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Something’s Coming (Something Good)

“Something there is that doesn’t love more bubble tests
And students bubbling and learning how to bubble
When they might be making robots or reading Frost….”
When I adapted Robert Frost’s “Mending Wall” earlier this year, I was aware of the growing resentment among parents, teachers and students toward machine-scored tests and test-prep. However, I had no idea that it would–pardon the pun–bubble to the top with such energy.

That said, some of what looks like support for reduced testing may turn out to be something quite different.  What people say is not as important as what they do!

A lot has been happening.  In late August the Lee County (FL) School Board voted, 3-2, to opt out of the state’s testing program, in what one Board member called ‘an act of civil disobedience.’  For six days Lee County, the 37th largest school district in the US with 85, 000 students, was the epicenter of the ‘too much testing’ movement, but on August 27th the Board reversed itself, again by a 3-2 vote.  The School Superintendent had expressed grave concern about the possible penalties, financial and otherwise, that Florida might impose if Lee County boycotted the state tests, and that apparently was enough to push one Board member, Mary Fisher, to change her vote.

For a list of what Florida could do to penalize boycotting districts, click here.

Robert Schaeffer, the Public Education Director of the anti-testing organization FairTest, has lived in Lee County for 15 years. By email I asked Bob what had just happened there. After acknowledging that he has been collaborating with the protestors, he added[1]:

“As expected, given the announcement that one member had reversed her position in the face of a massive, disinformation campaign by the Superintendent, the Lee County School Board just voted 3-2 to override its previous decision. However, four of the five board members spoke out against “test misuse and overuse” as well as “the punitive use of standardized exams.”  The two Board members who opposed the original motion (allegedly due to the lack of an implementation plan) pledged to take their concerns to a meeting of the Florida School Boards Association, which is holding a statewide conference beginning tonight, and one threatened a lawsuit against unfunded state testing mandates.
“After the vote, several Board members said that there would be a public workshop next week to discuss how to move forward to reduce testing overkill, and two members pledged that they would make implementation motions at the Tuesday night, September 9 regular Board meeting.The hundreds of parents, teachers, students and taxpayers who packed the room viewed the decision as a temporary tactical setback, not a long-term defeat, for the assessment reform movement.”

The Palm Beach County Schools are reported to be flirting with a possible boycott.

If something like this can happen in Florida, an epicenter of what is called ‘test-based accountability,’ then the rest of the country ought to be paying attention.

It’s not just Florida, of course.  This spring as many as 80% of students in some New York City public schools were opted out of standardized testing by their parents.

The Superintendent of Schools in Colorado Springs, Colorado, says he wants to test randomized samples of students to gather data about school effectiveness, which would reduce the number of bubble tests that all students now have to take.

More than half of the school boards in Texas supported a resolution calling upon the State Board of Education to reduce the number and significance of bubble tests.  That was two years ago, and the Texas Legislature got the message. It passed a bill drastically reducing the number of standardized tests required for graduation, and Governor Rick Perry signed the bill into law in June 2013.

The rebellion may be spreading to New Mexico, where concern about computerized testing is growing.

In Vermont the State Board of Education has called upon the United States Congress to get its act together and do something about No Child Left Behind, which expired in 2007 but remains the law of the land as long as Congress fails to act.  “The motivating force behind the statement is that there is too much testing,” State Board member William Mathis told the Rutland Herald. “Teachers are complaining about it. Parents are complaining about it. We’re just running from one test to the next. It’s tedious, and it’s not the best use of taxpayers’ money.”

But it would be a mistake to assume that every expression of concern is genuine.  In Rhode Island, where students have been protesting over-testing, State Superintendent Deborah Gist[2] seems to be taking a stand on the issue.  According to the Providence Journal’s Linda Borg, Gist and Katherine E. Sipala, president of the Rhode Island School Superintendents’ Association, have created what they call “The Assessment Project” to study the issue.

Their letter to local superintendents reads, in part:
“Over the past year or more, many of us have heard from some students, teachers, and parents who expressed their concerns about over-testing in our schools. We share their concerns, and we want to take action on this matter. None of us wants to test students too much, and each of us can consider ways to streamline the assessment process, to eliminate assessments that do not advance teaching and learning, and to ensure that we use assessments to help us make good decisions about instruction. If assessments do not give us information that informs instruction, we should not administer those assessments.”

To this observer, Gist and Sipala’s message is hardly newsworthy. Rather than a call to action, it’s seems to be a politically safe call for ‘more study.’

I have noticed that those who are upset about testing are being careful to avoid coming across as ‘anti-testing.’ Instead, they say that they are protesting ‘over-testing’ or ‘too much testing,’ which is a far cry from being opposed to all testing.  Language matters, and if their voices are to be heard, they have to fight the ‘anti-testing’ label that some supporters of the status quo will try to stick on them.

Education Week’s Stephen Sawchuk provided this thoughtful overview recently, pointing out how No Child Left Behind still hangs over every state and school district that has not been granted a waiver by the Secretary of Education.

In late August Secretary of Education Arne Duncan weighed in with his own call for a 1-year moratorium (which the NEA called ‘common sense’).

It’s possible that Mr. Gates and Secretary Duncan were motivated by their desire to save the Common Core National Standards, which are under increasing attack from both the right and the left. Perhaps they are now wishing they had taken the time to disentangle the Common Core and the laudable idea of higher standards from the accountability mess and its roots in ‘the business model of education’ that both support.[3]

As the lyricist Stephen Sondheim wrote in “Something’s Coming,”
Something’s coming, something good
If I can wait
Something’s coming, I don’t know what it is
But it is gonna be great[4].

Will the “something” that’s coming to the world of bubble testing be good?  Is what lies ahead “gonna be great,” or will there be lots of words but little action?  Who knows?  That’s not up to reporters; that’s in the hands of parents and concerned citizens, educators and activists—and the politicians who listen to them.

By the way, you may read the rest of ‘Mending School” here.

If you would like to own your own copy of the fully annotated, four-color, 24″ x 36″ wall poster, simply click here or send your tax-deductible contribution to Learning Matters, 127 West 26th Street, Suite 1200, NY NY 10001.

Oh, I sent the “Mending School” poster to Secretary Duncan, gratis, and I am sending one to Deborah Gist in Rhode Island.

