Jay Mathews: Looking Beyond the Numbers for Progress

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By Jay Mathews
Monday, September 28, 2009

On July 11, Brian Betts, principal of the District's Shaw Middle School at Garnet-Patterson, was at Dulles International Airport about to leave for a vacation in Spain. He was feeling good. His first year running a school whose students struggle with poverty and neighborhood strife had gone well, he thought. Quarterly test results were encouraging. Attendance was up. Parents were happy. Some of his staff had gone so far as to enroll their children at Shaw.

His cellphone rang. "Principal Betts? This is Chancellor Rhee."

"Hi, chancellor," he said.

"I wanted you to know that I am looking at the DC-CAS scores," the D.C. schools chancellor said, "and you're not going to be happy."

"Okay," Betts said. Uh-oh, he thought.

"You did not get the bump that you wanted to get," she said.

"Okay," he said. Not okay, he thought.

"But I want you to know I am not worried."

Despite the brave words, it was not a good moment for Betts or Michelle A. Rhee. She considers him one of her best hires, an energetic, personable administrator stolen from Montgomery County. When celebrities or reporters asked to visit a school last year, she often sent them to Shaw. She arranged for me to visit several times for a series of columns on a principal's first year.

Now her poster boy for reform appears to be in trouble, bringing I-told-you-so blog posts from many people who don't like Rhee, her ideas or her brash style.

How bad were the scores? It depends a bit on how you read the data. The state superintendent of education's Web site says Shaw dropped from 38.6 to 30.5 in the percentage of students scoring at least proficient in reading, and from 32.7 to 29.2 in math.

But those were not the numbers Rhee read to Betts over the phone.

Only 17 percent of Shaw's 2009 students had attended the school in 2008, distorting the official test score comparisons. Rhee instead recited the 2008 and 2009 scores of the 44 students who had been there both years. It didn't help much.

The students' decline in reading was somewhat smaller; it went from 34.5 to 29.7. Their math proficiency increased a bit, from 26.2 to 29.5. But Shaw is still short of the 30 percent mark, far below where Rhee and Betts want to be.

Is this the beginning of the decline and fall of Michelle Rhee and her pack of intense, data-spouting principals, such as Brian Betts? Some experts and online commenters, smart people concerned about public education, think it is. They will not mourn the passing of this latest and most self-confident cast in the endless melodrama of the D.C. schools.

I remain on the other side of the argument. Despite the sniping at Rhee, the best teachers I know think that what happened at Shaw is a standard part of the upgrading process. I have watched Betts, his staff, students and parents for a year. The improvement of poor-performing schools has been the focus of my reporting for nearly three decades. The Shaw people are doing nearly everything that the most successful school turnaround artists have done.

They have raised expectations for students. They have recruited energetic teachers who believe in the potential of impoverished students. They have organized themselves into a team that compares notes on youngsters. They regularly review what has been learned, what some critics dismiss as "teaching to the test." They consider it an important part of their jobs.

That's how it's done, usually with a strong and engaging principal like Betts. His five days in Spain were marred by his worries over the test results. But after recharging his spiritual batteries at the Montserrat monastery, he came home convinced he was on the right track.

He had some good news. All of his teachers were back, except the three he fired in the spring for failing to meet the school's new standards. His first parent meeting in 2008 had only two attendees, but back-to-school night last week drew more than 100. On the District of Columbia Comprehensive Assessment System tests in 2008, no Shaw boys scored advanced, the top level, but this year, 15 reached that mark in reading and 10 in math. Last winter, several eighth-graders begged Rhee to add a ninth grade so they could stay at Shaw. She said yes. About 100 students have enrolled.

Betts and his teachers have more plans. Last year, he said, "we weren't a rigorous school." His priority was to establish routines and security that would lead to academic gains. He did not emphasize homework, but that is changing this year.

He is not new to disappointment. In Montgomery 13 years ago, he and other educators nearly killed themselves raising standards for a middle school serving low-income families. He was stunned to find that the school achieved no test score gains its first year. But the next year it began a surge that took it to a new level.

Numbers, he said, are just a way to confirm you are establishing a healthy relationship with each child. When the scores start going up, he wants to have created a culture at Shaw that will prevent them from going back down.

E-mail mathewsj@washpost or try Jay's blog at http://voices.washingtonpost.com/class-struggle.

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