The Missing Memo

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?


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64 Responses to “The Missing Memo”

  1. Heather Bastow Weiss 15. Jan, 2013 at 4:49 pm #

    Hello John, this is great investigative journalism, thanks. I couldn’t help but remember some of the pay for performance scandals you and I studied as doctoral students in education and social policy in the early 1970′s–plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose. It also reminds me of Michael Sandel’s great book, What Money Can’t Buy–and the questions he asks us to ponder as we move to a more corporate and privatized world.

    • john merrow 16. Jan, 2013 at 1:19 pm #

      Those were the days, my friend….(Now that song will be in my head the rest of the afternoon!)

  2. Monty Neill 15. Jan, 2013 at 4:52 pm #

    Keep at it, John, and maybe some larger sliver of truth will emerge.

    The greater cheating however is that students are cheated out of a quality education by test-prep schooling. There certainly was reason for concern about DC schools, and there remain concerns. The documentary alluded to but I think not make make clear enough that gains on the National Assessment of Educational Progress for DC have been meager. So even in math and reading test-centric has not worked – never mind for all the untested subjects. DC may have needed a shakeup, but the one applied by Rhee did not work. Still, she peddles her ideology for big bucks, backed by deep-pocket foundations and fat cats, to the continuing damage of children, especially children of color and low-income students.

    BTW, Gist has pushed hard for test-focused schooling as Commissioner in Rhode Island.

    • efavorite 15. Jan, 2013 at 7:09 pm #

      And Gist supported firing all the teachers at Central Falls.

      But she did have the integrity to investigate the cheating in DC and the sense to line up another job before the report came out.

      • democracy 17. Jan, 2013 at 9:40 am #

        Did Gist really have “the integrity” to “investigate” the cheating?

        Or did she just pass the buck (to Rhee), get out of Dodge, and then refuse to discuss any of it?

  3. DCPS parent 15. Jan, 2013 at 5:29 pm #

    Mr. Merrow,

    Thank you for continuing to investigate this very important issue. I have children who attend DCPS. It became quite clear in the early part of her chancellorship that she had her own “adult” agenda and showed contempt for parents and teachers who dare raise concerns or who vocally disagreed with her.

    As more information comes out now exposing the truth about Rhee and her tenure, we see that she is a fraud. She will do anything to advance her reform agenda. Please keep the pressure on so we can all learn the truth and stop the madness of standardized testing.

  4. efavorite 15. Jan, 2013 at 6:55 pm #

    Thank you Mr. Merrow, for your continued reporting on this.

    I hope you make these additional findings into another Frontline and I hope you find more honest people like Dr. Sanford who can speak up more clearly about what they know. They will be heroes in the end.

    It becomes more and more evident to me that there are many associated with DCPS who fear for their reputations and their jobs. There are also those who have been co-opted and feel they have no choice but continue covering up the mess school reform has made of DCPS

  5. Rob Levine 15. Jan, 2013 at 7:49 pm #

    Am I reading this right, the DCPS Chief of Data and Accountability didn’t have any background in data-driven instruction?

    • Tension 15. Jan, 2013 at 8:26 pm #

      surprise, surprise….its an experiment in DC. Nothing more, nothing less. None of the primaries (Henderson, Kamras, etc) had ever achieved anything while working under such a poorly conceived, reductionist, behaviorist a
      pproach.

  6. Tension 15. Jan, 2013 at 8:00 pm #

    Really interesting. I met Dr Sanford a few years ago and found him to be a man of high character and intelligence. I am so happy to hear of this development. This thing is about to blow open!

    • democracy 17. Jan, 2013 at 9:41 am #

      @ Tension: let’s hope so….but meanwhile, don’t hold your breath.

  7. CeceCunningham 15. Jan, 2013 at 8:00 pm #

    John,
    I love your guilessness. But the stress on testing leads to no good ends, for anyone! Kids,parents, teachers, and administrators..

    Keep digging even if you hit resistance. I know you will report honestly even if you have to retract some previous reporting. You can only report what you have in front of you! Who has to hide what?
    Cece

  8. Rob 15. Jan, 2013 at 8:10 pm #

    Great job John….don’t give up..they are hoping you go away.

  9. Linda 15. Jan, 2013 at 8:26 pm #

    Please stick with this…an experiment is now taking place on millions of children nationwide based upon this self-serving fraud who is nothing more than a complete and total failure. When will she be held accountable?

  10. Sheery 15. Jan, 2013 at 8:35 pm #

    Thank you for this important reporting. It not only has implications for DCPS, but also for the 46 states that have signed onto RTTP. If fraud is shown here, the serious problems of RTTT may be revealed, and more importantly, the educations of millions of students might be saved.

