Don’t Downplay Lessons from D.C. Schools Scandal

Washington, D.C.’s schools have been rocked by a scandal in which 34 percent of the district’s 2017 graduates were found to be ineligible for their diplomas due to poor attendance or violations of credit recovery policies. Some experts and reformers downplay the scandal’s importance.

Tom Toch and Phyllis Jordan argue that the scandal must not “overshadow” the school district’s gains, including, “above all, improving teacher quality.” They argue that honest graduation data can be ensured by beefing up supervision and oversight. The Washington Post editorial board fears the abandonment of “high standards and accountability” and a return to “the sorry state of affairs a decade ago.” They assert that we should not “question the school reforms ushered in under mayoral control.”

Is thinking dangerous? By taking stock of where we are, will we be swept into a vortex that lands us back in a time when, as the Post writes, “schools didn’t open on time, teachers went unpaid, expectations for student were low, and parents fled the system.” It is absolutely time to take stock.

D.C. schools have aggressively pursued a particular course for 10 years under chancellors Michelle Rhee and Kaya Henderson. During this time, there was little independent evaluation and, it should now be obvious to all, data were spun and realities hidden.

I was a DCPS parent for 13 years, beginning before Rhee was chancellor and running through most of the Henderson period. I am now a member of the State Board of Education, in touch with teachers, parents, and students across the city. I don’t think there’s been as much success as Toch, Jordan, and the Post claim.

First, the much-hailed achievement gains are less impressive than is popularly thought. As Toch and Jordan acknowledge, critics have argued that D.C.’s gentrification has fueled much of the improvement in its standing on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). They contend that “no less than three analyses suggest that that’s not the case.” But the studies Toch and Jordan cite are generally less bullish than they are, and each study acknowledges the difficulty of measuring the role of “student composition.”

It’s hard to make definitive claims about what D.C. achievement growth would have been, absent the doubling (8th grade) or tripling (4th) of the white population. But consider these two less rosy facts that don’t require statistical gyrations:

1. Whatever gains have been made do not appear to have reached the city’s working class: From 2007-2015, among 8th graders whose parents had high school diplomas, reading growth on NAEP was -2 points; in math it was a paltry +3 points.

2. Achievement growth across all 4 NAEP grades and subjects (4th and 8th grade reading and math) summed to 51 points in the 7-9 years before Rhee became chancellor, barely less than the 56-point gain in the 8 years since Rhee began.

Second, any early improvements in teacher quality under Rhee have likely been overwhelmed by subsequent teacher turnover. Toch and Jordan cite an analysis based on 6-9-year-old data to claim that DCPS’ greatest success has been “improving teacher quality.” The success was never as great as their article, which reports gains from replacing low-performing teachers with better ones while ignoring the effects of losing effective teachers, suggests. But the relevant fact now is D.C.’s extremely high teacher and principal turnover. Researcher Mary Levy has shown that among teachers, it’s 50% higher than the rate of other urban districts and averages 33% at high-poverty schools. We have been losing about one third of our principals each year across all schools.

Some have argued that this turnover is good because they say (based on old data) that it results in more effective teachers. But it is hard to imagine that today’s high turnover is a net positive. Presumably, any weaker teachers employed 6-9 years ago are long gone. The mass terminations (or “abolishments” as they’re called in D.C.-speak) were in 2009. Since then, with no teacher tenure and the leverage of the evaluation system, DCPS teachers have been handpicked and culled over and over again; 80% of the teaching staff has been hired after Rhee became Chancellor.

The costs of this turnover are high: a sense of stability for students who lack stability at home; the ability of staff and families to cohere into a school community, to build the trust and social capital that ultimately pays off in a better school and better student achievement; and the ability to build a quality staff over the long term.

In D.C., this high turnover is our Canary in the Classroom, alerting us to the unhealthy conditions in our schools that foster and abet graduation fraud and much else.

Third, the high school graduation fraud is a feature, not a flaw, of a system that incentivizes doing what looks good, not what is good. It won’t be corrected with better supervision. Toch and Jordan treat the graduation scandal like a fly in the ointment of an otherwise excellent system, arguing that the reason teachers and principals passed and graduated so many unready and absent students was “faulty communications” and “lax oversight.”