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. 1. He sent virtually the same message to Diane Ravitch.
  2. 2. Full disclosure regarding my own relationship with Deborah Gist. She was State Superintendent when Michelle Rhee was Chancellor, and it was her office that detected the unusual patterns of ‘wrong to right’ erasures that strongly suggested cheating. Instead of taking direct action, Gist exchanged memoranda with Rhee for months, during which time Gist applied for and got the Rhode Island job. Because I believed then–and still believe–that the public ought to know Gist’s version of those machinations, I begged her to speak to me on the record. She refused. When Rhee’s organization, StudentsFirst, rated state education programs, Rhode Island received the top score, which some interpreted as Rhee’s way of thanking Gist for her silence.
  3. 3.It’s also possible that Secretary Duncan’s friends and handlers in the White House have realized they need the votes of teachers in the midterm elections, just two months away.
  4. 4.As most of you no doubt know, “Something’s Coming” is a love song of joyous anticipation from “West Side Story.” More here.
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Michelle Rhee and the Washington Post

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 [1] 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.” [2]

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. [3]

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 .”[4] 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 . [5]

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 [6] and its editorial page have done their jobs, while the Washington Post’s editorial page has been a reliable cheerleader for Michelle Rhee. [7] 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? [8] 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.” [9]

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?’ [10]

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, [11] 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: [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 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: [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.”

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. [14]

“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.” [15]

One must surmise that no one at the Post recalled the Atlanta newspaper’s warning from three years earlier. [16] “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 [17] 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 [18], of course and on July 10, 2011, the AJC editorialized thusly [19]: “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


Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. 1. Linda Mathews, Jack Gillum, Jay Mathews, Michael Joseloff and me
  2. 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. 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?
    Thank you
  4. 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. 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. 6. Heather Vogell, Alan Judd and John Perry
  7. 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.”
  8. 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:
  9. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 15.
  16. 16. April 1, 2010
  17. 17.
  18. 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. 19.
    “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.
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Michelle Rhee’s Reign of Error

With the indictment of former Atlanta School Superintendent Beverly A. Hall and 34 other public school employees in a massive cheating scandal, the time is right to re-examine other situations of possible illegal behavior by educators. Washington, DC, belongs at the top of that list.


Michelle A. Rhee, America’s most famous school reformer, was fully aware of the extent of the problem when she glossed over what appeared to be widespread cheating during her first year as Schools Chancellor in Washington, DC. A long-buried confidential memo from her outside data consultant suggests that the problem was far more serious than kids copying off other kids’ answer sheets. (“191 teachers representing 70 schools”). Twice in just four pages the consultant suggests that Rhee’s own principals, some of whom she had hired, may have been responsible (“Could the erasures in some cases have been done by someone other than the students and the teachers?”).

Rhee has publicly maintained that, if bureaucratic red tape hadn’t gotten in the way, she would have investigated the erasures. For example, in an interview[1] conducted for PBS’ “Frontline” before I learned about the confidential memo, Rhee told me, “We kept saying, ‘Okay, we’re going to do this; we just need to have more information.’ And by the time the information was trickling in back and forth, we were about to take the next year’s test. And there was a new superintendent of education that came in at the time. And she said, ‘Okay, well, we’re about to take the next test anyway so let’s just make sure that the proper protocols are in place for next time.’”

At best, that story is misleading.

The rash of “wrong to right” (WTR) erasures was first noticed by the DC official in charge of testing, who, after consulting with the test-maker, asked Rhee to investigate, in November, 2008. Through her data chief, Rhee turned to Dr. Fay G. “Sandy” Sanford for outside analysis.

I have a copy of the memo[2] and have confirmed its authenticity with two highly placed and reputable sources. The anonymous source is in DCPS; the other is DC Inspector General Charles Willoughby. A reliable source has confirmed that Rhee and Deputy Chancellor Kaya Henderson discussed the memo in staff gatherings. Sanford came to Washington to present his findings in late January, 2009, after which he wrote his memo.

In response to my request for comment, Rhee issued the following careful statement: “As chancellor I received countless reports, memoranda and presentations. I don’t recall receiving a report from Sandy Sanford regarding erasure data from the DC CAS, but I’m pleased, as has been previously reported, that both inspectors general (DOE and DCPS) reviewed the memo and confirmed my belief that there was no wide spread cheating.” After receiving this statement, I sent her the memo; her spokesman responded by saying that she stood by her earlier statement.

Chancellor Henderson did not respond to my request for a response.

Sanford wanted the memo to be kept confidential. At the top and bottom of each page he wrote “Sensitive Information–Treat as Confidential,” and he urged, “Don’t make hard copies and leave them around.” (The memo.)

The gist of his message: the many ‘wrong to right’ erasures on the students’ answer sheets suggested widespread cheating by adults.

“It is common knowledge in the high-stakes testing community that one of the easiest ways for teachers to artificially inflate student test scores is to erase student wrong responses to multiple choice questions and recode them as correct,” Sanford wrote.

Sanford analyzed the evidence from one school, Aiton, whose scores had jumped by 29 percentiles in reading and 43 percentiles in math and whose staff–from the principal down to the custodians–Rhee had rewarded with $276,265 in bonuses. Answer sheets revealed an average of 5.7 WTR erasures in reading and 6.8 in math, significantly above the district average of 1.7 and 2.3.[3]

Sanford, a Marine officer who carved out a post-retirement career in data analysis in California, spelled out the consequences of a cheating scandal. Schools whose rising scores showed they were making “adequate yearly progress” as required by the federal No Child Left Behind Act could “wind up being compromised,” he warned. And what would happen to the hefty bonuses Rhee had already awarded to the principals and teachers at high-achieving schools with equally high erasure rates, Sanford asked? And, Stanford pondered, “What legal options would we have with teachers found guilty of infractions? Could they be fired? Would the teachers’ contract allow it?”[4]

While Sanford’s memo doesn’t raise the issue, falsely elevated scores would deny remedial attention to children whose true scores would trigger help. Just how many children could only be determined by an investigation.

Michelle Rhee had to decide whether to investigate aggressively or not. She had publicly promised to make all decisions “in the best interests of children,” and a full-scale investigation would seem to keep that pledge. If cheating were proved, she could fire the offenders and see that students with false scores received the remedial attention they needed. Failing to investigate might be interpreted as a betrayal of children’s interests–if it ever became public knowledge.


The 37-year-old Michelle Rhee had been a surprise choice to lead the schools. After college, she joined Teach for America and taught for three years in a low-income school in Baltimore. After earning a graduate degree in public policy at Harvard, she took[5] over a fledgling non-profit that recruits mid-career professionals into teaching, The New Teacher Project. In that role, she eventually ended up supervising 120 employees. As Chancellor, Rhee would be managing a school system with 55,000 students, 11,500 employees and a budget of nearly $200 million.

She surrounded herself with people with no experience running a large urban school system. Her deputy would be her best friend, Kaya Henderson, another former Teach for America corps member who was then Vice President for Strategic Partnerships at TNTP. She would be managing the District’s 11,500 employees.

