What follows is the story of a missing memo, numerous attempts to unearth it using the Freedom of Information Act, confidential sources, apparently lost email, and new questions about Michelle Rhee’s decision not to investigate widespread erasures on an important standardized test during her first year in Washington, DC.
Readers of this blog know that our Frontline film, “The Education of Michelle Rhee,” has stirred up the conversation about Chancellor Rhee’s tenure in Washington, DC. Debate continues about the ‘wrong to right’ erasures on the DC-CAS, and about the quality and depth of the investigation of those erasures. (Read more about these reactions, including my response, here.)
Erasures matter. The DC-CAS is a diagnostic tool whose wrong answers reveal where students are weak (say, multiplying fractions), so that teachers can provide the necessary catch-up instruction. If adults change answers, then the weaknesses are not discovered or remediated. If you believe, as I do, that education is a civil right, then those cheaters are denying children a basic civil right.
As the film documented, the new Chancellor extracted written guarantees of gains from her principals and offered cash bonuses to principals, assistant principals and teachers if their students’ scores jumped. The implicit message was that principals might lose their jobs if scores did not go up.
Scores jumped, sometimes as much as 42%.
In response to those dramatic increases, she awarded more than $1.5 million in bonuses to principals, assistant principals and teachers. As she said at the celebration–without a trace of irony–when awarding the bonuses, “These are unbelievable for a one-year time period.”
Shortly thereafter, Rhee was informed by Deborah Gist, the Superintendent of Education, that the test maker had discovered large numbers of erasures, most of the answers changed from ‘wrong to right.’ In an “action required” memo dated November 21, 2008, Gist asked Rhee to investigate. (Gist, now Rhode Island’s State Superintendent, declined to discuss this on the record.)
As our film documented, the normally decisive Chancellor responded to Gist’s memo by asking first for more time and then for more information. In the end, she did not investigate the possibility that adults had cheated in order to raise the scores.
What almost no one outside of Rhee’s inner circle knew–perhaps until now–is that the usually decisive Rhee did not stray from her normal pattern of behavior. She acted decisively, but she did this privately.
She turned to a trusted advisor, Dr. Fay G. ‘Sandy’ Sanford. Dr. Sanford began consulting for DCPS early in Rhee’s tenure. He had been approached by Erin McGoldrick, Rhee’s Chief of Data and Accountability, even before she began working for DCPS. “She didn’t have any background in data-driven instruction,” Sanford told me in mid-November of last year, “and so she asked me for help.”
Sanford’s undated agreement says he will be paid $85 per hour for work performed at his offices in California (his company is called Eduneering) and $1500 per day for work performed at DCPS, plus reimbursement for travel, food and lodging.
The document makes clear that he would be under the direct supervision of McGoldrick. His duties are broadly defined in five areas: professional development; data analysis and data modeling; critical review of plans, programs or any other related topics, program design and implementation; and–the open-ended job–”any other services not specified above but related to the data and accountability welfare of the district as directed by the Chief of Data and Accountability (McGoldrick).”
McGoldrick and DCPS relied on Dr. Sanford to the tune of at least $218,935.45 in roughly three years. Sanford’s purchase orders and invoices, which we obtained through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) were invariably sent to the attention of Erin McGoldrick (with her email address) and paid by DCPS.
A confidential source told Producer Mike Joseloff that, around the time of Gist’s memo, DCPS asked Dr. Sanford to examine the same data that set off alarm bells in Deborah Gist’s office. It stands to reason that McGoldrick, Sanford’s direct supervisor, would have made the request on the Chancellor’s behalf.
Dr. Sanford confirmed that he had written a memo about the erasure data at the request of DCPS. He said that to Joseloff in late spring of 2012 and again to me in our phone conversation on November 20, 2012, a conversation that lasted for 44 minutes and 30 seconds (according to billing records).
I asked him for a copy of the 2008 memo. He said he would release it if DCPS agreed, but, because it was a ‘work for hire,’ he couldn’t simply send me a copy. He told me that he had already given copies to the Inspectors General of both DCPS and the US Department of Education, under subpoena.
Here beginneth our tale of FOIA frustration. Starting in early May of 2012, we submitted FOIAs to DCPS, the DC Inspector General, the Mayor and the US Department of Education. DCPS told us the document did not exist. The DC Inspector General told us he had it but wouldn’t release it, a decision echoed by the US Department of Education’s IG. The Mayor supported DCPS. I have copies of 46 communications on my desk as I write this, but there may have been more.
Careful readers will recall that Sanford reported to McGoldrick and that he regularly invoiced her for payments. We inferred from this that they probably communicated by email, given that Sanford was in California and McGoldrick in DC. Therefore, on July 3, 2012, we filed a FOIA with DCPS for email communications between the two. We sent ‘reminder’ requests on August 14 and October 1. On October 5 the DCPS FOIA officer, Donna Whitman Russell, wrote to say “We should receive the emails within the next 15 days. We’ll have to review them. And hope to have response in approximately 20 days.” Our November 5, 2012 FedEx letter to her was returned, unopened, with the notation, “moved.” However, Ms. Russell was still on the job as of January 15, 2013.
