Response to “The Case Against Michelle Rhee”

In “The Case Against Michelle Rhee,” Paul Peterson presents three alleged flaws in my analysis “The Rhee DC Record: No Better Than Her Predecessors Vance and Janey.” Two of Peterson’s proposed flaws simply misrepresent my methodology. The third makes the highly questionable adjustment that the DC school system deserves credit only for DC gains above the national average NAEP gain, with Peterson giving credit to some unknown cause for DC gains up to the national average.

First, Peterson claims that my analyses did not adjust for the fact that “Rhee was in office for only two years, while Vance was in office for three and Janey for four.” This is a misrepresentation of my methodology. The analyses (Exhibit IIB and IID below) in the report clearly represent the average annual NAEP score gains. In math, Rhee’s annualized gains fall between Vance and Janey and in reading the annualized gains are about equal between Janey and Rhee.

Second, Peterson also claims that I used the DC NAEP sample that “in 2009 did not include students attending charter schools… while in 2007 all charter school students were included.” This is also a misrepresentation. My report clearly specifies that I chose the state rather than the urban NAEP series precisely because of its consistent treatment of students in charter schools over the full 2000-2009 period.

Third, and crucial to Peterson’s claims, is the assertion that the DC NAEP score improvement should be computed only as the excess above the national average NAEP gain. In the highly decentralized U.S. education system in which the federal government is prohibited from specifying curriculum, removing the national average NAEP gain because it reflects some national cause is unwarranted.

Furthermore, the reason that removing the national average NAEP score gain works to Rhee’s favor is that during Rhee’s tenure NAEP gains were substantially lower than during the earlier 2000-07 period. Peterson offers no explanation for what occurred nationally that warrants giving Rhee more credit for her NAEP gains than Vance or Janey. One might cite the fiscal crisis as a major national event, but DC, with its stable employment, was less affected by the crisis than any region of the country. In fact, its per pupil spending between 2007-09 jumped by nearly 20 percent over two years. 1

Conversely, DC math gains over the full 2000-07 period prior to Rhee’s tenure were higher than any state at grade 4 and DC gains were tied for fourth highest at grade 8. However, Peterson’s methodology would not give DC much credit for these outstanding gains during this period.

One valid challenge in estimating DC gains for which there are no available answers is how to treat gains under Rhee between public school students attending charter and non-charter public schools. Although charter and non-charter gains during Rhee can be separated under NAEP, the Rhee administration closed a number of schools in DC during the 2007-09 period causing enrollment in charters to increase by half and enrollment in non-charter DC public schools to decrease by one quarter in only two years. With such large demographic shifts, the National Academy report cited in Peterson’s paper is correct in stating that the longitudinal tracking of students is essential to estimating DC charter and non-charter school gains.  Unfortunately, the DC contract for longitudinal data system development had to be cancelled for malfeasance in 2009.

What is clear is that DC score gains for all public school students have been impressive over the whole 2000-09 period. That includes the public school student gains under Vance and Janey that were comparable to those under Rhee.

– Alan Ginsburg


[1] Mary Levy March 14, 2011 testimony before the mayor of the District of Columbia hearing on the DC budget for 2012.

For Paul Peterson’s reply, see “Measuring Michelle Rhee’s Accomplishments.”

Last Updated


Notify Me When Education Next

Posts a Big Story

Business + Editorial Office

Program on Education Policy and Governance
Harvard Kennedy School
79 JFK Street, Cambridge, MA 02138
Phone (617) 496-5488
Fax (617) 496-4428

For subscription service to the printed journal
Phone (617) 496-5488

Copyright © 2024 President & Fellows of Harvard College