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The shocking thing about D.C.’s schools scandal — and why it has national significance

Antwan Wilson greets students at the Brightwood Education Campus in Northwest Washington on his first day on the job in February 2017. To his right is Maurice Kennard, Brightwood’s principal. (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)

On Oct. 28, 2015, the D.C. Public Schools district put out a statement lauding itself with this headline: “DC Public Schools Continues Momentum as the Fastest Improving Urban School District in the Country.”

For years, that has been the national narrative about the long-troubled school district in the nation’s capital: After decades of low performance and stagnation, the system was moving forward with a “reform” program that was a model for the nation. The triumphant story included rising standardized test scores and “miracle” schools that saw graduation rates jump over the moon in practically no time. Arne Duncan, President Barack Obama’s education secretary for seven years, called it “a pretty remarkable story” in 2013.

That tale is looking a lot less remarkable in the wake of revelations that educators and administrators, feeling pressure from their bosses to boost graduation rates and student performance, allowed many students who did not have the requisite qualifications to graduate.

A city study — undertaken after media reports revealed the situation — found that more than 900 of 2,758 students who graduated from a D.C. public school last year either failed to attend enough classes or improperly took makeup classes. At one campus, Anacostia High in Southeast Washington, nearly 70 percent of the 106 graduates received 2017 diplomas despite violating some aspect of city graduation policy.

A new D.C. schools scandal: Back to the future

It was a shock for many people in the District, including, apparently, Antwan Wilson, the chancellor who has been running the district for about a year and said he didn’t know anything about the practices that sparked the scandal.

But the truly shocking thing about D.C.’s schools scandal? That it isn’t shocking at all. It isn’t, at least, to anybody paying attention to the past decade of school “reform,” which has attempted to run America’s public education system as a business. It’s a model that advocates say is the only way to improve public education but that critics say is unworkable and even immoral when it comes to children and a valued civic institution.

Yet even after scandals erupted in district after district, and charter school after charter school, blowing holes in the “miracle” stories, reformers stuck to their talking points and their programs focused on metrics and outcomes, not inputs and collaboration. “No excuses” — meaning not hunger or sickness or poverty or anything else was an excuse for poor performance — became a motto of some charter schools when it came to student performance. And test scores became the yardstick used to measure teachers, principals and schools.

Policymakers and school reformers — in the District and across the nation — chose to believe the “miracle” narrative and ignore warning signs that were there all along.

It didn’t matter that assessment experts repeatedly said standardized test scores should not be used for high-stakes decisions and are only a narrow window into how well a student is performing. Administrators used them for big things anyway. They also insisted that every child could be assessed in some way, and in some places, officials forced even teenagers with the cognitive capacity of a 6-month-old to take standardized tests. One boy in Florida had to take one even though he was born without the cognitive part of his brain.

Meanwhile, the graduation rate — nationally and in the District — continued to rise, despite scandals revealing that schools were essentially juicing the books to make it seem like they were graduating more students. Scams included phony “credit recovery” programs, failing to count all students, and, as the District just found out, letting kids graduate without the qualifications required for a diploma.

Reformers refused to admit, at least publicly, that there are no “miracles” in education. Student success takes hard work by young people and their teachers and parents, and it takes work not just around school policy but also with housing and health and fiscal and transportation policy.

The D.C. “success” came out of a “reform” program started in 2007 by Chancellor Michelle Rhee, continued by the like-minded Kaya Henderson and further pushed along by Rhee-admirer Wilson.

That program began by using test scores to evaluate students, schools and educators (and, for a time, custodians and every other adult in a school building), and included a groundbreaking performance pay system paid for by philanthropists, the spread of charter schools and vouchers, and a chronic churn in teachers and principals that Rhee saw as healthy (even though research shows children, especially from low-income families, need stability). She was, after all, shown in 2008 on the cover of Time magazine, holding a broom, which infuriated educators who felt as if she were painting them all as ineffective.

But teachers and others who expressed concern that she was rushing to implement untested reforms were (at best) ignored. They were called “defenders of the status quo,” with the status quo being a bad thing. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, who has made clear her disdain for the traditional public education system, uses that term now to describe her critics, along with “sycophants of the system.”

In the District, standardized test scores — which are highly correlated to Zip code and family income — did indeed dramatically rise over the past decade. But officials didn’t like to mention that proficiency rates of D.C. students would still be considered failing in a high-performing district or that a wide achievement gap persists between white students and black and Hispanic students. Some in the District also say that test scores rose because the percentage of white students — who traditionally do better on standardized tests — has grown in District schools in recent years.

The problems were known, but not acknowledged, by officials. In 2011, Bill Turque, then The Washington Post’s D.C. schools reporter, wrote that Rhee’s focus on test scores did indeed bring “big gains — and more big headlines — for the city.” He also said:

But the produce-or-else testing culture that she fostered — tying portions of some evaluations to growth in scores and securing commitments from principals to hit numerical targets — created a climate of fear, in the view of many school employees.
It also coincided with evidence of cheating on annual city tests.

A climate of fear in a school has never been known to produce much of anything useful.

The graduation rate in District schools has risen steadily — hitting 73 percent in spring 2017 — a 20-point gain since 2011. But even though genuine graduation gains are not easy to attain, officials never publicly questioned some of the “miracle” graduation stories in D.C. schools. In fact, Wilson’s strategic plans calls for an 85 percent graduation rate within four years and 90 percent within five years. A five-percentage-point increase in a year? How realistic is that?

The assessment system, known as IMPACT, that was introduced by Rhee and continued by Henderson, drew serious concerns from teachers and principals, who found it unworkable and unfair, with performance goals that were impossible to meet and metrics that were questionable. But officials would not concede that it was severely flawed, choosing instead to change it repeatedly under the guise of making something good even better. The pressure that IMPACT placed on educators and administrators  — pressure that led to cheating on tests and phony graduation rates — was never acknowledged, at least until the new scandal.

It is worth noting that scandals often have many layers. There may be good reasons that some students were allowed to graduate without all of the qualifications, and it may make sense to review the validity of the requirements.

But it is clear that the system broke down and that officials either didn’t know about it because people who report to them didn’t confess — or they knew and didn’t want to let the public know. How long this has been going on is unclear, but it is not likely it was just in 2017.

This raises the question of what else Michelle Rhee and Kaya Henderson should have known — and what Antwan Wilson doesn’t know now — about goings-on in the D.C. school system. Did the reforms they implemented in the name of accountability have processes that would really hold people accountable?

The city report, ordered by Mayor Muriel E. Bowser, highlighted deficiencies in the system around the graduation issue, including that “most DCPS high schools exhibited a culture of passing and graduating students” because of a “variety of institutional pressures.”

And it raises this question, too: When are school reformers nationwide who have had a love affair with the D.C. model going to give it up?