In October 2016, President Obama, triumphant, visited Benjamin Banneker High School in Washington, D.C. The District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS), having adopted a number of his key education priorities, had posted significant gains citywide in graduation rates: from near 50 percent in 2011 to 68 percent in 2016. “What all these numbers mean,” Obama told the students, “is that more schools across D.C. and across the country are starting to catch up to what you guys are doing here at this school.” But while the high-achieving, highly selective Banneker was having real success, the rest of D.C.’s schools were not. What all those numbers actually meant was that DCPS was engaged in a massive scandal.
For years, D.C. public schools have been inflating their graduation rates by passing students who simply did not earn their diplomas. According to a recently released audit of DCPS, one-third of the class of 2017 — 937 students — graduated despite violating attendance and credit-recovery policies. It is difficult to overstate the scale of the scandal: 21 percent of graduates passed despite excessive unexcused absences in their daytime classes; 11 percent of graduates missed half the school year; hundreds of students who missed daytime classes were improperly funneled into nighttime credit-recovery classes, and of these, a whopping 85 percent earned credit despite having three or more unexcused absences.
Had attendance and credit-recovery policies been properly followed, the glitzy graduation-rate gains Obama touted would have been wiped out. Nat Malkus, an education-policy scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, puts the proper graduation rate at 51 percent — about where it was in 2011. School reform in D.C. was the education-policy success story of the 2010s; it turns out to be a fraud.
D.C.’s public schools were a national embarrassment for decades. Efforts at reform flopped in the 1990s and early 2000s. When mayor Anthony Williams appointed Michelle Rhee as the chancellor of DCPS in 2007, however, that seemed destined to change. Rhee had worked for Teach for America and founded a group to improve teacher performance in inner-city schools. She enjoyed a reputation as a no-nonsense reformer that was crystallized by a controversial 2008 Time cover: Shot from a low angle, Rhee brandished a broom and stood next to the headline “How to Fix America’s Schools.” Her “battle against bad teachers,” Time declared, was under way. As chancellor, Rhee overhauled teacher evaluations, tying their job security and pay to numerical improvements such as test scores — and graduation rates.
After Rhee left in 2011, D.C. was quick to embrace key Obama-administration initiatives. The District implemented policies such as Common Core, invested heavily in early-childhood education, and received federal funding in the form of Race to the Top grants. DCPS was cited time and again by the Obama administration as a success story: Along with the graduation-rate gains, D.C. showed remarkable improvement in the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP).
But scholars are now questioning whether gentrification, rather than real improvement, explains the NAEP scores. Meanwhile, the graduation rates were simply manufactured. An investigation by NPR found that teachers faced pressure from administrators to give absent students a score of 50 rather than zero, on the logic that “if the student tried to make up the missed work or failed, it would most likely be impossible to pass with a zero on the books.” Meanwhile, students in danger of failing were placed in credit-recovery classes against school policy. “If teachers pushed back against these practices,” NPR reports, the “administration retaliated against them by giving them poor teacher evaluations.” So the reforms pushed by Rhee and the Obama administration played a role in encouraging administrators to juke the stats.
D.C. was an exemplar for school districts nationwide when it boasted of dramatic improvements, and it now seems poised to lead the way in a more ignominious sense. Similar attendance scandals have been uncovered in Los Angeles, Chicago, and Prince George’s County in Maryland, and NPR reports that schools across the country have contacted them with similar stories since their D.C. investigation. “DCPS was caught with a smoking gun, but the response that led them to graduation-rate fraud was driven by the same pressures felt by school districts across the nation,” Malkus tells National Review.
The scandal has gone under-covered in the mainstream press.
Yet despite what it portends about the national movement to reform public schools, the scandal has gone under-covered in the mainstream press. As Erika Sanzi details in Education Week, the same outlets eager to call charter schools a “Wild West” when reports of misconduct surface studiously ignore anarchy when it happens in a public-school district. The graduation-rate gains were a national success story; their fraudulence barely merits a mention.
But it is exceedingly unlikely that D.C. is the only place where Obama-era reforms incentivized public-school administrators to engage in fraud. And as the stories mount, they will grow harder to ignore. Those who wish to truly reform the education system must continue to investigate the reality on the ground and not allow districts to paint a picture of government success while secretly inflating numbers and breaking rules. Conservative measures such as a return to local rather than federal oversight and increased parental choice could go a long way toward reintroducing accountability, but the first step to fixing the American education system is for the boosters of top-down education reform to admit there is a problem with their preferred approach.