How Do You Measure Success in School Reform?


January 8, 2013

More than two years after stepping down as chancellor of Washington, D.C.’s public schools, Michelle Rhee remains one of the most controversial education reformers in the nation. In Washington, Rhee’s forthright style helped turn around a struggling district, but her decision to close schools and fire hundreds of teachers and principals also sparked a backlash.

Rhee has since taken her reform agenda nationally, yet supporters and critics alike continue to wrestle with many of the same questions that dominated her tenure in Washington. For example, how do you turn around a struggling school? What makes a good teacher? How do you measure success in education, and what are the best ways to navigate barriers to reform?

FRONTLINE asked several experts on school reform to watch The Education of Michelle Rhee and then reflect on some of these issues. Here is what they had to say:

Teachers and the Need for Accountability

Geoffrey Canada, president and CEO of the Harlem Children’s Zone

Geoffrey Canada: School Reform Starts with Teacher Accountability

Geoffrey Canada is the president and chief executive officer of the Harlem Children’s Zone, which provides education, social-service and community-building programs to more than 11,000 children and their families.

As someone who has worked in education for 30 years in Harlem, I can tell you that there is a little bit of magic necessary to successfully teach a classroom of children here.

Children’s lives outside the classroom can have a corrosive effect on their potential, but a terrific teacher can make a huge difference in their academic lives.

No one was rooting more than me for Michelle Rhee to succeed in Washington, D.C. She took the bold steps necessary to begin to turn that failing system around. She tried to reshape a calcified bureaucracy so that good teachers were rewarded and Washington’s children were freed of the burden of inadequate teachers and principals. It was unfortunate she wasn’t given the time to see it through.

Make no mistake: Teaching is a tough job. We need to treat — and pay — teachers like the important professionals they are, but we need to demand accountability in return.

Rhee’s steps toward a merit-based workplace — which is considered normal elsewhere — caused convulsions in public education. She was excoriated as trying to “bust the union” and destroy public education.

Unions serve an important function, but they overstep their charge — and do a disservice to their own hard-working members — when they seek blanket protections for the small number of teachers who are unable to do the basic job of teaching.

“Education is pretty much the only hope that poor children have of breaking the gravitational pull of poverty. For my kids, getting a good education is a matter of their survival.”

When my own organization opened a charter school, it struggled at first, and some staff members were not up to the task of educating our kids, many of whom have really tough challenges. Firing a staff member was not an easy decision, particularly since many worked hard and had the best of intentions. However, if we had been forced to keep everyone, our school would have been doomed.

We hope every staff member will succeed and we do whatever we can to ensure they do. But the truth is that some cannot make the critical difference my kids need to succeed. Education is pretty much the only hope that poor children have of breaking the gravitational pull of poverty. For my kids, getting a good education is a matter of their survival.

Getting teacher evaluation right is tricky, but that doesn’t mean we should not pursue it. The simple fact is that there are good and bad teachers. We need to work in a clear-eyed, sustained way to tease out the best methodologies to quantify the magic of great teachers. At our schools, we evaluate teachers through a variety of student performance data, with a particular eye on student progress; but we also use regular classroom observations. In addition, we look at a teacher’s demonstrated commitment to our students: Do they stay after school to help struggling kids? Did they organize a Saturday trip to visit a special exhibit? The goal of any good evaluation system should also be to teach teachers how to improve their skills, so we have begun to use The Classroom Assessment Scoring System (CLASS), which uses trained observers to appraise the quality of teacher-student interactions in the classroom.

I applaud Rhee for having the courage to challenge an indefensible status quo. It takes real inner strength to take on a powerful interest group in such a public arena. Rhee has the intellect and fearlessness that makes her one of a kind, and her experience in Washington demonstrated why those characteristics were necessary to change the system. Rhee is at the start of her career, not the end; she is going to grow in her effectiveness and impact.

The entire solution does not rest in our classrooms, but for the sake of our children and our country’s future, we need to get public education right and that starts with getting the right staff in our schools.

Diane Ravitch: Why Focusing on Student Test Scores Is No Panacea

Diane Ravitch is a historian of education at New York University and author of The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education.

I watched John Merrow’s documentary on The Education of Michelle Rhee with high anticipation. I wanted to see what she had learned from her experience, and what lessons there might be for the nation.

The documentary emphasizes her steely determination to do whatever she thought necessary to turn around the Washington, D.C. school system. She fired principals; she fired teachers; she closed schools. She told every principal that he or she must set a target for raising test scores. If they met it, their schools would win thousands of dollars; if they didn’t, they risked termination. She tied teachers’ evaluation to student test scores.

Rhee assumes that better test scores equal better education. She never once mentions literature or history or science or civics or foreign languages; she doesn’t talk about curriculum or instruction. She never calls out a teacher for poor instruction or a principal for a weak curriculum; she is interested only in the bottom line, and that is the scores.

The problem, of course, is that focusing obsessively on test scores has predictable results: narrowing the curriculum (some districts and schools have dropped the arts and other subjects to make more time for testing); cheating; teaching to the tests; and distorting the whole education system for the sake of scores. Our best public and private schools would never dream of making test scores their goal. They know that a real education includes the arts, history, science, literature, foreign languages and physical education. Their parents expect nothing less.

