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 413-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.

This article is reprinted from John Merrow's blog, Taking Note