02/22/2013 01:47 pm ET Updated Apr 24, 2013

Jennifer Howard's Review of "Radical" -- More Rave Than Review

The level of controversy Michelle Rhee has engendered as a school reformer contrasts sharply with largely unskeptical reviews of her new book, Radical: Fighting to Put Students First. That holds true even in Washington, D.C., where Rhee was chancellor for four years, and where her record is most evident. Indeed, Jennifer Howard's February 8 Washington Post review is technically neutral, but, in reality, credulous and fairly laudatory. Given Rhee's major impact not only on DCPS schools, but increasingly on schools and districts across the country, a more in-depth exploration is merited.

Case in point: Howard writes, appropriately, "I'll leave it to others to argue whether Rhee did the right thing here in D.C.," and she is certainly accurate in asserting that, "even the fiercest Rhee-haters among my friends and neighbors agreed with her that DCPS needed help." Then she notes that, "Some schools, especially in the richer parts of town, enjoyed good test scores and high graduation rates. Elsewhere, in my Southeast neighborhood and in other wards, students trailed far behind their peers nationally in math and reading... the achievement gap was a canyon." This is all true. More important, however, and totally missing from the review, is the fact that these highly problematic gaps stayed just as large, and some even expanded, during Rhee's tenure and since her exit.

A forthcoming report by the Broader, Bolder Approach to Education uses test scores from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) to track trends among all students and subgroups by race and income before, during, and after Rhee's four years as chancellor. Some of the top-line findings are instructive in filling in the analysis that Howard fails to provide.

When Rhee came to DCPS in 2007-08, low-income fourth graders scored 23 points below the city average in math, and eighth graders trailed by 22 points. The gaps in reading were even larger -- 32 points in fourth grade, and 24 in eighth. Race-based achievement gaps were substantially bigger in both grades across both subjects, and are the largest in the country. (The unique demographics of the city, in which race and poverty are much more closely correlated than they are in others, contribute to this.) "Canyons" seems an apt description of the gaps.

During Rhee's tenure, things mostly got worse, however, not better. The fourth grade gap in NAEP math scores was virtually unchanged in the four years before Rhee, when both groups saw modest increases, but grew dramatically from 2007-2011, when low-income students continued at the same pace, in contrast to their better-off peers' dramatic 21-point gain. Eighth graders, too, saw a large increase in the gap (due to real gains for both groups, but twice as large among high-income students). Reading scores showed even less promise in narrowing the achievement gap "canyon": while scores among higher-income fourth graders increased substantially between 2007 and 2011, low-income students gained nothing, resulting in a gap that grew by nearly 50 percent from 32 to 46 points, in just four years. Low-income eighth graders also failed to improve their reading at all, while their higher-income peers posted modest gains, resulting in a gap that grew from 24 to 31. Four years is far too short a time for anyone to make substantial progress, but Rhee's claims that she could (and did), along with steps in the wrong direction, are real cause for concern.

The fact that, in 2009, the city's fourth grade race-based achievement gap in reading was still the largest in the country is not noteworthy. The city's demographics are such that Rhee could hardly have been expected to change that (though her claims suggest she intended to). But the fact that the gap narrowed very slightly during her tenure due only to black students' stagnating while white students lost a bit of ground, after four years of slow but steady progress for both groups preceding her chancellorship, is definitely worthy of attention.

"By her reckoning, Rhee came in to do a difficult and politically dangerous job, and she did it the way she thought it needed to be done. Once she couldn't do it effectively anymore, she moved on to bring her message of 'radical improvement' to the national stage." This implicitly affirms Rhee's contention that she did the job effectively. As the data show, she did not. By telling the story in Rhee's terms, without rendering her own assessment of their merits, Howard offers not so much a review Rhee's book, or her record, but uncritical praise of both.