Her Chief of Data and Accountability would be Erin McGoldrick, whom Rhee had met at Sacramento High School some years earlier and who was an avowed fan of Rhee. A classics major at Notre Dame, McGoldrick also studied public policy at UCLA. Although she was in charge of data analysis at the California Charter Schools Association when Rhee offered her the job, McGoldrick had no experience in Rhee’s ‘data-driven decision making,’ according to several reliable sources.

Rhee selected Jason Kamras, the 2005 National Teacher of the Year and a veteran of seven years in the classroom, to lead what she called her ‘Human Capital Design Team.’ Kamras’ assignments were to design a teacher evaluation system and create a model union contract.

That no one in her inner circle had any experience managing an urban school system did not seem to concern Rhee.

And if inexperience led her astray, Rhee believed that she had a fail-safe system that would steer her back on course, data-driven decision making. “We’re going to be doing parent satisfaction surveys, principal satisfaction surveys, teacher satisfaction surveys, so that we can gauge how good a job we are doing,” she said. There would be no management by hunches or anecdotal evidence–only numbers. “I am a data fiend,” she told me. “Measure everything. Don’t do anything you can’t measure.”

She was determined not to let anything get in her way. “What I am is somebody who is focused on the end result that I think needs to happen,” she told the PBS NewsHour in September, 2007. “If there are rules standing in the way of that, I will question those rules. I will bend those rules.”[6]

Rhee said she would be guided by one principle: “I am going to run this district in such a way that is constantly looking out for the best interests of the children.” And she knew that her actions were being watched beyond the District of Columbia. “All the eyes of the country are now on DC,” she said. “I believe that what we are embarking upon is a fight for the lives of children.”


From her first days in Washington, Michelle Rhee had flaunted her inexperience (“I have never run a school district before,” she told her 5,000 teachers at their first meeting.), but here it seems to have hurt her. An experienced educator might well have gone public with the erasures and simply cancelled the results, boldly declaring that, because the interests of children came first, she was ordering retesting, this time with the tightest possible security. Privately, the veteran could have raised the roof, but publicly she would have been a hero.

Getting at the truth would have required bold action. The essential first step: a deep erasure analysis[7] to determine whether the erasures showed patterns, because patterns are very strong evidence of collusion. Even with 70 schools involved, that could have been done quietly, but step two–putting people under oath–would have been public. The Mayor and City Council would have to be involved. While that would have been messy, it would have been dramatic evidence that she truly did put the interests of children above those of all adults, including her own.


The model for an effective investigation can be found 640 miles to the south, in Atlanta, Georgia, where an eerily similar situation involving roughly the same number of adults and schools existed. As in Washington, the Atlanta superintendent resisted investigation. As in Washington, an expert was privately asked for his analysis, which was then ignored and kept out of view.[8]

Because of aggressive reporting by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and strong political leadership from two Republican Governors, the situation in Atlanta was investigated from top to bottom. An investigative team led by former Attorney General Mike Bowers and former DeKalb County District Attorney Robert Wilson interviewed more than 2,000 people and reviewed more than 800,000 documents. Because Wilson and Bowers were working with the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, they were able to put people under oath when they questioned them.

Cheating was found to have taken place in 78.6% of the schools investigated. “Superintendent Beverly Hall and her senior staff knew, or should have known, that cheating and other offenses were occurring,” the 813-page report says. Hall, a former National Superintendent of the Year, left the district just before the Governor released the report, which implicated 178 principals and teachers. If convicted, she faces up to 45 years in prison.

According to the July 5, 2011 report, “a culture of fear and conspiracy of silence infected (the Atlanta) school system and kept many teachers from speaking freely about misconduct.”

As Georgia Governor Nathan Deal said when releasing the conclusions, “When test results are falsified and students who have not mastered the necessary material are promoted, our students are harmed, parents lose sight of their child’s true progress, and taxpayers are cheated.”

In an interview in February 2013, Wilson said that he had been following the DCPS story closely. “There’s not a shred of doubt in my mind that adults cheated in Washington,” he said. “The big difference is that nobody in DC wanted to know the truth.”


It’s easy to see how not trying to find out who had done the erasing–burying the problem–was better for Michelle Rhee personally, at least in the short term. She had just handed out over $1.5 million in bonuses in a well-publicized celebration of the test increases[9]. She had been praised by presidential candidates Obama and McCain[10] in their October debate, and she must have known that she was soon to be on the cover of Time Magazine[11]. The public spectacle of an investigation of nearly half of her schools would have tarnished her glowing reputation, especially if the investigators proved that adults cheated–which seems likely given that their jobs depended on raising test scores.

Moreover, a cheating scandal might well have implicated her own “Produce or Else” approach to reform. Early in her first year she met one-on-one with each principal and demanded a written, signed guarantee[12] of precisely how many points their DC-CAS scores would increase.

Relying on the DC-CAS[13] was not smart policy because it was designed to assess students’ strengths and weaknesses. It did not determine whether students passed or were promoted to the next grade, which meant that many students blew it off.

Putting all her eggs in the DC-CAS basket was a mistake that basic social science warns against. “The more any quantitative social indicator is used for social decision-making, the more subject it will be to corruption pressures and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it is intended to monitor.” That’s Campbell’s Law, formulated in 1976 by esteemed social scientist Donald Campbell (1916-1976) .

Applied to education, it might go this way: “If you base nearly everything–including their jobs–on one test, expect people to cheat.”

And the novice Chancellor was basing nearly everything on the DC-CAS.


Associate Superintendent Francisco Millet sat in on some of the meetings with individual principals. “In that 15-minute period she would ask each one of the principals, ‘When it comes to your test scores, what can you guarantee me?’ And she would write it down. And you could cut through the air with a knife, there was so much tension.”[14]

Millet had no doubt that Rhee was sending the message that they would be fired if they didn’t achieve those guarantees. “Absolutely. Principals were scared to death that, if their test scores did not go up, they were going to be fired. And they knew that she could do it.”

Millet, who resigned after Rhee’s first year, is convinced that principals passed the message along. “There was this whole atmosphere of uncertainty. And when principals feel threatened that if their scores don’t go up, what do you think they’re going to bring down the next level, to their teachers? They’re going to make their teachers feel extremely intimidated that if they don’t do better this year than they did last year, there are going to be consequences.” That led to changes in teaching. “Everybody felt this urgency to improve test scores, and there was no focus on instruction,” Millet says. “The entire focus was on improving test scores.”[15]

Rhee categorically rejected this interpretation in an interview in September 2011 when I asked her if she had created a ‘climate of fear.’ “No! Absolutely not!,” she exclaimed, adding, “Was there a lot of pressure to improve student achievement levels in the district? Absolutely. A hundred percent. There was a lot of pressure to do that. But I think that somehow that making the leap from that to and therefore you added to it, it’s crazy.”