But does anyone really believe this? Teachers and principals just decided to pass and graduate students who had been absent for weeks and months? In a pinch, teachers and principals are well known—for better or worse—for giving an extra few points to students who really tried in order to help them over the hump of passing. But to systematically pass kids who never tried? Who never came to class? To do so for scores of kids? That just defies any understanding of how the vast number of teachers or principals act—under normal circumstances. (Likewise, does anyone believe that principals at multiple schools just out of the blue altered their attendance records so it would appear that their suspension rates were declining—a prior fraud scandal reported by the Post last spring.)

There is a saying: If there is a turtle on a fence post, someone put him there. Hundreds of teachers and principals across virtually all of the district’s schools didn’t randomly do these things. Teachers for a long time have been telling anyone who would listen that they were being pressured, coerced, and ordered to do things that weren’t right or legal. They were ignored. Not any more.

A recent TV news segment aired a 2015 tape of a principal speaking to her faculty. In the words of the news anchor, “We’re hearing a principal pressuring teachers to pass students even if they’re not making the grade or even showing up for class … The pressure appears to come from the top.” It certainly does.

News Anchor “The principal begins by recalling a meeting that she had with district administrators, including then-Chancellor Kaya Henderson.”

Principal: “We basically were ripped a new a-hole as principals. So that means that now I have to come to you… It wasn’t a conversation. It was like, what was told to us was: “you all suck.”…. Because right now our promotion rate to the next grade is horrible which will affect our graduation rate. You all know we moved 4 points or 5 points this past year. The chancellor wants to move 7 points…

Anchor: “One by one teachers listed students they said would fail due to absences or grades. Principal Young claims central office told her to find a way to pass those students despite DC law.”

Was this really caused by lax supervision?

It’s worth noting that this principal was transferred to a higher performing school this past year, a move widely regarded as a promotion. One of the principals who oversaw the suspension fraud (and in our more recent scandal was responsible for changing the greatest number of attendance records) was named Principal of the Year in 2013. In contrast, the teachers who blew the whistle on the graduation fraud have not gotten their jobs back. I am familiar with principals who have been told to give a poor evaluation/fire staff because they had gotten on the wrong side of higher-ups; schools that have largely replaced social studies and science with more reading instruction, despite rules to the contrary, in a wrong-headed attempt to raise reading test scores; principals who felt unable to encourage students who would benefit from it to take a fifth year of high school. My list could go on.

And, of course, there are countless excellent teachers (and presumably principals) who couldn’t stomach all of this and have brought their skills and passion to other districts.

What makes DCPS’s evaluation system different is its very high, very immediate stakes. For teachers and principals, it sets out particular ways to teach and particular goals to meet, with your job and substantial bonuses on the line. What if the teaching approach is inappropriate? If the goals are inappropriate? If the only way to reach these goals is inappropriate? Are you a moral hero, who sticks to principle and loses your job—and the ability to do the job you love? As a principal, do you encourage teachers to do what you both know is best—or push for both of you to do what looks good? These are daily Hobson’s choices. Is this how we should run our schools?

As AEI’s Nat Malkus wrote in USA Today, DCPS could have known about the pressure to pass and graduate, “if they had looked under the hood. Or simply listened to teachers.”

And that’s the other great flaw in this system. Lovers of mayoral control take note: When there are no checks and balances, there are no checks and balances. The opportunities to be opaque, to neglect, to ignore, to pretend, to hide—without pushback, without oversight, without honest data and research, without accountability (except for teachers and principals) for years are enormous. And those opportunities have been taken. To the great loss of DC’s kids.

So, yes. We should not fear a review of where we are and where we’re going. We don’t want to throw the baby out with the bathwater. But it’s time to acknowledge: There’s a lot of very dirty bathwater.

— Ruth Wattenberg

Ruth Wattenberg, a member of the D.C. State Board of Education, is the former editor of American Educator, the magazine of the American Federation of Teachers.

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