Posted on February 2, 2018

The Shocking Thing About D.C.’s Schools Scandal — And Why It Has National Significance

Valerie Strauss, Washington Post, February 1, 2018

On Oct. 28, 2015, the D.C. Public Schools district put out a statement lauding itself with this headline: “DC Public Schools Continues Momentum as the Fastest Improving Urban School District in the Country.”

For years, that has been the national narrative about the long-troubled school district in the nation’s capital: After decades of low performance and stagnation, the system was moving forward with a “reform” program that was a model for the nation. The triumphant story included rising standardized test scores and “miracle” schools that saw graduation rates jump over the moon in practically no time. Arne Duncan, President Barack Obama’s education secretary for seven years, called it “a pretty remarkable story” in 2013.


A city study — undertaken after media reports revealed the situation — found that more than 900 of 2,758 students who graduated from a D.C. public school last year either failed to attend enough classes or improperly took makeup classes. At one campus, Anacostia High in Southeast Washington, nearly 70 percent of the 106 graduates received 2017 diplomas despite violating some aspect of city graduation policy.

It was a shock for many people in the District, including, apparently, Antwan Wilson, the chancellor who has been running the district for about a year and said he didn’t know anything about the practices that sparked the scandal.

But the truly shocking thing about D.C.’s schools scandal? That it isn’t shocking at all. It isn’t, at least, to anybody paying attention to the past decade of school “reform,” which has attempted to run America’s public education system as a business. {snip}

Yet even after scandals erupted in district after district, and charter school after charter school, blowing holes in the “miracle” stories, reformers stuck to their talking points and their programs focused on metrics and outcomes, not inputs and collaboration. {snip}

Policymakers and school reformers — in the District and across the nation — chose to believe the “miracle” narrative and ignore warning signs that were there all along.

It didn’t matter that assessment experts repeatedly said standardized test scores should not be used for high-stakes decisions and are only a narrow window into how well a student is performing. Administrators used them for big things anyway. {snip}

Meanwhile, the graduation rate — nationally and in the District — continued to rise, despite scandals revealing that schools were essentially juicing the books to make it seem like they were graduating more students. Scams included phony “credit recovery” programs, failing to count all students, and, as the District just found out, letting kids graduate without the qualifications required for a diploma.


The D.C. “success” came out of a “reform” program started in 2007 by Chancellor Michelle Rhee, continued by the like-minded Kaya Henderson and further pushed along by Rhee-admirer Wilson.

That program began by using test scores to evaluate students, schools and educators (and, for a time, custodians and every other adult in a school building), and included a groundbreaking performance pay system paid for by philanthropists, the spread of charter schools and vouchers, and a chronic churn in teachers and principals that Rhee saw as healthy (even though research shows children, especially from low-income families, need stability). {snip}


In the District, standardized test scores — which are highly correlated to Zip code and family income — did indeed dramatically rise over the past decade. But officials didn’t like to mention that proficiency rates of D.C. students would still be considered failing in a high-performing district or that a wide achievement gap persists between white students and black and Hispanic students. Some in the District also say that test scores rose because the percentage of white students — who traditionally do better on standardized tests — has grown in District schools in recent years.


But the produce-or-else testing culture that she fostered — tying portions of some evaluations to growth in scores and securing commitments from principals to hit numerical targets — created a climate of fear, in the view of many school employees.

It also coincided with evidence of cheating on annual city tests.


The assessment system, known as IMPACT, that was introduced by Rhee and continued by Henderson, drew serious concerns from teachers and principals, who found it unworkable and unfair, with performance goals that were impossible to meet and metrics that were questionable. {snip} The pressure that IMPACT placed on educators and administrators  — pressure that led to cheating on tests and phony graduation rates — was never acknowledged, at least until the new scandal.

It is worth noting that scandals often have many layers. There may be good reasons that some students were allowed to graduate without all of the qualifications, and it may make sense to review the validity of the requirements.