Schooling, testing, cheating, and Michelle Rhee

Of course the Atlanta school miracle was faked. All school miracles are faked. Remember Dukenfield’s law!

All of my instincts call for competition in public services rather than monopoly bureaucratic supply, and for measuring results rather than relying on professionals organized in guilds to tell us that their traditional practices are just fine and that therefore we should pay them a lot of money and let them alone. With respect to public K-12 education in particular, the drastic decline in the quality of the labor pool must surely be part of the problem.

That said, No Child Left Behind (like other approaches relying on high-stakes once-a-year standardized testing) violates every known principle of quality assurance and process improvement: Deming was right, and Taylor is therefore obsolete, but no one in the Department of Education seems to be aware of that. And charter schools live, so far as I can tell, primarily by selection bias: if you take all the well-behaved kids with ambitious parents, and kick the ones who get out of line back to the public schools, it’s not hard to get higher measured performance.

The Atlanta scandal is just the latest illustration of Dukenfield’s Law: “Anything worth winning is worth cheating for.” Whatever the incentive is for actual good performance, the incentive for simulating such performance by fiddling with the tests is exactly the same. (Campbell’s Law enunciates a related principle: “The more any quantitative social indicator is used for social decision making, the more subject it will be to corruption pressures and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it is intended to monitor.” The pithier version, the Goodhart/Strathern Law, holds that “When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure.”)

Scandals have already erupted in Houston, Chicago, New York, and Washington DC. In each case the top school administrators, having taken credit for producing impossible results, were shocked – shocked! – to find that their subordinates had cheated rather than working miracles. Replacing the ethics of lazy bureaucracy with the ethics of a crooked stock promoter doesn’t strike me as progress.

It might have helped if Georgia governor Sonny Perdue had been half as enthusiastic about funding schools as he was about investigating them for doing what they had to do to survive in a hyper-competitive, resource-starved environment. (Any bets on how many suburban systems with Republican school superintendants were – are – doing the same thing?)

High-stakes testing wasn’t an obviously unreasonable idea, but in practice it turns out to be a double con game: politicians bamboozle voters with the idea that they have a potion that will produce educational gains in the face of budget cuts, and school administrators and teachers rig the test results.

Clearly, the rules have to change. If we’re going to keep making those tests high-stakes, we have to put resources into making them high-integrity. Audit should be as routine a part of testing as it is of financial accounting.

Having said that, let me say a word in defense of Michelle Rhee.

Rhee was one of the chief boosters of high-stakes hoo-hah, and it turns out that her prized results were substantially faked. She is now partnering with wingnuts to win school board races for teacher-bashing”reformers.” So she’s hardly one of my heroes.

But I don’t see the scandal inRhee’s sending her own kids to a high-priced private school run on progressive principles. Rhee’s whole point is that public education currently runs badly. Sending her kids to private school is the opposite of “hypocrisy”: it shows she’s prepared to put her money where her mouth is. And so what if the school isn’t run on the principles Rhee tried to put in place for a big-city school system serving a mostly-disadvantaged population? The Deweyan idea, quoted approvingly by Diane Ravich, that “What the best and wisest parent wants for his own child, that must the community want for all of its children” sounds good until you think about it for ten second and it occurs to you that the optimal schooling for the child of two people with Ph.D.s might not be the same as the optimal schooling for the child of a single mother who didn’t graduate from high school.

More generally, the practice of attacking the private lives of public officials, like the practice of underpaying them, might have been designed to drive talent and ambition out of the public sector. That’s a feature for the Grover Norquist crowd; but progressives should recognize it as a bug.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact:

54 thoughts on “Schooling, testing, cheating, and Michelle Rhee”

  1. I don’t exactly understand your point. Remember what we’ve got with rhee is someone who asserts that a test heavy strategy is sound and good for educational institutions. But we don’t actually know if she means it or if she is pushing it as a way to accelerate the conversion of public schools to for profit schools. Why shouldn’t we look to what she chooses for her own kids as a better guide to what she really believes is the best educational strategy?

    1. Because there might not BE a school run on those strategies. In fact, there isn’t in DC, so it wasn’t a choice. Which is what Mark said.

      1. Unless the reason that there isn’t a public school run on those strategies is that Ms. Rhee has worked very hard to take such choices away from ordinary families by destroying the concept of public schools and then dismantling them.


        1. She would have had to do that BEFORE she became chancellor, right? So it’s magic.

  2. “…the optimal schooling for the child of two people with Ph.D.s might not be the same as the optimal schooling for the child of a single mother who didn’t graduate from high school.” I know there is a point here somewhere, but I know it’s not the one I’m getting. Care to elaborate?

