It was July 13, 2010. Michelle Rhee, then D.C. schools chancellor, proclaimed at a news conference that Ballou High School was no longer “a symbol of what was going wrong in public education” in the nation’s capital but a sign of what was going right. Why? Standardized test proficiency scores had risen from single digits — though to still-failing rates. Rhee’s patron, then-Mayor Adrian Fenty, stood at her side and called for “a big round of applause” for Ballou’s teachers.
Fast-forward to Nov. 29, 2017. A new D.C. schools chancellor, Antwan Wilson, an admirer of Rhee, stood by his patron, Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D), a Fenty ally, at a news conference to defend allegations that many students who did not qualify for a diploma graduated from Ballou in 2017 — including some who could not read or write well. Neither Wilson — who succeeded Kaya Henderson as chancellor in February — nor Bowser could refute the revelations about Ballou, outlined in an investigation by WAMU and NPR, but promised to investigate.
It was clear that Ballou is not the rousing success story portrayed in 2017 news stories touting that every Ballou senior was accepted to college. It’s a new scandal to rock D.C. Public Schools — yet there are familiar notes to it. And it reveals some stark realities about a decade of controversial school reform in the District.
Started by Rhee in 2007 and carried on by Henderson, the reforms relied on the use of standardized tests to evaluate students, schools and educators. They also included a groundbreaking performance pay system paid for by philanthropists, and chronic churn in teachers and principals. These reforms have not only failed to fix some long-standing problems in the system but exacerbated others.
District officials like to tout rising standardized test scores as evidence of progress — as Bowser and Wilson did repeatedly Wednesday. But the proficiency rates of D.C. district students today would still be considered failing in a high-performing district — and the D.C. system retains a stubborn, gaping achievement gap.
A 2015 report by the National Research Council, the research arm of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine, said the District’s poor and minority students were still far less likely than their peers to have a quality teacher in their classrooms, perform at grade level and graduate from high school in four years. Years of reforms didn’t do much to help that.
A key reform was the employee assessment system known as IMPACT. It was spearheaded under Rhee by Henderson, her deputy, and initially relied heavily on student standardized test scores to evaluate every adult in the system, including custodians. Although changes have been made, IMPACT still rewards teachers with bonuses based on student achievement, which is problematic for a few reasons.
Assessment experts have warned against using test scores for high-stakes decisions on teachers, saying they are unreliable for those purposes. And Wilson, probably unwittingly, underscored another reason during the news conference. He said that the Common Core test known as PARCC — given to D.C. students in different grades for annual accountability purposes — doesn’t actually assess what students learn in their classrooms. Later, however, he cited the dramatic rise in PARCC scores in the system as proof of progress. Progress of what?
Not surprisingly, he didn’t mention past episodes during the Rhee and Henderson administrations in which teachers were caught helping students on high-stakes standardized tests. IMPACT provided an incentive for some to do that.
The WAMU-NPR story said Ballou teachers reported being under pressure from school administration officials to give students grades they didn’t deserve to boost the graduation rate. Teachers and principals have complained quietly about such pressure for years, but fear repercussions if they speak out publicly. That’s a legacy from Rhee that remains.
As disturbing as anything in the WAMU-NPR story was an allegation by a former teacher at Ballou that some of the 2017 graduates could barely read or write. Wilson said he had no evidence that such a claim is true. It has, however, been true of some D.C. public school graduates in years past, with some D.C. adult literacy programs populated by essentially illiterate system graduates.
The spectacle of the new chancellor standing next to the mayor at a news conference talking about whether district graduates were qualified for their diplomas — and saying that it wouldn’t “be fair” to rescind them — was a stark reminder that some D.C. school history is still not history. Wilson could not have been comfortable standing there repeatedly stating that he would make sure students receive only grades and degrees that they deserve — but that is the situation he and the mayor are now in. It is, unfortunately, familiar.