The disturbing news of yet another testing scandal comes from Columbus, Ohio. Kudos to the Columbus Dispatch for its reporting on erasures and the ‘scrubbing’ of attendance records, and to the paper’s editorial pages for demanding action.
The paper’s editorial on May 7 quotes Secretary of Education Arne Duncan as follows: In a visit to Columbus last month, U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan was emphatic that this district lacks strong leadership. “There’s been a lack of oversight and a lack of accountability.” Even more astonishing was Duncan’s statement the Columbus’ data-scrubbing scandal is in a league of its own, because it could involve not just proficiency-test manipulation, but also brazen grade-changing to increase the graduation rate. “I almost don’t know of another situation like this,” Duncan said.
Is there ‘another situation like this’ anywhere in America? Well, there’s Atlanta, of course, and El Paso, where the former superintendent is serving time. And then there’s the city that Secretary Duncan works in. I have documented here and here the extent of the problem and the inadequacy of the so-called investigations in Washington, DC.
I don’t know the details about El Paso, but in Atlanta, Columbus and Washington, many adults in powerful positions worked very hard to deny that anything was amiss, and–in Washington at least–still are.
Why is Washington in denial? Fear of Michelle Rhee’s wrath? An unwavering commitment to 2007’s great narrative about the fearless young reformer who “challenged failing schools and incompetent teachers”? I wish I knew the answer.
In March a major national magazine rejected “Michelle Rhee’s Reign of Error,” despite its pedigree (five reporters  with 175+ years of covering education) and its meticulous sourcing. An editor explained the decision: “The problem is just that we don’t really have the resources (legally or editorially) to handle investigative pieces like this one.” 
At the annual meeting of the Education Writers Association at Stanford last week, I asked Secretary Duncan whether, in light of the new information, the rash of erasures in Washington should be investigated. He declined to provide a direct answer. “If anyone in Washington or anywhere else is turning a blind eye to things that are illegal or immoral, that should be investigated,” he said, adding that DC had been investigated repeatedly.
Why won’t Washington’s Mayor address the issue? Requests for an interview with Mayor Vincent Gray were rejected a year ago (“The Mayor will not be available”) and again earlier this month (“Thank you for the inquiry, however, the Mayor is focused on moving the District and District schools forward.”) (sic)
At least the Mayor’s office wrote back. DC Councilmember David Catania has ignored my requests for comments. 
What about the city’s unelected power structure? “I see no evidence of an Atlanta-style conspiracy. If I did, I would want an investigation. However, I see no value in digging into the past. … I want to move forward .” That’s what a well-regarded community leader told me a few days ago. Councilmember Catania said much the same thing at a recent hearing, indicating that, if he had any inkling that DC had an ‘Atlanta-style’ situation, he would be all over it in a heartbeat . 
There’s a great line of inquiry: Does Washington have an ‘Atlanta-style’ situation? In some respects, yes. There are four striking similarities: Irregularities at a majority of schools in both cities; a secret report buried by the school administration in both cities; pseudo-investigations in both cities; and widespread support from ‘the establishment’ in both cities.
There’s one key difference between Atlanta and Washington: the role played by the local newspapers.
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s reporters  and its editorial page have done their jobs, while the Washington Post’s editorial page has been a reliable cheerleader for Michelle Rhee.  Reading the Post’s editorials side-by-side with those that appeared in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution is revealing. It’s also deeply depressing for someone who relied on and loved the Washington Post, as I did when I lived in DC from 1974-1988.
What some call the adoration of Michelle Rhee began on December 16, 2007 in a signed editorial by Jo Ann Armao, describing her day with the new Chancellor, “Data inform every decision. How come, the chancellor asks when looking at numbers flashed on a projection screen, one constituent services employee is generally able to close out complaints in two days when it takes others as long as 12 days? The discussion is about “deliverables,” about meeting and then exceeding objectives. No session ends without a to-do list.”
Rhee was quietly scrambling to contain stories about the widespread erasures when the Post celebrated her first two years with an editorial on June 16, 2009 that began this way:
“You can list Michelle A. Rhee’s accomplishments since becoming D.C. schools chancellor two years ago today, and they run more than 10 pages: boosting math and reading test scores; putting art, music and physical education classes in every school; streamlining the central office; closing 23 schools; recruiting new principals.”