  11. Don Wheeler 15. Jan, 2013 at 9:06 pm #

    Like the others, I greatly appreciate your hard work and tenacity. I too hope you can fashion a follow-up segment.

  12. Linda Johnson 15. Jan, 2013 at 9:29 pm #

    Mr. Merrow, I want to say that I think YOU are a straightforward and honorable man. I have felt for a long time that you are truly interested in helping to provide a better education for our least privileged children. It is indeed a civil right. Providing equal educational opportunities for ALL our children is in the best interest of our nation. So I thank you and commend you for pursuing the truth in this matter. The more you learn, the more you will likely realize that the basis for much of the educational “reform” is a pack of “lies, damned lies and statistics.” The true goal is likely not quality education but profits garnered from the schools for the poor.

    It is not easy to prove cheating in a school or district because so many people handle the test booklets. However, it’s not difficult to make inferences and come to certain conclusions. For example, while the general public might think it’s possible to go from the fortieth percentile to the eightieth on a standardized test (the way you might on a weekly spelling test) an educator would know that this is not possible. Therefore when Michelle Rhee praised Noyes School for these “outstanding” improvements and actually rewarded people with taxpayer money, she demonstrated complicity in this disgraceful fraud. She knew. Of course, the losers were the children she wanted to put “first.”

    Please don’t drop this investigation. Millions (billions?) of dollars are being spent on a “reform” that is built on a pile of lies and deceptions. This is no small thing. Just as we needed great journalists to uncover Watergate in the seventies, we need great ones now to expose this scandal. Also, why is the federal govenment turning a blind eye?

    Thank you and please don’t give up.

  13. Educator 15. Jan, 2013 at 9:58 pm #

    To those of you who might not follow the great education debates currently happening all across this nation: The reason why this is so important and why many people are cheering the work of John Merrow here is that the policies that were pushed by Rhee and friends are now being scaled up nationwide. Much of the buy-in to those reforms are based on what happened in DC.

    Rhee gambled that the reason why test scores were so low was because of lazy educators, and if accountability by means of bonuses and firings was introduced to the system, glorious things would happen. Yes, there were probably many folks who needed a kick in the pants, and if cheating did happen, then I’m disappointed in the many educators who chose to cheat. But the fact is teaching in low income communities is extremely stressful and difficult. You cannot simply fire your way to excellence.

    Even if the test scores were legitimate, I’d like to pose a question. Do we even know if higher scores on multiple choice high stakes standardized exams are better for society? Is that what makes our nation great? High test scores?

    • Tension 16. Jan, 2013 at 4:00 am #

      We’re a nation of tinkerers. Higher test scores should not be a fixation.

      And John, the DC CAS is not really a diagnostic tool. I am never able to use it since the results don’t come out until July. The students never see which problems they get wrong.

      • john merrow 16. Jan, 2013 at 11:06 am #

        The best diagnostic tool is the teacher-made test, of course, but the DC-CAS was designed to provide diagnoses, though apparently for next year’s teacher!

        • SRN 22. Jan, 2013 at 9:12 pm #

          In my experience, DC-CAS is not used as a diagnostic tool by DCPS, but is, rather, used exclusively as a tool to compare schools and to evaluate certain categories of teachers who are subject to “value added” components of their IMPACT scores. Test results are not released until mid-summer along with IMPACT ratings, which determine a teacher’s continued employment or eligibility for cash rewards. The test is administered toward the end of the academic year, and results do not inform teaching of individual students in the following year. When teachers return to school in August, only the most general references are made to the previous year’s test, generally along the lines of “We gotta do better or we’ll all be looking for work next year!”. Even if it were intended to be used diagnostically, a test administered in April could hardly be accepted as valid indicator of a student’s status three months later.
          Leaving the actual use of the test aside, the nature of the instrument itself renders it an ineffective diagnostic. First, the multiple choice format is limiting since it does not reveal student thought processes as well as other formats do. Second, the scope of the test means that a complex skill may be measured by only one or two items. Finally, for students performing at the extreme ends of the scale, the grade level test is not sensitive enough to indicate growth or lack thereof. This would be the case for the many students who score at 30% -which can be achieved by selecting “D” for every item. The fact that a test may be represented as a diagnostic tool, doesn’t make it one.

