DC Is Only the Latest 'Model' School System to Disappoint

DC Is Only the Latest 'Model' School System to Disappoint
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A wonderful thing about school is that every September promises a fresh start. That goes for students as well as for reformers and educational leaders eager to leave inconvenient realities behind. In Washington, D.C., for instance, just a few short months ago, the schools were reeling from the fallout over a graduation scandal in which more than a third of D.C. Public Schools (DCPS) seniors graduated despite not meeting minimum graduation requirements. Some students graduated despite missing more than half the school year. Analysts calculated that the city’s “true” graduation rate wasn’t much over 50 percent, and was actually lower than it had been in 2011. The scandal was a blow to the advocates, foundations, and pundits who had heralded DCPS as a national model. 

Indeed, it was barely a year ago, in 2017, that now-deposed DCPS chancellor Antwan Wilson declared, “For the past five years, DCPS has been a national model of a district on the rise. On nearly every metric, from enrollment rates to graduation rates, from student achievement to student satisfaction, we have made progress.” Yet, by last spring, the Washington Post was forced to ask on its editorial page if DCPS’s apparent success was a “sham” and a “fraud.”

Conveniently for Washington D.C.’s leaders, nobody seems to feel much obligation to answer that query. Rather, they’ve rapidly moved to turn the page — and nobody seems to mind. This is not just a problem for D.C. schools, but for American education more broadly. The truth is that DCPS is just the latest in a series of troubled school systems that have been held up as exemplars based on test scores or graduation rates, only to later be found guilty of data manipulation and troubling practices.

In the early 1980s, Atlanta schools seemed to have turned a corner. Under the leadership of Alonzo Crim, the city’s test scores showed remarkable gains. A New York Times headline proclaimed Atlanta an example of “urban education that really works” and termed its test gains “undeniable.” The president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching said Crim brought “stability and sustained credibility” to Atlanta’s schools. In 1984, Harvard University gave Crim an honorary doctorate and labeled him “a wise and perceptive schoolman.”

Well. It later turned out that Crim’s secret sauce involved having Atlanta schools evaluate lagging students by using tests from lower grades — instead of those from their actual grade levels. When Georgia ordered Atlanta to assess students based on their actual grade level, the gains evaporated. Today, the Crim era is remembered as an embarrassing chapter in the history of test manipulation.

Through the 1990s and early 2000s, Houston was celebrated for its reading and math gains on the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills (TAAS). There was talk of a “Texas Miracle.” In 2002, shortly after superintendent Rod Paige left to become U.S. Secretary of Education, Houston won the prestigious Broad Prize for Urban Education, based largely on its high test scores and low dropout rate. The results “made Texas a model for the country,” noted the New York Times in 2003. But a 2000 RAND Corporation study and a subsequent investigation of Houston’s scores found that Houston’s gains were not reflected on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (widely regarded as “the gold standard of student assessment”). There was reason to believe that Houston’s gains resulted in large part from intense drilling, which boosted TAAS scores but not actual mastery. “It’s not a miracle,” said Stephen Klein, co-author of the RAND study, “We think these scores are misleading and biased because they’re inflated.”

In the mid-2000s, under superintendent Arne Duncan, “Chicago schools reform” was being touted in the Washington Post as a model for “fixing America’s schools.” Chicago was celebrated for its data-centric approach, including a pilot program that gave some school employees bonuses for raising test scores. Chicago mayor Richard M. Daley trumpeted the results, saying, “We’re on our way to becoming the best urban school district in the nation.” But, in 2009, shortly after Duncan was named U.S. Secretary of Education, the Commercial Club of Chicago — a group of leading local businessmen and civic leaders — issued an analysis finding the gains to be a product of an easier state test, lax testing procedures, and lower required passing scores. The Chicago Tribune dryly editorialized: “We didn’t dramatically improve performance. We dramatically lowered the bar.”

In the late 2000s, Atlanta was being feted once again. In 2009, superintendent Beverly Hall was named national superintendent of the year by the American Association of School Administrators, which said that she “represent[ed] the ‘best of the best’ in public school leadership.” In 2010, Hall won the American Educational Research Association’s Distinguished Public Service Award for using “education data” as a tool “for promoting school reforms and increasing student achievement.” Then, in 2014, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution found that some schools’ test gains bordered on the mathematically impossible. Investigators uncovered systematic cheating by teachers and district staff. In the end, 11 Atlanta Public Schools administrators and teachers went to jail. Hall faced up to 45 years in prison for alleged criminal racketeering at the time of her death. “It’s like the sickest thing that’s ever happened to this town.” Georgia state representative Ed Lindsey lamented, “We were so enamored with the perception that we didn’t see the reality.” 

If one is so inclined, it’s possible to keep adding new names to this depressing roll call. And let’s not forget Washington, D.C. What should one make of this disheartening pattern which repeatedly sees high-profile successes turn out to be chimeric?

First, for all the talk of accountability in education, there’s a remarkable dearth of attention paid to ensuring that the metrics are actually valid and reliable. There’s a good reason why major donors and big investors scrutinize the financial statements of nonprofits and corporations, and why those statements are audited by third parties. Absent those safeguards, leaders can be tempted to cut corners. It’s remarkable that, even today, major school systems — many of them billion-dollar enterprises — have such flimsy controls when it comes to collecting, monitoring, reporting, and verifying their data. District testing practices, graduation rates, and “credit recovery” programs should be routinely monitored and appraised by an independent entity charged with ferreting out suspect behavior.

Second, because it can be so hard to gauge what’s actually happening behind the murky veil of a school system, it’s tempting for civic leaders and national advocates to accept happy success stories at face value — especially when they’re fronted by a charismatic superintendent. Indeed, when things seem to be going well, asking prickly questions or expressing doubts can be a surefire way for potential skeptics to get crosswise with local officials, deep-pocketed foundations, and influential advocates. This makes it tempting for observers to quiet concerns and get with the program. This, by the way, is why there are usually years of plaudits and prizes before anyone gets around to stumbling upon the inconvenient truth. 

Third, reformers and reporters make things worse with their lust for “celebrity superintendents” and “model systems.” Their fascination nurtures an echo chamber in which a handful of leaders get exalted, often for too-good-to-be-true results. This distorts the job, distracting superintendents from the hard, roll-up-your-sleeves work, while encouraging them to overhype their efforts and concentrate on moving a handful of visible metrics.

Each time a new scandal grips American education, there’s a cycle of recrimination followed by a frenzied push to “put it behind us.” Officials repeatedly fail to grapple with root causes, pretty much assuring that communities will keep stumbling from one scandal to another and that school leaders will continue to feel pressed to take shortcuts. Reformers and civic leaders committed to breaking the cycle of hype and disappointment need to embrace independent auditing, welcome and even encourage a healthy skepticism, and keep a wary eye out for “models” which turn out to be a mélange of quick fixes and charismatic leadership. 

Frederick M. Hess is director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute and author of “Letters to a Young Education Reformer.” Connor Kurtz is a research assistant at AEI.

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