The cheerleading continued. On May 2, 2010, a Post editorial asked: In the recent tumult over a proposed contract for District schoolteachers, the key question has been ignored: Why is everyone in the city not working together to make sure that Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee sticks around?
And when Chancellor Rhee made some outrageous comments about firing teachers for having sex with students, the Post’s editorial page managed to turn her wholly inappropriate words into an attack on the teachers union: “Certainly she owes an apology to the dedicated teachers her words may have inadvertently hurt, but so does the union for its hand in enabling some of these unfit teachers to stay in the classroom.”
Why has the Post’s editorial page been so uncritical?  Some have suggested that it must emanate from the top of the masthead, from Donald Graham, the Chairman of the Washington Post Company. He denies exerting any direct influence, although he did say that it has been the Post’s long-standing tradition to support the superintendent, whoever that may be, because, he told me, “The Post wants the schools to improve.” 
Regarding the editorial page, Mr. Graham said, “Anyone who knows Fred (Hiatt, the Editorial Page Editor) or Jo Ann (Armao, the editorial writer who focuses on education) knows that no one tells them what to write.”
Mr. Hiatt explained his thinking in a 2011 interview with Media Matters. ‘Our view was that by abolishing the elected school board and taking full responsibility for the schools and then appointing a strong chancellor committed to a strong set of reforms, Mayor Fenty offered the best opportunity in a long time to actually make progress. And that if this chancellor missed, it might be a long time before the stars would align again and a serious attempt to improve the public schools would take place. Over the four years, our view was that Mayor Fenty and Chancellor Rhee took a lot of hard decisions that were necessary. After four years the schools were in much better shape than they had been four years before and that was measurable and demonstrable.’
He further told the magazine: ‘I’ve given you my assessment of why I think, why we thought this was the most important issue, why we thought people who were seriously committed to reform should be supported and how if you look at the actual facts, the result suggests there was progress over four years,’ he said. ‘To me that’s the important question: Were the schools getting better or weren’t they?’ 
By 2009 the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, which had welcomed Beverly Hall when she arrived in Atlanta, was deep into its investigation of dramatic test score increases, which in 2009 led to an audit. Here’s how the AJC editorial page handled the situation on September 20th of that year. “The APS’ refusal to accept the audit’s main finding does nothing, though, to inspire confidence among those who abhor cheating and worry that children were harmed by inflating their scores, thus masking learning challenges that should be addressed.
The district’s position also casts an unintended cloud over APS’ many accomplishments in recent years. That’s a shame.”
AJC reporters blew the whistle in Atlanta. By contrast, Washington’s shameful situation was not exposed by the Post but by USA Today,  a national newspaper that happens to have its headquarters in suburban Virginia, in March 2011.
How did the Post react to the exposé? “….to use the issue of erasure marks at a handful of schools to disparage the very real improvements made in recent years by D.C. schools is irresponsible..’
However, the Post did take umbrage at one point. “Attention should be paid to how tests are administered and how suspicious test activity is investigated,” its editorial page thundered on July 30, 2011, in an editorial condemning the illegal behavior in Atlanta. That editorial, which makes no reference whatsoever to what was going on in Washington, is headlined “No Excuses for Atlanta’s Cheating Scandal.”
Just how strongly was the AJC on the case? See for yourself.
February 21, 2010:  “For the good of its students, APS should drop its defensive posture and do everything necessary to examine this issue in an objective manner. …The seriousness and breadth of the allegations warrants an outside inquiry. … A thorough, unbiased and independent investigation is called for … any cheating must be uncovered and the perpetrators dealt with quickly and fairly, using all means at administrators’ — or even prosecutors’ — disposal.”
August 8, 2010: “As of now, the tenure of Atlanta Public Schools Superintendent Beverly Hall is, and will be, regarded more for what went outrageously wrong than for what went well.”
