Monday, August 22, 2011

Why won’t Michelle Rhee talk to USA Today?- By MICHAEL WINERIP NY TIMES

Michelle Rhee has refused to talk to USA Today reporters about a schools scandal.

Ms. Rhee, the chancellor of the Washington public schools from 2007 to 2010, is the national symbol of the data-driven, take-no-prisoners education reform movement.

It’s hard to find a media outlet, big or small, that she hasn’t talked to. She’s been interviewed by Katie Couric, Tom Brokaw and Oprah Winfrey. She’s been featured on a Time magazine cover holding a broom (to sweep away bad teachers). She was one of the stars of the documentary “Waiting for Superman.”

These days, as director of an advocacy group she founded, StudentsFirst, she crisscrosses the country pushing her education politics: she’s for vouchers and charter schools, against tenure, for teachers, but against their unions.

Always, she preens for the cameras. Early in her chancellorship, she was trailed for a story by the education correspondent of “PBS NewsHour,” John Merrow.

At one point, Ms. Rhee asked if his crew wanted to watch her fire a principal. “We were totally stunned,” Mr. Merrow said.

She let them set up the camera behind the principal and videotape the entire firing. “The principal seemed dazed,” said Mr. Merrow. “I’ve been reporting 35 years and never seen anything like it.”

And yet, as voracious as she is for the media spotlight, Ms. Rhee will not talk to USA Today.

At the end of March, three of the paper’s reporters — Marisol Bello, Jack Gillum and Greg Toppo — broke a story about the high rate of erasures and suspiciously high test-score gains at 41 Washington schools while Ms. Rhee was chancellor.

At some schools, they found the odds that so many answers had been changed from wrong to right randomly were 1 in 100 billion. In a fourth-grade class at Stanton Elementary, 97 percent of the erasures were from wrong to right. Districtwide, the average number of erasures for seventh graders was fewer than one per child, but for a seventh-grade class at Noyes Elementary, it was 12.7 per student. At Noyes Elementary in 2008, 84 percent of fourth graders were proficient in math, up from 22 percent in 2007.

Ms. Rhee’s reputation has rested on her schools’ test scores. Suddenly, a USA Today headline was asking, “were the gains real?” In this era of high-pressure testing, Washington has become another in a growing list of cheating scandals that has included Atlanta, Indiana, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Texas.

It took the USA Today reporters a year to finish their three-part series. So many people were afraid to speak that Ms. Bello had to interview dozens to find one willing to be quoted. She knocked on teachers’ doors at 9:30 at night and hunted parents at PTA meetings. She met people in coffee shops where they would not be recognized, and never called or e-mailed sources at their schools.

Hari Sevugan, a spokesman for Ms. Rhee, said the reporters were “provided unprecedented time and access to report out their story,” including many meetings with senior staff members and the chief of data accountability. By last fall, Mr. Sevugan said, district officials’ patience was wearing thin. The deputy press secretary, Satiya Simmons, complained in an e-mail to a colleague, “Jack Gillum isn’t going away quietly, Uggh.”

“Just stop answering his e-mails,” advised Anita Dunn, a consultant who had been the communications director for President Obama.

The reporters made a dozen attempts to interview Ms. Rhee, directly and through her public relations representatives. Ms. Bello called Ms. Rhee’s cellphone daily, and finally got her on a Sunday.

“She said she wasn’t going to talk with us,” Ms. Bello recalled. “Her understanding was we were writing about” district schools “and she is no longer chancellor.”

On March 29, the day after the story came out, Ms. Rhee appeared on the PBS program “Tavis Smiley” and attacked USA Today.

“Are you suggesting this story is much ado about nothing, that this is lacking integrity, this story in USA Today?” Mr. Smiley asked.

“Absolutely,” Ms. Rhee said. “It absolutely lacks credibility.”

Mr. Smiley asked if she was concerned that she had put too much pressure on teachers and principals to raise scores. “We want educators to feel that pressure,” she answered.

