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Three Lessons Education Reformers Should Learn From Michelle Rhee's Missteps

It's been a rough week for the education-reform powerhouse, but there are lessons to be learned from her mistakes.

Former Washington D.C. school's chancellor Michelle Rhee is no stranger to controversy, but even for her, this is shaping up to be a rocky week. On Sunday, one of the district's principals told the Washington Post that Rhee's IMPACT teacher evaluation system makes it difficult for her to spend as much time as she'd like in classrooms, making her less effective.

Then on Monday, an investigative report in USA Today revealed that much of the student achievement progress Rhee touted as evidence that her reforms were working was the result of rampant cheating on tests. Rhee dismissed the report that night on the Tavis Smiley show, but her successor, Kaya Henderson, has launched a full investigation.

The scandal has national implications: Rhee's reforms—taking on teachers unions, firing educators whose students didn't show results, and giving bonuses of up to $10,000 to those whose kids scored well on standardized tests—have been embraced by everyone from New Jersey governor Chris Christie and Florida governor Rick Scott and championed by the likes of Oprah. Now that the evidence shows Rhee is not a miracle worker, what can reformers learn from her missteps?

First, school districts should smarten up and take merit pay off the table. Expert Daniel Pink says the carrot-stick method of motivating employees doesn't work in any setting, and when you combine high-stakes consequences for not meeting a target with financial incentives for doing so—see Enron's history for reference—you create perfect storm for cheating. The largest comprehensive study (PDF) of merit pay concluded that teachers who receive bonuses tied to test scores don't outperform teachers paid a regular salary.

Second, standardized-test scores can't be the bottom line on teacher effectiveness. It's tempting to embrace the the idea of rating teachers based on one test, but to get a more accurate picture of how educators are doing we need multiple measures of evaluation, including looking at student work, measuring progress via student grades and quizzes throughout the year, and incorporating regular principal feedback. It's not as easy or quick, but it's a much more holistic, reliable approach.

Finally, instead of a drill-and-kill test prep, students need to get back to learning a balanced curriculum. We have a national push for increasing student proficiency in science, but in far too many schools, students aren't even taught the subject until middle school because it's not tested. My son, a fourth-grader, has never been taught the history of the Revolutionary War because in our high-stakes world, the entire day is spent on reading and math instruction. On Monday President Obama cautioned against putting too much emphasis on testing, saying that he doesn't want to see "schools that are just teaching to the test. Because then you're not learning about the world; you're not learning about different cultures, you're not learning about science, you're not learning about math. All you're learning about is how to fill out a little bubble on an exam."

That's not the kind of education that's going to put America's students on par with their peers around the globe. The challenge in the coming weeks will be whether Rhee and her supporters can admit that some of her well-intentioned reforms aren't panning out and adjust their approach to improving public education accordingly. Rhee's national reputation and legacy depend on it.

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