By contrast, here is how the Post’s editorial pages responded to our January 8th Frontline program. The editorial on January 11 is headlined “DC Schools Pass Yet Another Test.” Still, those who believe in measuring student success, as we do, have to recognize that as the importance of testing grows, so does the incentive to cheat. If the answer were to eliminate high-stakes testing, there would be no SATs or professional licensing exams. We believe the vast majority of educators would never stoop to tampering with tests. But cheating allegations have to be taken seriously and security protocols put in place. D.C. officials say they have done both, and there is still no evidence to the contrary. (emphasis added)
When “Michelle Rhee’s Reign of Error” revealed the existence of Dr. Sanford’s secret memo, with its clear implications that Chancellor Rhee’s own school principals might have done the erasing, the Post called it ‘old news,’ echoing Rhee and current Chancellor Kaya Henderson. 
“Several investigations have been conducted into student testing by the public school system. All — including inquiries by the D.C. inspector general and the U.S. Education Department’s inspector general with the participation of the U.S. attorney — concluded that no widespread cheating occurred. But the public airing of a 2009 memo from a schools consultant about possible cheating is seen by critics of Ms. Rhee as a smoking gun that widespread cheating occurred and was covered up. The memo, which was known to investigators, contained no proof of cheating and warned that ‘much of what we think we know is based on . . . incomplete information.’”
This November 21, 2010 editorial in the AJC may remind careful readers of what happened with Dr. Sanford’s memo. “This month, the AJC reported that Hall saw a report in May validating the AJC’s reporting on questionable test score increases. The report was kept from the public and most of the school board. That suggests the scandal has expanded from inadequately addressed cheating allegations to a cover-up intended to protect image and not children.” 
One must surmise that no one at the Post recalled the Atlanta newspaper’s warning from three years earlier.  “The AJC has revealed cheating our schoolchildren may be a nationwide nightmare. Now parents and taxpayers everywhere should heed Atlanta’s painful lesson and demand full investigations. … School districts large and small can study the example Atlanta has set. They should each test the simple, yet profound thesis question first raised by the AJC: ‘Are these results valid?’”
No one in power in Washington is asking that fundamental question, and their failure taints Michelle Rhee’s legacy. Would a careful investigation have implicated the former Chancellor? I have never heard or seen any evidence that indicates that she was directly involved, and not even her harshest critics accuse her of that level of involvement, but why not try to find out what she knew, and when she knew it? She is, after all, America’s best known education advocate.
Unfortunately, with the complicity of Washington’s power structure and the unreflecting love of the Washington Post, the evidence  has been ignored or swept under the rug. No one wanted–or wants–to know what happened on her watch.
The Atlanta cheating and cover-up were exposed , of course and on July 10, 2011, the AJC editorialized thusly : “Denials, deceit, destruction and damage. That is the legacy of departed Atlanta Public Schools Superintendent Beverly Hall and those who colluded with her. Whatever good Hall and her team achieved during their reign was erased by their collective and individual misdeeds and failings. … APS leadership steadfastly persisted in a pattern of denials backed by outright, and perhaps even illegal, deceptions. …. The power of truth and the pungent scent of likely wrongdoing picked up by others prevented district officials from getting away with their cover-up.”
And whither the newspaper that uncovered Watergate and published the Pentagon Papers? It’s not too late for the Washington Post to insist that the City Council put Dr. Sandy Sanford, former Chancellor Rhee, Chancellor Henderson, former OSSE head Deborah Gist and others under oath. While it is probably too late to find out who cheated or to claw back the generous bonuses Ms. Rhee handed out, whether there was a deliberate cover-up (the buried Sanford memo, the severely limited investigations) should be investigated, and the truth established, for once and for all.
A strong stand by the Post could also sharpen the national debate about the wisdom of high-stakes testing. As noted at the top of this piece, cheating by principals, teachers and students seems to have reached epidemic proportions. We shouldn’t ban testing, of course, but we ought to be debating how to hold students, teachers and principals accountable.
Neither the City Council nor the Mayor seems to have the appetite for an investigation, but the Washington Post could supply the backbone they clearly lack. If the Post cannot or will not step up, then perhaps a revision of the closing lines of T.S. Eliot’s The Hollow Men is (sadly) appropriate.