    Michelle Rhee is just a savvy businesswoman, which I hear is all the rage. Especially in the White House.

    1. If a gourmet chef feeds his kids baby-food rather than the stuff he serves in his restaurant, does that prove that he’s a hypocrite, or that he believes that children and adults prefer different foods? If well-educated Michelle Rhee sends her children to schools that offer a different curriculum than the one she thinks best for the children of (mostly) poorly-educated parents, does that prove that she’s a hypocrite, or that she believes that children from different backgrounds benefit from different learning styles?

      1. I don’t agree with the premise of inequality in your claim, Mark.

        Rhee thinks progressive education is good for her kids, and that her kids would not benefit from being subjected to drill-and-kill, standardized-test prep all day. Good for her. And yet — she imposes the very kind of education she dislikes and believes inferior on the children of those who can’t afford fancy private schools. I don’t see the logic or justice in that. Wouldn’t it make more sense for her to promote public schools that offer the very things that her own kids’ schools offer? Do you really think that some people just aren’t cut out for the superior progressive education — that non-elites need an education qualitatively different and less robust than elite kids (i.e., one without music, art, drama, history, geography, foreign language and physical education, so that we can concentrate endlessly on reading and math drills)? To be sure, some kids need remediation, just as others need to opportunity to advance beyond grade-level work. But many kids in public schools, from all backgroudns, are just as capable as those in elite private schools — yet drill and kill is all they get.

      2. I’m very surprised to hear this argument from you, Mark. Is it what you really think? We should just give up on the idea of true education for poor children, and just program them? Surely you don’t believe that *talent* is aligned with wealth? Aren’t you punishing the child for the parent’s poverty?

        And I don’t care about Rhee per se. I haven’t heard the reformers make this argument. I’ve heard them say things about poorer kids maybe needing a longer day, or more tutoring, but not that they shouldn’t get a real education. The more the reformers talk, the less I seem to like them.

    2. I second KLG. Dewey’s application of the Golden Rule is OK because he says “the best and wisest parent”, not “the cleverest and best-educated”. The GR assumes role-reversal and a range of hypotheses: it covers the case of the single mother with a gifted child, and PhD’s with a child with Down’s. Over the range of possible children, I think all parents want the same things from schools.

      1. No. They want the same results, but they definitely don’t want the same process. And, as any teacher worth their salt will tell you, it’s all about the process. Even in the most progressive schools, many parents fuss about there not being ENOUGH standardized testing, and too much parental involvement demanded. In standard public schools, it is damn near impossible to get large numbers of parents involved in their child’s education (“that’s your job”), and harder to get them to help things along outside of school, often for very good reasons.

  3. = = = But I don’t see the scandal inRhee’s sending her own kids to a high-priced private school run on progressive principles. Rhee’s whole point is that public education currently runs badly. Sending her kids to private school is the opposite of “hypocrisy”: it shows she’s prepared to put her money where her mouth is. = = =

    I grew up in Chicago; attended some of the same schools as Michelle Robinson (a, uh, few years earlier to be sure). Now the situation in Chicago was always a bit complex due to the existence of a strong Catholic school network, but although some of my CPS schools might not have been considered the best by the standards of Sidwell Friends, and weren’t always in the best neighborhoods, I nonetheless attended those schools with the children of big-name lawyers, firemen, LaSalle Street bankers, aldermen, police officers, etc. If you lived in the neighborhood you went to the neighborhood schools, and you got along with whoever was there with you even if they were from the wrong side of the arterial.

    Despite those schools not being the best, and eventually falling into financial distress, they were well-run and had plenty of very good teachers. Strangely, CPS started its deep decline not during the financial crises of 1975-1985 but when the children of the Obamas, the Emanuels, the Rhees, etc got pulled out of their neighborhood schools and sent to Lab, Sidwell, shipped up to Wilmette, etc. Not their neighborhood Catholic school, which had much the same type of social mixing as the public schools, but high-end, class-segregated, gated institutions. What a coincidence, eh?

    Now Emanuel, Rhee, and Co. are going to destroy the public schools in Chicago once and for all. Kill the unions and the f’ing liberals dead. That’ll work out well. But we shouldn’t blame, e.g. the Obamas for abandoning public eduction; that would be unfair.


  4. Although the idea that “the schools are failing” has been repeated so often–and so mindlessly–that’s it’s now a universal truth, in fact it’s just this year’s version of “Iraq has weapons of mass destruction,” a proposition that every serious person knows is true, but it actually false. We have been experiencing a ten year run of steadily improving test scores–particularly among minority students, lower truancy rates, and improved college acceptance rates. Certainly we can do better, but anyone who thinks that the example we really want to follow is the privatized prison industry is just nuts. Talking about the desire to “reform” education without looking at the ral story–the billions of tax dollars that are up for grabs–is either naive or corrupt.