Perhaps inadvertently, the rookie Chancellor seems to have provided principals with two motives to cheat, a carrot–the possibility of large bonuses–and a stick–the threat of being fired.

DC’s procedures for administering tests–established before Rhee’s arrival–provided multiple opportunities for cheating. According to a veteran principal, “The test booklets came into the school a week before they were given, and they were just in a shrink-wrapped package. The booklets weren’t sealed. They were just wide open. You could just flip through the pages and see what was inside of them.”[16] From there, the principal said, it would have been easy to tip off teachers.

A number of teachers, including Martha Harris, a veteran of 46 years in DCPS, told us that some teachers received special treatment. “If you were one of the favorites, you were given (the test) by the head of the testing committee, or someone allowed you to put hands on that test ahead of time.” In short, it would have been easy for teachers to make sure their students knew the right answers ahead of time.

After-the-fact cheating–by erasing and changing answers–was even easier. “The tests would stay in the building for almost two weeks after they were given” so students who had missed a test could make it up. “They were in the building for a good month between arriving about a week ahead of time and finally getting shipped out. It would have been fairly easy for people to sit down and look through the booklets and change answers.”[17]

The erasures stayed buried for years. The official who had spotted the problem and urged Rhee to investigate has kept her mouth shut. Five months after she had informed Rhee of the widespread erasures, Deborah Gist resigned to become State Superintendent in Rhode Island. Rhee now publicly praises her efforts there.[18] Sandy Sanford, who earned roughly $9,000 for his work on the memo, has been paid at least $220,000 by DCPS for various services.[19]

When erasures continued in Rhee’s second and third years at slightly diminished rates, she and Henderson contracted for three severely limited investigations, none of which allowed for erasure analysis or an examination of the original answer sheets.

Two were performed by Caveon, a Colorado-based company. The other was performed by Alvarez and Marsal, a firm that usually coaches corporations on how to improve profit margins[20]. D.C. officials set limits on investigations, never insisting on the obvious essential step of erasure analysis; they dictated which schools should be investigated and even suggested the questions to be asked. A D.C. official sat in on many of the interviews with staffers. No erasure analysis has ever been performed. Caveon’s president, John Fremer, later told the Washington Post and USA Today that it had performed ‘a security audit’ and not an investigation.

Caveon’s 2009 inquiry turned up no cheating. Its 2010 investigation fingered three adults — from three different schools. One of them, a first-year teacher, confessed that he had stood over some of his pupils and coached them until they penciled in the right answers. His explanation: That was the way testing was conducted at his school. He lost his job.

The situation came close to exploding in March 2011 when USA Today blew the whistle on the erasures. The newspaper’s investigative team [21] reported that the odds against the 2008 wrong-to-right erasures having happened by chance in some of the schools were greater than the odds of winning the Powerball.[22] Tom Haladyna, a professor emeritus at Arizona State who has spent decades investigating cheating, told the newspaper that the score gains reported at DCPS were implausible, observing that “a slow runner can improve a little in each race he runs, but he’s not going to set a new world record.” And some of those score gains were akin to setting a new world record or “losing a hundred pounds a month on a new diet,” Haladyna said.[23]

Even then there was no full investigation. Chancellor Henderson somehow persuaded DC’s Inspector General to investigate the matter without looking into the 2008 erasures. He spent 17 months on the case, during which time he interviewed only 60 people from just one school (even though by then more than 90 schools had been implicated).[24] When I asked Mr. Willoughby why he had not looked into the first year or at other schools, all he said was that it was not “a fishing expedition,” adding “We stand by our report.”

Choosing to bury the problem and minimize investigations[25] allowed Rhee to continue with her radical makeover of the low-performing DC public school system. She extended her ‘produce or else’ approach to teachers[26] and continued to remove or reward principals based on DC-CAS scores. In 2010, Rhee confidently predicted that, within five years, the D.C. school system would be “the highest performing urban school district in the country and one that has the faith and confidence of the citizens of the city.”

Her policies remained in force even after she left DC in October 2010 to start, as she proclaimed on Oprah, “a revolution on behalf of America’s children.” Through her well-financed “StudentsFirst” lobbying non-profit organization, she began crisscrossing the nation, urging governors and legislators to do what she did in Washington.

She has been remarkably successful. At least 25 states have adopted her ‘produce or else’ test-score based system of evaluating teachers.[27]

But politicians (and citizens) in those 25 states might want to take a closer look at what she actually accomplished. Sadly, DC’s schools are worse by almost every conceivable measure.

For teachers, DCPS has become a revolving door. Half of all newly hired teachers (both rookies and experienced teachers) leave within two years; by contrast, the national average is said to be between three and five years.[28]

It was a revolving door for principals as well. Rhee appointed 91 principals in her three years as chancellor, 39 of whom no longer held those jobs in August 2010. Some left on their own; others, on one-year contracts, were fired for not producing quickly enough.[29] She also fired more than 600 teachers.[30]

Child psychiatrists have long known that, to succeed, children need stability. Because many of the District’s children face multiple stresses at home and in their neighborhoods, schools are often that rock. However, in Rhee’s tumultuous reign, thousands of students attended schools where teachers and principals were essentially interchangeable parts, a situation that must have contributed to the instability rather than alleviating it.

The teacher evaluation system that Rhee instituted designates some teachers as ‘highly effective,’ but, despite awarding substantial bonuses and having the highest salary schedule in the region, DCPS is having difficulty retaining these teachers, 44% of whom say they do not feel valued by DCPS.[31]

Although Rhee removed about 100 central office personnel in her first year, the central office today is considerably larger, with more administrators per teachers than any district surrounding DC. In fact, the surrounding districts seem to have reduced their central office staff, while DC’s grew.[32] The greatest growth in DCPS has been in the number of employees making $100,000 or more per year, from 35 to 99.[33]Per pupil expenditures have risen sharply, from $13,830 per student to $17,574, an increase of 27%, compared to 10% inflation in the Washington-Baltimore region.[34]

A comparison of pre- and post-Rhee DC-CAS scores shows little or no gain, and most of the scores at 12 of the 14 highest ‘wrong to right’ erasure schools are now lower. Take Aiton Elementary, the school that Sanford wrote about: The year before Rhee arrived, 18% of Aiton students scored proficient in math and 31% in reading. Scores soared to over 60% during the ‘high erasure’ years, but today both reading and math scores are more than 40 percentile points lower.[35]

Enrollment declined on Rhee’s watch and has continued under Henderson, as families enrolled their children in charter schools or moved to the suburbs. The year before Rhee arrived, DCPS had 52,191 students. Today it enrolls about 45,000, a loss of roughly 13%.[36]

Even students who remained seem to be voting with their feet, because truancy in DC is a “crisis” situation[37], and Washington’s high school graduation rate is the lowest in the nation.[38]