This is the way the Post ends
This is the way the Post ends
This is the way the Post ends
Not with a bang but a whimper
- 1. Linda Mathews, Jack Gillum, Jay Mathews, Michael Joseloff and me↵
- 2. I also approached the Post’s Outlook editor, Carlos Lozada, about publishing the article, but my emails were not answered for many days. Finally Mr. Lozada wrote, saying that my emails had gotten swept up by his spam filter. By that time I had posted “Michelle Rhee’s Reign of Error” on my blog.↵
- 3. May 8, 2013
Dear Councilmember Catania,
I am continuing my reporting on the erasures and the lack of an adequate investigation and am hoping that you will provide an answer to my previous question regarding the Caveon report. I think my interview with John Fremer made it clear that he himself did not consider what he did to be a thorough investigation but rather a security audit. And yet the DC Inspector General based his study on Caveon, and then the USDE Inspector General relied on Mr. Willoughby’s work. None seem to deserve ‘The Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval,’ at least from what I have learned.
Have you changed your view regarding the adequacy of the first five investigations? Do you intend to pursue this further? Do you feel that the DC schools are measurably better off today than when Michelle Rhee was appointed Chancellor?
- 4. It strikes me that phrases like ‘moving forward,’ ‘not obsessing about the past’ and ‘improving the future’ are what people say when they don’t want to know what might have happened in the past.↵
- 5. Councilmember Catania and Mayor Gray could find out what happened by arranging for a deep erasure analysis of the answer sheets in question (still held by McGraw-Hill/CTB). They could also look into Chancellor Rhee’s failure to investigate overwhelming evidence of adult misbehavior to determine whether there was a deliberate cover-up. Mr. Catania has the power to compel people to testify under oath. That’s how the Atlanta cover-up began to crumble.↵
- 6. Heather Vogell, Alan Judd and John Perry↵
- 7. For a detailed analysis of the Post’s attitude toward Michelle Rhee, look at this October 2011 article in Media Matters, “Steadfast, Protective and, At Times, Adoring.” http://mediamatters.org/blog/2011/10/12/steadfast-protective-and-at-times-adoring-the-w/183112 ↵
- 8. Its support has caused internal friction that has occasionally bubbled over in public, most notably between reporter Bill Turque and Jo Ann Armao. For details: http://www.washingtoncitypaper.com/blogs/citydesk/2010/01/28/washington-post-editorial-board-livid-over-turque-blog-post/↵
- 9. Personal conversation, May 14, 2013. Mr. Graham acknowledged feeling conflicted about the erasures because of his great respect for Post reporter/columnist Jay Mathews (“the best education reporter on the planet!”). “Jay believes bad things happened, and I don’t discount that possibility. But I don’t want to focus on the past. We need to move forward and fix the schools,” he said.↵
- 10. Media Matters, October 2011. My emails to the Post’s editors were not answered. My note to Mr. Hiatt included an op-ed submission about the current state of the public schools, arguing that by most measures the schools are not better than they were in 2007, pre-Rhee.↵
- 11. Washington Post reporter Bill Turque was on the erasure story well before anyone else. His persistence so angered Rhee that she campaigned to have him taken off the education beat and refused to recognize him in public meetings. Here the city’s ‘establishment’ helped out. A wealthy philanthropist, Katherine Bradley, made a $100,000 grant to the school system’s foundation so DCPS could hire Anita Dunn, a highly skilled PR executive who had worked for President Clinton. Ms. Dunn also advised DCPS on how to handle inquiries from Jack Gillum of USA Today during its investigation. “Just disengage,” she advised.
Mr. Turque was eventually assigned to another beat, a decision he and others say had nothing to do with DCPS and everything to do with the Post’s need for another reporter on the political campaign beat.↵
- 12. “For the good of its students, APS should drop its defensive posture and do everything necessary to examine this issue in an objective manner.
The state’s recommendations call for school superintendents to look into the answer sheet erasures in districts where schools showed “severe” or “moderate” concerns. It’s within reason to give local district officials first crack at examining the matter.
In Atlanta’s case, given that questions were raised about more than two-thirds of the city’s elementary and middle schools, it’s heartening that the Atlanta school board called last week for an independent investigation. The seriousness and breadth of the allegations warrants an outside inquiry.
