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Richard P. Phelps: The D.C. Reform Hoax, Part 1

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Richard P. Phelps recounts his experiences as the director of assessment for Michelle Rhee, chancellor of the District of Columbia Public Schools. Phelps was expected to expand the notorious IMPACT testing program, meant to evaluate teachers. Phelps visited hundreds of administrators and teachers and asked their advice about how to make the program better. They gave him good ideas, and he passed them on to top staff as recommendations. The professionals’ advice was rejected by two top reformers.

Phelps’ article was posted on the blog of D.C. activist Valerie Jablow. She acknowledged its origin in this editor’s note:

[Ed. Note: In part 1 of this series, semi-retired educator Richard P. Phelps provided a first-hand account of what went down in DCPS as ed reformers in the early days of mayoral control pushed standardized tests; teacher evaluations based on those tests; and harsh school penalties. This second part looks at the cheating scandals that arose in the wake of such abusive practices. Such accounts are all the more important now that the DC auditor has just released a bombshell report of poor stewardship of DC’s education data. Both articles appeared in Nonpartisan Education Review in September 2020 and are reprinted here with permission. For this part, the author gratefully acknowledges the fact-checking assistance of retired DCPS teacher Erich Martel and DC school budget expert Mary Levy.]

Phelps came to realize that the “reformers” really didn’t care about improving education or helping children. They were padding their resumes, building their career prospects in the lavishly funded reform world.

Phelps writes:

Alas, much of the activity labelled “reform” was just for show, and for padding resumes. Numerous central office managers would later work for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Numerous others would work for entities supported by the Gates or aligned foundations, or in jurisdictions such as Louisiana, where ed reformers held political power. Most would be well paid.

Their genuine accomplishments, or lack thereof, while at DCPS seemed to matter little. What mattered was the appearance of accomplishment and, above all, loyalty to the group. That loyalty required going along to get along: complicity in maintaining the façade of success while withholding any public criticism of or disagreement with other in-group members.

Unfortunately, in the United States what is commonly showcased as education reform is neither a civic enterprise nor a popular movement. Neither parents, the public, nor school-level educators have any direct influence. Rather, at the national level, U.S. education reform is an elite, private club—a small group of tightly connected politicos and academics—a mutual admiration society dedicated to the career advancement, political influence, and financial benefit of its members, supported by a gaggle of wealthy foundations (e.g., Gates, Walton, Broad, Wallace, Hewlett, Smith-Richardson).

Despite their failures, the elites who led DCPS moved on to remunerative positions. The game goes on. And it’s not “for the children.”

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