Rhee and her admirers point to increases on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, an exam given every two years to a sample of students under the tightest possible security. And while NAEP scores did go up, they rose in roughly the same amount as they had under Rhee’s predecessor, and Washington remains at or near the bottom on that national measure.[39]

The most disturbing effect of Rhee’s reform effort is the widened gap in academic performance between low-income and upper-income students, a meaningful statistic in Washington, DC because race and income are highly correlated. On the most recent NAEP test (2011) only about 10% of low income students in grades 4 and 8 scored ‘proficient’ in reading and math. Since 2007, the performance gap has increased by 29% in 8th grade reading, by 44% in 4th grade reading, by 45% in 8th grade math, and by 72% in 4th grade math. Although these numbers are also influenced by changes in high- and low-income populations, the gaps are so extreme that is seems clear that low-income students, most of them African-American, did not fare well during Rhee’s time in Washington.[40]


It’s 2013. Is there any point to investigating probable cheating that occurred in 2008, 2009 and 2010? After all, the children who received inflated scores can’t get a ‘do-over,’ and it’s probably too late to claw back bonuses from adults who cheated, even if they could be identified. While erasure analysis would reveal the extent of cheating, what deserves careful scrutiny is the behavior of the leadership when it learned that a significant number of adults were probably cheating, because five years later, Rhee’s former deputy is in charge of public schools, and Rhee continues her efforts to persuade states and districts to adopt her approach to education reform–an approach, the evidence indicates, did little or nothing to improve the public schools in our nation’s capital.

This story is bound to remind old Washington hands of Watergate and Senator Howard Baker’s famous question, “What did the President know and when did he know it?” It has a memo that answers an echo of Baker’s question, “What did Michelle know, and when did she know it?” And the entire sordid story recalls the lesson of Watergate, “It’s not the crime; it’s the coverup.”

That Michelle Rhee named her new organization “StudentsFirst” is beyond ironic.


Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. 1. Conducted September 2011 when Rhee appeared at NBC’s “Education Nation.”
  2. 2. I first got wind of the Sanford memo while working on a documentary about Rhee for the PBS series “Frontline.” I spoke with Sanford, who confirmed that he had indeed written a memo but could not turn it over to me because it was “a work for hire.” Producer Michael Joseloff and I filed Freedom of Information Act requests with DCPS, which denied its existence, and with two Inspectors General, who acknowledged that they had it in their possession but refused to turn it over on grounds that the memo was part of the “deliberative process” within the D.C. government and thus not available to the public.

    Not long after I blogged about “The Missing Memo” on January 15, 2013,it arrived in a plain white envelope. A second copy–perhaps from the same leaker–arrived in late March.

    The original leaker of the memo added a note: “You’ve made some folks here nervous, but Rhee, Henderson and Kamras will all deny knowing anything about what Erin worked on.”

  3. 3. The differences, measured in standard deviations from the norm, were astonishing. Experts say that three standard deviations is a ‘red flag’ and four or more are prima facie evidence of cheating. At some DCPS schools the WTR erasure rates were five, six and even seven standard deviations from the norm.
  4. 4. Apparently Dr. Sanford expected Rhee to act decisively. In his memo he recommends that, ”as soon as you think it advisable, someone contacts the legal people and asks them to determine what possible actions can be taken against identified offenders.” As far as we could determine, Rhee did not follow this recommendation.
  5. 5. Her claim to have founded TNTP is disputed by people in a position to know. It began within Teach for America and was the brainchild of TFA founder Wendy Kopp.
  6. 6. Rhee’s biographer, Richard Whitmire, has characterized her as ‘a zealot’ who believes in the absolute rightness of what she is doing. His book is The Bee Eater.

    She also declared–proudly–that she was not inclined to look back. Shortly after she fired a principal she had appointed just a few weeks earlier (replacing one she had fired), I asked her if she had any regrets about her actions. “I’m a very unusual person in that, in my entire life, I don’t have any regrets. I’m a person without regret. Now, are there things that I could have done differently? And if I had to rewrite it, you know, I would have, you know, done it with a smarter way or whatnot, yeah. There are absolutely things that I could have done better. But regrets? No.” She said that in December 2007. Would she say that today?

  7. 7. At its simplest level, investigators can determine which kinds of questions had their answers erased, because multiple-choice tests are planned carefully in include some easy questions, some hard questions, and some of a moderate degree of difficulty. Students would be expected to answer the easy questions correctly and make their mistakes on the harder ones. If answer sheets showed that students with lots of erasures consistently got the difficult questions right–because of WTR erasures–but messed up on the easy ones, that is evidence of tampering. If in one classroom almost all the students erased the same answers in a WTR pattern, that is evidence of tampering, probably by one individual. Sophisticated analysis will reveal whether several classrooms display a identical patterns, which would be evidence of coordinated cheating, a so-called “erasure party.”
  8. 8. Professor Andrew Porter of the University of Pennsylvania did the analysis for Hall.
  9. 9. August 8, 2008. When those results arrived, Rhee, her deputies and the principals who later would receive $10,000 bonuses gathered in her meeting room. One person who was present described the festive atmosphere. “We were euphoric. Michelle gave a rousing speech, and we drank sparkling cider out of plastic Champagne glasses.”
  10. 10.October 16, 2008. OBAMA: I’ll just make a quick comment about vouchers in D.C. Senator McCain’s absolutely right: The D.C. school system is in terrible shape, and it has been for a very long time. And we’ve got a wonderful new superintendent there who’s working very hard with the young mayor there to try…

    MCCAIN: Who supports vouchers.

    OBAMA: … who initiated — actually, supports charters.

    MCCAIN: She supports vouchers, also.

  11. 11. She would be pictured in an empty classroom holding a broom, on the December 8th issue. The photo caused an uproar, implying as it did that the solution was to sweep out the bad teachers.
  12. 12. At least one dozen principals described this process, including the written guarantee, in interviews for “Frontline.” Several principals apparently chose not to sign and instead submitted their resignations.
  13. 13.The DC-CAS was an assessment tool with roughly 50 multiple choice questions in both reading and math. The scores did not determine whether kids passed or failed. In the parlance of education, it was not a ‘high-stakes’ test for students, and so many–perhaps most–kids did not care a whit about it. Some slept through the testing, and others filled in bubbles randomly.

    Their indifference led principals to take extreme measures to try to get students to take the test seriously. Some principals offered cash to students who promised to try hard. One pledged to get a tattoo if his students did well on the DC-CAS. They would get to pick the tattoo; he would pick the spot on his body where it would be permanently engraved. (Even that desperate strategy did not work!)

