Michelle Rhee was new to town. It was 2007, she had just been named to run the District’s public schools, and she had an alluringly simple message about what it would take to transform a system known for crumbling buildings, chaotic classrooms and students who graduated without being able to read.
She would use data. It was a new era of accountability, she promised, and numbers would reveal whether teachers were effective and students were learning. Data would tell the truth.
Yet a cascade of D.C. school scandals in recent months has shown that data can sometimes mislead.
In the decade after the city dissolved its elected local school board and turned management of the schools over to the mayor, Rhee and her successor, Kaya Henderson, created a system that demanded ever-higher accomplishments — higher test scores, higher graduation rates. They used money as an incentive: Principals and teachers were rewarded financially if they hit certain numbers.
And with only weak oversight from the D.C. Council and other city education agencies — which report to the same mayor who is politically liable for the schools — there was no strong check on any impulse to gloss over shortcomings and pump up numbers.
City lawmakers repeatedly boasted that the District’s schools had become the fastest-improving in the nation. Philanthropic dollars poured in. President Barack Obama offered praise. And one of the most dysfunctional school systems in America became known as a model for education reform efforts nationwide.
Some of the progress was real.
Although D.C. students are still much less likely than students nationwide to be proficient in math and reading, the public schools have posted outsize gains on national exams over the past decade.
But some of the progress was a mirage.
The District claimed a dramatic decline in suspensions, but a Washington Post investigation last summer showed that many city high schools were suspending students off the books, kicking students out without documentation — and in some cases even marking them present.
And a closer look at fast-rising graduation rates in recent months revealed that struggling high schools had goosed their numbers by granting hundreds of diplomas to chronically absent students who, under city law, should have failed.
Fewer than half the members of the Class of 2018 are on track to graduate in June, according to data the school system released earlier this month. After reaching an inflated high of 73 percent in 2017, the graduation rate seems almost certain to fall, perhaps by double digits, setting the school system’s progress back years.
The revelations — coupled with the resignation of the chancellor after his own personal scandal and, separately, allegations of enrollment fraud at one of the city’s most sought-after selective high schools — have shattered the simple narrative of success.
Now, there is a groundswell of skepticism among parents, taxpayers and elected officials who are questioning how much of the touted progress is real. It is the most prominent surge of such skepticism since 2008, when Rhee appeared on the cover of Time magazine with a broom to sweep away the old culture of failure and low expectations.
Confidence among families in the public schools, as measured by several years of increasing enrollment, is fragile and in danger of dissipating. And many families say they are looking for signs that city leaders acknowledge the need for tougher oversight and radical honesty about what is happening inside the public schools.
“It doesn’t feel good to not necessarily be able to believe what people tell us,” said Andrew Rowe, who has two children at Powell Elementary in Petworth. “There’s a need to be honest and not go for gimmicks. . . . Tell me that it’s not great and that you’re dealing with it. I would prefer that.”
If there is any simple truth about urban school reform, it may be this: It’s really hard. There are no miracles.
The District’s scores have risen faster on national math and reading tests than anywhere else, but the improvements were driven in part by an influx of affluent families who enrolled children in the schools, helping boost scores.
City officials invested billions of dollars to construct gleaming buildings, but that did not help close what remains the largest achievement gap between black and white students in a major U.S. city.
The city offers public preschool for children as young as 3, but many families who take advantage of that free program continue to exit the traditional public school system — for charter schools, private schools or schools in the suburbs — when their children hit middle school.
And some schools have improved dramatically, particularly those in affluent and gentrifying parts of the city.
But others continue to be options of last resort — a fact underlined last month when Antwan Wilson was forced to resign as chancellor for violating a policy related to school transfers. Instead of choosing to send his daughter to her low-performing neighborhood school, Wilson transferred her to a higher-performing school across town, jumping to the top of a waiting list more than 600 students deep.
Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) claimed to know nothing about the transfer until the city’s inspector general raised an alarm in February. But Wilson had a different story: He said he told the mayor about his daughter’s transfer months earlier, in October. The allegation that the mayor was dishonest has only stoked parent outrage about uneven access to quality education.
“D.C. schools have not been improved in an equitable way,” Natalie Hopkinson, who lives east of Rock Creek Park in a part of the city where schools have long struggled, wrote in an email. Hopkinson’s two teenage children previously went to traditional public and public charter schools. Now they go to private school.
“The privilege collects in small pockets (mostly the rich and white ones) and families across the city fight to get into those small pockets. The rest of us wait.”
Rhee was righteously indignant that day in September 2009 when she introduced her principals to the District’s new method of teacher evaluation.
