A great deal has happened since “Michelle Rhee’s Reign of Error” appeared in this space two weeks ago.
- DC Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson testified under oath that she learned of Sandy Sanford’s long-buried memo from my blog this past January. My source recalls being in at least one meeting when Ms. Henderson and then Chancellor Michelle Rhee discussed the memo and its contents. Someone is lying.
- The DC City Council held what it called a ‘round table’ that, for the most part, danced around the crucial issues and failed to address an important question: “Did Chancellor Rhee cover up the 2008 erasures?”
- The DC Inspector General continued to evade direct questions, further embarrassing himself and his inadequate investigation.
- The Rhee-Henderson smokescreen–their claim that six investigations have proved they did the right thing–has become easier to see through. It turns out that everything rests on the first ‘investigation’ done by Caveon, a shaky foundation if ever there was one.
At the risk of burying the lead, I propose to examine these points in order.
“The first time I ever saw the Sandy Sanford memo was in January of this year. John Merrow reported on it, and I had to ask my staff, ‘What is this Sandy Sanford memo? Can I see it?’ It has been alleged that I have been in meetings with former Chancellor Rhee about this issue. That was not something that I would have been engaged in, in the scope of my responsibilities at that time.”
That is Kaya Henderson’s sworn testimony before the City Council’s ‘roundtable’ hearing on education on April 18, 2013. She prefaced her statement by acknowledging that she knew she was under oath.
As noted above, my source told me about being present at ‘at least one meeting’ in 2009 when Ms. Henderson and Ms. Rhee discussed the memo and its contents. My source is absolutely terrified of being publicly identified, and I have sworn to protect my source’s identity, but I can tell you that my source had little to gain by speaking to me in the first place. “If anyone ever figures out that it was me, I will never work in education again,” my source said, trembling. Such is the level of fear that Ms. Rhee and Ms. Henderson inspire.
But leave aside the contradiction between Ms. Henderson and my source for a moment. Consider instead the likelihood of Henderson’s not being involved in discussions of this deadly serious challenge to Ms. Rhee’s leadership. Ms. Rhee and Ms. Henderson are best friends, as both have said many times. Is it credible that best friends would not unite to face this most challenging moment, when powerful evidence had emerged suggesting that Ms. Rhee’s own principals might have been responsible for the rash of ‘wrong-to-right’ erasures? Is it credible that Ms. Rhee would not have asked her best friend to help her figure out how to react to this threat to her claim of unprecedented academic success? What are best friends for?
The Council hearing was called by David Catania, who chairs the newly reconstituted Education Committee. The key witnesses were Chancellor Henderson and Inspector General Charles Willoughby. Two other Council members, Kenyan McDuffie and David Grosso, joined Mr. Catania. One purpose of the hearing was to advance Mr. Catania’s own legislation to make cheating a crime (which it apparently is not under current District law). But he acknowledged that the publication of Dr. Sanford’s memo had given the hearing a second purpose: to look back at what transpired in 2008 and 2009.
Reading from what he called a ‘timeline’ of events, Mr. Catania said that Dr. Sanford had been asked to review the testing data on January 28, 2009 and wrote his memo the next day. Dr. Sanford actually traveled to Washington on January 25th and spent the next five days at DCPS, apparently writing his memo on the fifth day of his work there. (Dr. Sanford also billed DCPS for 16.5 hours of work done before flying to Washington.) He did not, as Mr. Catania’s timeline suggested, get the data one day and dash off a memo the next. He took it seriously, as well he should have.
While the timeline error is minor, it highlights a pattern of minimizing the memo itself, which both Ms. Rhee and Ms. Henderson have done publicly. They have cited Dr. Sanford’s warning that ‘the picture is not perfectly clear,’ while omitting the rest of his point: ‘the possible ramifications are serious.’
Chairman Catania kept pressing on the absence of an investigation of the 2008 erasures. Every other year has what he called a “Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval” investigation. After all, Mr. Catania said, we have investigations by “independent outsiders” in 2009, 2010, 2011 and 2012. Why not 2008?
And the Chairman made his own position clear: “If I found any evidence that suggested there was a coverup or significant cheating, this would be a different situation.”
Several times he contrasted the DC situation with Atlanta, usually saying something to the effect that ‘this is not Atlanta.’
Later he noted, “We may never really know what happened in 2008 because the trail runs cold.”
As the Chairman must know, the trail has not ‘run cold.’ And while there is no proof that cheating in 2008 was not as extensive as it was in Atlanta, the truth is out there: CTB/McGraw-Hill still possesses all of the materials from the 2008 DC-CAS. He, the entire City Council or the Mayor could demand a sophisticated erasure analysis to determine if the WTR erasures reveal patterns. We already know that hundreds of classrooms in about half of the schools had WTR erasures that were four, five and six standard deviations away from the norm. That suggests but does not prove hanky-panky.
