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Michelle Rhee is Wrong

A Response to Michelle Rhee’s Op-ed, entitled, “MAP boycott is about keeping test scores out of teacher evaluations.”

Michelle Rhee is wrong. In a special op-ed to the Seattle Times on March 6th, she argues against the Seattle teacher boycott of the MAP test. Rather than summarize her arguments, I will present them below and address each sequentially. In this way, I will identify each of her arguments’ flaws and demonstrate that she has failed to establish a foundation for her very position. That said, I will begin first with her second paragraph, returning to her opening statement at the end of this analysis.

Logical Trickery: Ad Hominem and Equivocation

In her second paragraph, Rhee characterizes the boycott in the following terms: “Some local teachers union members have decided to reject Washington state’s student assessment program, and that’s unfortunate because every great teacher knows that student assessments can be a great tool.” Within this statement, Rhee utilizes several logical “dirty tricks” that you, as a reader, should reject.

First, when describing these teachers, Rhee makes a point to refer to them as union members. Now, while it is true that these teachers are union members, their status as union members is irrelevant to their decision to boycott the exam. The use of the term union members to describe the teachers is meant as a pejorative, what logicians label an ad hominem attack, a logical fallacy that discredits an argument based on a characteristic of the speaker, not the merits of the argument. By including these teachers’ union membership in this discussion, she avoids addressing the merits of their boycott and instead seeks to discredit their boycott by invoking the unpopularity of unions today.

Second, Rhee falsely characterizes the teachers’ boycott as a rejection of the Washington state student assessment program, which is factually incorrect. The MAP test is not required by Washington State, which is why it doesn’t affect student grades or graduation status. Furthermore, in their December 21st, 2012 open letter, the Garfield teachers who initiated this boycott specifically detail their rejection only of the MAP test. By describing the boycott as a rejection of the Washington state student assessment program, Rhee equivocates between the MAP test and Washington State’s required standardized student assessments, giving the appearance that these teachers oppose all of Washington’s state assessments. This is simply not true. This equivocation is another logical fallacy and should be rejected.

Finally, Rhee’s use of the platitude, “every great teacher knows that student assessments can be a great tool,” is empty and equivocal. As I wrote above, teachers are not rejecting student assessments en masse. Teachers are rejecting the MAP test. Of course every great teacher knows that student assessments can be a great tool; great teachers use student assessments on a daily basis, both formative and summative, to make informed decisions that affect their teaching and the students’ learning. Rejecting the MAP test is not a rejection of all assessments, and Rhee’s attempt to characterize it as such is misleading.

Statements Without Meaning and more Equivocation

In her third paragraph, she writes “The Measures of Academic Progress (MAP) assessments used in Seattle and throughout the state aim to measure how students in kindergarten through ninth grade are doing.” This statement is simply too broad to have any substantive meaning. Assessments are not created to measure “how students are doing.” Assessments are designed to measure growth in specific skills and/or content knowledge. Rhee fails to even articulate what it is the MAP is designed to assess, and in doing so, fails to demonstrate even a sufficient foundation for rejecting the Seattle teachers’ boycott.

Also in the third paragraph, Rhee again equivocates betwen the MAP test and other assessments. She writes “If tools like this are used correctly, they can help teachers adjust instruction, tweak lesson plans, and tailor classroom time to meet the specific needs of individual children in the classroom.” The boycott is not about “tools like this.” The boycott is specifically in response to the MAP test, for reasons outlined in the December 21st letter. By using the “tools like this” verbiage, Rhee seeks to present the boycott as an issue of far greater breadth than intended, and thereby misrepresents the boycott. Furthermore, teachers are not in disagreement that utilizing assessments can help to adjust instruction, tweak lesson plans and tailor classroom time to meet the specific individual needs of children in the classroom. By presenting her argument as such, Rhee’s narrative insinuates that teachers don’t want to adjust instruction, don’t want to tweak lesson plans, and don’t want to tailor classroom time to meet the specific needs of individual children. Again, this can’t be overstated: teachers use assessment data, both formative and summative, on a daily basis to make these instructional decisions. Boycotting the MAP does not affect those choices.

Finally, Rhee qualifies her statement with “If tools like this are used correctly,” (italics added). Rhee’s qualifier requires an assumption, namely, that the tool can be used correctly. In their December 21st letter, the first argument against using the MAP test put forth by Garfield teachers is that the test is not valid at the high school level because “the margin of error is greater than the expected gain.” For those students, the MAP test cannot be used correctly. The test is invalid from the onset.