    The 2008 version had 45 multiple choice questions in reading and 51 in math. Like most standardized tests, some questions were relatively easy, a few very difficult. Designed to assess student strengths and weaknesses, the DC-CAS results would reveal which students needed remedial help in multiplying with fractions or identifying adverbs, for example. The test has four performance levels: below basic, basic, proficient and advanced. Teachers would get that information and be able provide the individual attention–if the system worked as designed.

  14. 14. Interviewed at his home in Dallas, Texas, where he moved after resigning.
  15. 15. I spent enough time in classrooms during Rhee’s first year to support his observation. We saw hours and hours of drill on basic concepts, and we heard parental complaints like this one: “There’s no attention to the actual depth of instruction going on in the classroom. What we’ve seen is the quick-fix solutions of choosing to work intensively with kids who you knew could boost their test scores if they just got a few extra hours of instruction on particular glitches in their own test results.” She said that her daughter spent nearly three weeks of school on practice testing.

    Did she mean that her daughter spent the day filling in bubbles on sample answer sheets? “Exactly,” she answered. “I’m not joking. That’s what you do. You take tests. You take practice tests.”

    Martha Harris, the 46-year veteran, agreed. “That’s all we did,” she said. “There came a point in time where we almost abandoned teaching. After Christmas, there was nothing but test prep.” The DC-CAS is given in April.

  16. 16. The interview was conducted in shadow to shield the principal’s identity. We did not use it on “Frontline.”
  17. 17. The Frontline broadcast of January 8, 2013 brought one individual’s complaint about cheating into focus. Adell Cothorne, the former principal of Noyes Education Campus, went public with her story of an apparent ‘erasure party.’. “I walked into the room and I saw three staff members,” Cothorne told Frontline. “There were test books everywhere, over 200 test books spread out on desks, spread out on tables. One staff member was sitting at a desk and had an eraser. And then there were two other staff members at a round table and they had test books out in front of them. And one staff member said to me, in a light-hearted sort of way, ‘Oh, Principal, I can’t believe this kid drew a spider on the test and I have to erase it.’”
    Cothorne was in her first year at Noyes, appointed because Rhee had promoted her predecessor, Wayne Ryan, to her central office. Under Ryan, Noyes had achieved remarkable growth in DC-CAS scores, and Rhee had (literally) made him her poster child for recruitment. In 2007, for example, only 44.14% of Noyes’ students had scored at a proficient level in reading, but under Ryan’s leadership that number nearly doubled, to 84.21%, in just two years. Math scores had also nearly doubled, from 34.24% to 62.79.

    (What Cothorne did not know–could not have known–was that a lot of answers had been changed from ‘wrong’ to right’ on DC-CAS answer sheets from Noyes. At Noyes 75% of the classrooms had been flagged for high erasure rates.)

    Education enabled Adell Cothorne to rise from the unpromising circumstances–child of a teenage mother, raised in poverty. She rose to become an Assistant Principal in Montgomery County, Maryland, a wealthy suburb of the Capital with excellent ‘Blue Ribbon’ public schools. It’s one of the top-ranked school districts in the nation.

    Her idealism burned brightly, and so she applied for a job in Washington, largely, she told Frontline, because of her admiration for Michelle Rhee.

    “I still have the Time Magazine with Michelle Rhee on the cover,” Cothorne told Frontline. “I had been following her for a while, and I admired what I saw on the media and the news. And so to have the opportunity to dialogue and sit across from her and then have her say to me, you know, ‘It’s not a matter of when you’re coming to D.C., but where I’m going to put you,’ that was absolute confirmation for me. And I was over the top.”

    Rhee installed Cothorne as principal of Noyes Education Campus, a ‘Blue Ribbon’ school, and in October she met with the Chancellor, one-on-one. At that meeting she promised Rhee a 6% gain in math and a 7% gain in reading.

    Even as she was making that commitment, Cothorne knew she had a problem. What she had already seen in her new school did not jibe with the test scores that had been recorded, she told Frontline: “As any good administrator should, I visited classrooms and just made my presence known, (and) noticed a disconnect for myself and what was going on in the classroom. The level of instruction, because I’ve worked at Blue Ribbon Schools before, so the level of instruction that I know is needed for a Blue Ribbon School, I was not seeing on a daily ongoing basis. … There’s these huge disconnects. They’re struggling academically. Yet the data that I have been given is showing great gains. But what I see with my own eyes on a daily basis is not a true picture of great gains.”

    The apparent ‘erasure party’ she had walked in on galvanized Cothorne. She arranged for tightened security. She changed the locks and had four additional people to monitor classrooms during the tests.

    With heightened security, Noyes’ DC-CAS scores dropped 52 points in reading (from 84.21% to 32.40) and 34 points in math (from 62.79% to 28.17% in math). That meant that in 2010-2011 Noyes performed significantly below its 2007, pre-Rhee, level.

    Those numbers, she told Frontline, were the true test scores. “Those were what the students in that school actually were able to produce,” she said.

    Adell Cothorne, who was completing work on her doctorate, resigned her principalship and gave up an annual salary of roughly $130,000. She has since opened up a bakery, “Cooks ‘n Cakes,” in Ellicott City, Maryland. Her whistleblower suit against DCPS was dismissed in January 2013.

  18. 18. In her Students First rating system, Rhee gave the highest marks to Rhode Island, Louisiana and the District of Columbia. She was interviewed on ‘Morning Joe’ on January 7, 2013 and publicly praised Gist, the only person she mentioned by name in the interview.
  19. 19. From documents released by DCPS in response to FOIA requests.
  20. 20. A&M was technically hired by OSSE, not DCPS, but that is a distinction without much of a difference because OSSE’s leader was in synch with DCPS. A&M conducted interviews in those 60 classrooms and, in June 2012, reported it had found “definitive test tampering” in only two of them.

    In one classroom at Martin Luther King Elementary, two students reported that their teacher pointed out correct answers; another student in the same classroom reported that the proctor had read answers aloud, raising his/her voice to indicate the correct answer. But, A&M said, the latter charge was “not corroborated” by either of the other two students interviewed from that classroom. A&M apparently interviewed only three students in the class.

    At another school, the Langdon Education Campus, a K-8 school, two students reported that the adult administering the test provided assistance to them and other students during the test. Minor infractions — missing security binders and the like — were found at 15 other schools.

    Were the adults fired? The report issued by OSSE said that, at both schools, “personnel action for implicated staff members” was pending.

    Among the 13 schools where A&M said it found no evidence of any violations was J.O. Wilson Elementary, where in one preceding year every classroom that gave tests had been flagged for abnormally high erasure rates. On the 2011 test, one Wilson classroom registered an average of 9 erasures per student, compared to a district average of 1 erasure per student on that same test. A&M did not explain why it found nothing amiss at Wilson, at least not in the summary made public by OSSE.

