Michelle Rhee’s No Good, Very Bad Weekend

Those who like to take it easy late in the week and don’t pay as much attention to news in the edusphere might have missed a journalistic bomb thrown by LearningMatters’ John Merrow as he reassessed Michelle Rhee’s tenure as the head of the Washington D.C. school system.

What spurred Merrow to give Rhee a second look were recent indictments handed down in Atlanta to Superintendent Beverly A. Hall and 34 other district employees for planning, aiding and abetting the largest cheating scandal in recent memory.

Rhee’s term as Schools Chancellor in Washington D.C. has long been marred by rumors that she was aware – and failed to investigate – instances of system-wide cheating on standardized exams in 2009. To allay concerns about the cheating, Rhee commissioned an outside company to compile a report. The results of the investigation were long kept hidden, but earlier this year an unnamed whistle-blower mailed two copies to Merrow after he wrote a column wondering how he could get his hands on it.

What that memo contained was explosive.

Prior to the memo becoming public knowledge, Merrow asked Rhee about the cheating for his PBS Frontline series on her:

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 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.’”

The conclusions of the so-called Stanford memo which both the author and Rhee wanted to keep confidential was unambiguous: judging by the number of wrong-to-right erasures on the test answer sheets, it suggested that cheating on standardized tests in District schools was prevalent and widespread,.

As a single example, a school that was rewarded by more than $270,000 for their 29% improvement in math and 43% in reading showed the ratio of wrong-to-right erasures of 5.7 on average and 6.8 in mathematics. Districtwide, the number was 1.7 and 2.3 respectively.

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?”

It isn’t hard to deduce why Rhee would close her eyes to the cheating scandal that was staring right at her. Not only was she generously remunerated for her accomplishments as Chancellor, after leaving her post she now heads a hugely influential lobbying group StudentsFirst that seeks to apply the same methods to other districts she pioneered in Washington. For a lot of people who count, Michelle Rhee is the face of school reform successfully implemented.

Rhee wasn’t the causus belli of cheating in Washington, but her policies likely set the stage. When she first took over as Chancellor, Rhee applied pressure – in person — to her principals by asking them to commit to specific improvement numbers. Thus the motivation was created, but the means and opportunity existed well before Rhee came on the scene.

According to teachers who were employed before, during and after Rhee’s tenure, the test administration process in the district was abysmal. The test booklets arrived well in advance of test time and weren’t sealed. It was also an open secret that favored teachers were given opportunities by the principals to get a look at the questions prior to the exam.

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.”

The most important question Merrow asks is located at the end of the article: now what? Should the district expand resources to investigate cheating scandals that took place in 2008, 2009, and 2010? Undoing the damage done to students is going to be nearly impossible, and clawing back bonuses awarded on a lie will be more impossible still.

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.