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A decade ago, Richard Phelps was assessment director of the District of Columbia Public Schools. His time in that position coincided with the last ten months of Michelle Rhee’s tenure in office. When her patron Adrian Fenty lost the election for Mayor, Rhee left and so did Phelps.
Phelps writes here about what he learned while trying to improve the assessment practices of the DC Public Schools. He posts his overview in two parts, and this is part 1. The second part will appear in the next post.
Rhee asked Phelps to expand the VAM program–the use of test scores to evaluate teachers and to terminate or reward them based on student scores.
Phelps described his visits to schools to meet with teachers. He gathered useful ideas about how to make the assessments more useful to teachers and students.
Soon enough, he learned that the Central Office staff, including Rhee, rejected all the ideas he collected from teachers and imposed their own ideas instead.
In all, I had polled over 500 DCPS school staff. Not only were all of their suggestions reasonable, some were essential in order to comply with professional assessment standards and ethics.
Nonetheless, back at DCPS’ Central Office, each suggestion was rejected without, to my observation, any serious consideration. The rejecters included Chancellor Rhee, the head of the office of Data and Accountability—the self-titled “Data Lady,” Erin McGoldrick—and the head of the curriculum and instruction division, Carey Wright, and her chief deputy, Dan Gordon.
Four central office staff outvoted several-hundred school staff (and my recommendations as assessment director). In each case, the changes recommended would have meant some additional work on their parts, but in return for substantial improvements in the testing program. Their rhetoric was all about helping teachers and students; but the facts were that the testing program wasn’t structured to help them.
What was the purpose of my several weeks of school visits and staff polling? To solicit “buy in” from school level staff, not feedback.
Ultimately, the new testing program proposal would incorporate all the new features requested by senior Central Office staff, no matter how burdensome, and not a single feature requested by several hundred supportive school-level staff, no matter how helpful. Like many others, I had hoped that the education reform intention of the Rhee-Henderson years was genuine. DCPS could certainly have benefitted from some genuine reform.
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.
The Central Office “reformers” boasted of their accomplishments and went on to lucrative careers.
It was all for show, financed by Bill Gates, Eli Broad, the Waltons, and other philanthropists who believed in the empty promises of “reform.” It was a giant hoax.