE is now undertaking to get the council to legislate standardized reporting for teacher attrition, given that we don’t have any standards.

Think about this for a second:

SBOE is asking the council, another elected body with only indirect oversight of schools, to enact legislation to force OSSE to ensure all schools report teacher attrition and retention in a standardized way because we have an emergency here already and no one is telling OSSE to do this. Come to think of it, given the subject matter and its emergency status, you would THINK all this is already OSSE’s obligation (you know, because of  that whole mayoral control thingy).

And yet, right now, there is literally only one person in DC who is doing any fulsome reporting of this emergency–and she doesn’t work for OSSE, despite being twice hired by SBOE to report an emergency situation that city education leaders outside SBOE seem to regard as, well, the price of doing business.

So, to recap:

–Horrific teacher retention in all publicly funded schools in DC;
–No standardized and/or mandated reporting of teacher retention in all DC publicly funded schools;
–Teacher harassment and blame for student and school success;
–No official connection of that to poor teacher retention in DC;
–At risk kids bearing the brunt of teacher mobility, including less experienced and effective teachers;
–DC education leaders begging to differ with all of that; and
–A dis-empowered SBOE trying to get both the council and OSSE to actually fix all of that while the mayor is . . . .

Uh, where IS the mayor, anyway?

Yeah.

What Do the Latest NAEP Results Tell Us About Education “Reform” in Washington, DC?

The usual gang of supporters of bipartisan education “reform” never tire of telling the world how wonderful education ‘reform’ has been in Washington, DC, what with the proliferation of charter schools, Congressional support for vouchers, a seriously handicapped teachers’ union, tremendous churn of teaching and administrative staff, tons of consultants, and direct mayoral control.

I’ve been among those saying that the results are NOT so wonderful. I have documented how virtually none of the promises came true that Chancellors Michelle Rhee and Kaya Henderson made about 8 years ago. They promised that the improvements in test scores, graduation rates and much more would go through the roof, but in fact, almost none of that came to pass. The recent scandals about truancy, absenteeism, phoney grades and illegitimate graduation rates have shown that much of their supposed successes have been purely fraudulent.

In addition, I showed recently that in fact, progress for a number of DC’s subgroups (blacks, whites, and Hispanics) on the NAEP 4th and 8th grade reading and math tests are further evidence of failure, since improvement rates per year BEFORE mayoral control cemented the rule of our ‘reformista’ Chancellors wee BETTER THAN they were AFTERWARDS.

I was asked by one of the members of DC’s now-powerless board of education to analyze changes over time for ALL of DC’s students as a group (not subdivided in any way) to compare pre- and post-‘reform’.

I made my own graphs using the data on the NAEP Data Explorer page, being careful to use the same vertical scale in each case, and starting at the lowest point, or nadir, of DC’s NAEP scores back in the 1990s. I asked Excel to calculate and draw the line of best fit for the data points. In each case, that ‘trend-line’ of linear correlation fit the data extraordinarily well. In fact, the R-values of linear correlation went from a low of 94% to a high of 99%. I didn’t use the graphs that the NAEP Data Explorer page provided, because they changed the vertical scale from situation to situation – so a rise of, say, 10 points over 20 years would look just about the same as a rise of, say, 60 points over 20 years. And they aren’t! So my vertical (y-axis scale) is 200 points in each case.

I also marked on the graphs where the dividing line was between the time when we had an elected school board (abolished in 2007) and the present, when we have direct mayoral control with essentially no checks or balances on his or her power.

So here are the graphs:

4th grade math, ANSS, all dc, 1996-20174th grade reading, ANSS, all DC, 1998-20178th grade math, ANSS, all DC, 1996-20178th grade reading, ANSS, all DC, 1998-2017

So do you see any miracles?

Me neither.

So what does all of this that mean?

  1. You need a good magnifying glass to see any significant differences in progress on the NAEP test scores for ‘all students’ in Washington, DC when comparing the two eras. The slopes of the dashed lines of best fit are essentially identical on the two sides of the purple line.
  2. Since the proportion of white inhabitants of DC and of students in DC’s publicly-funded schools have both increased markedly in the past 10 years, and the proportion of black residents and black students have decreased markedly, and this has skewed the graph in a positive direction after 2007.* That means that this data, and these graphs, are actually making the overall situation look more favorable to the reformistas.
  3. Anybody pretending that there are huge increases in national test scores after the reformistas took over education in DC, is blowing smoke in your eyes.

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

*Why? When you remove low-scorers and add high-scorers (on anything) to a group, the overall average score will go up.

Here is a sports example: A football coach has been given a roster consisting of these players:

  • twenty big, strong, and bulky linesmen and backs and so on. Let’s pretend their average weight is 280 pounds.
  • twenty relatively small, but very fit, place-kickers (actually, they are soccer players looking for a fall sport) who weigh an average of 180 pounds each.

The team’s average weight is exactly 230 pounds (That’s (20*280 + 20*180) / 40) .

At noon,  the coach realizes there is no need for so many place-kickers, and she cuts 15 of the placekickers, leaving five of them. Their papers say that each one in fact weighs 180 pounds.

NOTHING ELSE CHANGES. In particular, none of the players gain or lose any weight during these fifteen minutes that the coach is making these changes.

At a quarter past noon, the average weight of the team has now increased markedly. It is now (20*280 + 5*180) / 25, or 260 pounds – it has gone up by 30 pounds simply by cutting 17 of its least-heavy players.

Is that coach a genius, or what, at bulking up her team?