Ms. Rhee emphasized that the district had hired a top security company, Caveon, to investigate in 2009, and was given a clean bill of health. The district released a statement from John Fremer, Caveon’s owner, saying, “The company did not find evidence of cheating at any of the schools.”

However, in subsequent interviews with USA Today and this reporter, Mr. Fremer made it clear that the scope of his inquiry was limited, and that the district had not requested that he do more. Indeed, Caveon’s report, posted on USA Today’s Web site, was full of sentences like, “Redacted was interviewed at redacted.”

Teachers described security as “excellent” and “very vigilant,” and investigators, for the most part, took their comments at face value.

It did not take Ms. Rhee long to realize she had miscalculated. Three days later, she told Bloomberg Radio she was “100 percent supportive” of a broader inquiry.

Still, she would not talk to USA Today. Mr. Sevugan gave no explanation, but pointed out that she had spoken with several other news outlets.

The reporters did not give up. On April 26, Emily Lenzner, a spokeswoman, wrote Mr. Gillum, “Michelle is willing to do an interview, but we’d like to do this in person.” She asked if they could hold their story, and arranged for a meeting on May 3 at the StudentsFirst office in Washington.

On May 2, another Rhee spokeswoman e-mailed to say the reporters were too interested in cheating and not enough in StudentsFirst. She said they could submit a list of questions.

There were 21 questions; Ms. Rhee did not answer 10 of the 11 about cheating.

Mr. Gillum, who recently took a job at The Associated Press, said he was surprised by how unresponsive Ms. Rhee has been. “She talks about how important data is, and our story is data driven,” he said.

So that people could make their own judgments, Linda Mathews, the project editor, posted the relevant public documents on the USA Today Web site.

Shortly after the follow-up story appeared, the district’s inspector general began what was supposed to be an inquiry, but in July The Washington Post reported that just one investigator had been assigned. “Basically it was one guy in a room who made 10 phone calls,” Mr. Toppo said.

Officials with the federal Department of Education have indicated that they are assisting with the investigation.

In Washington, two investigators spent five days at eight schools. In Atlanta, the state deployed 60 investigators who worked for 10 months at 56 schools. They produced a report that named all 178 people found cheating, including 82 who confessed. There was not a single case of “redacted and redacted doctoring redacted grade answer sheets at redacted.”

People in Atlanta could go to prison. Last week, a grand jury issued subpoenas seeking the names of school employees who had received bonuses for test scores. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported that there were subpoenas for “signed copies” of “any and all oaths of office” taken by Beverly Hall, the former superintendent.

The three reporters still hope to interview Ms. Rhee. “Absolutely,” said Mr. Toppo.

Which brings things full circle: Why won’t Ms. Rhee talk to USA Today?


Picture: Alex Wong/Getty Images

Friday, August 12, 2011

Hoboken - Commissioner's Placement Letter 2011

The following is the most recent report on the results from the 2011 QSAC (The Quality Single Accountability Continuum) evaluation for a school district in New Jersey. QSAC looks at five primary areas or DPR's (District Performance Reviews) including Operations, Instruction and Program, Governance, Fiscal Management, and Personnel. Also, you may want to review the original statue which initially defined and justified QSAC's creation. Recall, Hoboken (the school district used in this example) is the district in which I served as the Assistant to the Superintendent from 2007-2009. Please review this report along with reports from previous years (posted here and on my other Education blog) and identify trends, areas of improvement, areas of challenges and areas of success. How does this parallel or run contrary to experiences of your own in your district, school system or educational setting? My plan is to discuss this further during seminar.

For those interested, portions of this work along with some other related research will be discussed in a forthcoming chapter I am writing and will share in seminar and online later in the Fall.

QSAC Report Aug 2009
Hoboken - Commissioner's Placement Letter 2011

Note: Some of this research, and other research conducted looking at educational systems, may require the utilization of the Open Public Records Act. Here is a link for your review.

