Michelle Rhee still doesn’t get it


Michelle Rhee. (Alan Diaz/AP)

Michelle Rhee still doesn’t get it.

The former D.C. schools chancellor and now leader of a national organization that pushes corporate school and attacks teachers unions,  just wrote an op-ed in The Washington Post that uses bad analogies and a number of straw men to argue against the growing “opt out” movement in which parents are refusing to allow their children to take high-stakes standardized tests. A small but growing number of educators are refusing to administer the tests, too.

What prompted the opt-out movement? Parents, students and teachers have become alarmed by the amount of time schools now take around standardized tests (fourth-graders in the Pittsburgh Public Schools have to take 33 standardized tests mandated by the district or state this school, for example) and by what is done with the results. The scores are used for high-stakes decisions about educators in a way that assessment experts say is unreliable and invalid, and the testing obsession has led to a narrowing of curriculum — some kindergarten students now don’t have time for recess because they are learning reading and math — that gives short shrift to subjects including science, history and the arts.

Rhee writes this about opting out:

This makes no sense. All parents want to know how their children are progressing and how good the teachers are in the classroom. Good educators also want an assessment of how well they are serving students, because they want kids to have the skills and knowledge to succeed. 

Well, yes, parents do want to know how their children are progressing and how good the teachers are. And good teachers of course want to know how well they are serving students. Parents who want to know how their children are doing can know — from grades and non-standardized tests their children take in class. The scores of the most important end-of-year standardized tests don’t actually come back to the districts until the summer, making it impossible for teachers to use the results to help tailor instruction to a particular child — if in fact the tests actually gave important information to the teacher. Which by and large they don’t because so many of the tests are badly drawn.

Even Rhee admits this in her op-ed:

We don’t need to opt out of standardized tests; we need better and more rigorous standardized tests in public schools. Well-built exams can tell us whether the curriculum is adequate. They can help teachers hone their skills. They can let parents know whether their child’s school is performing on par with the one down the street, or on par with schools in the next town or the neighboring state.

Well, if we need better and more rigorous tests, why has she condoned the use of badly constructed exams all these years?

She writes:

No, tests are not fun — but they’re necessary. Stepping on the bathroom scale can be nerve-racking, but it tells us if that exercise routine is working. Going to the dentist for a checkup every six months might be unpleasant, but it lets us know if there are cavities to address. In education, tests provide an objective measurement of how students are progressing — information that’s critical to improving public schools.

As teacher Peter Greene notes on his Curmudgucation blog, notes in a critique of Rhee’s op-ed, tests are never objective measures because they are designed by people. Only good tests provide useful information, and not even Rhee is arguing that the tests that have been used until now are good enough to really detect the “cavities.”  Her analogy is faulty.

Rhee cites a report by a Gates-funded organization called Test Plus about the amount of time urban districts spend testing and concludes that it isn’t very much. The average 1.7 percent annual time that she cites “devoted to preparing for and taking standardized tests” doesn’t sound like much, but the report’s conclusions are questionable, given the fact that it had to be significantly corrected by Teach Plus after the report was issued and many teachers still say that the amount of time is severely underestimated in part because it didn’t include all standardized tests that are given to students. Besides, she ignores the fact that the report originally said that some districts spend five times as much time on prepping and taking tests, though that was later changed to 3.3 percent. When you consider what is actually happening on the ground.

 In this current Post piece and recently on the Today show, Rhee told the exact same story about her daughter:

Not too long ago, my youngest daughter came home from school and said well, ‘We don’t have to work anymore. We’re going on lots of trips and doing parties,’ and I said, ‘What do you mean?’ And she said the test was over, and this was at the end of April. and I thought, ‘My gosh.’ What are we communicating to our kids if they think the test is the most important thing and then after the test is over, learning ends? So we definitely have an issue in this country in too many schools and too many districts where there’s an overemphasis on testing.

Huh?

Aside from the issue of when this actually happened and in what school (it’s not clear from the statement), it is interesting that Rhee would talk about “an overemphasis on testing” as if it were a bad thing. This is a woman who, while chancellor of D.C. public schools from 2007-10, instituted an evaluation system that linked standardized test scores to the evaluations of just about every adult in a school, including the custodians.

There’s another issue that Rhee fails to address, although it was raised in an editorial by the Philadelphia Inquirer’s editorial board that actually argued in support of the opt out movement:

You can’t expect much success on standardized tests when students don’t even have basic supplies. The Philadelphia School District is still operating with a deficit. A fund-raising drive was held just to provide pens, crayons, and paper to students.

Why should a lack of basic supplies get in the way of a standardized test?

Praising standardized testing is nothing new for Rhee. In this op-ed last year, she hailed the virtues of a standardized test in Seattle that some teachers were boycotting because they said it was an obsolete test that didn’t match with the students were learning. Hmmm, a test that doesn’t actually test what students are learning. That’s the test Rhee was defending. 

On Page 34 of  her memoir, “Radical,”  Rhee describes a woman named Liz Peterson, who was a corps member in Teach For America along with Rhee years ago —  as “one of my best friends.”   Interesting, a Texas Tribune article from Oct. 5, 201 quotes Peterson talking about why she moved from a public school to teach in a private school. Peterson taught for 10 years in the Houston Independent School District at Johnston Middle School, which serves primarily economically disadvantaged, black and Hispanic students. For much of that time, she said, she viewed the district a place that rewarded good teaching. Policies changed, and a standardized test obsession set in.

“What mattered was the test scores of the students in the classroom, not the impact that people were having on students as a teacher,” she said. “Frankly, that’s super demoralizing, spending all this extra time doing what you know is best for the kids, and no one cares.”

(Correction: An earlier version misspelled the name of Peter Greene’s blog.)

Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.
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Valerie Strauss · April 5