A deep analysis might reveal that almost all the students answered the hard questions correctly–after erasing their original wrong answers. Bingo!
If someone wants to know the truth, it’s right there in the files.
Councilmember McDuffie questioned Inspector General Willoughby at some length, following up on his own hearing on February 21, 2013. At that first hearing, Mr. McDuffie asked the IG why he had not looked at other high-erasure schools. “Because we didn’t find evidence of a conspiracy to cheat at Noyes,” he replied. Was it prudent to take the word of firms that were paid by DCPS or OSSE  instead of seeking an outside, independent opinion and to rely on media reports, Mr. McDuffie asked. “Yes,” Mr. Willoughby replied.
Asked by Mr. McDuffie if he had tried to find an explanation for the pronounced test score drops when security was tightened, Mr. Willoughby replied, “We were told that it was caused by an influx of new students.” His 17-month investigation resulted in a 14-page report, which he released August 8, 2012. (The Atlanta report runs 813 pages.) He found no evidence of widespread cheating at Noyes but cited some security concerns and noted that one teacher had been dismissed for coaching students on a test. The IG’s essential message: except for that one teacher, all was well.
The IG’s investigation had been requested by Ms. Henderson (who had succeeded Ms. Rhee as Chancellor) not long after USA Today revealed the extent of the erasures. Even today she boasts of the thoroughness of her approach: “I am frustrated because people are saying I haven’t done enough,” she told ABC News recently. “I have used every tool in my tool kit to get to the bottom of cheating.”
Mr. Willoughby’s February testimony did not assuage Mr. McDuffie’s concerns. In a letter dated April 17, 2013, the Council Member wrote that he continued to be ‘gravely concerned.’ “While I do not wish to make inflammatory accusations, the discovery of this memorandum creates doubt that your investigation thoroughly and expansively examined the allegations,” Mr. McDuffie wrote. In his testimony, Mr. Willoughby had referred to ‘factors that limited the scope of his investigation,’ but the tone of Mr. McDuffie’s letter suggested he saw the five factors as excuses. “In my review of the factors I cannot help but conclude that your office did not investigate further because you were told that no cheating occurred anywhere else.”
Mr. Willoughby was called back before the Council on April 18th and was closely grilled once again by Mr. McDuffie. It is sad and disappointing to watch Mr. Willoughby’s weak defense of his badly compromised report. Unfortunately, Mr. McDuffie could not get a straight answer when he tried to get Mr. Willoughby to explain why he ignored the 2008 data.
Mr. McDuffie chastised the IG for relying on news reports as his source, for not looking beyond Noyes, and for relying on companies hired by DCPS. Mr. Willoughby spoke positively of his reliance upon Caveon’s investigations and responded to the Council member’s criticism by saying “I stand by the report…It is an excellent report.”
And speaking of Caveon…..
The investigations “found that there was some cheating, but that it was isolated to only a few schools.” (Michelle Rhee, February 8, 2013)
“We have had six investigations that have cleared DCPS of widespread cheating. (Henderson, April 16, 2013)
If you believe Michelle Rhee and Kaya Henderson, those multiple investigations prove that Rhee and Henderson were on the case. What’s more, the fact that the investigations failed to turn up credible evidence of widespread illegal behavior bears witness to their integrity.
If you believe them….
It turns out that the first Caveon investigation is the linchpin for all that follows, from Chairman Catania’s citing it as the first to have a “Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval” to Ms. Rhee’s and Ms. Henderson’s claims that these investigations vindicate them.
You recall that the rash of ‘wrong-to-right’ erasures in half of DCPS schools during Ms. Rhee’s first year has never been thoroughly investigated, beyond the initial analysis done by CTB/McGraw-Hill. Deep erasure analysis, a process that would have revealed any patterns of erasures, was never ordered by Chancellor Rhee (or by the Mayor, presuming he was aware of the issue).
When the erasures continued in Ms. Rhee’s second year on the job, she was under pressure to investigate, and so in December 2009 she hired Caveon, a security firm that is based in Utah. Why Caveon? Ms. Henderson explained to Mr. Catania’s Committee, “The reason that we hired Caveon was because we thought that we needed an objective third party to actually do the investigation and to make recommendations to us.”
However, according to Caveon President John Fremer, his firm did not conduct an investigation in Washington in the normal sense of the word because his firm does not conduct investigations.  “We use the word ‘investigation’ in our materials because everyone else does,” he said, “but we do analysis, with the goal of process improvement and quality assurance.” Then he added, “We were not brought in to help DCPS with an analysis of what had happened.”
