MICHEL MARTIN, Host:
I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.
Coming up, President Obama addressed the nation's oldest civil rights group at its centennial celebration last night. We'll get a review from the chairman of the board Julian Bond. And we talked to Thomas Saenz. He was just named president of another leading civil rights group, the Mexican-American Legal Defense and Educational Fund. That's a little later.
But first, Michelle Rhee, the Chancellor of D.C. Public Schools. Over the course of the year, we've been checking in on her efforts to improve the performance of the District's traditionally low performing school system. Rhee's and the District's efforts matter, not just because this is the nation's capital, but also because many of the debates over how best to prepare students of all backgrounds and achievement levels are playing out here. Well, new test scores are just in, and she's with us now to talk about them. Chairman Rhee, welcome back. Thank you for joining us again.
MARTIN: Thank you.
MARTIN: Now here's the headline, big gains in the elementary grades. Almost half the students tested were deemed proficient in reading and math, that's a big improvement from 2007 when you first arrived, when fewer than a third were. But some might say, only half the kids are proficient. So, how do you want us to interpret these scores? Is the glass half full or half empty?
MARTIN: I think it's a little of both. The bottom line is that if you think about our overall proficiency, only about half of our kids are at grade level and that's unacceptable. So we still have a really far way to go. But on the other side, if you look at where we started when we came in only 29 percent of elementary students were on grade level or above in mathematics. So 29 percent to 49 percent in two years is a pretty significant jump. So we're pleased with the progress, but we still know how far we have to go.
MARTIN: The other headline, the achievement gap between black and white students, which had been huge, is narrowing. The gap was closed across all grade levels and subject areas. And in secondary math students closed 20 percentage points from 70 percent to 50 percent. Why do you think that is?
MARTIN: Well, because the District is so heavily minority students, you know, about 90 - more than 90 percent of our kids are children of color. When the District overall sees significant gains, then we are going to see a closure of that gap. So we're really thrilled at the fact that we've been able to really focus on making sure that the color of a child's skin doesn't determine their academic achievement levels. But, the fact still remains that - though we've narrowed that gap that the gap is still significant. It's still at 50 percent at the secondary level. So, we still have a lot of work to do.
MARTIN: There's a story in the Washington Post today that says that some of the gains resulted from test taking strategies like intensive preparation for children on the cusp of proficiency, evaluating the list carefully to make sure that kids are removed who are not eligible to take the test. Now the report makes clear that there's nothing unethical about this. For example, middle class parents do things like schedule SATs for the time of day that their child is most effective in taking the test. But some people would look at that and say, you know, the - this is the problem with education today, it's all about the test, it's not about learning. The tests just play too big a role in learning, because that's what you have to do.
MARTIN: I disagree. I mean, you know, last year when we had big test score gains, people said, well, its not really about the new administration, it's the leftover from the old administration. And this year they're something else. And the thing that I'm most disappointed by in all these analyses is that there's an assumption when you actually see our kids improve that it cannot be because they're actually learning more. There must be some other reason. And I think that's incredibly insulting to our children and to our teachers and our schools that have worked so incredibly hard over the last two years.
I'm hoping that maybe five or six years from now, when we continue to see gains, people will actually attribute it to the fact that the children are learning more but in the interim, you know, people are going to have their theories.
MARTIN: What are they working more at?
MARTIN: I think that our big focus has been on the differentiation of instructions. So looking at every kid as an individual learner, understanding what their strengths and weaknesses are, what skills and knowledge they have and they need. And if you can track every child individually and look at what interventions do you need to be able to grow this child's skill base, that that can really have a significant impact on the overall achievement levels, not only of a classroom but of a school and a district.
MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. As part of our Star Education series, we're speaking with Michelle Rhee. She's the chancellor of the Washington, D.C. School System. Charter schools, a huge story in Washington, D.C. and around the country. There are some 60 charter schools in this relatively small city and the debate is over whether charter schools really deliver a better result than traditional public schools or just a different result. Have you assessed whether, particularly in these latest test scores, whether the scores were different for charter schools?
MARTIN: Well, if you look at the secondary level, the charter schools continue to see very strong growth. And so that's, I think, something that the charters can be very proud of. At the elementary level, for the first time I think in a long time that people can remember D.C.P.S. actually outperformed the charter schools at the elementary level in both reading and math. And I think lots of people want to take that and say, see, the charters aren't so good. But I think that you've to look beyond that because I - at the individual school level, you can see some charter schools that are doing absolutely amazing things, where 80, 90 percent of their kids are proficient and then you have other schools that are actually dragging that average down.