  14. William Robb 15. Jan, 2013 at 11:21 pm #

    M.Rhee’s touted educ. reform tsunami demolished many extant schools, principals & devoted union teachers. Then her waters RECEDED, and we are just starting to see the destructive results: abnormal numbers of “wrong-to-right” erasures…her efforts to quash IG investigations…her many supercilious dismissals of DCPS staff- often with no time allowed for self-improvement(!).She defiantly boasts that there is nothing “democratic” in her purges. She is profoundly MISTAKEN on role of growing up poor, and of family income-and-educational achievement, in mostly city kids’ prospects for excelling in school.
    Bravo, John Merrow, for a fair, balanced, and pull-no-punches profile…I only missed someone quoting Hamlet on Michelle Rhee: ” that one may smile, and smile, and be a villain!”

  15. Gary Orfield 16. Jan, 2013 at 1:45 am #

    If people are put under extreme high stakes pressure to accomplish something that has not been shown to be possible on scale anywhere and no one is watching how they do it and those who appear to have succeeded are given great praise and rewards you have created the best possible situation for cheating. We documented an incredible multi-year scandal in Atlanta in our book, THE CLOSING DOOR, where a superintendent had gotten all kinds of national award, including one from Harvard, for having 70% of the city students over national norms. When we finally got the data from the state and published the actual results–about 70% below national norms, people were stunned. That was back in the l980s and, of course, there has been another similar scandal there much more recently. The truth is that the NCLB and state testing programs have made liars of many educators (and near liars of all who substitute test prep for actual education) and diverted our attention from the issues that really need to be faced. Truly sloppy journalism which has celebrated dubious successes without ever looking closely at what is actually happening has been one of the problems. Keep up this good work that you and some of our best education writers in various cities are doing.

  16. Caroline Grannan 16. Jan, 2013 at 2:26 am #

    This is great journalism. Please keep it up.

  17. George Schmidt 16. Jan, 2013 at 3:41 am #

    The simplistic erasure scam is not much as cheatings go. In order to really scam for a decade or more, a sophisticated Ponzi Scheme is required, and it has to be run by a guy as sophisticated as Bernie Madoff with a bunch of marks as self–important as the wealthy marks against whom Madoff grifted. In that perspective, Michelle Rhee and her aides in D.C. were like a bunch of Times Square three-card monty dealers, compared with the greatest Edugrifter of the 21st Century, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and his Chicago Boys and Girls.

    Cheating of the D.C. sort, and of other kinds, was not limited to D.C. during Rhee’s reign. A much more sophisticated game was being run in Chicago to burnish the image of Arne Duncan prior to his elevation (based on no real credentials as an educator) to his present position of U.S. Secretary of Education. The basic Duncan scam was to blame schools and teachers for the low test scores, then reconstitute the schools, fire the staffs, and promise to the world that a “turnaround” was in the wind.

    But every investigation of the fate of the schools that have gone through this latest Chicago plan, well on the way since Duncan was here, shows that the schools supposedly “turned around”, are the same as those nearby. Poverty, as Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis has noted, not the work of the teachers has the biggest influence on the overall test scores of the children in a school. Especially a school system as segregated by race and class as Chicago.

    And so, while the Rhee scandal is on the verge of terminating one Ponzi Scheme of the last generation, the bigger one, the “Chicago Miracle”, is still at large, in the form of national policy and “Race to the Top.”

    • Jeff 17. Jan, 2013 at 5:25 pm #

      Bingo!

  18. Glenn Marcus 16. Jan, 2013 at 8:04 am #

    John -

    Your continuing excellence as a journalist is one of the reasons that PBS remains a national treasure.

    Indeed, keep up the great work!

  19. efavorite 16. Jan, 2013 at 8:44 am #

    I found Erin McGoldrick’s bio at her new job with the California Charter School Association http://twiststudio.net/ccsa/association/ourteam.html#bio

    In this excerpt, note how she doesn’t mention her position with DCPS:

    “About Erin:
    Erin has held a variety of positions in K-12 research including performing analysis for the Board of Education for the Los Angeles Unified School District, directing research and evaluation for the Urban Education Partnership, and performing survey research at Fairbank, Maslin, Maullin & Associates.”

    I hope this is a telling and positive trend – people who perceive their former association with Michelle Rhee’s brand of reform as a liability to be hidden.

    Does anyone know of others formerly associated with any of Rhee’s enterprises (DCPS, TNTP, SF) who are now dropping the reference from their resumes?

    • Poss 16. Jan, 2013 at 10:55 am #

      This was McGoldrick’s position BEFORE working at DCPS. You have found an archived page. If you look at the current staff list for the CCSA, you will see that she is not listed.

      • efavorite 16. Jan, 2013 at 11:50 am #

        Poss: Thanks for the information and sorry about the mistake. I checked the current site (I think!) http://www.calcharters.org/about/staff/ and as you said, Erin’s name is not there.