    A&M was not given access to test answer sheets and did not perform an electronic analysis.

  21. 21. Reported by Jack Gillum and Marisol Bello under the direction of Linda Mathews
  22. 22. What USA Today reported in March 2011 was truly staggering. Between 2008 and 2010, nearly one-quarter of the nearly 3,000 classrooms tested on the DC CAS showed high rates of wrong-to-right erasures. Such erasures persisted at schools like J.O. Wilson, a primary school in the city’s gentrifying H Street corridor, in all of the classrooms tested. At Noyes Education Campus, nearly every classroom had been flagged — the same year Ryan and DCPS officials were filling out their federal Blue Ribbon School application. All told, those erasures were the kinds of anomalies that Rhee’s hired consultant, CTB/McGraw-Hill and the District’s own officials said could be signs of malfeasance.

    Just how significant were the erasures? The rates at which students’ answers were erased and changed to the correct answer were enough to make a statistician squirm. In spreadsheets sent to DCPS, classroom after classroom showed remarkable changes — leaving a smudged erasure mark behind while changing the answer to the correct choice wholesale. The odds that these changes were happening–over and over again–by chance, statisticians told USA Today, were greater than the odds of winning the Powerball.

    The mathematics weren’t enough to convince Victor Reinoso, DC’s deputy mayor for education. He–and later Rhee–interpreted McGraw-Hill’s memo on the subject to mean that erasures alone were not enough to draw conclusions about cheating–and therefore there was no reason to investigate. The logic is remarkably convoluted: McGraw-Hill said that the data alone didn’t prove cheating but could be used for ‘follow-up investigation.’ However, following up was apparently the last thing anyone in power wanted to do.

    (Some public charter schools — which were also subject to DC testing protocols — responded to erasures by launching inquiries to find out what had happened. DCPS responded by tightening test security for future tests and hoped it wouldn’t happen again.)

    The newspaper printed the back-and-forth correspondence between Rhee and the testing supervisor, with Rhee asking first for more time and then for more information. However, USA Today’s reporters did not know of Sandy Sanford’s confidential memo. Rhee, by then leading her new organization, StudentsFirst, initially dismissed USA Today’s reporting as racist because, she said, it implied that poor Black children could not achieve. She subsequently apologized for the comments but did not call for an investigation.

  23. 23. Cited by Linda Mathews, in a personal communication
  24. 24. The Inspector General’s investigation is remarkable for what it did not investigate. Inspector General Charles Willoughby chose not to investigate Rhee’s first year, the year with the most erasures. He chose not to investigate Aiton, the school 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 the School Chancellor 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 (Atlanta investigators interviewed over 2,000), all from Noyes Education Campus. Rather than seek outside experts (as Atlanta investigators had), he relied on information from Caveon and Alvarez & Marsal, two firms 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 Kenyan McDuffie that 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 Willoughby that they had been barred from entering classrooms. School officials denied that charge–and Willoughby believed them, not the monitors.

    Willoughby was called to testify on February 21, 2013, by McDuffie (who remains the only elected official in DC to show official interest in the erasures). 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 two firms that were paid by DCPS instead of seeking an outside, independent opinion, McDuffie asked. “Yes,” Willoughby replied.

    Asked by McDuffie if he had tried to find an explanation for the pronounced test score drops when security was tightened, 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 413 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.

  25. 25. Henderson praised the IG’s report as exculpatory, and the Washington Post’s editorial page chimed its agreement.

    Henderson and Rhee maintain that the investigations were thorough. After our Frontline in January 2013, Henderson issued this statement: “Since 2009, there have been multiple investigations looking into these allegations, including one by the DC Office of the Inspector General and one by the US Department of Education Inspector General. There was an instance of cheating at Noyes and the individual who was found to be guilty was terminated. All of the investigations have concluded in the same way that there is no widespread cheating at DC Public Schools.”

    Rhee’s (and Henderson’s defense) against widespread charges of cheating is to cite these five investigations and claim that they turned up no credible evidence. That’s what Rhee did on February 8, 2013, at a Politico breakfast. She told the audience that the five investigations “found that there was some cheating, but that it was isolated to only a few schools. For some people, it puts it to bed. For others, it’ll never be put to bed — it is what is,” Rhee said. The cheaters, Rhee says or implies, were rogue teachers, never principals.

    However, none of the five investigations meet the criteria for a serious in-depth investigation. In most cases, DCPS decreed which schools and which classrooms within those schools would be scrutinized. The investigating companies were not given access to answer sheets or the electronic tapes of the answer sheets.

    And the all-important answer sheets from 2008 still have not been examined.

  26. 26. She imposed a system known as IMPACT that evaluated teachers based on three observations (two by her own staff of ‘master educators’) and DC-CAS scores. The scores counted for 50% of a teacher’s rating. IMPACT used a 1-4 scale, and teachers receiving a 1 were dismissed, regardless of seniority or tenure
  27. 27. Various news reports and Rhee’s own website have given this number. The federal government’s “Race to the Top” program also requires states to use student test scores in evaluating teachers.
  28. 28. Highly regarded data analyst Mary Levy has done thorough analysis of virtually every aspect of DCPS, including teacher turnover. She is often called upon by the City Council to provide expert testimony, and reporters have also learned they can trust her analysis.
  29. 29. Jay Mathews, the Washington Post, August 23, 2010.
  30. 30. Tamar Lewin reports that 682 teachers were fired during Rhee’s time in Washington. Her source is a DCPS spokesperson.
  31. 31. Data provided by Mary Levy.
  32. 32. I called or wrote to every surrounding school district in late 2011. All said their central office staff had been reduced. According to Levy, Rhee’s central office reduction numbers involved some sleight of hand, because she moved some bureaucrats over to the central office of the State Superintendent (OSSE), which means that she did not actually cut the number of central office personnel as much as reported but instead moved their desks.
  33. 33. Mary Levy
  34. 34. Mary Levy
  35. 35. On the 2011 DC-CAS (the most recent) 21% of Aiton’s students were proficient in reading, and just 17% in math. The DCPS website has school by school comparisons as well as year by year.
  36. 36. DCPS website data
  37. 37. Washington Post, November 9, 2012. “D.C. Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson said Thursday that the school system’s high truancy rates amount to an educational “crisis,” as D.C. officials disclosed that more than 40 percent of the students at Ballou, Anacostia, Spingarn and Roosevelt high schools missed at least a month of school last year because of unexcused absences.”
  38. 38. 59%. DC and Nevada have gone back and forth for the dubious distinction of being at the bottom.
  39. 39. NAEP data can be difficult to interpret in the case of Washington, which is–for statistical purposes–both a city and a state. NAEP has two separate data tracks, its measurement of state-by-state performance and its Trial Urban District Assessment, or TUDA.