Actually, although it’s not the direct result of what any Chancellor has done, this situation is somewhat similar to what’s happening in DC. Remember that white students in DC are the highest-scoring group of white students anywhere in the nation, because their parents overwhelmingly have graduate or professional degrees; DC’s white working class left town decades ago. So when relatively low-scoring African-American students (from working-class families) move to PG County, and white students and their relatively-highly-educated families move into DC from wherever, the averages will increase much as they did in my example with the imaginary football team.

Why is it that we keep on testing?

The only actual impact it’s had has been to distort education in a top-down manner, and that’s not exactly a good thing, as Peter Greene points out at Curmudgucation.

A few excerpts, concerning the reasons we were given for all this testing, and how that excuse turned out:

Address Inequity

We would find where non-wealthy non-white student populations were being ill-served. Anyone who can’t figure that out without the BS Test is a dope. And as with the last point, the problem has been that the data hasn’t so much been used to find schools that need help as it has been used to find schools that are vulnerable and ready to be turned into somebody’s business opportunity. Instead of focusing our will to address educational inequity, test-based accountability has highlighted our lack of will (and wasted the good intentions of some folks).

Informing Instruction

Teachers were going to get their data spreadsheets and figure out, with laser-like precision, who they needed to change their instruction. But right off the bat it became clear that data about students in your class would only arrive long after the students had departed for their next classroom. Then the security issue reared its stupid head– I can see student scores, but I am forbidden to see the test itself. (For that matter, students who are so inclined are unable to see their specific results to ask “What exactly did I get wrong here?”) This means I can tell that Pat only got an okayish score, based on some questions that might have asked about something about reading that Pat apparently answered incorrectly. How can that inform my instruction? It can’t. It doesn’t. The BS Tests “inform instruction” mostly by encouraging teachers to spend more time on test prep. That’s not a good thing.

Letting Parents Know How Their Children Are Doing

Under this theory, parents have no idea how their children are doing in school until the BS Test results appear. Assuming for the moment that the parents are that disconnected, the information provided is minimal, scoring a few categories on a 1-3 or 1-4 scale. A BS Test provides very non-granular data, less nuanced than a report card– and based on just one test. There is nothing for parents to learn here.”

 

Training to be a Professional? We don’t need no stinkin’ training!

First we had Teach for America, which sends 20-somethings with no training to speak of out to the most impoverished communities as teachers.

(Right. We all know that it’s much better that the poor and brown kids who really do need trained and experienced education professionals, are instead saddled with an ever-churning roster of completely inexperienced newbies who are blindly trying to follow a script, at least until they crash, burn, and quit.

(Look on the bright side: each TFA noobie placed in a school district earns TFA many thousands of dollars!)

If you like TFA, then you will loveProfessionals for America“, where they extend this idea to the medical profession, airline pilots, and much more!

What could possibly go wrong?

Assessment of Rhee/Henderson/Mayoral control in DC public schools

Here is a very long article on the legacy of the mayoral takeover of DC public schools back in 2007, which brought in Chancellors Rhee and Henderson, among other things. Having been a teacher, a mentor, and a volunteer in and visiting DC public schools for that period of time, I’m not particularly impressed with the changes I’ve seen. The article, which I still haven’t finished reading, has criticism of what hasn’t worked, by Mary Levy and  John Merrow, and also features a reply by Thomas Toch (who is very much a cheerleader for the “reforms”).

Here’s the link. Please read the article and comment, and take some action as well.

http://washingtonmonthly.com/people/john-merrow-and-mary-levy-with-a-reply-by-tom-toch/

What should teachers actually do?

Paul Thomas has some good suggestions for teachers, on how to do things that make a difference, without being a martyr and burning out. For example:

Take stock of how much of your professional and personal energy is being spent on being a professional and how much is drained by being a martyr—and then stop being a martyr. […]

“Every teacher must take stock of her/his professional practices, and eliminate those that are time and energy draining with little to no positive instructional outcomes. For example, marking extensively on student work, and then not requiring students to respond in some substantive way to those comments is an act of martyrdom—a waste of professional time that produces an artifact of your spending time, but doesn’t benefit either you or your students.”

I wish I had heard and heeded this advice when I was still teaching!

Read more here.

Published in: on November 4, 2016 at 8:29 am  Leave a Comment  
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“You will differentiate instruction for every student in exactly the same way, or else”

Or,

One of the many reasons I rejoice every day that I was able to retire!

 

Read what classroom observations have devolved to:

http://nyceducator.com/2016/10/you-will-differentiate-instruction-same.html

Study shows: Teachers get better with experience. Duh.

A major study looking at 30 other studies over the past 15 years shows that teachers get better with experience, especially if they are in a supportive and collaborative environment and get to teach the same subject matter or age level repeatedly.

Or, ‘duh’: 5 weeks of training isn’t enough.

A money quote from the summary:

Based on our review of 30 studies published within the last 15 years that analyze the effect of teaching experience on student outcomes in the United States and met our methodological criteria, we find that:

1. Teaching experience is positively associated with student achievement gains throughout a teacher’s career. Gains in teacher effectiveness associated with experience are most steep in teachers’ initial years, but continue to be significant as teachers reach the second, and often third, decades of their careers.

2. As teachers gain experience, their students not only learn more, as measured by standardized tests, they are also more likely to do better on other measures of success, such as school attendance.

3. Teachers’ effectiveness increases at a greater rate when they teach in a supportive and collegial working environment, and when they accumulate experience in the same grade level, subject, or district.

4. More experienced teachers support greater student learning for their colleagues and the school as a whole, as well as for their own students.

Here is the full link: https://learningpolicyinstitute.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/06/Teaching_Experience_Report_June_2016.pdf

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