Book Club: Did Michelle Rhee’s Policies In D.C. Work?


Michelle Rhee has been one of the most polarizing figures in American education in recent years. Some consider her the face of the current “reform” movement. After serving for nearly four years as chancellor of the D.C. public schools, she then created a group called StudentsFirst, whose goal was to change education policy across the nation by raising $1 billion. Although she has not raised $1 billion, she has raised large sums of money to elect candidates to state legislatures who favor charters and vouchers and who want to eliminate collective bargaining, end due process rights for teachers, judge teachers by the test scores of their students, and ensure that teachers have no job security.

I don’t know Rhee personally, and I had hoped to debate her at Lehigh University in February, but she canceled her original agreement to debate.

I admit that I oppose her policies because I believe they promote privatization of public education and the destruction of the teaching profession. No other nation—at least, no high-performing nation—judges teachers by the test scores of their students. None of the nations that score at the top of international tests takes such a harsh and punitive approach towards teachers. Instead, they have high standards for selection into teaching (they would not permit young college graduates with only five weeks of training to join their teacher corps); they support and develop their teachers; and they help them improve their craft.

Our goal, if we are to learn from nations like Finland, for example, should be to build a stronger teaching profession, one that is respected and admired. This is very different from the present policy advocated by Rhee of using test scores to find and fire “bad” teachers.

Rhee’s defenders point to a recent study to claim that the teacher evaluation system she created, called IMPACT, is “working.” But that study was never subject to peer review. And scholars like Audrey Amrein-Beardsley have said the study was so fundamentally flawed that its conclusions cannot be taken seriously. For example, only 17 percent of the teachers in the study were actually teaching the subjects that are tested. The other 83 percent were not teaching reading or math in grades 3-8.

Thus, the study is no vindication of using test scores to evaluate teachers. Most scholars who write about test-based accountability, along the lines of the D.C. IMPACT study, agree that it is inaccurate and unstable. A teacher who gets a high rating one year may get a low rating the next year, and vice versa. These methods—often referred to as test-based accountability or value-added measurement (VAM)—tend to reflect who is being taught, not teacher quality. It is a well established fact among social scientists that test scores are highly correlated with family income and education. Teachers change lives and make a huge difference, but teachers alone cannot change the underlying economic inequality of our society.

Many states and the federal government have invested hundreds of millions of dollars—perhaps even billions—on various incentive programs, hoping that teachers will work harder or better if they are promised a bonus or threatened with a loss of their job. But these incentive programs have failed again and again. And, not surprisingly, given their consistent failure, they have no research to support them. Two years ago, a distinguished panel of social scientists convened by the National Research Council concluded that test-based accountability makes very little difference in changing student achievement.

Raising test scores is not the right goal for education. Creating an education system that provides equality of educational opportunity for all students is a far better goal. Instead of asking, “how can we raise test scores,” we should be asking, “how can we ensure a good school in every neighborhood for all children?” Instead of seeking a method that will punish some teachers and reward others, we should figure out how to make sure that all of our children get an education that prepares them to be good citizens, with the character, knowledge, and skills to maintain our democratic society into the future. That means, in my view, not only building a strong and respected education profession, but making sure that all children have schools that teach the arts, history, civics, geography, literature, mathematics, foreign languages, the sciences, physical education, and have the resources needed for their students to thrive.

Diane Ravitch is a historian of education at New York University who has written numerous books, including the latest bestseller Reign of Error.