    Check this out or

    1. Are you sure the usefulness of the average college student has not declined? I remember taking an honors course from a certain UCLA professor who expressed horror at the writing and analytical skills of our honors class. I cannot recall whether or not he believed it had always been thus, but the implication of what he said was that it had not. To be honest, it was totally fair of him to be horrified. If I was looking to hire someone for a standard deskish report-writing job, I would be tempted to ignore any BA from a college I did not recognize and instead use some sort of standardized grammar test. I am not sure a college degree means what it used to mean. But what do I know, I am sure any of the many professors who hang around this site could answer me on that score.

      Also, hasn’t truancy only recently become an infraction enforced by law enforcements officers in some major states? Having to go to court with an enraged parent isn’t every teenagers cup o’ tea.

    2. …the billions of tax dollars that are up for grabs…”

      The billions of tax dollars has always been up for grabs. It’s just recently that people have really begun to question who gets to grab it.

    3. Relative improvement does not mean that things are good in absolute terms.

      We still only have a high school graduation rate of 78%. While our average PISA scores are okay (not great, but okay), we have huge SES-based variations. And scores for high school seniors have not actually improved (per Kevin Drum from your link), which makes you wonder, of course, where exactly our increasing high school graduation rates come from.

      Mind you, I agree that much of the more recent reform efforts are likely to have been misguided, but not that reforms aren’t needed.

    4. @Paul Gottlieb

      “Although the idea that ‘the schools are failing’ has been repeated so often–and so mindlessly–that’s it’s now a universal truth, in fact it’s just this year’s version of ‘Iraq has weapons of mass destruction,’ a proposition that every serious person knows is true, but it actually false.

      THIS. Absolutely correct. Almost every discussion I’ve heard regarding education devolves into parroting of the failing public schools. Whimsical nostalgia takes hold as people pine for the good old days when everyone was virtuous and bright. That’s not how I remember my schooling in the 1980s. That’s not how my father describes his schooling in the 1960s.

      For my money, the kids seem smarter than ever. And the dumb ones seem as dumb as they’ve always been (yet we conveniently ignore that many of the “dumb” ones grow up to be intellectually curious. Sometimes people just have to grown into their best selves, instead of having it defined for them by one annual test, year after year.)

      @Mark Kleinman

      Rhee should be excoriated. She is a glory hound, a bureaucrat, and a technocrat — none of which is a bad thing in our culture. But when they demonstrate a desire to set the rules for us lowly peons, and seem to have a dubious interest in dismantling education . . . she’s a con woman — whether she knew about the cheating or not.

  5. The dishonest bureaucrat can “earn” much more than the honest one — revolving door, bribes and kickbacks, embezzlement,, etc. If it’s true that higher pay attracts greater talent, then it might follow that the dishonest bureaucrat is, on average, more talented than the honest one.

    Ferd’s Law applies to lots of situations.

  6. For example: Honest Grandpa founds thriving Honest Enterprises. Honest Grandpa’s grandkids finally inherit, and decide to sell H.E.. Who can bid highest for H.E.? Is it the honest person, who has only the honest tools in her toolkit; or is it the dishonest person who has and is willing to use any and all tools in order to cut corners, bilk, bully, bamboozle, deceive and generally squeeze every nickel out of every possible situation?

    For another example: When rising star X finally gets to that corner office, and it’s her/his turn to haul it in hand over fist for 5 years, and s/he’s sorely tempted to elevate pirates to top positions, and to encourage all manner of tricky tricks to max out the value of those stock options before heading out the door.

    In other words, it takes a LOT of CONSTANT work to keep piracy under control.

  7. Lastly: I know there are scads of super talented government employees who are willing to work for low pay for the common good. Goodness calls them, and they give themselves. And goodness will win, if we give it even half a chance, which takes action on our parts.

  8. The issue is that Rhee and the fascists like her care not a whit about the optimal for the proles; it’s one size fits all, a Procrustean nightmare for children who, it has been shown over and over again, are damaged by this abuse, turning from curious and creative (if undisciplined) types at five into mulishly docile, slack-jawed mouth-breathers concerned only with “Is this on the test? At 17.

    Inherent in the word optimum IS the notion of anti-standardization, of custom tailored schools, giving each child the chance to build to the fullest on the benefit of the lucky aspects of their draw in the genetic lottery but rectifying the deficits through individual attention and helping the child learn to play to his or her strengths as much as possible.