        I’ll be more careful about that sort of thing from now on. I was thrown off by this section of Merrow’s story above: “He [Sanford] 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.’”

        Since her title at CCSA was “Director of Data Management and Analysis” I assumed that job came after DCPS. I guess I missed the nuance between “accountability” and “management and analysis”

        Anybody know where she is now?

        • efavorite 16. Jan, 2013 at 11:56 am #

          This looks like her — self-employed and acknowledging DCPS

          Erin McGoldrick
          K-12 Education Consultant
          San Francisco Bay AreaPrimary/Secondary Education
          Current
          Self Employed – K12 Education Consultant
          Previous
          District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS

          Consultant
          Self Employed – K12 Education Consultant
          October 2011 – Present (1 year 4 months)San Francisco Bay Area
          Focused on the areas of data, accountability, assessment, research and evaluation in K-12 education

          http://www.linkedin.com/profile/view?id=97082425&authType=NAME_SEARCH&authToken=bKOA&locale=en_US&srchid=6d624910-1a8e-4a0f-b563-82247819e333-0&srchindex=3&srchtotal=6&goback=%2Efps_PBCK_*1_Erin_Mcgoldrick_*1_*1_*1_*1_*2_*1_Y_*1_*1_*1_false_1_R_*1_*51_*1_*51_true_*2_*2_*2_*2_*2_*2_*2_*2_*2_*2_*2_*2_*2_*2_*2_*2_*2_*2_*2_*2_*2&pvs=ps&trk=pp_profile_name_link

          Chief of Data and Accountability
          District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS)
          July 2007 – July 2011 (4 years 1 month)Washington D.C. Metro Area

  20. Rachel 16. Jan, 2013 at 8:59 am #

    I echo all of these messages–keep at it. It is a story only you can do and get heard.

  21. Christopher Siddall 16. Jan, 2013 at 9:05 am #

    The gaming of performance metrics and cheating on important tests can be expected to happen at more or less the same rate as cheating in elections to public office. We need to keep using many of the same kinds of elaborate security protocols and confidence-building steps for key tests as we use for our elections.

    • DCPS parent 16. Jan, 2013 at 10:49 am #

      What we need to do is separate the high stakes from the testing. We also need to change the culture of intimidation that keeps people scared to tell the truth. Rhee is an adult bully who ruled by fear. The cheating scandal illustrates this very clearly.

      • Another DC Parent 17. Jan, 2013 at 8:32 pm #

        Ms. Rhee’s perceptions regarding parents and teachers was well developed before she arrived in Washington, DC.
        At school PTA/HSA meetings across the District, Rhee outlined how getting rid of poor performing teachers would boost student achievement; how allowing freedom of choice in school selection would empower parents.
        In meetings with teachers, she talked about how there was nothing DCPS could do to educate DC’s parents in order for them to help their children at home.
        Rhee brought in Michael Moody to develop a teacher evaluation system that would streamline every school’s faculty. He was paid $1.5 million to come up with a plan that would quantify a teacher’s performance. No bidding was necessary since she presented him with three separate contracts – all of which were below the $1 million cutoff amount for biddable contracts. According to current Vice Chancellor Jason Kamras, the math formula developed by Moody is too complicated to explain to mere mortals.
        Called IMPACT, this system has nearly bankrupted DCPS. They are no longer supplying consumable workbooks to teachers because they cut that $23 million item from their budget to cover teacher pay increases for teachers rated high performing.
        By allowing parents to choose their child’s school, there are schools in economically disadvantaged neighborhoods that are closing while the schools in more developed areas of the city are trying to keep the Fire Marshall at bay due to the overcrowding.
        This is Michelle Rhee’s legacy in Washington, DC.

      • EG 18. Jan, 2013 at 7:18 am #

        What teachers and parents alike should be afraid of is your children not being able to compete to in a global market place by not have reading, writing, and math skills that are required for even the simplist of occupations. Ms. Rhee appeared to put her heart and soul into her job but had to fight people who were simply afraid of change, any change.

  22. steve nelson 16. Jan, 2013 at 9:30 am #

    I echo many of the comments above. Bravo and thanks, John.

  23. Betsy Donahoe 16. Jan, 2013 at 10:37 am #

    This story is about a “reformer” who comes into a not so hot school system and rampages through it like a bull in a china shop. Ok she didn’t do a great job, and maybe standardized tests are not the way to go. But tests are a very good teaching tool. DC’s children deserve to be taught to read, to write, to add and multiply, and to think for themselves. If schools are not succeeding in teaching thinking, they are failures. Erasures or not.

