Wednesday, May 31, 2017

You say you want a revolution? Go to post-Rhee D.C. says Toch

Okay, now that I'm done FBing about #convfefe, I can get down to more serious business -- revolution. It seems a revolution has taken place in D.C. and I somehow missed it.

But Tom Toch didn't. Toch, a leading pro-reform, education policy expert and a highly regarded education writer, has published his study of the progress of school reform in the district, titled, "How D.C. Schools Are Revolutionizing Teaching." 

I'd say, it's about time somebody did it. But who?

Toch says, it all began with former D.C. schools chief Michelle Rhee, who, despite her various "mistakes," cheating scandals and unfortunate picture on the cover of Time Magazine, got the ball rolling. But Toch's study concludes that it was her successor chancellors who carried the rev forward, bringing radical changes to the teaching profession and miraculous gains in student achievement. DCPS has not merely revolutionized teaching, says Toch; it has created a "reform blueprint" for the rest of us to follow.

No credit given to teachers, of course. In fact, Toch clearly sees bad teachers and their over-protective unions as the problem, and different performance-based evaluations with high stakes attached as the r-r-r-revolutionary solution.

According to Toch:
Building on Rhee’s early work, and learning from her mistakes, her successors have effectively transformed it into a performance-based profession that provides recognition, responsibility, collegiality, support, and significant compensation—features that policy experts, including many of Rhee’s harshest critics, have long sought but never fully achieved.
Ironically, Rhee’s successors at DCPS have redesigned teaching through some of the very policies that teachers’ unions and other Rhee adversaries opposed most strongly: comprehensive teacher evaluations, the abandonment of seniority-based staffing, and performance-based promotions and compensation. They combined these with other changes, like more collaboration among teachers, that these same critics had backed. Just as notably, the transformation is taking place not at charters but in the traditional public school system, an institution that many reformers have written off as too hidebound to innovate.
At last, a reformer who offers the possibility hope and transformation within the public schools themselves. A ray of sunshine in a very gloomy period.

Toch reports that as a direct result of performance-based teacher evals, daily attendance in D.C. has reached 90%, up from 85% in 2010–11. Chronic truancy is down by nearly 40% over the past four years and graduation rates (however they're defined) have climbed to 69%, the highest in the city’s history.
And student achievement has begun a long climb toward respectability. While Washington’s test scores have traditionally been among the lowest in the nation, the percentage of fourth graders achieving math proficiency has more than doubled on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) over the past decade, as have the percentages of eighth graders proficient in math and fourth graders proficient in reading. Scores have risen even after accounting for an influx of wealthier students. And DCPS has caught up to the middle of the pack of other urban school districts at the fourth-grade level on the national exams.
In addition, the school system’s strongest teachers are no longer leaving in droves for charter schools. In many cases, the flow has been reversed, leaving even Washington’s most prominent charters struggling to compete for talent.
Now, don't mistake my cynicism about the "revolution" for the joy I feel over any reports of progress in urban school districts, especially when that progress is reported in neighborhood schools competing for resources, students and teachers with privately-operated charters and private-school voucher programs like the ones started by Rhee in D.C. and now championed by Ed Secretary Betsy DeVos. Yes, I'm glad D.C. 4th-graders are scoring higher on the NAEP and that the district has finally made it to the middle of the urban school district pack score-wise.

If that is really happening, and I have no reason to doubt Toch's numbers, credit should mostly go those hard-working and dedicated teachers, not just to the string of top-level administrators like Rhee and her mentee and former D.C. Teach For America Director Kaya Henderson, and the others who followed in Rhee's wake, usually lasting about 2 years each before they are run out or quit.

But as Toch himself points out:
Achievement levels among Hispanic and black students, who make up 82 percent of enrollment, lag badly behind their white peers. Only 15 percent of black students scored “proficient” in reading last year on Washington’s new, more demanding, Common Core–aligned exams, compared to 74 percent of white students.
If that's his idea of  a "revolution," leave me out.

But it's mostly Toch's line about how his study "takes into account the influx of [white] wealthier students" that gets me twitching. It's such an easy way of dismissing the effects of concentrated poverty on measurable learning outcomes, and of the most dramatic democratic changes in D.C., Chicago, Philly and dozens of other large urban school districts. It's what I and others have referred to as the whitenizing of the cities.

In Chicago, for example, where a quarter of a million African-Americans have been pushed out of the city over the past three decades, by gentrification, de-industrialization and job loss, lack of social services, closing of neighborhood schools, gun violence, etc... Mayor Emanuel and his appointed school district leaders are also now reporting corresponding "miraculous" gains in reading scores and graduation rates.

In 2008, DCPS was reportedly 84.4% black, 9.4% Latino, and 4.6% white.The racial breakdown of students enrolled in 2014 was 67% black, 17% Latino, 12% white, and 4% of "other races".

Now, for the first time in decades, the district itself no longer a majority-black city. Gentrification and demographic changes in many D.C. neighborhoods has increased the white and Latino populations in the city, while dramatically reducing the black and lowest-income population.  And isn't this the exact recipe of today's school reformers who claim poverty is just "an excuse" for low scores?

Of course, as anyone who went to D.C. schools back in the day will tell you, things weren't so great in the district's predominantly black and poor, racially segregated schools back before reform. And any improvements are welcomed, especially by parents and community members.

But good researchers never claim more than they should, especially for a small-scale study. Tom Toch should know that. A few reforms do not a revolution make. And if we are really serious about reform or revolution, we need to look well beyond the classroom for answers.


  1. A big city methodically gentrifying itself by using test scores as the logical reason to close deeply anchored neighborhood schools, to break up and divide communities, to blame, harass and denigrate tradition — and then pushing the scores produced by an influx of wealthier, more dominant-culture students as a reason to celebrate reform “success.” Sounds much too familiar here in Denver.

    1. Agreed. Privatized education has a deeply racist past. The idea of charters & vouchers cropped up in, you guessed it, GA, by that old racist Herman Talmadge soon after SCOTUS decision Brown v. Board of Ed (1954).

      "Enter Georgia’s Gov. Herman Talmadge who created what became known as the “private-school plan.” Talmadge proposed an amendment to the Georgia Constitution to empower the general assembly to privatize the state’s public education system. “We can maintain separate schools regardless of the US Supreme Court by reverting to a private system, subsidizing the child rather than the political subdivision,” Talmadge said."

      It's logical that the Godfathers of today's privatization movement are real estate, banking & silicon valley guys whose discrimination against minorities is well documented. Silicon Valley's attempts to counter racism in their ranks is lip service relative to their dogmatic adherence to hiring only the 'best & the brightest" from the Ivy League schools. (Kind of like TFA, don't you think?)


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