More Logical Trickery: a False Dilemma and Ad Hominem

In the fourth paragraph, Rhee asserts “instead of engaging in a constructive discussion on how to fix the flaws they see in the MAP assessments, boycotters at three Seattle schools refused to administer the tests at all.” This assertion creates a false dilemma, a logical fallacy that fails to consider all relevant possibilities before reaching a conclusion. Here, Rhee presents “engaging in a constructive discussion on how to fix the flaws they see in the MAP assessments” as the only alternative to boycotting. This proposition fails to consider other alternatives to boycotting and whether these alternatives were ever attempted (e.g. whether such discussions already occurred; that the test had been administered for years, despite concerns, to the detriment of students). In framing the alternative to boycotting as “fixing the MAP,” Rhee limits the relevant discussion to a narrow course of action that itself requires several assumptions to even be viable.

Rhee’s “Fixing the MAP” argument requires two assumptions: first, that there is a constructive discussion to be had (that hasn’t yet occurred), and second, that the flaws in the MAP can be fixed. Rhee neither identifies nor explains the basis for these assumptions. Instead, she relies on the mere assertion that the teachers ought to have engaged in such a discussion, as opposed to boycotting the tests, to make her point. Without any justification, this point is unconvincing.

Rhee’s fourth paragraph also contains the following: “Teachers unions as far away as New York and Chicago jumped in to demonstrate solidarity. And that begs the question: Why are labor unions latching on to Seattle’s MAP assessments, entangling them with a completely separate national debate over using standardized testing as a means of measuring teacher performance?” These statements mischaracterize the support shown nationally for the Seattle teachers’ boycott and are again aimed at disparaging teachers unions (ad hominem). In their December 21st letter, the Garfield teachers conclude with the following paragraph:

We are not troublemakers nor do we want to impede the high functioning of our school. We are professionals who care deeply about our students and cannot continue to participate in a practice that harms our school and our students. We want to be able to identify student growth and determine if our practice supports student learning. We wish to be evaluated in a way that helps us continue to improve our practice, and we wish for our colleagues who are struggling to be identified and either be supported or removed. The MAP test is not the way to do any of these things. We feel strongly that we must decide to give the MAP test even one more time.

The Garfield teachers include teacher evaluation in their reasons for rejecting the MAP test, that use of the MAP in teacher evaluations does not help teachers continue to improve their practice. Rhee’s insistence that the national debate over using standardized testing as a means of measuring performance is a completely separate issue is disingenuous. Yes, the boycott of the MAP is local to specific groups of teachers in Seattle. But this rejection has a broader application to the use of invalid tests in teacher evaluation. Furthermore, Rhee’s assertion also makes an unfair assumption about those who stand in solidarity with these teachers. Effectively, Rhee argues that the only reason other teachers across the country support the Seattle teachers is because of their objection to the use of standardized tests in teacher evaluation. This completely ignores the reality that any teacher could stand in solidarity with Seattle because the boycott is the right thing to do, or because the MAP test, as argued in their December 21st letter, is invalid and is a detriment to students. By failing to properly characterize the national support for this issue and instead using the term union as a pejorative, Rhee flagrantly ignores facts inconvenient to her narrative and seeks to disparage teachers who are union members.

The Straw Person and Red Herring

Rhee’s fifth paragraph is perhaps the most flippant and offensive. In it, she casually brushes aside arguments against the MAP, saying “The arguments against the MAP can be dispensed with quickly.” She follows, characterizing those arguments as “some argue that because the MAP assessments have no bearing on a student’s letter grade, they aren’t taken seriously and therefore aren’t useful. But that’s something many educators can remedy by setting an example and choosing to take the assessments seriously themselves.” In the above argument, Rhee selects only one of the nine arguments presented by the Garfield teachers (as outlined in their December 21st letter), misrepresents the argument, and ignores the rest of the arguments. This is known as a straw person argument and is widely known to be a dishonest logical strategy that misrepresents the views of your opponent. Here are the nine arguments presented by the Garfield teachers (in summary form), in order:

1. The Seattle Public Schools recognize that the MAP is invalid. Its margin of error is greater than the expected gain. Why expend resources on an invalid test.

2. The MAP does not align well with the Common Core (those set of standards adopted in Washington State, and nationally, that describe what students should know at any given grade level). It therefore tests content that teachers are not expected to teach.

3. The MAP steals instructional time from the students who need it most (English Language Learners, Special Education, students in math support). Loss of instructional time averages 320 minutes per student.

