Time to Stop Waiting for Superman

Michelle Rhee, former chancellor of the Washington D.C. public school system, leaves the morning session in Sun Valley, Idaho
Michelle Rhee, former chancellor of the Washington D.C. public school system, leaves the morning session in Sun Valley, Idaho, U.S., on Wednesday, July 6, 2011. Media executives gather at Allen & Co.'s Sun Valley conference this week looking to shed assets such as the Hulu LLC video website and G4 game channel amid a declining global stock market and slowing economic growth. Photographer: Matthew Staver/Bloomberg via Getty Images

At some point, we need to stop believing in miracles, at least in education. While we're still getting over the RICO indictments handed down in the Atlanta cheating scandal, here comes the revelation that the success Michelle Rhee achieved as the "no excuses" superintendent of Washington, D.C.'s public schools was the product of massive cheating. Those asking why Rhee isn't under indictment just like her former colleague in Atlanta are missing the bigger question: If she's an example of its success, is the theory behind market-driven education reform valid?

Rhee attracted a lot of attention before getting the top spot in DC. When Mayor Adrian Fenty appointed her superintendent, she went from managing an education nonprofit with 120 employees to running a school system with 55,000 students, 11,500 employees and a budget of $200 million. She'd never even been a principal before, and her only classroom experience was Teach for America.

She did not seem daunted by the stage. She bragged that she only answered to the mayor and put principals on notice to get those test scores up. Rhee fired more than 1,000 teachers and 36 principals who failed to raise test scores and gave $276,265 in bonuses to employees who performed well.

Passing rates rose, and she became the "it girl" for education reform. TIME and Newsweek put her on the cover. Oprah put her on the couch and called her "a warrior woman." In a 2008 debate, Barack Obama called Rhee "a wonderful new superintendent", prompting speculation that she was being considered for Education Secretary, and when Fenty lost reelection, Sec. Arne Duncan intervened in an attempt to keep her on the job because her reforms "absolutely have to continue." When Rhee quit instead, he issued a press release so laudatory it almost included pom-poms.

"Michelle Rhee has been a pivotal leader in the school reform movement and we expect she will continue to be a force for change wherever she goes," said Duncan.

Her star rose even further when she went back on Oprah to announce she was creating an education reform project called Students First to spread her reforms to other communities. "I am going to start a revolution. I'm going to start a movement in this country on behalf of the nation's children," Rhee told Oprah. Rhee neglected to disclose that her funders included foundations supporting charter school expansion and "parent-trigger" laws. 

Meanwhile, the Democratic establishment got over her shabby treatment of teachers. When the documentary Waiting for Superman featured Rhee in a starring role, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa spoke before a screening at the 2012 Democratic convention, and Newark Mayor Cory Booker headlined a cocktail reception afterward.

All the while some questioned whether her success was illusory. In 2011, USA Today identified abnormally high rates of wrong-to-right erasures that coincided with big jumps in test scores in more than half of all DC schools. The resulting federal Department of Education investigation looked less than diligent when Sec. Duncan appeared on a panel with Rhee.

According to an internal DCPS memo released late last week, it was worse than suspected with evidence of systemic cheating at "191 teachers representing 70 schools." A DC school official said another investigation into the matter would be "impractical."

Cheating is nothing new in high-stakes testing. Between 2008-2012, test-cheating scandals have occurred in 37 states and in the District of Columbia, but the cult of Rhee's success has driven similar reforms in 25 states according to Students First. If Rhee's success was fake, is there any evidence that high-stakes testing works?

It's possible that high-stakes testing is best understood as a massive experiment proving the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle that describes how observing a process can change the process. When it comes to testing, educators have long known that "You don't get better pork by weighing your pig every day," as a Texas superintendent said last year. Testing our kids didn't make them smarter, but it may have changed them.

A new study from The Broader, Bolder Approach to Education out Thursday (grab the summary here) discredits the fundamental assumption that market-based reforms produce results in education. The study, coauthored by a former program manager for Pearson Education, examined the claims of progress in DC and found that test scores regressed and achievement gaps grew in DC relative to other urban school districts.

Where Rhee claimed success, the report found that National Assessment of Education Progress "scores showed minimal-to-no improvement for low-income and minority students, and some losses. Moreover, higher scores were due in most cases not to actual improvements for any age group, but to an influx of wealthier students."

There was no DC miracle. Browbeating students and teachers into raising scores on state tests only makes them better at taking state tests, and reforming our schools in hopes of replicating an illusion is a petty crime against humanity.  Even George W. Bush was forced to admit there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, and we've long since gotten over the shock that Barry Bonds and Mark McGuire were juiced more than a Florida orange grove. We believe lies at our own peril. It's time to stop waiting for Superman and focus on the hard work of teaching our children the way we know works.