According to a national exam often used to track progress over time, only 8 percent of eighth-graders were working on grade level in math, she told the principals. And yet according to job evaluations, nearly every adult working in the school district was performing well.
“That makes absolutely no sense whatsoever,” Rhee said, according to an audio recording that a principal in attendance shared this month with The Washington Post. “How can we think that we’re doing this bang-up job and our children, and the results that they’re seeing, are at the absolute bottom?”
For the first time in the District — for the first time almost anywhere in the country — teacher evaluations would be tied to standardized test scores. Every adult in the school — even the custodians — would be held responsible for improving student achievement data that dwelled at the bottom of national rankings.
This was the philosophy that Rhee brought to the city and that has shaped the school system’s overhaul more than any other. Rhee did not respond to interview requests.
The District’s teachers are among the highest paid in the nation and can earn merit bonuses. In exchange, they also are more vulnerable to losing their jobs than teachers just about anywhere else.
There have been marked improvements inside some schools. Hope Harrod, a teacher at Burroughs Elementary, said that when she started teaching in the system in 2001, she and other teachers at her school created their own curriculum without much guidance from the central office or coordination with teachers elsewhere.
Now, that has changed, she said. While the firing of teachers grabbed headlines, District administrators worked to overhaul and standardize instruction with new citywide curriculum and a stronger emphasis on professional development.
“My experience as a DCPS teacher changed drastically,” Harrod said. “There was a focus on what happens in the classroom.”
But the disruption that has accompanied reform has not always brought improvement. For example, a 2013 Washington Post analysis found that of the 18 schools reconstituted between 2008 and 2010, 10 saw standardized test scores decline. Two were closed. Just six improved.
The District’s school reforms are rooted in a 2007 law that dissolved the city’s elected school board and handed responsibility for education to the mayor. That law required an independent review of D.C. school reform that was completed in 2015 by the National Research Council, part of the National Academy of Sciences.
The review found some promising improvements and many signs of stark inequities.
Eight years after Rhee’s arrival, and five years after her departure, poor and minority students were still far less likely to have an effective teacher in their classroom and perform at grade level. Achievement gaps were as wide as ever: About 60 percent of poor black students were below proficient in math and reading and had made only marginal gains since the changes were made.
Wilson recently questioned why the city had not been more straightforward about the areas in which schools were continuing to struggle.
“This district has come a long way,” Wilson said in an interview. “There’s no shame in the district not being completely where it needed to be.”
Richard Jackson, the principal at Coolidge High School, knew the routine. Each fall, D.C. principals meet individually with a senior public school official to set test-score and graduation goals. The fall of 2016 — Jackson’s final year before retirement — was no different. He met with Jane Spence, the chief of secondary schools, on a November afternoon on the 10th floor of the school system’s central offices.
Spence established lofty targets for Jackson’s school, where most students come from low-income families and many teachers are young and inexperienced. In years past, he would try to push back. This time, he didn’t waste his breath. His school’s graduation rate had jumped impressively the previous year, and he knew he was expected to perform even better for the 2017 graduating class — an expectation he found unrealistic.
“Every year, I would go to the meeting and say this is incredible. She would smile and be nice to me about it, but everyone would understand that it was not a conversation,” said Jackson, who now heads the Council of School Officers, a union for mid-level leadership in the school system.
The focus on data carried the promise of a scientific approach to improvement. But it came with fierce pressure to produce gains that critics said failed to take into account the influences on a child’s life outside of school that affect performance.
There have long been questions about whether that pressure led teachers and administrators to cheat on standardized tests in the early years of reform, when math and reading scores rose quickly at some schools and then — after new rules tightened test security — abruptly fell. Such suspicions were never substantiated in multiple investigations.
But the inflated graduation rate reported in 2017 offered a stark example of how seemingly unassailable numbers could be distorted by adults under pressure to show gains.
Principals’ jobs depended on whether they were able to meet their goals, according to the school system’s evaluation rubric. And graduation rates are one place where school officials bent the rules, perhaps to help struggling students avoid the dead end of dropping out — and perhaps, at times, in pursuit of their ambitious goals.
“What are teachers and principals supposed to do if their job is dependent on meeting unrealistic goals? It’s a moral dilemma,” said Patrick Pope, who worked in D.C. Public Schools for more than three decades before retiring as principal of Savoy Elementary four years ago.
In November, the school system boasted that the graduation rate had risen 20 percentage points in the past six years, from 53 percent in 2011 — among the lowest in the nation — to 73 percent in 2017.
But then a journalist for WAMU and NPR investigated Ballou High School and found that half of 2017 graduates had missed more than three months of school without an excuse.