  9. Mark has spent a lot of time around lawyers, but I think he is misapprehending a principle of evidence.

    As a general rule, evidence is inadmissible if it is irrelevant to proving the matter asserted. Evidence is admissible if it tends to support the matter asserted, even if there are alternative explanations that would blunt the force of the evidence. For example, “Joe Doaks owned a gun that can be traced to the murder” is admissible, even if Joe Doaks can produce an insurance claim for the theft of his gun before the murder. “Joe Doaks is a glutton and a drunkard” is not admissible, because it is flat-out irrelevant to the murder. (Unless, that is, the victim was withholding food and drinkum from Mr. Doaks.)

    The matter here asserted is that Michelle Rhee does not believe in her educational nostrums. Her placing the kids in private school supports this belief, even though Mark raised a perfectly valid alternative explanation. It’s admissible for the matter asserted. Maybe Mark thinks that the matter asserted is “hypocrisy.” Accusations of hypocrisy are childish, and I would have to agree with Mark if this is what he is talking about.

    Ooops, I shouldn’t have used a gun murder as an example: Brett bait.

  10. Just curious, how do you know that the “labor pool” of teachers has “declined”, let alone “drastically”?

    No one (not even Diane Ravitch!) wants to see incompetent teachers remain in the classroom. Those of us who are in despair about what is being done to public schools, and by extension, to our children (and please know that my child *has* been harmed by “reforms” forced on our otherwise top-notch district), want to see administrators do their job, which is to support teachers; help those teachers who need help, improve; and dismiss those teachers who warrant it.

    There is nothing about public school tenure that prohibits principals from firing teachers, they just have to follow the established procedures, which include providing due process. Is being fair too onerous? Is this system sometimes abused in places? Of course, what system is perfect everywhere? Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.

    I commend you Mark for turning attention to what has been a sleeper issue, which is what is happening to the public schools. But you are still on a learning curve here and I urge you to read more widely — and visit some schools! Go to public schools in all sorts of neighborhoods. Go to a range of different types of charters. Go to some exclusive private schools, too. The classroom looks a lot different when you are no long a child sitting in a seat, watching the teacher.

    1. Teachers used to be drawn from the top quarter of the college-graduate pool. Now they’re drawn from the bottom third.

  11. I think you’re off-base: While it’s in theory certainly possible that children from different socioeconomic backgrounds could have different optimal educational strategies, in the public policy realm, any kind of proposal to separate the public services of upper classes from the lower should require extreme skepticism and overabundant proof that it would be optimal. As all public policy or social science experts should know “Separate but equal” never ends up being equal; whether the separation is based on race or social class.
    So, until I see good studies demonstrating that in fact poor kids benefit more from drill-and-test than from open Sidwell-style learning, I’m going to call BS on Rhee, and use her kids education as evidence that she knows it’s BS.

    And, you know, as someone who knows a lot of teachers, I laughed out loud when I got to the implication that teachers are currently paid a lot of money (and left alone).

    1. They aren’t educational strategies but there are some things poor kids would probably benefit from: expansion of the school meals program and free in-school dental clinics come immediately to my mind. They are also things that cost money.

      It should be pointed out that high-stakes testing is VERY expensive, especially when there are many tests and they are given multiple times each year. For one small example, this year my kid will take a series of MAP tests three separate times, plus a full set of practice graduation tests. And this is something of an “off year,” other years there have been more tests. What else could all that money have been spent on?

    2. That last line — exactly. Few teachers are well-paid, and when they are, it is mostly late in their careers and in wealthier school districts. And NONE of them are left alone. Ask anyone who started teaching in, say, the 1970s, what has happened to teacher autonomy in subsequent decades, and what you will get in reply is a rant.

  12. The thing that frustrates me is that the very same people who think that testing is useless or impossible make claims like: charter schools are worse for kids, or charter schools are just taking the ‘best kids’, or competition makes public schools worse.

    How do they know this? And if they really do know this, why can’t we just use whatever tests they are using?

    1. Ok, use my test: the census map with the income overlay. On average, that’s all you need to know to predict standaized test scores.

    2. I’d start with asking to see evidence that standardized testing or charter schools are actually beneficial or necessary.

      After all, it is worth noting that Finland routinely outperforms us without having either; so, they can’t be all that necessary for a good education. And many other countries are on par with us without going through the same contortions.

      What I’m seeing is that standardized testing and charter schools appear to be more are about managing scarcity in our educational system, rather than the structural reforms it would need.

