What Michelle Rhee got right

USA Today recently published a great piece of investigative reporting on likely cheating on standardized tests in the Washington, D.C. public schools under famed education reformer Michelle Rhee.

The timing of the Rhee scandal, as the president and secretary of education are pushing for the reauthorization of No Child Left Behind (NCLB), raises some concerns. Teachers unions and education reform opponents had lambasted Ms. Rhee's program measuring student learning and rewarding high-performing principals and teachers with bonuses, while threatening low performers with termination. As Washington Teachers Union leader Nathan Saunders complained, "If your test scores improve, you make more money. If not, you get fired. That's incredibly dangerous." In essence, Mr. Saunders says that Ms. Rhee's accountability program forced principals and perhaps teachers to cheat.

It's a shame, because the scandal distracts from the real improvements made under Ms. Rhee. The Council of the Great City Schools' "Beating the Odds" report ranks Washington first among the nation's 60 largest school systems in gains on National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) scores for the period of Ms. Rhee's tenure. School systems are not judged on their NAEP scores, and the tests are implemented more carefully — grownups have neither the incentive nor the ability to cheat.

So even if there was cheating on some tests, Washington public schools got better — a lot better. Given that, what are the real lessons of Ms. Rhee in D.C.? And what does all this have to say about the ongoing battle to amend and reauthorize NCLB?

First, education reformers have long complained, with considerable merit, that traditional public schools too often put adult considerations ahead of the needs of children. The only way around that is more use of data measuring student learning. Without data, personnel management in schools depends on who likes whom, who is in the same sorority, and so on — not who actually helps kids.

Second, any reauthorization of NCLB must include provisions to assure the integrity of standardized testing through periodic audits and spot checks. We need to accept that scandals will occur. After all, we've known about double entry bookkeeping since ancient China, yet Enron still happened. However, scandals will happen less often if federal law includes clear provisions to assure the integrity of educational accountability systems, one hopes with more rigor than for the banking system.

Third, a new and improved NCLB should eliminate the bright line measures of proficiency in favor of value-added models, which measure how much all students learn from one year to the next. Just after NCLB passed, researcher Dan Goldhaber warned that NCLB's accountability system "encourages a focus on those students who are just below the benchmark. Students far below the benchmark may be seen as 'lost causes,' and therefore not a good place to focus efforts." NCLB, like many of its state level predecessors, requires students to jump over a proficiency hurdle: Either you are proficient or not. This focus on "bubble kids" rewards even small amounts of cheating, provided they were large enough to get students over the proficiency hurdle. With value-added models, students from all across the distribution contribute to teacher and school evaluation, incentivizing instruction of all students and making large-scale cheating more difficult.

Fourth, regulation without choice is tinkering at the margins. We have learned through years of data on schools failing to make adequate yearly progress that if students lack the power to leave their schools, centralized accountability mechanisms can only do so much to regulate school behaviors. Using data to help parents make informed decisions about where to send their children could combine the best of both systems to ensure the highest quality education for students.

Those who have cheated, encouraged cheating, or covered up cheating should be held accountable. However, to attribute all of the good things that happened under Michelle Rhee's tenure to smoke and mirrors is equally wrong. If we want to reform education, especially in our nation's inner cities, we can learn a lot from Michelle Rhee and use that information to both safeguard against cheating and ensure a high-quality education for all students.

Robert Maranto (rmaranto@uark.edu), a Baltimore native, is the 21st Century chair in leadership at the Department of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas, where Michael McShane is a distinguished doctoral fellow.

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