    Washington has improved, as Rhee’s supporters say, but, as her detractors point out, the District was so low that the increases are not a reason for great celebration and they are fairly consistent with the gains made under Rhee’s predecessor, Clifford Janey.

  40. 40. Mary Levy and Tom Loveless, personal communication. Dr. Loveless has some qualms about this interpretation as a general rule, but the huge disparities in this case indicate that something significant has taken place.
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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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Honoring teachers — again?

John’s book, The Influence of Teachers, is currently available on Amazon; you can learn more about it at the book’s official website, or, if interested in buying copies for your class or discussion group, you can consult this page.

Would you believe that tomorrow we are expected to put aside our own important work and honor teachers? That’s right, we’re supposed to drop everything and pay homage to those lazy, overpaid, spoiled, money-grubbing, summer-vacationing, ‘we’ve-got-tenure-and-you-don’t’ incompetents.

That’s because Wednesday, October 5th, is “World Teachers’ Day,” an occasion recognized by more than 100 countries around the world. But it’s also “Teacher Day” on Thursday, October 6th, the following day, in Sri Lanka.

In fact, I wouldn’t be at all surprised to find that every day of the year is “Teacher Day” somewhere in the world.

Teachers have October locked up, that’s for sure. Beside this Wednesday’s celebration for those 100 countries and Sri Lanka’s on Thursday, Australia, Armenia, Uzbekistan, Belarus, Brazil, Poland, Chile, Ukraine and New Zealand all have chosen an October day to celebrate their teachers. In Ukraine, students give their teachers chocolate! (You and I work hard. Does anyone give us chocolate?)


All over the world, teachers receive gifts on various appreciation days -- but what should be making of the overall dialogue on the profession?

Here in the USA we have at least two Teacher Days and an entire Teacher Week. The first full week of May is “Teacher Appreciation Week,” with that particular Tuesday being designated as “Teacher Appreciation Day.” This official celebration is apparently the result of hard work by the National Education Association and the National PTA. Massachusetts celebrates its own “Teachers’ Day,” the first Sunday in June.

February 28th is a good day for teachers in the Middle East. That’s when 12 countries celebrate: Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Bahrain, Qatar, UAE and Oman.

Because we were asleep at the switch, we have already missed India’s “Teacher Day” (September 5), China’s and Hong Kong’s (September 10th), Brunei’s celebration on September 23, Taiwan’s (September 28) and Singapore’s (first Friday of the month). India makes a teacher’s cushy job even easier because on that day senior students take over the responsibility for teaching.

The only month that does NOT have a “Teachers Day” to call its own is, predictably, August. June has four (Bolivia, El Salvador, Hungary, and Guatemala), March has five (the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Albania, Lebanon, and Iraq), but the merry month of May tops them both, with six country celebrations: Iran, Bhutan, Jamaica, Malaysia, Mexico, and Colombia.

Teachers really live the life of Riley in Vietnam. November 20th is set aside to allow students “to express their respect to their teacher. Students begin preparing a week in advance, and many classes usually prepare literature and art to welcome teachers’ day, while other students prepare foods and flowers for the parties held at their schools. Students usually visit their teachers at their homes to offer flowers and small gifts, or organize trips with their teachers and classmates. Former students also pay respect to their former teachers on this day.”

To be serious for a moment, what are we to make of all these celebrations honoring teachers? While I am all for honoring those men and women, I hope the respect neither begins nor ends on that particular day. Somehow I keep thinking of Jon Stewart’s wry comment at the end of February when he noted that, now that Black History Month was over, we could get back to White History Year.

I have a modest proposal. In addition to the celebrations, how about a concerted effort to end the dishonoring of teachers and teaching? I’m talking about the Fox News commentators who rattle on about overpaid teachers; those school principals who treat teachers as interchangeable parts; union reps who bargain for rigid and bizarre work rules that hamstring dedicated teachers and administrators alike; curriculum designers who labor to create ‘teacher-proof’ curricula; education school leaders with low standards and undemanding programs; cheap-shot politicians and so on. I am sure that there are a few million teachers who would like to see any of them try to do for just one day what teachers do every day of the school year.

Me, I would give anything to capture that on film. We could call the ensuing television program “Real Hypocrites in Classroom 203” or maybe “America’s Got Bozos.”

Thanks, teachers. Enjoy the day — and the career.

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MOVIE REVIEW: August to June

What exactly is a regular public school, as opposed to a charter school? Is there such a thing? For that matter, is there a typical charter school?

“Waiting for Superman” paints a flattering but false picture of charter schools. About 5,000 charter schools are now operating, with an enrollment of about 1.5 million students, but one reliable study indicates that only 17% of charter schools outperform regular public schools, while 37% significantly under-perform their public counterparts. So there clearly is no ‘typical’ charter school that will save education.

“Waiting for Superman” also uses its broad brush to paint ‘regular’ public schools as ineffective and hamstrung by union rules. How accurate is that? Is there such a thing as a ‘typical’ regular public school?

The question is rhetorical, of course. America has nearly 100,000 public schools, 95,000 of which are not chartered. And they run the gamut, from disgraceful ‘dropout factories’ to stellar magnet schools to ‘ordinary’ schools that outshine even fancy and expensive private schools. (See our portrait of Mt. Vernon Elementary, for example.)

Because over 90% of our students go to something other than a charter school, salvation (if that’s what we are pursuing) must be found elsewhere.

We are working now on a piece for the PBS NewsHour about entire districts that seem to have figured out how to educate nearly all of their children. And there are ‘models’ and ‘approaches’ that work, like E.D. Hirsch’s “Core Knowledge” schools and “Community Schools.” Stay tuned for that.

But I want to tell you about one particular public school, the subject of a lovely film, “August to June.” (more…)

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Superman, Rhee and Everything in Between

I have a couple of things on my mind this morning, all somewhat connected.  Before I am through, I am going to recommend a bunch of websites, all worth a look in my humble opinion.  So here goes.

Waiting for Superman, Davis Guggenheim, Michelle Rhee, Bill Gates on OprahThe publicity train for “Waiting for Superman” pulls into the station this Friday, when the movie opens, and its cross-country trek has been a marvel: fulsome praise on Oprah, the cover of Time, and so on.

For a balanced view of the movie, please read Nick Lemann’s review in the current issue of the New Yorker.  And here’s another, tougher review, this one by a teacher.

I have already reviewed the movie but want to reiterate my point: the bleak picture of public education that the movie paints is a huge disservice to millions of kids and teachers.

Because I ran the meeting where charter schools were born (1988) and have been following the story ever since, I resent the movie’s endorsement of charter schools as the solution.  (more…)

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