So I think that one of the things that the charter school community is focused on now is how they can bring more accountability to the individual schools to help the lower performing schools improve but if they can't, to close them down.
MARTIN: The - Education Secretary Ernie Duncan, who came from Chicago, has been vocal lately in saying that one of the things that he wants to do is replicate what works around the country. If you were advising him, or if you were advising him to take a look at what you're doing here in Washington, D.C., what would you think he should focus on? And is there anything over the last couple of years that you should - that you would say, oh, that didn't work so well...
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
MARTIN: ...leave that alone.
MARTIN: Well, I think that we're still a ways away from being able to serve as a model for any other school districts. We have done a tremendous amount in two years to try to really speed up the progress in the city. But I would say, we're not yet at a point where we know exactly what works and what needs to happen. I certainly think that the closure of the schools was an important piece to what we were doing because...
MARTIN: You mean closing under-enrolled buildings. The schools that were under-enrolled had less than the full complement of students in there.
MARTIN: ...that's right.
MARTIN: You closed some of those and...
MARTIN: And part of the reason why is because lots of school districts across the country really hesitate to close schools because of the politically very unpopular process. So no one wants to close schools. The results here in D.C. of those school closures, though, was that we were able to utilize those resources in a much more effective way. So, as a product of the school closures, we were able to make sure that last year for the first time since anyone can remember in D.C., every single school in the district had an art teacher, a music teacher, a PE teacher, a librarian and a fulltime nurse. So that was a major accomplishment.
And I think if you could have a more efficient and effective use of resources in that way, even though the action might not necessarily be politically palatable to people, it has an increased impact - and good results for kids. And that's what's most important at the end of the day.
MARTIN: Is there anything that you would've done differently, looking back over your first two years here?
MARTIN: I definitely think that as we think back over the last two years, we think we could've done a much better job of proactively communicating our message. I think that we were so busy kind of actually putting our nose down and doing the work that we were letting the newspapers and the media kind of drive the story instead of us, you know, directly going to our parents and to our teachers and saying, this is what we're trying to do and this is why we're trying to do it. And so we've, I think, course corrected on that. We're doing a much better job of reaching out directly to these constituents and it's making a big difference.
MARTIN: And speaking of the media, is it true that you won't speak to the local reporter who covers the school system from the Washington Post? Is that true?
MARTIN: No, it's not true.
MARTIN: What's that about?
MARTIN: In fact, we met the other day at - and we're trying to get on a much better track. You know what, I think that for...
MARTIN: The reason the story, of course, attained some interest is that you are a national figure. You're the - chancellor of a local school system but there's tremendous national interest in what you're doing here, as we've discussed, partly because of the innovations you're trying to bring in, also the fights you're having are fights that a lot of school officials are having, and how to pay teachers. Do you continue with some of the systems like tenure that have been in place for so many years? What kinds of changes do you make? But it does - well, anyway, you finish that story.
MARTIN: Well I think that, you know, one of the things that we have to do is be much more proactive about the messages that we're sending and the stories that come out. And certainly for any school district official, they'll tell you that the press can be a frustrating entity to deal with. But, you know, I think that - that the bottom line is that the District overall has benefited from a lot of the national press that we've got. Certainly there have been frustrating times as well, but that's part of the job.
You take the good with the bad and you try to manage against that - the best that you can. I think people are really interested, not just in the city, but across the country, in what's happening here. And our goal is just to make sure that that gets communicated in an accurate and balanced way.
MARTIN: Finally, you have been quoted in one of those national outlets, Time Magazine, saying that the children of Washington, D.C. have been receiving an education that every single citizen in this country should be embarrassed by. What about now, you still feel that way?
MARTIN: Yeah, I still feel that the vast majority of our children in this city are not getting the education they deserve. And that if you look at their achievement levels, it is absolutely not a reflection of what their abilities and aptitude is and it's more a reflection of the dysfunction and the way that the district has operated in the past in a way that has not served those kids well.
I think we are making tremendous progress in that area. I think that those numbers don't reflect some of the incredibly hard work that teachers and principals and other people have put into it. But overall, in the big picture, we're still nowhere near saying that we are providing every child in the city with an excellent education.
MARTIN: Michelle Rhee has just wrapped up her second year...
MARTIN: That's correct.
MARTIN: ...as chancellor of Washington, D.C. public schools. We hope we'll speak again.
MARTIN: Thank you so much - thank you so much for joining us here in our studios in Washington.
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