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Higher Scores Test How D.C. Schools Define Success

August 18, 2009 at 12:00 AM EST
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Two years into a bold effort to reform the city's school system, Washington, D.C., has seen gains in reading and writing proficiency among students. But while scores are up, critics are asking whether reforms have actually made district schools better off.
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JOHN MERROW, NewsHour correspondent: Here in Washington, D.C., Ron Brown Middle School has reason to celebrate.

DARRIN SLADE, principal, Ronald H. Brown Middle School: The class of 2009 graduates, please stand.

JOHN MERROW: After years of dismal performance, test scores are starting to climb.

DARRIN SLADE: This year, we had the greatest gains we’ve ever had. Thirty percent of our students are proficient at reading and math, basically, at this point.

JOHN MERROW: Thirty percent may not sound like much, but in 2006, when Darrin Slade became principal, only 9 percent of students here were on grade level in math.

DARRIN SLADE: My goal is to be at least 80 percent proficient, but you still have to celebrate gains.

Let’s give these students a round of applause.

JOHN MERROW: Ron Brown Middle School isn’t alone. Students across Washington, long considered one of the worst school systems in the nation, are scoring higher on standardized tests. It’s the result of an aggressive campaign now two years old by Mayor Adrian Fenty and his surprise pick to run the school system, former teacher and nonprofit leader Michelle Rhee.

MICHELLE RHEE, chancellor, Washington, D.C., Public School System: I am not a career superintendent. This is going to be my one and only superintendency. So in that way, I’m lucky, because I don’t have to worry about, you know, well, what’s going to happen to my reputation or something like that?

JOHN MERROW: From day one, Rhee seemed an unlikely leader for D.C.’s public schools. She’d never even been a school principal, let alone a school superintendent. But here in Washington, D.C., which has seen seven superintendents in a decade, two years in office makes Michelle Rhee a veteran.

She’s accomplished a lot. She’s closed 23 schools, slashed her central office staff, pumped $200 million into school modernization, quadrupled spending on teacher training, and replaced about half of her school principals.

But is education improving? That’s a difficult question.

Better schools?

GEORGE PARKER, president, Washington Teachers' Union: I think the jury is out. I think that it's a little bit -- it takes a little bit more than test scores to decide whether or not the schools are better.

JOHN MERROW: D.C. union President George Parker represents about 4,000 teachers.

Are your teachers doing a better job?

GEORGE PARKER: I think we're doing a better job of measuring. I don't think it's necessarily representative that in some kind of way our teachers were bad and now they're good. I think that the chancellor has brought into the system more strategic planning, in terms of how to get the test scores up.

MARGOT BERKEY, director, Parents United for D.C. Public Schools: There's been a tremendous focus on just looking at individual questions that children got wrong and making sure that that child is drilled on getting that answer right the next time.

JOHN MERROW: Margot Berkey is the director of Parents United for D.C. Public Schools.

MARGOT BERKEY: What we've seen is the quick-fix solutions of choosing to work intensively with kids who you knew could boost their test scores if they just got a few extra hours of instruction on particular glitches in their own test results.

JOHN MERROW: Are you teaching to the test?

MICHELLE RHEE: Well, if you think that the test, you know, measures whether or not children know the standards, and are you teaching the standards, then everyone should be teaching to the test to a certain extent.

JOHN MERROW: To Rhee, teaching to the test means doing a better job of planning, teaching and measuring. Traditionally, teachers create lesson plans before writing tests. But now at Ron Brown and here at Shaw Middle School, that's reversed.

BRIAN BETTS, principal, Shaw Middle School: We start by writing the test. And then we teach and we assess them, you know, based on the test that we wrote at the very beginning.

JOHN MERROW: Brian Betts is the principal at Shaw.

BRIAN BETTS: We're telling and identifying right away what it is that students should know and be able to do. And so if we follow that model, then, yes, test scores are going to be it. I mean, that's going to be our measurement of whether or not they mastered the material.

JOHN MERROW: To help teachers, Rhee has added math and reading coaches at many schools. On the theory that practice makes perfect, here at Shaw teachers try out their lessons in front of colleagues.

TEACHER: My essential question is, how could we apply Newton's law in our daily lives? And if we turn to the next page...

JOHN MERROW: Rhee has also added assistant principals, like Shannon Feinblatt at Ron Brown, who provide additional support to teachers.

SHANNON FEINBLATT, assistant principal, Ronald H. Brown Middle School: If all of these students would have scored one to two to three points, our proficiency number would have been in the 50s.

I would sit down and plan with Teacher A and Teacher B and work with them together to see what's happening in Teacher A's room that may not be happening in Teacher B's room, because the test data that comes in will tell you exactly what the students know.

JOHN MERROW: And on Rhee's watch, teachers and principals deemed ineffective are being moved out of the system at a higher rate than ever before.

MICHELLE RHEE: The bottom line is that, yes, everybody who works for me has to feel comfortable and know that at the end of the day we're going to look at the results. And if the results are not there, if they are not producing significant gains for kids, then there is a chance that they won't be here in the long term.