    • Linda 16. Jan, 2013 at 1:03 pm #

      Are you a teacher? And you believe TESTS are a “good teaching tool”. Really?

      There is little thinking when your task has been boiled down to choosing the correct bubble.

      Please think.

      • John 16. Jan, 2013 at 2:33 pm #

        Most research shows that testing is a good thing and students retain things better when tested on them. It can be oversimplified and become less useful, but let’s not just say testing is bad. They are, in fact, a good teaching tool.

        • Tension 16. Jan, 2013 at 3:48 pm #

          I agree John. Testing is necessary. Kind of like having athletes run 40-yerd dashes. Their skill is measured and then steps are taken to improve. I use lots of brief quizzes in my class to great effect.

          The problem is that the standardized tests which supposedly measure “growth” are disconnected to my teaching in many cases, especially on the language arts side. Perhaps the Common Core will eventually solve this problem, especially if actual teachers are involved.

          Which brings up another major issue with testing. Its a money pit for school districts and a goldmine for companies. Major disconnect. I am actually in the classroom each day busting it while testing companies are the main beneficiaries of NCLB and RTTT. When in the world is my work going to be recognized. Why is assessment more valued than teaching>

    • SubRex 17. Jan, 2013 at 12:03 am #

      Respectfully, your post is nonsensical.

      Have you read what actually took place with Rhee during her tenure in both Baltimore and DC? Rhee, is a brazen fraud who preyed upon the most vulnerable segment of society, namely poverty stricken children, and used them as a prop for millionaires/billionaires.

      It is not a question of “Erasures or not” but a question of legitimate education versus a perverse propaganda campaign. There are thousands of children who believed that they actually improved their abilities in reading and math when in reality they actually fell behind. Rhee is directly responsible for that.

      Who is going to give back those years of actual instruction that was stolen from those kids?

      You reduce the actions of a predatory brazen fraud in the form of Rhee as someome who “Didn’t do a great job” and in the same breath talk about the failure of DC public schools. Rhee failed every child, parent, and teacher who were touched by her lies in Baltimore and DC.

  24. CC 16. Jan, 2013 at 11:07 am #

    The Frontline special actually didn’t go far enough and was terribly uncritical of Rhee’s unethical behavior in poor schools and communities. She is a media darling, yet surrounded by censorship. Her public engagements and interviews are structured so any direct questions about her reform claims are censored.
    http://dianeravitch.net/2012/08/09/mr-and-mrs-rhee-lecture-on-ethics/

  25. sfteacher 16. Jan, 2013 at 12:10 pm #

    Thank you Mr. Merrow. This is a huge story and I urge you to keep telling it.

  26. Wayne Gersen 16. Jan, 2013 at 4:19 pm #

    Keep up the good work! Investigative journalism seems to be running into a lot of resistance. I have faith that PBS will continue to support your efforts and those of you colleagues! That’s probably why they are viewed with suspicion by some in Washington.

  27. Jeff Larsen 16. Jan, 2013 at 4:44 pm #

    Thank you, John, for your thorough and fair investigation. I eagerly await the day when Michelle Rhee is re-interviewed by Oprah, this time to give her Lance Armstrong-like mea culpa.

    • Terry 17. Jan, 2013 at 2:06 pm #

      And then maybe she will be in a million little pieces. Oprah could have a whole new show: My James Frey moments continue.

  28. keep looking 16. Jan, 2013 at 10:49 pm #

    Michelle Rhee is protected by the media the same way President Obama is protected by the media.

  29. Rheeform 16. Jan, 2013 at 11:21 pm #

    Doesn’t it stand to reason that a PUBLIC investigation would undermine any positive differences that were being generated by Rhee’s efforts? Not to mention potential issues with union strikes or a loss of focus on what the educators are supposed to be doing.

    • SubRex 17. Jan, 2013 at 12:10 am #

      What do you mean?

      Are you saying that a brazen fraud like Rhee should be EXEMPT from the same level of accountability that she stated was so vitally important for teachers?

      Rhee relished the opportunity to fire people, even doing so for the benefit of the cameras. All of her actions were touted as finally holding people “RESPONSIBLE” for their performance as educators.

      There were NO positive differences created by Rhee’s lies. Therefore it “Stands to reason” that Rhee should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law for fraud and malfeasance while Chancellor.

