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Reforming schools by cramming for the test

The conversation about education reform has once again entered the news cycle as teachers in Seattle continue their boycott against standardized testing.

The conversation about education reform has once again entered the news cycle as teachers in Seattle continue their boycott against standardized testing. The push to use test scores to monitor student progress and evaluate teacher effectiveness has been the source of tension among education leaders since President Bush signed No Child Left Behind into law in 2001.

At the center of the debate is Michelle Rhee, former D.C. Public Schools chancellor and a self-titled "radical" reformer for education. Rhee served as the first DCPS chancellor from 2007-2010 and implemented new policies to restructure the way schools operated, from changing the rules of tenure to shifting the focus in schools to increasing test scores.

During Rhee's three years as chancellors, test scores in D.C. schools rose, but were also followed by allegations of cheating. As the Frontline documentary The Education of Michelle Rhee noted, Rhee's sweeping policy reforms based teacher quality on student test scores while ignoring the various outside factors that also affect a student's performance.

After leaving her post as chancellor, Rhee began StudentsFirst, a school reform lobbying organization, to further advocate for national education reform similar to what she oversaw in D.C. Rhee joined NOW with Alex Wagner on Wednesday to discuss her views on education and advocate for standardized testing as a basis for evaluation. 

"We have to have a starting point," Rhee said. "We cannot continue to have school districts that produce generations of kids that cannot read and write on grade level because then they don't have the skills that they need to get good jobs and be productive members of society."

She added that high-quality teachers were the most essential component to a student's success. "Your investment is better off making sure that you have a highly effective teacher in front of kids every single day," Rhee said in response to a question about the importance of class size from The New Yorker's Hendrik Hertzberg.

But Rhee's focus on test scores highlights the main issues opponents of her method are arguing. Rhee appeared on The Daily Show earlier this week, where Jon Stewart challenged the idea of standardized testing as a priority in schools.

"In any of the conversations I've had with teachers, they talk about the frustrations that they have with this idea of 'the test' being the all-mighty word," said Stewart, whose mother is a teacher."That there is a math and reading metric that is established by the state or the federal government that does not in any way really measure a possible students' potential or success, a possible teacher's potential or success; yet, it is the thing they are tied to, not just for their teaching curriculum, but for money, for money for the school, for all these things."

"What I'm saying is there has to be a balance," Rhee responded, adding that there is a need for accountability in schools, as well as a need to provide adequate resources outside of schools to help students in areas other than academics.

She added, "What's happening out in the community matters too, but that's why you have lots of social service agencies—departments for health and mental health, etc.—that have their jobs. But our jobs in the school is to focus on the time period that the kids are there every day in the 180 days that they're there, making sure that we're giving them an equal shot in life."

"Are we doing that?" Stewart shot back. He cited charter schools as an ineffective solution to the heart of the problem with education in the country, adding that the model of public schooling has been abandoned because lawmakers view the system as too difficult to change:

In some respects, you are creating a system where the public school becomes a repository for the worst most difficult most troublesome cases, and therefore has a much tougher time excelling. Wouldn't it be maybe a better use of resources to find these areas that are troubled and go at them like we go at Afghanistan—and I say that with all sincerity...It feels like if you could hit these kids from the time they're 0 to 6 with resources of nutrition and attention and literacy and all that, so that by the time they're in first grade, you're handing off people that are ready to be educated. That feels like the gap in our system that is yawning.

Rhee argued the larger problem is that schools are the victim of a dysfunctional bureaucracy, and the most effective thing education leaders can do is focus on the teachers in their schools who have the potential to have the most impact on students' lives.

But in order to determine that, Rhee said, there needs to be a way to see those results. "We have to have measures by which we understand whether or not kids are learning appropriately," she concluded. "You have to have a standardized way to determine that."