Michelle Rhee was warned about scope of DC test cheating

Apr 12, 2013 by

Kenneth J. Bernstein – Veteran education journalist John Merrow obtained a copy of a previously “missing” memo from an outside consultant, and wrote about it this evening in a blog post he titled Michelle Rhee’s Reign of Error.   In  italics, under the title we read 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.

Merrow’s first paragraph of this long (over 4,000 words) blog post reads as follows:

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?”).

The story has now been picked up by USA Today, in a piece they title Memo warns of rampant cheating in D.C. public schools.  THis piece is written by veteran education journalist Greg Toppo, following up on what Merrow exposed with the release of the memo.  Toppo writes

The 2009 memo was written by an outside analyst, Fay “Sandy” Sanford, who had been invited by then-chancellor Michelle Rhee to examine students’ irregular math and reading score gains. It was sent to Rhee’s top deputy for accountability.

Jumping back to the Merrow piece for a moment, he writes (and the number represents a footnote at the end of his post)

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.


It is impossible to overstate the significance of this.  Rhee became a hero supposedly on the basis of the remarkable turnaround she was making in DC schools.  Unfortunately, it turns out to be as false as her previous claims about the miraculous increases in scores she obtained with her students at an Edison school in Baltimore during her three years there as a Teach for America teacher, that claim having been conclusively shown to be false by former DC teacher Guy Brandenburg.

AS Toppo writes about this now recovered memo,

The memo suggests, “Don’t make hard copies and leave them around. Much of what we think we know is based on what I consider to be incomplete information. So the picture is not perfectly clear yet, but the possible ramifications are serious.”At the time, many D.C. schools, as well as those nationwide, were struggling to meet the federal government’s “adequate yearly progress” (AYP) levels, which required year-to-year test score gains. Agencies such as OSSE were pushing for improvements.

“If all 70 schools wind up being compromised AND OSSE wants AYP blood,” the memo warns, “the result could be devastating with regard to our reported gains in 2008.”

When the issue of this memo had been previously raised, Rhee claimed not to remember having received such a memo, something we now know to be false based on Merrow’s reporting of the memo being discussed in staff meetings.Rhee claims that the issues raised in the memo were dispensed with by investigations by inspectors general for both the DC and US Departments of Education.  Perhaps those investigations need to be called into question.  As Merrow writes,

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.

Or to put it another way, Rhee might not have wanted an investigation because she knew what it would show.   And then there would be another problem, as can be seen in the following two additional paragraphs from Merrow’ post:

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.

Remember that even after Rhee left DC, she continued to wield influence based on her supposed success in DC.  Allow me to quote just 3 more short paragraphs by Merrow:

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.

The Washington Post was a strong supporter of Rhee’s approach.  As of 11:30 this evening there is nothing on the front page of the Post web site discussing the memo.As Toppo’s piece reminds us, USA Today in 2011 had runthis piece which exposed the erasure scandal.  As I recall, the person who supervised that story was the wife of Jay Mathews, long-time principal education writer for the Post.

One has to wonder if the Post will thoroughly cover this story.

One has to hope that the educational media and politicians will begin to recognize several things

1.  There are no miracles with testing
2.  When you base major changes on supposed miracles, they will not work.
3.  Usually the miracle will eventually be exposed.

We recently had Atlanta.

Now we have more on DC.

Even before that people tried to warn that there was no Texas Miracle while George W. Bush was governor.  Thus our national educational policy of No Child Left Behind was based on a non-existent miracle, just like several of its supposed shining examples are now clearly demonstrable as fake.

Is it possible we can finally step back from this madness and deal with the real needs of education honestly and stop the stupidity on testing?

Or is there simply so much money invested in our current path that even that is too much to hope for?

Daily Kos: Michelle Rhee was warned about scope of DC test cheating.

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