      • Brooklander 17. Jan, 2013 at 9:01 pm #

        Rhee will never be prosecuted unless the missing memo is found or the DC Attorney General’s office asks for a copy from Mr. Sanderson. I do not believe that DC wants the scandal of prosecuting Rhee for fraud if that’s what it is.
        The burden of proof would be on the government to show she knew about the cheating before awarding the bonus money to a school that had been found to have cheated. It is my understanding, however, that since there was no thorough investigation of any DC schools suspected of cheating, there is no case.
        Now if some young prosecutor wants to make a name for him/herself…

  30. SubRex 17. Jan, 2013 at 12:14 am #

    Mr. Merrow,

    While I appreciate the tenacity you’ve shown in pursuing the truth about Rhee’s tenure as the chancellor of the DC school system, you seem to be saying nothing more can be done.

    I have a very simple solution to get the individuals who refuse to speak to you to answer publicly for their actions.

    Ambush journalism.

    Rhee’s schedule is public and PBS is a nationwide network. Either yourself or some other journalist from PBS can meet Rhee wherever she is hawking her fiction and demand that she answer the questions. The spectatcle created by this should raise the stakes.

  31. Rogier Gregoire 17. Jan, 2013 at 12:42 am #

    Thank you for restoring my sense that something can be done.

    The cause of our all of our educational problems stems form a single flaw in the purpose of the schools pubic and private. They are focused on what to learn rather than how to learn. Learning is the effort of each individual to crate a sense or understanding or reality. Gaining an understanding of them selves and their experiences.

    People are born with an overwhelming urge to learn and take responsibility for that urge until they enter the schools where they are convinced or intimidated into believing that they can no longer learn on their own. they begin to distrust their natural ability to learn and being to acccept the notion that learning is something done to them.

    How sad.
    But it can be fixed.

    Rogier Gregoire.

  32. democracy 17. Jan, 2013 at 9:43 am #

    Here’s how John Merrow ends his blog post on the missing memo:

    “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.”

    Let’s review Rhee’s record, especially that uncovered by USA Today in its investigative report into cheating in the D.C. public schools. USA Today found that under Rhee: 
     
    1. D.C. school officials were reluctant to have any kind of investigation into allegations of cheating;  
     
    2. more than half of all D.C. schools had irregular erasure answer patterns on tests;
     
    3. “ the odds are better for winning the Powerball grand prize than having that many erasures by chance;”  
     
    4. the investigations that finally took place were quite limited (mere peek-a-boos, not legitimate inquiries);  
     
    5. the school system refused to release the names of the schools that were investigated;  
     
    6. the school system refused to release the investigative reports;  
     
    7. for a school to be “flagged” for possible cheating a “classroom had to have so many wrong-to-right erasures that the average for each student was 4 standard deviations higher than the average for all D.C. students in that grade on that test, meaning that “ a classroom corrected its answers so much more often than the rest of the district that it could have occurred roughly one in 30,000 times by chance. D.C. classrooms corrected answers much more often.” 
     
    The sheer number of schools involved, the nature and extent of the erasure patterns (very high erasure rates, almost always wrong-to-right), and the statistical improbability (impossibility) of these occurring merely by chance, are more than compelling evidence to indicate cheating on a large scale, not the “acts of a few” or “individual cheating.” 
     
    That’s Michelle Rhee’s record in D.C., in a nutshell. 
     
    Rhee is a charlatan, pure and simple. Her “reform” facade is wearing thin, and a honest answer to Merrow’s question “Where is that memo?” would crumble the skinny veneer that remains.

  33. Steven Norton 17. Jan, 2013 at 11:08 am #

    This entire episode is disturbing, especially insofar as officials much higher up the ladder are apparently hoping the whole thing will simply “go away.” That is a poor foundation for education policy that is so critical to our country.

    As with similar scandals (such as Atlanta), it’s easy to focus on the cheating and on adding endless layers of security. But what that does is ignore the basic problem: putting tremendously high stakes on so narrow a measure, and expecting what “reform” supporters here (in MI) call “breakthrough performance,” is a recipe for disaster.

    Change can certainly happen, but it will take time, it will take a collaborative effort among teachers, administrators, and other policy makers, and it will also take resources. The testing craze has been motivated by a belief in magic: that if you simply provide the right incentives to teachers to “do better,” they will overcome the impact of long-term poverty and historically inadequate education virtually overnight and without spending a dime.

    This is nonsense. In most communities, urban and rural schools facing high-poverty student populations have been struggling because of long-term declines in the tax base that supports the schools, increasingly concentrated and multi-generational poverty, and the hollowing out of our urban centers and rural communities as jobs disappear. That this tide of hopelessness and frustration should infect our schools should surprise no one. Expecting it to change with exhortations, stretch goals, and simplistic but high-stakes metrics can only be described as magical thinking.