      Let’s start with teachers. Teaching in Finland is a competitively paid, high status job. It requires a graduate degree, but tuition is free (assuming that you make it through the admission process). In America, teaching is underpaid and relatively low status — it’s not that teachers starve, but income is low compared to other professions that require a college degree. If I can make $50k teaching or $100k in Silicon Valley, what will I do? Especially if I have a mountain of student loans to pay off? American teachers suffer a high rate of burnout: Half of them don’t last more than five years before they quit. That things aren’t worse can probably be attributed to the fact that there are still a lot of teachers that pursue teaching as a calling despite disincentives.

      This is where my comment about managing scarcity comes in: Rather than building a system where we attract the best of the best among potential teachers, we do our best to discourage teaching as a career and use standardized testing as a cattle prod to keep the teachers we have in line, with dubious effects: Good teachers may resent it, and it does not motivate average or bad teachers.

      We have a high level of inequality, where the good schools naturally attract the best teachers and the poor schools don’t (a similar phenomenon occurs in those European countries that have a tracking system, such as Germany). Inequality is of course also directly a factor; low SES students do statistically perform worse than high SES students.

      In the end, success in education is still primarily a function of getting the fundamentals right: competent, motivated teachers, functional curricula, functional schools, an environment for student that is supportive of learning. I’m all for evaluating new teaching methods and new school models for the benefit they may bring, but they can’t fix broken fundamentals on a large scale.

      Finally, we have a one-size fits all high school model, only slightly modified by AP courses. Insofar as the goal of school is to prepare students for a transition to adult life, especially working life, it falls short of what one could expect. A 78% high school graduation rate is nothing to write home about. Contrast this with European countries, which typically have a model of staggered degrees: 9-10 year degrees leading to vocational training and 12-13 year degrees that lead to college; if you can’t handle the challenge of a 12 year degree, you can still finish after 9-10 and still get an accredited tertiary education. That approach generally ensures a much smoother transition to working life: In particular, it generates a much higher percentage of adults with the necessary credentials to hold down a job, while we’re wondering whether a BA may be a “ticket to a job in a coffee shop. Also, the average European student with a 12 year degree will generally be ahead of an American highschool student without a liberal helping of AP classes, because 11th and 12th grade content can be tailored to suitably advanced students.

      1. Katja,
        Do you really mean to cast “standardized testing” as a villain here, or are you referring to NCLB’s use of standardized test scores to evaluate schools? After all, much of Europe has standardized curricula–I would imagine that the abitur or bac involve standardized tests as well.

        I’m not trying to defend the SAT here. But the abuses of standardized tests on individual students are very different than the abuses of “rank and yank” NCLB school management, using standardized tests as school-wide instruments.

        1. I don’t see standardized testing in and of itself as a villain. I just don’t see it as a sinecure or even as a significant contributor to a solution. Testing should be done with a purpose, and if we’re talking about improving schools, that purpose must be causally related to accomplishing such an improvement. The SAT is totally unrelated to that end, NCLB testing is a misguided attempt.

          Testing can have multiple purposes in education. It can be used to monitor student performance (at varying levels of granularity, from schools up to entire nations) for ongoing, open-ended analysis, such as PISA or TIMSS [1]. It can measure the performance of student populations (norm-based or criterion-based). It can be used for individual evaluation and feedback, such as in mastery learning.

          Testing can be used for accountability, for selection, and for guidance. Testing in American primary and secondary education is very focused on accountability (NCLB) and selection (SAT), but tends to neglect using it for guidance. This situation is inverted in, say, Finland. While the matriculation exam (and subsequent college admission procedure) is a pure selection procedure, until then, testing tends to be used strongly to guide education. If a child in Finland performs poorly, this is not considered a failure of either the student or the teacher, but simply an indication that the child needs extra help. Up until matriculation, tests aren’t standardized, but tailored to the class. More generally: “According to the Finnish National Board of Education, the main purpose of assessing students is to guide and encourage students’ own reflection and self-assessment. Teachers give students formative and summative reports both through verbal and narrative feedback.” Sadly, Finland is probably a better place for a child not to be left behind than any American state …

          Somewhat related: During my five years at a German Gymnasium [2] (age 10-15), I never once saw a multiple choice test. Teachers there universally seemed to regard multiple choice tests as educational malpractice, because they weren’t considered to provide sufficient feedback about a student’s capabilities (vocabulary tests in early foreign language classes were the closest analogue I encountered). Conversely, transfer tasks, where you have to adapt your knowledge to a novel situation (as opposed to just testing retention) were considered crucial parts of a test. While not as guidance-oriented as the Finish model, tests generally served both accountability and guidance purposes and had a much stronger focus on guidance than what I’d get upon our return to Michigan, and I wouldn’t have encountered a standardized test until the Abitur (back then in Berlin, maybe not even that — several German states still leave the design of an Abitur exam up to individual teachers, subject to review for it meeting the standards of the curriculum [3]).

