Rhee’s Record on D.C. Academic Gains Questioned

By Christina A. Samuels — February 11, 2011 2 min read
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A retired U.S. Department of Education official has written a report examining Michelle Rhee’s record when she was chancellor of the 45,000-student District of Columbia school system, concluding that student test scores started rising in the district before Rhee’s arrival.

Alan Ginsburg, the former director of policy and program studies for the Education Department, examined D.C.'s results on the National Assessment of Education Progress. The NAEP is considered a good metric of achievement because the tests are uniform and are administered under the same procedures across the nation.

Ginsburg examined math scores from tests administered from 2000 to 2009, which covers the tenure of D.C school leaders Paul Vance (2000-03), Clifford Janey (2003-07) and Rhee (2007-09.) During that time, math and reading scores for 4th and 8th graders show an upward trajectory, but students made the most gains under Vance.

In reading, Ginsburg was only able to compare test scores from 2003 to 2009, which covers Janey and Rhee’s tenure. Over that time, the rate of improvement under both leaders was about the same.

Ginsburg noted that D.C. gains have considerably outpaced the gains seen by the nation as a whole, but that at the current improvement rate, it would still take city students a decade to catch up with the current national average NAEP scores in reading and math. D.C. also remains in the bottom quarter of urban districts that participate in the NAEP reading and math tests.

The entire report can be found here.

I’ve emailed Rhee’s new organization, StudentsFirst, for comment, and I’ll be sure to add it here when I receive it. On the website of her organization, created to “transform public education,” Rhee says that "...under her leadership, the worst-performing school district in the country became the only major city system to see double-digit growth in both their state reading and state math scores in 7th, 8th and 10th grades over three years.” She doesn’t mention the NAEP scores. Rhee also says that graduation rates and enrollment rose over her tenure.

Ginsburg’s evaluation did not look at D.C.'s own citywide assessments because the tests were redesigned in 2005, but said that the phrasing suggests that the city was stagnating until Rhee’s arrival. “There’s no reference to her predecessors,” he said.

This latest probe into Rhee’s record comes as educators are scrutinizing her record as a classroom teacher in Baltimore. A former D.C. math teacher and blogger has said that she exaggerated her students’ academic achievements on her resume; Rhee responded in a news article she would rephrase that part of her resume, if she could.

And earlier this week, a judge determined that the school system’s dismissal of 75 teachers in 2008 was improper.

Ginsburg, who has 40 years of experience in the government both at the Education Department and its precursor agency, the Department of Health, Education and Welfare, said that his findings aren’t intended to be anti-Rhee. Rather, he believes they should serve as a check on a policy of mass dismissals of teachers as a way to improve districts. “For me, it’s the much larger question in this country of building a large teaching force,” Ginsburg said. Accountability should be part of how teachers are evaluated, but before engaging in large-scale firings, “we need to think about the long-run consequences,” he said.

A version of this news article first appeared in the District Dossier blog.