A thorough, unbiased and independent investigation is called for, given that students would suffer the most harm from any cheating that might have occurred. If CRCT scores were wrongly inflated, that imposes a terrible, undeserved punishment on struggling students whose shortcomings were papered over. Falsifying tests could keep those children from getting needed help that would improve their chances of making the real grade on the next round of testing. If APS educators are truly dedicated to their charges, any cheating must be uncovered and the perpetrators dealt with quickly and fairly, using all means at administrators’ — or even prosecutors’ — disposal.
If that doesn’t happen, the latest allegations about testing irregularities at APS will call into question — perhaps unfairly — any legitimate gains achieved during the tenure of Superintendent Beverly Hall.”↵
- 13. “As of now, the tenure of Atlanta Public Schools Superintendent Beverly Hall is, and will be, regarded more for what went outrageously wrong than for what went well.
That may be tough news to hear for a nationally renowned educator known for driving data-fueled, top-to-bottom reform and improvements. Nevertheless, it must be said and heard.”↵
- 14. Post columnist Valerie Strauss took a different tack. “If the memo isn’t enough to spark a new investigation, this should be: My colleague Emma Brown reported in this new story that teachers in 18 D.C. classrooms cheated last year on high-stakes standardized tests during the chancellorship of Henderson, Rhee’s successor in the post, according to the results of an investigation released Friday by the Office of the State Superintendent of Education. This confirmed cheating took place after security was tightened as a result of the earlier suspicions. All in all, a new probe — by investigators with real subpoena powers, which is how the Atlanta cheating scandal was uncovered — is clearly warranted.” April 13, 2013↵
- 15. http://www.ajc.com/news/news/opinion/opinion-atlanta-school-chief-shouldnt-wait-until-j/nQnDn/↵
- 16. April 1, 2010↵
- 17. http://www.dcfpi.org/an-uphill-climb-for-dc-schools-a-look-at-dc-cas-test-score-trends↵
- 18. “We believe the reporting of this story stands alongside the most important work this newspaper has done during our community’s history.” signed editorial by Kevin Riley, editor in chief, July 8, 2011↵
- 19. http://www.ajc.com/news/news/opinion/special-report-aps-cant-close-the-book-on-cheating/nQJNM
“Denials, deceit, destruction and damage. That is the legacy of departed Atlanta Public Schools Superintendent Beverly Hall and those who colluded with her. Whatever good Hall and her team achieved during their reign was erased by their collective and individual misdeeds and failings.
Last week’s release of a comprehensive, unflinching report on up to a decade’s worth of cheating on the Criterion-Referenced Competency Test at APS confirmed yet again what we at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution have suspected for more than two years. Which is that a sorry subset of APS staff engaged in a long-running pattern of pervasive cheating. Their actions injured children for the benefit of adults. These cheaters stood to gain job security or bonuses within a system obsessively focused on achieving good numbers, no matter the cost to integrity or ethics. The result was a despicable robbery of students’ right to get the help they needed, as well as a fleecing of taxpayers who pay for public education.
Time and again, AJC reporters exposed questionable test performance at too many schools. The odds that these gains occurred without adults gaming the system — cheating — were far too long to be believed by even those who had a stake in the outcome. Even a blue ribbon commission’s 2010 report trumpeted by Hall as showing that “there is no orchestrated cheating in Atlanta Public Schools” mentioned odds of one in a “quadrillion” or “quintillion” that some test events would have occurred naturally.
As this newspaper continued to report on CRCT irregularities, APS leadership steadfastly persisted in a pattern of denials backed by outright, and perhaps even illegal, deceptions. The district even brought on a consultant to, in effect, disprove the AJC’s work that was apparently causing so much heartburn at APS. Not surprisingly, the district later denied that a copy of that consultant’s report even existed within its purview. Last week’s findings confirmed that the report, which largely exonerated our work, had in fact been received and subsequently deleted from Hall’s computer.
Such duplicity was part and parcel of APS’ pattern of operation during Hall’s tenure. The CRCT report says that, “On multiple occasions, APS administrators attempted to explain away evidence of cheating.” The power of truth and the pungent scent of likely wrongdoing picked up by others prevented district officials from getting away with their cover-up.↵