          Matriculation exams, including the Abitur, are also a far cry from the role the SAT plays in America. Part of the reason is of course that college admission there works differently. But the vast majority of students that attempt a matriculation exam will pass it (the relevant selection tends to occur years before), and the actual grade you get is far less important for college admission or other purposes (unless you wish to study medicine or one of a few other highly competitive subjects). But, again, this is mostly due to a much different college admission process.

          I’m not sure how standardized curricula are related to standardized testing, though, other than establishing a baseline for the latter, but only if you use it.

          [1] There are potential methodological problems with TIMSS, but the intent remains one of ongoing, open-ended analysis.
          [2] I’m not a big fan of the tracking that many continental European countries do, including Germany, because it’s essentially institutionalized social stratification and draws the good teachers away from the lower tracks, but it means that the education that you get at, e.g., a Gymnasium is generally very good.
          [3] The Abitur is supposedly going to be standardized next year, as a side effect of the increasing Americanization of college admission through the Bologna Process.

        2. = = = Do you really mean to cast “standardized testing” as a villain here, or are you referring to NCLB’s use of standardized test scores to evaluate schools? […]
          I’m not trying to defend the SAT here. But the abuses of standardized tests on individual students are very different than the abuses of “rank and yank” NCLB school management, using standardized tests as school-wide instruments. = = =

          From the perspective of a person who works every day in a competitive manufacturing environment that’s one of the very deep problems with the ISO 9000s, ISO 14000s, Six Sigmas, and other methodologies that claim to be based on “process”, “statistics”, and “metrics”: such methodologies can never fail, they can only be failed. Point out severe problems with what is happening to the organization as a result of using the methodologies and you’ll be told that you aren’t using them correctly (then you’ll be fired); point out severe problems with the methodologies themselves and you’ll be told you don’t understand them at a deep enough level (then you’ll be fired). Here’s a good essay discussing the issue.


          1. Well, that’s not what the tags were supposed to do ;-(

            Welcome to the club (of those having been tripped up by them). 🙂 *hugs*

  13. I’d be perfectly fine with Mark’s version of Rhee “put[ting] her money where her mouth is” if indeed Rhee was saying what Mark says is “the opposite of hypocrisy.” If Rhee were saying, “look, you’re a poor single mom with no education. We’ve got a bunch of shiny studies saying that the only way YOUR kids are going to learn anything is by taking a ‘test’ every six months and spending the rest of the time in large classes listening to someone tell them about how important the test is. We know that there are other ways of learning, but those aren’t for your children. Those are for the children of PhDs, doctors, lawyers, etc.”

    I’ve lived in DC for a while. I never heard Rhee say what Mark is saying is the basis for her thinking. In fact, I think there’s a much more straight forward explanation: If you can afford it, you’re very likely to send your kids to the most potent incubator of social/cultural capital available.

    Incidentally, I share Mark’s reservations about incursions into the private lives/decisions of public officials, but my understanding is that Rhee’s situation is colored by the fact that she’s named-dropped her kids in a larger, and very public, branding effort.

    1. Ditto. I agree that it’s not usually a good idea to invade people’s privacy. But if it’s a closeted gay Republican congressman, say, voting against rights for other gays, wouldn’t that be different? Shouldn’t it?

      I haven’t followed this particular controversy, because I despise what Rhee stands for and I do my best to ignore her. She’s had her 15 minutes and so far I’ve never heard anything of value come out of her. I’m done listening to her, and to anyone who works with her. She is just so contemptuous of people who are not her. It’s too much.

  14. Even with the ability to cherry-pick, are charter schools actually doing better? I was under the impression the difference was negligible. Reminds me of the case where a bunch of brokers managed to lose a few hundred million *with* access to inside information.

    1. That’s my understanding, too. In fact, a Stanford study found that they may actually perform worse.

      Charter schools, I think, are just part of a hunt for the mythical silver bullet that will magically solve our education problems without having to address fundamental underlying problems such as poverty.

    2. Paul,
      The word on charter schools, if I understand correctly, is that in aggregate they do about the same as ordinary schools. What this means is uncertain. A proponent of charter schools would point out that some charters, such as KIPP, pretty consistently do better, and the good charter schools are dragged down by the hustlers in the business. (There is some evidence for the latter–the better charter schools tend to be in states that have selective licensing requirements.) An opponent of charter schools would suggest that the KIPPs of the world succeed on subtle forms of cherry-picking, such as “counseling out” students.

