Opinion
School & District Management Opinion

Educational Triage in D.C.

By Jennifer L. Jennings — June 12, 2009 3 min read

Michelle Rhee, the chancellor of public schools in Washington, has turned education reform heads across the country by arguing, often loudly, that our current education system puts the interests of adults above the interests of children. In December, she appeared on the cover of Time magazine in front of a blackboard, straight-faced, clutching a broom. The New York Times columnist Nicholas D. Kristof labeled Washington as school reform’s “ground zero.” Yet in her own backyard, Rhee is making policy decisions that are explicitly designed to make adults look good, even as many children are left behind.

In January 2008, Rhee announced a $1.5 million program called “Saturday Scholars,” an intensive tutoring program designed for elementary school students failing the city’s standardized test. Approximately two of every three of the district’s elementary students—about 20,000—fell into this category in either reading or math in the prior year. Few questioned that these students could use a lot of help academically, and the program was reported uneventfully by the media.

Some 2,500 students ultimately participated, and when the test results were released in the spring of last year, Chancellor Rhee declared that her reforms were bearing fruit. Elementary students’ passing rates had increased by 8 percentage points in reading and 11 percentage points in math. Journalists have seized on these results as evidence of Rhee’s success. Kristof, for example, recently noted that “test results showed more educational gains last year than in the previous four years put together.” Again, in January of this year, Rhee announced that the successful program would be replicated on Saturdays this spring.

Educators divide students into three groups: the ‘safe cases’ that will certainly pass, the ‘hopeless cases’ that will not, and the ‘bubble kids’—students on the cusp of the cut score who stand a chance of passing if they inch up even slightly.

But most observers of Chancellor Rhee and the District of Columbia public schools failed to read the fine print. The Saturday Scholars program was not designed to help the lowest-performing students in the district, those in the most dire circumstances academically. Rather, it unapologetically targeted students just missing the passing mark. Washington Mayor Adrian M. Fenty’s press release on the program said as much. By inching these students over the cut score, the district would see its passing rates dramatically increase.

Why focus on 2,500 students who are near passing when you have 17,500 students who are nowhere close? Such is the irony of the federal No Child Left Behind Act, which holds schools accountable for the percentage of students passing state tests. Even if the lowest-performing students gain by leaps and bounds, yet do not clear the passing hurdle, their schools get no credit.

The end result, one that now has been reported across the country, is that educators are forced to perform educational triage on their students. Educators divide students into three groups: the “safe cases” that will certainly pass, the “hopeless cases” that will not, and the “bubble kids”—students on the cusp of the cut score who stand a chance of passing if they inch up even slightly. Faced with this difficult choice, educators then ration their time and attention to those students most valuable to the school’s performance, the bubble kids.

This investment creates the illusion of spectacular increases in passing rates, just as it did in the D.C. public schools. But if you do the math, almost all of that district’s miraculous test-score gains at the elementary level potentially can be accounted for by the 2,500 Saturday Scholars’ answering just a few more questions correctly.

One might excuse Michelle Rhee, and point out instead that she is simply responding to a system of perverse incentives. To be sure, part of the solution to this dilemma must come from amending No Child Left Behind to measure students’ academic growth instead of whether they passed a test. But Rhee has sold herself as a different type of educational leader—one who stands proudly in the corner of the kids, not the adults. It is hard to square this rhetoric with her own education policies that are designed only to make adults look better.

A version of this article appeared in the June 17, 2009 edition of Education Week as Educational Triage in D.C.

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