Tuesday, December 13, 2011

In which I nitpick on the subject of the opportunity/ achievement gap, charters, and Rhee's legacy in DC

With the release of the NAEP TUDA stats, there's been a lot of conversation swirling around achievement gaps and the efficacy of neo-liberal education reforms in urban districts. In particular, there's been some talk about how to judge Michelle Rhee's legacy, especially in light of the fact that that DC has the largest achievement gap between black and white students and one of the highest between poor and non-poor of all the cities featured in the report. Education journalists such as Alexander Russo weighed in here and Dana Goldstein offered some mostly solid analysis here.

Some folks are saying that Rhee's policies caused the gap. I don't agree with this. While Rhee's policies are no good, let's be honest: there were large educational opportunity and achievement gaps ways before Rhee came to town. Furthermore, DC has always had relatively large income inequality (but, yes, paralleling the national trend, it's gotten worse). The main industries in DC (government, lobbying, non-profits, etc) are such that the demographics in DC are unique. While there are service industry workers there are almost no blue collar workers. The middle and upper-middle class population in DC is not typical--its members are largely much more highly educated and well-traveled. I could go on--this is a very complex topic, an entire book could be written about it. But Rhee didn't cause this. She may symbolize it (the 1% making policy for the 99%, etc), but her policies didn't cause it.

One thing, though, that's been claimed by many, and implied by both Alexander Russo and Dana Goldstein is that Rhee deserves "credit" for the fact that charter school enrollment went up in the years she was there. Giving her "credit" for this makes no sense. Charter schools in DC are run completely separately from DCPS. She talked a lot about choice and charter schools but she didn't actually do anything for the charter schools while she was there. There's a lot more to the relationship between the two or the lack thereof, especially given the complex genesis and history of charter schools in DC, than has been covered.

Furthermore, I don't see how that makes Rhee et al look good if charter school enrollment went up. Did DCPS enrollment go up? Did it go up uniformly throughout the city and not just in the neighborhoods where test scores tend to be higher, where principals are left alone, and where the schools got renovated? If yes, give her credit for that. But saying that she deserves credit for charter school enrollment going up is like saying that the CEO of Coke deserves credit for more people purchasing Pepsi (and hence drinking more cola in general) because they're dis-satisfied with Coke. If the competition model (which I don't subscribe to, by the way) is supposed to make systems and schools compete for students than how can it be said that Rhee was successful on her and her similarly-minded reformers' own terms if she drove families away from DCPS and into charters. If that's the measure, then as head of DCPS, Rhee failed. She competed for and lost students.

Some might then counter, well, who cares if DCPS lost students under Rhee as long as options or "choice" expanded? As long as public schools overall, including traditional and charters, gained students? Well, okay, but then why should someone like Rhee, who is ambivalent about the existence of public, democratic institutions such as traditional public schools, be running them? How is getting someone who doesn't care in particular about neighborhood schools to run them going to help them improve?

Also, for the record, Rhee did not "streamline" the bureaucracy as Goldstein suggests in her post. As I discussed here and here, the bureaucracy actually got bigger and costlier under Rhee and Henderson. But I guess that's part of the Common Wisdom about Very Serious People that Very Serious Education Pundits are too busy and underpaid to shake themselves of. Or perhaps it's part of some misguided attempt to "balance" coverage. If the information is not accurate, if the coverage is based on assumptions rather than on facts and evidence, however, then that's not "balance," it's misinformation.

Yes, Michelle Rhee did lots wrong and surely she did some things right. But education reform skeptics, fans, and journalists alike should find out what those things actually are first and then examine them in light of the NAEP scores and other data and outcomes. Sheesh.


  1. I don't think anyone is blaming Rhee for the gap that existed before she came. I think the point is that Rhee certainly did not make things better.

  2. @Alec Thanks for reading & commenting. I agree heartily that for the most part Rhee did not make things better. My larger point is that if multiple factors affected student learning before her tenure, they would continue to affect student learning during and after her tenure (which they have and did and will).

  3. Is the performance (attendance, scores, graduation, etc.) between charters and DCPS that significant?

  4. @Darren, As far as I know, charters' test scores have been slightly higher. I do not know about graduation rates or attendance. Since those are the terms on which the DC Charter School Board evaluates their own schools, their website may well have the answer to your question. Someone at the shanker blog (@shankerblog) may also be able to answer your question or refer you to a study that does. I'll see what I can find out for you.


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