Wednesday, March 30, 2011


Well now united we will stand, divided we will fall,
come on everybody and let's,
get on the ball,
let's work together....

Oh hey, hi Steve.

What was that I was singing? Oh just a little thing from my "long haired hippy type pinko fag" days... "Let's Work Together" by Canned Heat.

Say what? Hey hold on there a sec. You're not exactly Enrico Caruso yourself buddy. Well (grinning sheepishly), to tell 'ya the truth I was the only one in my senior class production of Show Boat that they forced to lip sync the words...

Anyway, that song came to mind as I was reading an article in USA Today about Michelle Rhee. As you may remember, she's the gal who blew into the D.C. school system back in 2007 and applied a deeply conservative, "free market" based strategy to improving the District's school system. You know, the kind of strategy you hinted at in our little dust up over the Wisconsin teacher's unions.

How'd she do? Glad you asked. Well, in an act calculated to gladden the heart of any free market ideologue, Ms Rhee set about firing the worst performing teachers hither and yon. And by golly, it looked like the results were dramatic and next to instantaneous. At one school she had targeted specifically, Crosby S. Noyes, math scores shot up like dandelions on the first warm day of spring. According to the USA Today article:

"Standardized test scores improved dramatically. In 2006, only 10% of Noyes' students scored "proficient" or "advanced" in math on the standardized tests required by the federal No Child Left Behind law. Two years later, 58% achieved that level. The school showed similar gains in reading."

Wow! We continue:

"Michelle Rhee, then chancellor of D.C. schools, took a special interest in Noyes. She touted the school, which now serves preschoolers through eighth-graders, as an example of how the sweeping changes she championed could transform even the lowest-performing Washington schools. Twice in three years, she rewarded Noyes' staff for boosting scores: In 2008 and again in 2010, each teacher won an $8,000 bonus, and the principal won $10,000."

Let's see. First, fire the worst performing teachers. Check. Provide market based performance incentives for those who are left. Check. Result: scores shoot up. Check and checkmate. Would you like a little mustard on that crow, Mr. NEA?

But waitaminit. Something smells like somebody left the Limburger out on the counter. Back to USA Today:

"A closer look at Noyes, however, raises questions about its test scores from 2006 to 2010. Its proficiency rates rose at a much faster rate than the average for D.C. schools. Then, in 2010, when scores dipped for most of the district's elementary schools, Noyes' proficiency rates fell further than average." (my emphasis)

Well for heaven's sake. What happened?

"A USA TODAY investigation, based on documents and data secured under D.C.'s Freedom of Information Act, found that for the past three school years most of Noyes' classrooms had extraordinarily high numbers of erasures on standardized tests. The consistent pattern was that wrong answers were erased and changed to right ones."

"...On the 2009 reading test, for example, seventh-graders in one Noyes classroom averaged 12.7 wrong-to-right erasures per student on answer sheets; the average for seventh-graders in all D.C. schools on that test was less than 1. The odds are better for winning the Powerball grand prize than having that many erasures by chance, according to statisticians consulted by USA TODAY."

What, pray tell, does Ms Rhee have to say about this?

In a formal response, Ms Rhee more or less accuses USA Today as being an "enemy of school reform". Sorry I can't copy the whole statement, but you can find it here under USA Today's full ledger of materials on this episode (look under "Responses to USA Today's Report".

I ought to remind you that we here in Georgia have become depressingly familiar with these kinds of test score alterations as a result of the recent (and if anything), more wide spread scandal involving many schools across the state. Ms Rhee offers that erasures of over 12 to 1 are not conclusive evidence of cheating. Neither is a dead body perforated by a half dozen .38 calibre slugs evidence of a murder. She says the erasures might indicate students are were just spending more time on each question. But 12 to 1? And, in almost every case an erasure produced a right answer? Come on man.

So what do we learn here?

This may shock you, but liberal minded, teacher's union supporting individuals - not to mention the NEA itself, are probably the biggest losers. Here we have an example of free market principles rashly applied to public school management and accompanied by unrealistic expectations. Ms Rhee basically told D.C. teachers their jobs were on the line if test scores didn't improve, and offered cash bonuses if they did. With this kind of pressure and these kinds of incentives, who should be surprised that it would encourage cheating?

But Steve, that doesn't mean the free market doesn't have a great many useful and effective techniques which deserve consideration when it comes to the crucial issue of school reform. We desperately need better teachers and more "results oriented" curriculum's. At a minimum, we need kids coming out of our public schools with the tools to overcome the complicated challenges of real life.

We're not going to get that so long as conservative ideologues like Ms Rhee and liberal "traditionalists" in the NEA remain at loggerheads. Genuine reform is only going to come out of a mature partnership, patiently applied. And scandals like this don't really help either side. Thus, the song. Enjoy:

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