“Our best public and private schools would never dream of making test scores their goal. They know that a real education includes the arts, history, science, literature, foreign languages and physical education.”

Unfortunately, Rhee cared only about test scores, not a balanced curriculum. By the end of the documentary we learn that the public schools in D.C. improved “slightly” on national tests but “are still among the worst in the nation,” and its high school graduation rate is dead last. We learn that her relentless focus on test scores produced allegations of widespread cheating, not better education. Her policy of firing teachers and principals did not turn around the schools; it created turmoil and led many teachers and principals (including those she hired) to leave.

The only logical conclusion from this documentary is that states and districts should not do what Michelle Rhee did. It didn’t work. It failed. Rhee, however, remains unfazed. She’s taken her reform agenda to the national stage and is now urging states to follow her lead.

True educational leadership involves a commitment to children and to education (not just test scores), a dedication to improving curriculum and instruction, and the ability to recruit and develop a strong staff. That is the kind of leadership I saw when I visited Finland, a nation whose students never take standardized tests yet do very well on international assessments.

Thankfully, such leadership is hardly absent in the U.S. In schools all across the nation, I have come across countless unsung educators who build teamwork and a culture of professionalism. They create a climate of respect built on wisdom and judgment, not carrots and sticks.

Margaret Spellings: Michelle Rhee and the Legacy of No Child Left Behind

Margaret Spellings is President and CEO of Margaret Spellings and Company. She served as Secretary of Education from 2005 to 2009 and White House Domestic Policy Advisor from 2001 to 2005 under President George W. Bush.

Education pundits and all stock of education “reformers” are quick to move from one big education issue to the next, but out in the trenches, especially in schools serving our most disadvantaged students, some of the real battles are still occurring over education basics: getting books and basic supplies into the hands of students and teachers; debating the value and frequency of assessments; and arguing over who is ultimately responsible for student learning.

Where administrators and educators embraced No Child Left Behind (NCLB), they became true change agents. But the foundational principles of NCLB – education standards, regular assessments of student progress, transparency for results, consequences for school failure and choices for families – are being dismantled for asking too much of students and too much of schools.

These issues played out in dramatic fashion on the national stage in the District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS) during the tenure of then-Chancellor Michele Rhee. Many of her efforts to change the trajectory of student achievement scores in the nation’s capital were met with fury and resistance. In a school district where the Nation’s Report Card shows that 80 percent of students are below proficient in reading and math and just 56 percent of students graduate from high school, it is hard to fathom the anger at a school chancellor who insists that all students can learn.

“In a school district where the Nation’s Report Card shows that 80 percent of students are below proficient in reading and math and just 56 percent of students graduate from high school, it is hard to fathom the anger at a school chancellor who insists that all students can learn.”

But it is a struggle with which I am well acquainted. It is 11 years this week that President George W. Bush signed into law the overwhelmingly bipartisan “No Child Left Behind” Act. As one of the original architects, I’m proud of what the law has achieved, particularly when you think back to where we started. Under NCLB, for the first time schools were required to measure improvement in student achievement across all groups of students including low income, minority, special education students and English language learners. Each state, district and school was required to publish a report card laying out the results for students for all to see. A decade later, significant achievement gains are evident. In math, for example, Hispanic and African-American fourth-graders are performing approximately two grade levels higher than when the law was passed.

I know that people still say that schools and teachers don’t have lower expectations of students based on ethnicity, zip code, or parents’ income, but expecting less from students who need our public schools the most is now sadly official policy in many states.

Washington D.C., along with the majority of the 34 other states that have received waivers from NCLB from the Obama Administration, are now setting very different goals for students depending on the color of students’ skin. The Washington Post recently looked at some of the new performance targets in DCPS. At Anacostia High School, featured in this very FRONTLINE documentary, educators aim to get 6 in 10 students proficient in reading by 2017. Across town at the School without Walls magnet school the goal is 99.6 percent proficiency. Expectations are very explicitly lower for poor and minority kids in DCPS.

You can tell what really bothered the education establishment about NCLB when you see what requirements they asked to be waived away. Schools no longer have to set the same high education standards for all kids or answer for the performance of their poor and minority students. The options available to parents of students trapped in failing schools, public school choice and tutoring help, are being abandoned.

Some may celebrate this, just as they celebrated the departure of Michele Rhee from DCPS. But I still argue that NCLB’s ambition remains pretty modest – all children performing at grade level in reading and mathematics – the bare minimum any of us would want for our own children or grandchildren. And while having every student meet the new Common Core standards is a laudable goal for DCPS and all the states now pursuing “college and career readiness,” it is an empty promise if they’ve yet to meet NCLB’s more modest goals.

A Focus On Test Scores Is No Panacea

Diane Ravitch, historian of education at New York University

Michelle Rhee and No Child Left Behind

Margaret Spellings, U.S. Secretary of Education, 2005-2009


Jason M. Breslow

Jason M. Breslow, Former Digital Editor



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