4. The MAP violates the rights of specific groups of students (non-English speakers, Special Education students, and minority and low income children) by making them take a test with no educational benefit to them or their educational goals. School is hard enough for these students; a test that makes them feel bad about themselves by presenting them with unfamiliar content is not fair.

5. The MAP monopolizes school computer labs (because it is a test administered on computers) to the detriment of the rest of the school (e.g. students who use the computers for research, and students who don’t have computers at home).

6. Students do not take the MAP seriously because they know it doesn’t affect their grades. Why implement a test that is peripheral to the students’ education?

7. “The MAP test was originally introduced by then superintendent Maria Goodloe-Johnson while she was a board member of the Northwest Evaluation Association, the company that sells the MAP. When Dr. Goodloe-Johnson was fired, the MAP somehow survived the housecleaning. We object to having to give a test whose existence in our district is the result of a scandal.” [This objection was included verbatim because of the factual implications.]

8. The parent company of the MAP, the NWEA, “suggests extreme caution in its use and warns against valid legal action if the test is used in personnel decisions” due to possible statistical errors and errors that “become ‘particularly profound at the high school level.’”

9. The Seattle Education Association passed a resolution in opposition to the MAP, condemning it for, among other reasons, being a waste of valuable resources.

Rhee does not address eight of these nine arguments. And the sixth argument, the one she does address, she mischaracterizes. The Garfield teachers clearly articulate that students don’t take the MAP seriously because it does not affect their letter grade. Rhee does not make this clear. Instead, by failing to qualify her statement, she makes it appear that the teachers don’t take the test seriously and could remedy the situation by “setting an example and choosing to take the assessments seriously themselves.” Rhee’s willingness to ignore virtually every substantial argument (and mischaracterize another) is troubling. Such an approach is either intentionally dishonest (i.e. she knew of the arguments and chose not to address them) or negligent (she failed to know of the arguments but should have, given the fact that she’s writing an op-ed about the boycott).

Also in that fifth paragraph, she writes “Moreover, the MAP assessment was agreed to within the union’s collective-bargaining process just three years ago, and is scheduled to be a bargained issue again, appropriately, within the contract-negotiation process.” I was not a member of the SEA bargaining team, and cannot speak to whether it was or was not bargained, but this whole claim is irrelevant to the issue at hand. Rhee’s inclusion of this irrelevant information amounts to a red herring, the logical fallacy of changing the topic to avoid the issue at hand. If the MAP is invalid, it is not relevant that it was bargained into place; the issue is still one of whether the test is harmful to students. The only conclusion that can be drawn from her bargaining argument is that the SEA and SPS agreed to use an invalid test. If the test is invalid, if the test is hurting students, then waiting to negotiate the test out of the contract means leaving it in place too long.

Rehashing the “Fix the MAP” Argument and Ignoring Relevant Facts

In paragraph six, Rhee restates an argument she already made. She writes, “True, many assessments being used across the country could stand to be improved. That’s why educators ought to engage with them - not boycott them – in order to turn assessments into better measures of student learning.” By starting this point with what appears to be a concession, Rhee subtly frames her position as being inherently reasonable, i.e. “Look, I can concede a point, I’m not unreasonable.” But the point she concedes is not worthy of debate. Everyone agrees that many assessments could be improved. The testing industry itself invests countless sums of money to improve their own tests! But the concession is not the big issue in this paragraph; the big issue in this paragraph is her continued insistence that scrapping the MAP is folly, and that the MAP should be fixed. Teachers in Washington State will soon be required under a new teacher evaluation law to measure student learning and growth, with student growth data a substantial factor for three of the eight evaluation criteria identified in the law. Teachers are already working hard to make better use of assessments (both formative and summative) to improve and measure student learning. There is simply no reason why the Seattle Public Schools should invest any more time trying to fix a broken test when alternatives already exist.

In paragraph six, Rhee also avoids the use of a highly relevant fact when she writes “Seattle Schools Superintendent Jose Banda has already convened a task force to evaluate assessments; its recommendations are due in May.” Conveniently, Rhee omits the fact that this task force was convened as a result of the MAP boycott! The task force is charged with “reviewing District assessment programs and making recommendations for next year and beyond,” and addresses its role with reviewing the MAP specifically (the only such assessment identified by name) when it provides “[The task force] will carefully review the MAP assessment, and also hear from subject matter experts on key topics, such as future Common Core standards aligned assessments, and the new statewide evaluation system for teachers.” Thus, while the task force is evaluating assessments, Rhee’s characterization is overly broad and fails to recognize that the specific reason for this task force is to analyze the MAP itself!