The contract was for a two-part project: a security audit and questioning of certain people at just eight DCPS schools (even though many more had been implicated). But, he emphasized again in our conversation, it was not an investigation Caveon was hired to “review and collect information,” he said. “I give advice as to where to focus attention. I am not trying to position a client to put people in jail. Instead, we give them enough information about problems to allow them to fix them in the future.”
The security audit, he said, consisted of examining DCPS’ policies and procedures around the testing. Caveon did not seek to find out if principals and teachers actually followed the rules, and so Caveon apparently did not inform Chancellor Rhee just how easy it would be to cheat on the DC-CAS before, during and after its administration.  Caveon did make some recommendations to improve security–recommendations, he said, that DCPS did not follow.
Part Two of Caveon’s work–the questioning–is even more interesting. Dr. Fremer told me that DCPS gave him a list of the eight schools it was authorized to go into. DCPS also gave Caveon about 50 questions to ask of teachers, proctors, principals and assistant principals. He said DCPS indicated that Caveon was not to stray from the list. Follow-up questions, the essence of a good investigation, were actively discouraged, according to Dr. Fremer.
He told me that DCPS’ list of questions did not include “Did you see anyone erasing answers?” or “Did you participate…” or “Are you aware of organized erasures?” or “Are you aware of cheating?”
Dr. Fremer told me that his employees never use words like ‘cheating’ or ‘illegal behavior’ because they are ‘too emotional.’ Instead, he said, they asked individuals if they could explain huge discrepancies in wrong-to-right erasures between classrooms.
Caveon was contractually obligated to show DCPS drafts of the report before it was made final, which Dr. Fremer said was completely appropriate. “There was no pressure to ‘sweeten the sound’ of our report,” Dr. Fremer said. “We wanted DCPS to check for mistakes and make certain that we did not reveal the identities of individuals.”
Caveon sent DCPS its final report in February 2010, saying that it had not found evidence of cheating–which it had not been looking for, as Dr. Fremer explained. It recommended some changes in security procedures.
How much control did Chancellor Rhee have over what Caveon did? It seems obvious that she could have demanded a deep analysis of the erasures–after all, it was her contract. But she recently told one of her supporters that she was frustrated by what went on. Here’s what Whitney Tilson wrote to me after talking with Ms. Rhee this week: “She also expressed frustration at some of the investigations because she agrees that they were weak – but she didn’t control them and any attempt by her to influence them would be inappropriate.”
That is her public position: she didn’t control the process and was frustrated but didn’t interfere because that would have been inappropriate, but she had approved (and possibly designed) the process for Caveon to follow, and Caveon was contractually obligated to let DCPS review its drafts.
At the April 18th hearing Chairman Catania alluded to what he called Caveon’s ‘positive’ role in helping expose the Atlanta cheating. That is an overstatement, to put it mildly. Prior to its work for DCPS, Caveon had been hired by the (so-called) “Blue Ribbon Committee” established to look into allegations of cheating in Atlanta. Caveon looked–and reported finding nothing wrong in what turned out to be the epicenter of cheating by adults on standardized tests.  Dr. Fremer told me that while he ‘knew’ there was widespread cheating going on, that was not mentioned in his final report. “We did not try to find out who was cheating,” he said. “Our purpose was to rank order the schools beginning with those with the most obvious problems (of unbelievably dramatic score increases), in order to make the task of investigating more manageable.” In other words, Caveon produced a list!
Dr. Fremer admitted that he knew some Atlanta teachers were lying to him, but he said his hands were tied because he didn’t have subpoena power.
Georgia’s investigators are contemptuous of Caveon’s efforts, labelling it a ‘so-called investigation.’ Richard Hyde, one of the three leaders of the investigation, told me that “either by coincidence or design, it was certain to fail.” Mr. Hyde denied that Caveon needed subpoena power because its investigators were representing a governmental agency, and under Georgia law it is a felony to lie to someone representing the government. What’s more, Mr. Hyde said, Caveon had a fundamental conflict of interest–it was investigating its employer, at least indirectly, because the “Blue Ribbon Commission” (which Mr. Hyde dismisses as “The Whitewash Commission”) included a deputy superintendent of schools.
Robert Wilson, another leader of the Georgia investigation, is even blunter. Of course Caveon didn’t find cheating because “Caveon couldn’t find its own ass with either hand,” he scoffed. Why anyone would hire Caveon was, he said, beyond him–unless they didn’t want to find out anything.
Dr. Fremer seemed hurt and offended by the criticism. “We try to be non-emotional,” he said, acknowledging that “People who listen only to the law enforcement side do not respect us.”
Caveon I was Chancellor Rhee’s first foray into ‘investigation,’ and she and Ms. Henderson regularly cite it as evidence that all was well–because Caveon did not find what it was not looking for.