    Steven Norton
    Executive Director, Michigan Parents for Schools

  34. Brooklander 17. Jan, 2013 at 8:46 pm #

    Many people in Washington, DC know that it was former one-term Mayor Adrian Fenty who convinced Michelle Rhee to leave her job in NYC and come to Washington, DC. What is not well-know is that it was NYC Chancellor Joel Klein who suggested to Fenty that he hire Rhee.
    Why did Klein make the suggestion?
    Was Klein truly trying to help a fellow Democrat or was he looking to rid himself of Rhee? Had Klein discovered something about Rhee that he did not want to make public? I admit that this old story has always left me wondering.

  35. Cynical 18. Jan, 2013 at 2:58 pm #

    What’s the next book? The bee cheater or Three cups of Rhee?

  36. Educator 19. Jan, 2013 at 2:46 am #

    I’m thinking many in the education reform circle (TFA, DFER, Students First, Parent Revolution, SFER, charter school networks, etc…) have learned about this blog post by now, and I bet many of them are reading these comments. I’d really like to speak to that group, as I believe many of them are well intentioned but very misguided by the lure of easy solutions to bringing equity to students, especially from low income neighborhoods.

    Please carefully consider what this blog and what Mr. Merrow’s work is showing. Although Rhee didn’t tell people to cheat (I hope), she was the leader, and should be held accountable for her results, just like she was trying to hold teachers and principals accountable. I believe she should have properly investigated whether her staff was doing the right thing.

    I know many reformers like to dismiss critics as “status quo lovers who don’t like change,” and to a certain extent I agree that many educators don’t like change. But here is Mr. Merrow exposing very bad policy that is being sold as good to many politicians across this nation, especially to mayors of large cities and to state legislators.

    Teaching, if you have had any experience (two years is better than 0 but not enough to become an ed policy expert in my humble opinion), is extremely difficult. I’ve read over and over again that nearly half of all teachers leave teaching within the first five years. In low income areas, that increases substantially.

    Rhee instituted policies that made teaching more stressful. Yes, she was trying to hold them accountable for results, but…..look at the result. A nightmare! I have to ask, if 50% of teachers in the previous “no accountability for results” pre reform days quit, why would anyone want to be a teacher now under the new sets of policies being pushed by politicians and reform groups? Many reform groups are pushing for better evaluation systems, which I agree with, but there is little talk of how to support teachers. It seems the mindset of many reformers is that if you can create more carrots and sticks for teachers, they’ll become excellent.

    So let me return to Rhee. She created carrots with financial bonuses and sticks with firings. I hope you can see it didn’t work. So as you keep reforming the education system, I hope you can take a step back and reflect. Consider the opinions of real grassroots groups like Parents Across America or Students United for Public Education. To my knowledge, these groups don’t get financial backing from any particular group. Many ed reform groups do get funding, and many get funding from the same circle of funders. Ask yourself, are you objective? Pretend that you’re wrong for an hour, and the “status quo” is right. Read what policies they promote, and I think you’ll realize that maybe they know a little something about education. And then ask yourself, if they’re right, how are the policies you are promoting helping or inhibiting education from progressing.

    Right now, politicians are buying into the idea that the entire education system (not only in low income areas) is broken, and their main belief is that it’s the educators who are the problem. So policies are being implemented to hold educators more accountable. Sounds good, but then who will fill those shoes? Who in their right mind would want to teach anymore?

    Ask yourself why private schools don’t have so many standardized tests. Ask yourself why private schools don’t use value added scores for their teachers. Ask yourself who gains by communicating a narrative that all public schools suck, rather than addressing the major issue of low income schools having the difficult time in educating students. Ask yourself if you would have enjoyed school if you were receiving the type of instruction in no excuses charter schools. Ask yourself why you left teaching. Ask yourself why you promote formulating policy to hold teachers accountable, but are silent about doing anything to actually support instruction. Ask yourself whether you believe that high test scores should be one of the major end goals of low income schools, and of all schools. Ask yourself why policy makers continue the false narrative that US international test scores suck, when in reality when you account for America’s high poverty rate, we’re not that bad. Ask yourself whether the work you do in supporting ed reform might actually be hurting students and distracting policy makers from focusing on other potential solutions.

    • Jeff 22. Jan, 2013 at 12:19 pm #

      Really, really good post. Spot on!

  37. susan Landmann 20. Jan, 2013 at 8:34 pm #

    And yet another comment:
    If you haven’t already, read Dr. Seuss:”The Sneetches”- stars on, stars off high scores, low scores, and then up rides McMonkey McBean (Michelle) who tricks them all and rides off with all their $$$.
    Now honestly, who wouldn’t cheat if (a) you lose your job if scores are low (b) you are awarded big bucks if scores are high?
    That is human nature, Michelle McBean!!