Ad Hominem Ad Nauseum

In paragraphs seven, eight, and nine, Rhee sets up her argument against teachers unions, changes the focus of the debate on using test scores as a factor in teacher evaluations, and attacks unions with mere assertions (and no evidence). These paragraphs read:

No one argues against the idea that a student ought to be better at math and reading at the end of a school year than at the beginning. Also, no one suggests that every school should aim for something less than continual improvement.

Despite that, labor unions across the country are fighting against using test scores as a factor in teachers’ performance evaluations.

They focus only on preserving union members’ jobs, while many parents, teachers, and education reform organizations and other concerns citizens understand the need for some objective measurement to help determine how our schools are doing.

Look at Rhee’s second paragraph. She makes a claim without providing any evidence or context while simultaneously using the term labor unions as a bad word. Do labor unions oppose using test scores as a factor in teachers’ performance evaluations? Yes. Is that the end of the debate? No. Why? Context. Rhee fails to provide any context for why teacher unions oppose such tests. Recent research in the use of student assessments to evaluate teachers indicates that such scores are not reliable indicators of teacher success due to a large error in measurement (that can result in the mislabeling of teachers). The research also highlights the fact that test scores are not available for every content or grade level, which narrows their applicable use. Furthermore, using tests to evaluate teachers results in unintended and undesirable consequences, like narrowing the curriculum and teaching to the test. These reasons are not exhaustive (additional report here), nor is this research the only one on the topic, but Rhee’s failure to address the context under which teachers oppose the use of tests in evaluations is dishonest, and her continued insistence to frame this debate as the obstructionism of the teacher unions demonstrates her commitment and willingness to disparage organized labor.


In that third paragraph, Rhee makes another bold statement, an unsupported generalization, intended to again disparage teacher unions. Read the Garfield teachers’ letter again. These teachers identify the need to remove struggling teachers from the classroom. They specifically write: “we wish for our colleagues who are struggling to be identified and either be supported or removed.” Rhee’s narrative that teacher unions only protect struggling teachers is both common and stale. The reality is that most teachers want their colleagues to be effective teachers. Most teachers want struggling teachers to get better or leave the profession. And unions work hard to counsel many of these teachers out of the profession. But Rhee ignores this discussion because it does not fit into her narrative that unions only focus on preserving union members’ jobs. This statement is simply a lie told all too often.

Omitting the Whole Story

Paragraph ten is also a doozy. Rhee first begins with the claim that “We know standardized testing works.” She doesn’t define what she means by “works,” but we can infer from the remaining portion of the paragraph that perhaps she would define works as “standardized testing works when it can be included in teacher evaluations in order to distinguish between high performing and low performing teachers.” Never mind that this immediately invalidates the test (a test is valid when it measures what it purports to measure. Since standardized tests are designed to measure student growth in content or skills, using these tests to measure teacher effectiveness, an area they were not designed to assess, makes the tests invalid). Rhee ignores this invalidity issue and instead charges forward with what she asserts is evidence of standardized testing that works - evidence from her time as the Washington D.C. school chancellor.

In establishing her evidence she writes: “For example, look at the District of Columbia, where I was school chancellor. By including students’ test scores as a component of teacher evaluations, along with other reforms, such as rewarding teachers with performance-based pay increases, D.C. produced one of the best retention rates for great teachers in the country, 88 percent, while retaining only 45 percent of its low-performing teachers.” Rhee’s evidence is not convincing, however, because of the substantial problems with the evidence, as articulated in this Washington Post educator blogger’s article. But, even beyond Rhee’s use of dubious evidence, she goes a step further in her brandishing of her ed-reform agenda. Rhee touts the use of performance-based pay increases for teachers as a reform that works. The problem with this claim? It’s contrary to research that concludes that, not only do performance-based pay increases not increase teacher performance, they can lead to reduced student achievement! How is it that a policy that is proven through comprehensive research to not work, i.e. not improve teacher effectiveness or improve student performance or learning, is still touted by Rhee as a prime example of putting kids’ educations first? She and I have a big disagreement about what it means to put students first, apparently.