A subsequent citywide audit found that about one-third of 2017 high school graduates missed too many classes or improperly took makeup classes, undermining the validity of hundreds of diplomas.
The city-commissioned audit found that teachers felt pressured to find ways to pass students, either by giving them extra-credit assignments or enrolling them in credit-recovery courses with little rigor or few expectations.
Laura Fuchs, a teacher at H.D. Woodson High, said it is hard for principals and teachers to push back against academic goals they considered unreasonable. “They’re just going to say we don’t believe in kids,” she said.
Abigail Smith, who served as deputy mayor for education from 2013 to 2015, said she does not think the District should stop setting ambitious goals and holding adults accountable for meeting them. Instead, she said, she hopes the scandal forces honest conversation about the obstacles students face and the resources they need.
“Setting standards — and measuring against those standards — does have an influence on behavior. That’s the whole point,” Smith said. “Is it going to sometimes influence some people to use poor judgment? Sure. That is life. Is that the overall impact of it? I don’t think so.”
D.C. Council members have expressed outrage in recent days that the schools have fallen short and that the information administrators release cannot be trusted.
“There is a culture of doing whatever it takes, including cooking the books or fudging the numbers, to show student improvement,” council member Elissa Silverman (I-At Large) said at a recent council hearing.
“We are still graduating people who are illiterate,” council member Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3) said in an interview.
“The system is rotten,” Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) said.
But if there is any independent check on the story schools tell about their success, it is the council, whose power lies largely in the ability to shine a light on problems by publicly questioning city officials.
The council’s education committee held multiple hearings to address schools’ high truancy rates. But members never asked how graduation rates could be rising so quickly at the same time that absenteeism rates were astronomical — particularly in light of a city law that says students must fail a class if they rack up more than 30 absences in one year.
“This committee works on 1,000 issues and the idea that we attach attendance to graduation wasn’t on the top of our minds,” Committee Chairman David Grosso (I-At Large) said.
Last month, when the chancellor and two other top city education leaders appeared before the committee to testify about graduation policies, Grosso did something he had never done before: He required them to raise their right hands and swear to tell the truth.
“I do not normally swear in witnesses, but maybe that’s been my mistake,” Grosso said.
The Office of the State Superintendent of Education, which also has a role in collecting and verifying data, does not check diploma recipients against student attendance records to verify graduation data, according to a spokeswoman.
The OSSE reports to the mayor, and some critics think that political considerations have prevented it from exercising adequate oversight. For instance, an OSSE lawyer allegedly told workers investigating residency fraud at a selective D.C. school to take their time because it is a mayoral election year. Now, the agency is investigating that allegation made against its own lawyer.
Critics of the District’s reform experiment argue that the scandals are a signal that mayoral control contributed to the problem because there is no independent check on the impulse to make the schools — and thus the elected boss — look good. They argue that it’s time for public debate on whether mayoral control should be scrapped or modified.
But advocates for the current system argue that mayoral control has allowed for agile decision-making and an unusual level of continuity of leadership in the school system.
Bowser said that the scandals have revealed weaknesses best fixed with tinkering — not a return to an elected school board like the one that oversaw city schools in their bad old days.
“We have had two systems. This one works better,” Bowser said in an interview. “Trust me.”
Arne Duncan, who was U.S. education secretary during the Obama administration, said the inflated rates in the District show that there should be checks and balances to ensure that the school system is abiding by its own rules for graduation and attendance.
“There’s got to be a formal way to check whether those policies are being followed,” Duncan said. “Absent that, you lose credibility.”
Duncan said he still thinks that D.C. schools have made real strides despite the inflated graduation rates, pointing to the school system’s rising scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress.
In eighth-grade math, for example, proficiency rates more than doubled to 17 percent in 2015 — better than in 2007, but still far below the national average.
Subgroups of students are improving. But the gaps — between white and black students, and poor and affluent — remain stark.
Two percent of low-income black eighth-graders were proficient in math in 2007. Now, 7 percent meet that bar, compared with 72 percent of white eighth-graders.
It’s painfully slow progress, even the most ardent advocates of D.C. reform efforts agree. But those advocates think that the best way forward is to fine-tune the approach of the past 11 years — not reject it wholesale.
“What is our option, to go back to a system that has almost no accountability for results?” said Katherine Bradley, an influential D.C. philanthropist who has been instrumental in shaping the city’s education reform efforts.
Bradley said the inflated graduation rates are a sign of underlying trouble at neighborhood high schools — a problem the city has to confront. But the system as a whole has made important strides, she said.
“We should really be more honest about our shortcomings and our mistakes,” she said. “That’s how we’re going to improve.”
Moriah Balingit contributed to this report.