      I agree with what you say, but maybe not your implications. That fools support charter schools doesn’t mean that charter schools are foolish. I sometimes think that the main effect of charter schools has been to improve urban school districts. Diversity and experimentation are good things.

      1. I don’t mean to say that charter schools are foolish. As I’d written above, I’m quite interested in new teaching methods and new school models (and could probably rant at length about the shortcoming of the lecture model in the context of college education, but that’s a different topic). I just think that the problems we have exist at a much more fundamental level than having the wrong business model for schools, so to speak. Charter schools seem to me more like tweaking the fuel economy of a car’s engine to deal with a broken axle. I.e., potentially a worthwhile undertaking, but not really targeted at the root cause.

      2. The broader studies like Stanford’s CREDO study tend to show charters performing, on average, equivalently to regular public schools, but that masks a lot of variation in quality. The lottery studies that look at the most desirable charters tend to show charters adding real value. There are enough of these studies at this point that I would treat those statements as facts. The argument that most charters are cherry picking the easiest-to-educate students simply doesn’t hold water. The more powerful and convincing argument, that charters are avoiding students with disabilities, has also hit some bumps recently:

        One question I have about the the comparison of charters to traditional public schools is how often that’s the correct comparison. Some charters offer help to home-schooling parents or organizations running non-traditions schools (like non-public schools). A lot of those charters are awful and should probably be shut down, but comparing the students who use them to traditional public school students is a big mistake. If those charters didn’t exist, a lot of those students would not be in traditional public schools. Anyway, I have no idea if any of the studies are making that problematic comparison or not – it’s generally difficult to tell just by reading them – but it could definitely distort the picture.

        1. Of course, then there are complete fiascoes such as the failure of Imagine Schools in St. Louis:

          = = =

          The building on the corner of Chouteau and Spring avenues looks very much like the school it was last year. Inside, banners still hang identifying it as an Imagine school.

          Students met some of the same teachers and walked familiar halls, with names such as Courage Street and Generosity Avenue. Workers were preparing food in Character Cafe.

          But this is no longer an Imagine school. The state closed all six Imagine charter schools last year for academic failure, leaving parents scrambling this summer to find an alternative for 3,800 children.

          St. Louis Public Schools stepped in to lease the Academy building and open a high school, expecting to absorb the majority of the former Imagine students. But exactly how many remained unclear on Monday. The two schools logged 1,100 students on the first day. That doesn’t count former Imagine students who found their way to other St. Louis district schools. Or those who have not yet shown up.

          District officials estimate that as many as 3,300 of the former Imagine students could eventually enroll in their schools. What is known for sure is the former Imagine students are credited for boosting the district’s first-day attendance to 20,283 students, up more than 10 percent from last year.
          = = =

          That was intended to be the shining star of the charter school movement in Missouri; each of those five Imagine charters was backed up by a big-dollar, heavyweight business or university that was supposed to provide oversight and resources, fill in any gaps, and ensure that the the charter experiment could not fail. Oops. The public school district, despite being badly wounded by loss of funding from the charter vouchers, is of course expected to step in and try to put the children’s school lives back together. Eggs, omelets, I guess.


          I’m curious as to how disasters such as that, and the complete disruptions of children’s lives they entail, are captured in the “metrics”.

          1. There are absolutely disaster charter schools and we should be working hard at reducing their numbers. Based on your article, it looks like the St. Louis Public School District did the right thing by taking them over.

            I don’t think it will come as a surprise to you, Cranky, that there are plenty of truly horrible public schools as well. I know people sometimes like to pretend otherwise, but it’s incredibly difficult to fix a lousy school (the DOE reboot models don’t seem to have accomplished much). The “experiment” where we just let kids rot in lousy public schools isn’t very good either. So it’s worth trying new things and paying careful attention to results and reacting accordingly.

    3. Another thing to remember, I think is this — if a charter school makes a kid like going to school, that’s a good thing right there. Since I don’t think tests are the only measure, I don’t think I should judge charters just by them either. There is probably something just to the fact that in a charter, everyone there wants to be there.

      Having said that, I’m also ready to pull the plug on them. There is no silver bullet for education. It sure as bleep isn’t getting rid of the unions. Let’s move on.

  15. I believe in public schools and got an excellent education in the public schools of Harpswell and Portland, Maine in the 1970s and early 1980s. But the public schools in California today are almost uniformly mediocre or worse. If I had kids, I’d make sacrifices to send them to private school. Your child’s education is too important to sacrifice to lofty principles about public versus private. That, of course, is part of the problem: Were everyone like me, the public schools would be filled with the children of those too poor to afford private school, and no one else. While there are many caring, involved parents in this category, there are also many non-caring, non-involved parents, as well as many parents who are too busy working multiple low-wage jobs to afford the “luxury” of being involved in their children’s education. This would hardly be a recipe for thriving public education.