Picture: An example of a NJ QSAC monitoring form used in evaluating a school district along a particular DPR.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

States must cut red tape to attract more qualified teachers By Justin D. Martin | Christian Science Monitor – Mon, Aug 15, 2011

My wife has a master’s degree in education from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, has lived in four countries, speaks a good deal of Arabic and some Italian, and has been either teaching or conducting education research for the better part of a decade. She taught at a private school in Seattle so esteemed that Bill Gates and Jeff Bezos (the founder of sent their children there.

Yet according to box-checkers at Maine’s Department of Education, she is not yet qualified to teach 10-year-olds in the state’s public schools. Because she studied history and art as an undergraduate and has not undergone public school certification in another state, the state of Maine denied her application for initial certification to teach, insisting that she must first complete an undergraduate English course at her own expense. This is only for initial, temporary certification, after which she must take no fewer than five additional college courses, five standardized tests, and complete a year of supervised “student” teaching.

RELATED: Education reform: eight school chiefs to watch in 2011

Just about anyone considering teacher quality in the United States laments that classroom instruction needs substantial improvement, and low teacher pay is often cited as the reason the profession doesn’t attract and retain talented candidates. This is no doubt part of the problem; in Maine, a starting public school salary pays like a full time job at a Waffle House.

Another major problem, though, is that states often make it unconscionably difficult for qualified teachers to work. The result is that would-be teachers often do something else or they work for private schools, where teachers don’t need the same bureaucratic stamp of approval. For that same reason, private schools often attract highly qualified, educated individuals who may not have the traditional teaching certification.

Four days after arriving in Maine, my wife was offered a job at a prestigious private school that is less shackled by the state’s bureaucratic vise grip. She accepted.

Maine should be sending cookie bouquets to talented teachers. The state’s 4th-graders have the lowest reading scores of any state in New England except Rhode Island, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. (Wholly related: My wife’s master’s degree is specifically in childhood literacy).

But Maine officials can take heart that other states chase good teachers away, too.

RELATED: Teacher layoffs ahead: Should seniority prevail? Six considerations.

Bureaucratic restrictions frustrate talented teachers even after they’ve gotten their foot in the door. A friend of mine eventually quit his job teaching biology at a public high school in North Carolina and as a cross country and track coach, in part because the state wouldn’t pay him the standard increase in salary for having a master’s degree. He was teaching biology courses, and was told that his master’s degree in physiology didn’t count as a graduate degree in his area of educational certification.

Not only did he have a master’s degree in the sciences from a major research university, but he had previously coached a high school cross country team to four state championships in California, where he was an "All-American" runner in college.

States should certainly have high standards regarding who can teach their children, but high standards need not be synonymous with needless restrictions. States can have a system for evaluating aspiring teachers who don’t have traditional certification, without being punitive and pushing talent away. That can and should involve case-by-case considerations.

RELATED: Persistent achievement gap vexes education reformers: Six takeaways

While alternate certification programs exist, aimed at getting talented individuals into the classroom, those programs often require candidates to jump through another set of bureaucratic hoops and demanding commitments. These programs also have limited regional scope and may demand would-be teachers spend significant money up front simply to start the ball rolling.

Maine’s Bangor Daily News ran a July editorial arguing that when it comes to demanding high-quality teachers, America's states could learn from Finland’s approach to improving its schools, where “every teacher got a master’s degree, not in education but a content area” and “[o]nly one in 10 applicants was hired to be a teacher.” But Finland’s demands worked in large part because of systemic and cultural factors that don’t exist in the US. The country’s tough standards got high quality teachers into the classroom, rather than keeping them out.

Rigid standards are fine as long as state officials have broad authority to use common sense and wave requirements for exceptionally trained applicants. Red tape will always exist, but it doesn’t have to bind and gag talented professionals eager to serve as teachers.

Justin D. Martin, Ph.D., is the CLAS-Honors Preceptor of Journalism at the University of Maine and a columnist for Columbia Journalism Review. Follow him on Twitter: @Justin_D_Martin

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photo: Erie Lackawana Station, Hoboken, NJ - Hoboken City Hall website