Next in this row of dominos is Charles Willoughby, who leaned heavily upon Caveon’s report as he exonerated DCPS.
Then there’s the Department of Education’s Inspector General’s investigation, which leaned heavily upon Mr. Willoughby’s work when it reported on January 17, 2013, that “No information was obtained or developed during the course of the investigation that substantiated the allegation of false claims made to the federal government or confirmed widespread cheating on standardized tests.”
For some reason I hear Harry Belafonte singing “Hosanna.”
House built on a weak foundation
Will not stand oh no
Story’s told throughout creation
Will not stand oh no
So let’s connect the dots: Scores rose dramatically on the 2008 DC-CAS after Chancellor Rhee required her principals to give her written guarantees of test score increases. The subsequent discovery of a rash of wrong-to-right erasures suggested collusion by adults but the erasures were not (and have never been) investigated. Caveon was hired to ‘investigate’ the 2009 results even though it does not do investigations, and, surprise, it did not find evidence of cheating. And Caveon’s supposed ‘clean bill of health’ is the foundation for the claims by former Chancellor Rhee, Chancellor Henderson and Chairman Catania that all is well.
All is not well.
- 1. If you think I’ve become a fanatic, or as one blogger put it, “Ahab,” please consider this: It’s easy to say “We’ll never know what happened, so let’s move on,” but those smudge marks on the 2008 answer sheets represent real kids who may have been denied remedial help because adults conspired to cheat. And given Michelle Rhee’s national prominence, it could happen again.
If you’ve made up your mind one way or the other, you can stop reading now. But if you are on the fence and can keep an open mind, please read on. A web of deception that has been woven with great care over the past five years now seems to be unravelling.↵
- 2. He was referring to Caveon and Alvarez & Marsal, hired by either DCPS or OSSE, the Office of the State Superintendent of Education.↵
- 3. Just how weak was Mr. Willoughby’s effort? As we reported on Frontline in January, the Inspector General’s investigation is remarkable for what it did not investigate. He chose not to investigate 2008, the year with the most erasures. He chose not to investigate Aiton, the school Dr. Sanford had singled out for special attention because of its high wrong to right erasures. He did not examine the test answer sheets or perform an electronic analysis. And he did not investigate J.O Wilson – a school with excessive WTR erasures in 100% of its classrooms – simply because Chancellor Henderson had assured him that it was a good school.
Although more than half of DC’s schools had been implicated, he focused only on Noyes Education Campus, the school that USA Today had made the centerpiece of its investigation. Over the course of the next 17 months, his team interviewed just 60 administrators, teachers, parents and teachers, all from Noyes Education Campus. (Atlanta investigators interviewed over 2,000 people and reviewed 800,000 documents). Rather than seek outside experts (as Atlanta investigators had), he relied heavily on information from Caveon, which had been, of course, in the employ of DCPS. He did not ask to perform erasure analysis but relied on interviews–sometimes conducted over the phone.
Without the power to put people under oath, he told City Council member McDuffie in February that he just asked them if they had cheated. If they said they hadn’t, that was the end of it, because, he explained, he “wasn’t conducting a fishing expedition.” Test monitors sent by the central office to patrol Noyes for the 2010 test told Mr. Willoughby that they had been barred from entering classrooms. School officials denied that charge–and Mr. Willoughby believed them, not the monitors.
One of those witnesses was breaking the law by lying to an official of the DC Government. Washington has enacted a statute that is parallel to US Code 18-1001, which makes it a crime to lie to an official of the US Government, according to the office of the Attorney General of the District of Columbia.↵
- 4. Two of them (Caveon I and II) were directly controlled by Rhee and Henderson, and the first Alvarez & Marsal investigation was paid for by OSSE. Willoughby’s investigation was heavily–perhaps inappropriately– influenced by DCPS. A sixth investigation, by the US Department of Education’s Inspector General, was narrow in scope. The investigation of 2012 DC-CAS results–by A&M–was more aggressive; not surprisingly, it is the only one that has turned up a significant amount of cheating by adults.↵
- 5. We spoke on the phone–twice–for over an hour on April 22, 2013.↵
- 6. Dr. Fremer did tell me, however, that he was convinced that there had been a significant amount of cheating, involving what he called ‘collusion.’ “It would have been nearly impossible for individual teachers to have done that much erasing,” he said. He suggested two possible explanations: 1) teachers working with the classroom proctors during the test; and 2) organized erasing after the test was over.↵
- 7. I refer you to “Michelle Rhee’s Reign of Error” for details on how easy it would have been to cheat.↵
- 8. 35 people indicted, including former Superintendent Beverly A. Hall↵