It’s been over six months, and we have still not received the McGoldrick-Sanford emails. How hard can it be to find email? Or could there be something in the McGoldrick-Sanford communications that DCPS does not want the public to read?
But we know the Sanford memo is out there. What does it say? Three secondary sources have told us that Sanford was troubled by the widespread erasures. An anonymous letter was mailed to me on June 20, 2012, stating in part, “The memo indicated there was cause for concern with a significant number of school test results….(Sanford) did not draw conclusions, but we all know he suspected cheating was widespread.”
A second secondary source told of being in a meeting where McGoldrick spoke of Sanford’s memo and conveyed his concern. A third secondary source said much the same thing.
Primary sources are the gold standard, of course, and in this case there is only one: the memo itself.
In my conversation with Dr. Sanford (November 20, 2012), he said to me, “You know, the memo doesn’t say what you think it says.”
And what is that, I asked him?
“You think it says I found cheating.”
No, I responded. I think it says that there was cause for concern.
He was silent.
Am I right, I asked? Is that what you reported, that there was reasonable cause to investigate?
He was silent.
I asked him to confirm or deny.
He was silent for a long time, and then he changed the subject.
I inferred from that exchange that he did not want to lie to me but that he also felt bound by the rules of his contractual relationship and could not answer. By this point in our conversation I come to feel that Dr. Sanford was a straightforward and honorable man.
I say that because I spent the first 30 minutes of the phone call learning his life story. He grew up in Tennessee and said he didn’t learn to read until he was in 6th grade. He hated school so much, he said, that he “had to be scraped from the car in the mornings.” He wouldn’t have made it through high school if it had not been for four very special teachers and music. He played the string bass and said he was an All-State musician who played rock, jazz and classical music.
After graduating from high school in 1965, Sanford joined the Marines and expected to be sent to Vietnam. Instead, this almost-dropout was assigned to teach math and physics to new recruits. Why me, he asked? “The tests show you can do this,” he said they responded.
So he went to junior college and earned enough credits to qualify to become a commissioned officer in the Marines. He eventually earned his Bachelor’s degree from the University of California and Master’s and Doctor’s degrees from USC.
After 24 years in the Marine Corps, he retired in 1989 and began teaching 4th grade. He rose through those ranks to become a principal.
When criterion-reference testing came to California, his skills were in demand, and he was promoted to the central office. He jumped from that in 2000 to form his own company. “Big mistake,” he said. “I made a grand total of $250 my first year.” But it grew and grew, finally becoming too big for his sensibilities, and so he sold it and started his current small consulting company, Eduventures.
Oh, he also took up motor car racing two years ago, at age 64. Said he’s good enough to win his age class, even won a big award that entitled him to go to Lotus Academy in England. ‘Math has served me well,’ he said, explaining that motor car racing is a matter of mathematics.
And so, when Dr. Sanford remained silent for a long time before changing the subject, I drew the inference that our secondary sources were probably right, and that this seemingly honorable man had seen enough in that raw data to believe an investigation was warranted.
If you have read this far, you must be wondering why we didn’t simply ask McGoldrick or Rhee for the document. I called McGoldrick at her home in California at least a dozen times. I never got anything but her answering machine (including once again this morning). I left messages with a call back number. She hasn’t called.
As for Michelle Rhee, we did ask, but even that story is a bit complicated. It begins with phone calls this past summer from a prominent Washington criminal attorney, Reid Weingarten. Mr. Weingarten indicated that, if we would submit our questions in writing, she would reply in writing.
I responded to Mr. Weingarten’s offer in good faith. In my email dated August 22, 2012, I asked the former Chancellor to release Sanford’s memo. She did not reply.
In that same letter, I asked for a formal sit-down interview for our Frontline film to give her ‘the last word.’ She did not reply.
So what does Dr. Sanford’s 4-page memo say? We haven’t seen it and have only circumstantial evidence that suggests its contents.
But if Sanford concluded that the Chancellor had no cause for concern and no reason to investigate, wouldn’t it be in her best interests to release it? Why not provide Frontline with a copy and dispel suspicion?
If, on the other hand, Sanford suggested there was reason to investigate, then that means that two experts, Gist and Sanford, thought something might be amiss. And one of those experts was her own trusted data person.
What we know for certain is that Michelle Rhee did not investigate the DC-CAS erasures on the 2007-2008 test. She did not hire experts to perform erasure analysis or use other forensic tools to determine whether adults cheated. There’s no record of anyone in power even trying to find out if anyone might have witnessed cheating. It’s as if no one wanted to know.
Where is that memo?