JOHN MERROW: So it is really produce or out?

MICHELLE RHEE: Shouldn't it be?

Incentives for students

JOHN MERROW: The pressure to show improvement has led principals to offer some extraordinary incentives. At Shaw Middle School, Principal Betts offered $100 to every student who met three conditions: maintain perfect attendance in the days leading up to the tests; don't be tardy; and answer every question on the test, right or wrong.

BRIAN BETTS: The test items that you're going to have to respond to in writing are worth three times as much as the ones where you select A, B, C or D.

JOHN MERROW: And if scores improved, Betts promised to mark the occasion.

STUDENT: He said that he is going to get a tattoo.

JOHN MERROW: What was your reaction?

STUDENT: I mean, I was surprised. I don't know if he's really going to do it.

STUDENT: I don't think he's going to get it. I mean, that's just crazy.

JOHN MERROW: Principal Betts will not be getting that tattoo. Test scores at Shaw stayed about the same. Rhee says she expects big gains there soon.

But Margot Berkey is not persuaded by Rhee's approach. Her daughter is in high school.

MARGOT BERKEY: My daughter, for example, has spent nearly three full weeks of school on practice testing and being tested.

JOHN MERROW: So what do you do in a practice test day, fill in bubbles?

MARGOT BERKEY: Exactly, yes.

JOHN MERROW: Come on.

MARGOT BERKEY: Yes, I'm not joking. That's what you do. You take tests; you take practice tests.

JOHN MERROW: Berkey says there are better ways to raise achievement.

MARGOT BERKEY: You make sure that they read, you make sure that they write, you make sure that their vocabulary is enriched during that process. When an educational experience is rich and deep, then the test results come as a corollary to that deeper work, not as the focus of the work.

JOHN MERROW: What's your reaction to that criticism, that the gains are not all that significant?

MICHELLE RHEE: I think there's always going to be people who are going to try to criticize and try to sort of say, "Well, it's due to this factor or that factor." The most frustrating thing to me about that is the fact that people look at the academic achievement levels of our population of kids and assume that it has to be due to some other factor, some nefarious thing that's going on, as opposed to actually believing that the kids are improving.

Chancellor faces criticism

JOHN MERROW: Rhee's leadership style has also come in for criticism. A recent federal report found that she has failed to involve the community on key decisions.

MARY LEVY, attorney: The history of school reform in the District of Columbia and in urban systems throughout the country is of reform which doesn't last, it doesn't get institutionalized, it doesn't get embedded. Things that work don't get kept.

JOHN MERROW: At Rhee's performance evaluation in the spring, some community members testified that she was not building a lasting foundation for change.

MARY LEVY: Unless the community is invested in the reforms that are undertaken now, it's not going to last.

MICHELLE RHEE: I actually don't think it's a fair criticism. And I don't think it's a widespread criticism. I think that the vast majority of the people in the city are pleased with what they're seeing.

JOHN MERROW: Close to half of elementary school students now test at grade level in reading and math. When Rhee took office in 2007, less than a third passed the test in math.

In middle and high schools, the gains are more modest, from about 30 percent proficient two years ago to 40 percent today.

The bottom line question remains: Are schools better?

MICHELLE RHEE: Though the progress has been strong, it's still nowhere close to where we want it to be.

JOHN MERROW: You're not declaring victory?

MICHELLE RHEE: Absolutely not.

JOHN MERROW: George Parker, the union leader, is also holding off.

GEORGE PARKER: I think that when we can say that teachers are getting the kind of professional development that is needed, I think when we say that kids are getting the kind of wrap-around services that are needed, some things that can't be measured on a test score, then we can make a better assessment of is the school system is getting better.

JOHN MERROW: Do your teachers trust Michelle Rhee?

GEORGE PARKER: Some do, and some don't.

JOHN MERROW: How about you? Do you trust Michelle Rhee?

GEORGE PARKER: I trust Michelle to be who she is.

JOHN MERROW: What's that mean?

GEORGE PARKER: I don't want to get any deeper. She is who she is.

JOHN MERROW: For nearly two years, Parker and Rhee have been negotiating a new contract, one that could tie teacher pay to how well students perform on tests.

Is this new contract going to make it easier for you to get rid of ineffective teachers?

MICHELLE RHEE: The new contract, I think, will have a much, much greater focus on ensuring that every single classroom is staffed with an effective teacher.

JOHN MERROW: Is pay for performance going to be in the contract?

GEORGE PARKER: Oh, I think pay for performance makes sense. I think it's a matter of how you implement it.

JOHN MERROW: Can you give us any idea of how close you are?

MICHELLE RHEE: To the contract? Very close.

JOHN MERROW: How about a date?

MICHELLE RHEE: Well, the president and I have talked about really wanting to make sure that we start the school year with a new contract in place.

JOHN MERROW: So it could happen...

MICHELLE RHEE: In the next few weeks, hopefully.

JOHN MERROW: Rhee hopes to stay in Washington for six more years, if Mayor Fenty is re-elected.