  38. Aaron Browne 30. Jan, 2013 at 7:38 pm #

    Ms. Rhee deserves praise for trying to change a broken system using incentives and other means that had not been tried before. Was it Rhee’s fault that cheating occurred? I think not. Who would have guessed that teachers would shirk their duties and stoop to that level. Surely, Rhee did not consider it.

    What the author “digs up” is a whole lot of nothing. It can be confidently asserted that cheating, among many other problems, existed in the DC school district long before Rhee showed up. For those who think that her reforms didn’t do much, well it takes more than three years to fix a pathetic system. Those who rail against her ignore basic facts and propose nothing but the same old tired platitudes that they have been saying for decades. The author is merely trying to demonize Rhee because he simply does not agree with her approach. It seems like he would rather keep trying the same useless policies that have failed in the past.

    The fact is that countries that rely on testing such as South Korea, China, Japan and others consistently outperform U.S. students year after year after year. And yet we still say sill things like “child-centered education.” Children in these countries are better and math and science, speak more languages, and have a better grasp of the world than American children. Its astounding that the U.S. has the same agriculture-based school year while other countries students go to school year-round. If this basic fact can’t be acknowledged and changed then there’s no hope of making any more profound changes.

    Another fact is that teachers’ unions are the biggest obstacle to postive change in our failing education system. Teachers’ unions are just another lobby that is distorting our democracy. They have given millions of dollars in political donations which have bought continuation of the status quo. Tenure should not be given to teachers, it should only be given to professors at universities.

    • Educator 01. Feb, 2013 at 12:15 am #

      Aaron,

      I used to agree with every statement you just wrote. I was in the private sector, and thought public education was terrible, and that teachers were lazy, and their unions were even worse. I changed careers to become a teacher in a low-income area, and found out how challenging the job is. I think the education system is failing in certain areas, especially low-income areas. Although I applaud Rhee for trying something different, overall, it seems to me like she failed.

      The United States education system has been compared to other countries for decades, and the rhetoric has always been that the US system is a failure based on standardized test scores. (Nation at Risk, 1983, for example) Google Professor Yong Zhao, who studies international education systems. If we have been failing for so long for so many decades, why are we still the envy internationally? I have met teachers who have traveled to South Korea because their education minister recruited them to teach in South Korea. Strange, I thought. Why would they want to do that? It turns out that in South Korea and other high test scoring nations, the educators there hear that they’re failing their students because all they know how to do is get high test scores. But they don’t know how to lead and innovate.

      I coincidentally had Chinese international students observe my classroom this week. The American students and the Chinese students had a great discussion. I asked what Chinese students think of American students, and one Chinese student said “You all are extremely smart, and original.” So these students, from China, are hearing that Chinese students and their education system sucks, while America’s is great. Here in America, we hear the opposite.

      I realize, after a few years of teaching, that if teaching were so easy, if there was so little accountability, if their pensions were so great, then why do so many quit the profession? (about 50% don’t last 5 years, and I believe that percentage increases dramatically in low-income areas).

      What happens if the status-quo educators are right? What if teaching is really difficult, and if the goal of “good teaching” is high multiple choice exam scores, what happens if that’s a very challenging task? What if the problem, among many, is the ~23% child poverty rate in America? (It’s not as high in these high scoring nations, by the way.) And there are professors who are now starting to write about how if one disaggregates the international test scores to account for SES, it’s not so bad afterall.

      Folks like Rhee, might be inadvertently then, distracting us from possible solutions.

      And, let me post this question. Do we want American students to be more like Chinese, South Korean and Japanese students?

    • Amy Monroy 10. May, 2013 at 1:34 am #

      Got to this discussion quite late, but have been researching this topic awhile. In reply to the Asian countries that rely on testing and outperform us . . . how do you know those scores aren’t fabricated? And what are the outcomes? Are the other countries running us off the mop in innovation? Also, please note the extreme differences between schools in those countries and ours. No student who is a low performer or difficult for any reason (language, poverty, disability, violence) will ever make it to the testing. Furthermore, those countries use tracking; i.e., only the kids identified as math-adept will be in a math track, so they will be the only ones taking the math tests. The US is the only school in the world in which every child, no matter how unready, is placed in a grade by age and expected to perform at top levels in one year in all subjects.

  39. Amy Monroy 10. May, 2013 at 1:36 am #

    Someone needs to find out how all those ace students are doing now, especially if they went to college.

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