The Case against Michelle Rhee: How Persuasive Is It?

Article excerpt

Recently, two separate studies--one by Alan Ginsburg, a former director of Policy and Program Studies in the U.S. Department of Education, the other by a committee constituted by the National Research Council (NRC)-- have sought to discredit the work of Michelle Rhee, former chancellor of schools for the District of Columbia.

According to Ginsburg, Rhee was no more effective--probably even less effective--than her predecessors. Not surprisingly, his argument was quickly picked up by American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten. In a Wall Street Journal interview, she asserts that Michelle Rhee "had a record that is actually no better than the previous two chancellors." In a blog post dated March 29, 2011, Diane Ravitch makes the same point: "The gains under Rhee were no greater than the gains registered under her predecessor Clifford Janey, who did not use Rhee's high-powered tactics, such as firing massive numbers of teachers." Yet the evidence Ginsburg musters to support such claims falls well short of its mark.

In the second study, the NRC committee does not deny that student performance in the District of Columbia improved under Michelle Rhee's chancellorship between 2007 and 2010, but it says there is no scientific evidence that proves the work of the chancellor is responsible for those gains. "The problem was the [test score] changes that seem to be going in the right direction can't be attributed to the specific changes in the system," the study committee's co-chair Robert M. Hauser told an Education Week reporter. While it is certainly true that one cannot, in the absence of experimental evidence, establish a connection between policy changes and test-score outcomes, Hauser added a carefully worded slap at Rhee: "All districts should be cautious about generalizing from the kind of aggregate overview data that have been used to suggest successes of changes made in the district to date." The reporter is then informed that "students' NAEP scores started to improve before the overhaul law passed, as noted in a report last month by Alan Ginsburg."

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The NRC study bears the more prestigious imprimatur, but it is the Ginsburg study that is most likely to be cited in future discussions of merit pay, teacher tenure, and the like. So our fact-checking of the two studies begins with his contribution to the discussion.

The Ginsburg Report

Alan Ginsburg, though now retired, was until very recently the ultimate Washington insider. For more than a generation he was known as the Department of Education's data-collection guru, the person inside the bureaucracy who understood best what information to collect and how to collect it. So it is of considerable interest that Ginsburg has now chosen to give aid and comfort to Weingarten and other union leaders by leveling a hard-core attack on "The Rhee DC Record."

To an Education Week reporter, Ginsburg insisted that his critique of "The Rhee DC Record" is not "intended to be anti-Rhee." He is reported as saying that he acted only because "he believes they [his findings] should serve as a check on a policy of mass dismissals of teachers as a way to improve districts.' For me, it's the much larger question in this country of building a large teaching force.'" It is nonetheless quite disconcerting that he--and those who rely on his work--say that she was engaged in "large-scale firing" and "mass dismissals" when in fact she released in 2010 just 241 teachers for low performance.

Ginsburg excludes any and all information coming from the D.C. exams, known as the Comprehensive Assessment System (CAS), required by the federal law known as No Child Left Behind. He explains that decision on the grounds that "performance levels for 2006 and afterwards are not comparable with those from prior years." But that does not preclude a comparison of Rhee's record for the years beginning in 2007 with the situation in the year before she arrived. …