    The way I see it, we have two rational choices:

    1. Provide low-cost, low-quality public education to those too poor to afford to educate their own children at their own expense (this would include those two-parent families too poor to sacrifice one parent’s wages to home-school their kids), with the understanding that public education is better than nothing but that no rational person with a choice would choose it.
    2. Improve our public schools dramatically by demanding better teachers, mercilessly cutting bureaucracy, and paying the better teachers higher wages with the attendant accountability (i.e., at $150K/year, teaching becomes a job people WANT, and people who WANT their jobs, and who might lose them if they don’t do them well, work hard to keep them).

    I like 2. Brett probably likes 1.

    1. I don’t know that it is the schools that have changed, so much as it is our society. My guess is, Andrew, that you lived in a stable middle class neighborhood and the other kids in your school did as well. Therefore, most of you went to school ready to learn and with supportive home environments, with parents who got home at a decent hour and had the resources to make sure you kept up.

      That world is disappearing, and not just because of globalization.

      Btw, if you don’t have kids, what makes you think current teachers don’t work hard enough now? I’m just curious.

    2. = = = But the public schools in California today are almost uniformly mediocre or worse. = = =

      I’m curious: what is your definition of public school, and how do you classify as “mediocre or worse”?

      The historic large urban public school districts are, for the most part, not doing well; some (e.g. New York) are hanging on while others (Detroit, St. Louis) have utterly failed. And in some urban areas the schools of the inner ring have failed in sync with their urban ancestors. Similarly some rural districts and former small cities in the deep rural areas.

      But most USians don’t live in urban cores or inner ring suburbs; they live in outer ring suburbs and exurbs. They spend a lot of time and effort taxing themselves, building school districts, and operating those districts quite well. I realize it is a very common attack theme amongst those who follow Grover Norquist to point the City of Detroit Public Schools and say, ‘therefore, all public schools must be closed and replaced with vouchers’, but the evidence really doesn’t back that up as far as I can see.

      I’m not very familiar with California as compared to the Midwest, but a quick glance at USC’s 2012 admission profile shows that 8 of their top 10 feeder high schools are public districts, and of their top 20 feeders they accepted far more from public schools than private. Unfortunately UCLA and the UC system don’t have easily accessible equivalent stats, but I’d be astonished if their numbers weren’t similar. If public schools are so bad why are their graduates being accepted into two of the world’s best universities at such high rates?


  16. I like #2, but you’re going to lose the teachers union at “attendant accountability” which is a rather large part of the buy in.

  17. I fear that I’m just piling on, but if I had been constrained by my family’s circumstance, I wouldn’t have gone to a potted-ivy school, wouldn’t be able to sustain the household I do, wouldn’t be providing the services to the company that I do, and the follow-on effects that has. Clearly it is good for me that I enjoy a better than average salary, but putting that aside, it is good for my employers, else they wouldn’t employ me. It is good for my family, because I help them when a problem hits. It is good for the local shops, because i can buy what they want to sell. Mayhap I’m an outlier, but what good would have been met if I were steered away from a good school because my parents made bad choices?

  18. One point comes to mind: Here in sweden the prime minister, his cabinet, the billionaire who runs Ikea and the guy who fixes my car all have the same educational system, health care, etc. So if the PM and the billionaire want good health care and education for their kids they must make sure the auto mechanic gets it.
    Also sweden has been experimenting with privatization under the Karl Rove connected Reinfeldt admin and there have been the kinds of scandals and failures one would expect. Private competition my @**. Funding and reasonable planning. Get the ideologs out of the mix and let the pros do their jobs.

  19. Well there should be no scandal in Rhee sending one of her children to a fancy private school. Affluent people (and affluent progressives) often send their own children to private schools, either because the public options aren’t very good or because the public options are fine but their children prefer to go elsewhere. That’s fine. Education advocates are no more required to send their children to public school than housing advocates are required to live in public housing. That being said, the reason this is a scandal is because she’s been so cagey about it, totally unwilling to admit her daughter attends public school or explain why she made that decision.

    But the author’s analysis doesn’t really make sense. Rhee would surely not say that she sends her daughter to Harpeth Hall because “that public education currently runs badly”; she’s apparently perfectly willing to send her other daughter to a public school. And the public education system in Tennessee, where her daughters live, is actually run by the girls’ father, Rhee’s ex-husband, whose policies she appears to enthusiastically support.

  20. Great Job. Thank a lot for taking the time. I’ll definitely check back to read more and inform my friends about your posting.

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