At Least We Agree on Something

In her eleventh paragraph, Rhee and I find something we agree on. She writes that “It is criminal that, in many communities throughout America, we send children every day into classrooms that are failing them. Astronomically high dropout rates and subpar math and reading proficiency levels in lower-income, inner-city schools ought to jolt us as especially immoral.” I agree (in part): many students are failed on a daily basis in this country. Now, Rhee is quick to assign blame to the classroom itself. To this end, I imagine she would recite the now famous adage that a teacher is the most-important in-school factor that affects test scores. But this adage, and Rhee’s continued reliance of it, hides the stark reality that the majority of factors that affect student learning are outside of the control of teachers, what we call non-school factors. According to William J. Mathis of the National Education Policy Center, “non-school factors, which are generally associated with parental education and wealth, are far more important determinants of students’ test scores.” Mathis also explains that “research also suggests that teacher differences account for no more than about 15% of differences in students’ test score outcomes.” This research undermines Rhee’s attack on teachers, that they continually fail students. The majority of differences between student test score outcomes results from non-school factors beyond the teacher’s control. It’s no wonder then why students in lower-income, inner city schools tend to perform lower – they would tend to have more non-school factors that negatively affect their performance (e.g. poverty and food insecurity). But, again, I agree with Rhee that the failure to properly serve lower-income and inner-city schools is a moral failure – it’s just not typically the moral failure of teachers; rather, it’s the moral failure of a country that fails to adequately address poverty.

Regarding Rhee’s Concluding Remarks

By her twelfth paragraph, Rhee finally writes a proposition that I wholly agree with: “Every child deserves a quality education, regardless of his or her circumstances, and a path out of poverty.” How true this statement is, especially for teachers. We believe that every child does deserve a quality education. This is likely the reason why most teachers teach. We also believe that education can serve as a path out of poverty (likely another reason we teach – to help others achieve a better life for themselves). Of course, unlike Rhee, I don’t think teachers that boycott the MAP test deprive students of a quality education. Rather, these boycotting teachers display the characteristics of educators who are doing their damnedest to fight for their students and to make sure that every minute of every day is maximized learning, and not wasted on an invalid test.

I also disagree with her final paragraph, which provides:

Instead of a national conversation over how best to serve our kids, Seattle boycotters are using a routine learning assessment to spark a debate over standardized tests and teacher evaluations. In doing so, the debate over the nuts and bolts of the MAP robs the public of a much more meaningful dialogue about how to ensure a high-quality education for every American student.

By boycotting the MAP test, Seattle teachers have created a national conversation over how best to serve our kids. Their position is just one that Rhee disagrees with. Namely, that our kids are best served by not wasting time on an invalid test. Thus, Rhee’s claim that these teachers are avoiding a national conversation is wrong and constitutes a gross mischaracterization of the dialogue that has resulted from their efforts. Furthermore, while teacher evaluations are a part of this boycott, they’re a small part underserving of equal billing with the harm done to students by the MAP test. And too, the public is not robbed of a meaningful dialogue. These teachers actions contribute to and enhance the dialogue, calling attention to an assessment that is not doing justice for our students.

And Finally, the Irony of Rhee’s First Claim

Rhee framed her op-ed with an ironic statement. “Seattle public school students should pay attention. They’re getting a front-row, real-world lesson in how the actions of adults can distract from what’s best for students.” Rhee’s statement implies two things, that by boycotting the MAP test Seattle educators are obscuring the larger issue of “what’s best for students,” and that not taking the MAP is not what’s best for students (i.e. that taking the MAP is best for students). Rhee doesn’t get it. It’s Rhee’s actions, of attacking labor unions and using rhetoric instead of evidence that distract from what’s best for students. The boycotting teachers make it clear in their December 21st letter that the letter “is an objection to the MAP test specifically and particularly to its negative impact on our students.” These teachers have an idea of what’s best for students and they make a stand to ensure that the students receive what’s best. Rhee does not present an idea of what’s best for students, other than to assert (without any evidence) that what’s best for students is using standardized testing to evaluate teachers and incentivizing teacher performance through additional pay. These assertions evidence the irony I mention above – that Rhee’s actions, not those of the Seattle teachers, distract from the reality of what’s best for students, since Rhee avoids any real analysis of improving student learning and instead focuses on her favorite ed-reform strategies of using standardized tests to evaluate teachers and merit pay.

Thanks for Reading

I reject Rhee’s arguments. I disagree with her opinions. I find her approach to this issue lacking in sound logic, compassion, thoughtfulness, and honesty. Michelle Rhee may sincerely want what’s best for children. But if she does, she does a poor job at illustrating that sincerity in this op-ed.

  • 8 March 2013
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