Unsolved Mystery: D.C. Public Schools Cheating Scandal

The Washington, D.C. school system's failure to hold higher-ups accountable for their 2008-2010 test cheating scandal has led to more speculation that some are intentionally stonewalling attempts to get at the truth.

According to the Washington Post, D.C. 's Office of the State Superintendent of Education (OSSE), headed by Hosanna Mahaley, issued a December 23 press release after months of dodging Freedom of Information requests by journalists.  In September, a spokesman for OSSE told the Post's Jay Mathews that the "data was ready and I would get it after Mahaley returned from a trip to Brazil."

Mahaley, who was attending a Pearson Foundation conference (one of the largest educational publishers in the nation) in Rio de Janeiro in October, has a reputation for governing in absentia.  For example, OSSE had set up six town hall meetings for November as part of a requirement by the federal government to "engage diverse stakeholders and communities in the development of its request" for a waiver from No Child Left Behind rules.  On the first advertised date, only one person showed up, and that didn't include anyone from the OSSE.  Subsequent town halls were canceled until the new year.

Sloppy scheduling may be forgivable, but viewing that along with political maneuvers to hide test scores shows a pattern of questionable behavior.

Finally, a day before Christmas Eve, Mahaley's office responded to inquiries.  But instead of releasing the anticipated erasure data concerning wrong-to-right answers (WTR) for 2011, OSSE announced a "Request for Proposal soliciting vendors to assess and investigate individual classrooms."  The RFP came after an advisory committee of "national experts" convened to determine the best way to deal with test security.

The stall tactics didn't go over too well, and on December 31, Mahaley's office publicly released their "DC Comprehensive Assessment System Wrong-to-Right Changes Report" dated July 15, 2011.  The nine-page document indicated that 128 classrooms, 3% of schools tested, had high WTR erasures, down from 253 schools in 2009.  Although CTB/McGraw Hill named the flagged schools and teachers, they were purposely omitted from the OSSE report.

Tamara Reavis, Mahaley's director of assessments and accountability, stated that erasures "are only one data point to flag classrooms."  In fairness, an outside firm will be hired to measure the results "in conjunction with other information." 

Mahaley and Reavis, along with DCPS chiefs and Mayor Gray, seem determined to drag this scandal out.  Why not just produce an in-depth analysis of answer sheet erasures for 2008-2011 and question all of those at the helm?  Why are top D.C. officials still calling for "vendors" to make recommendations for tighter security measures?  Why not rip the Band-Aid off and get it over with?  With the obvious delay tactics and suppression of findings, it appears that the campaign to keep parents, teachers, and journalists in the dark marches on.  Why all the obfuscation when former players like Michelle Rhee and Mayor Adrian Fenty are no longer in power?  Is the wrongdoing so egregious that it can be quashed only through a monotonous dribs-and-drabs strategy?

Last March, a USA Today investigation showed a huge amount of wrong-to-right answer sheet erasures at more than half of D.C. schools; their inquiry didn't include charter schools.

In July 2011, it was revealed that only one agent from the D.C. inspector general's office had been assigned to the investigation.  By comparison, the Atlanta cheating scandal involved 50 investigators who conducted 2,100 interviews "and examinations of more than 800,000 documents."  The Georgia investigation ended in the resignation of Superintendent Beverly Hall, and evidence that 178 teachers and principals in 44 schools were involved in cheating on standardized tests.

Under pressure from parents, teachers, and reporters, a spokesman for the D.C. general inspector's office confirmed the U.S. Department of Education's involvement in securing "a top-notch investigation" in July.  However, Mayor Vincent Gray and schools chancellor Kaya Henderson, Michelle Rhee's successor, both expressed surprise at the limited scope of the inspector general's office.

Henderson vowed to "move expeditiously" if "confirmed cases of testing impropriety" came to light, but she stated that she was not about "to fire people or yank licenses or whatever on conjecture."  Back in 2008 she also demonstrated reluctance to get to the bottom of the miracle test scores when she was Rhee's second-in-command.

2008: OSSE Director Deborah Gist

During that time the OSSE, headed by Deborah Gist, recommended that test scores at particular schools, like the highly touted Noyes Education Center, be investigated due to huge gains in proficiency rates.  Noyes math scores alone increased from 22% for the fourth-grade class in 2007 to 84% in 2008.

Gist eventually asked McGraw-Hill to conduct an erasure analysis in 2008.  McGraw-Hill flagged the most extreme cases of wrong-to-right erasures.  Out of 96 schools flagged, eight campuses were the recipients of more than $1.5 million in bonuses from Rhee for high test scores.  None of the schools flagged were investigated in 2008.

D.C. public school officials resisted Gist's efforts to validate the scores.  Documents obtained by USA Today showed that the chancellor's office, headed by Rhee and Henderson, was reluctant to investigate.  Rhee's data and accountability officer employed stall tactics as well, ostensibly so DCPS could "be confident in the data provided" because of "the disruption and alarm an investigation would likely create."

Gist wrote to area schools requesting that they conduct their own examination of test anomalies.  She eventually resigned in April 2009.  Her successor, Kelli Briggs, who served a short term, dropped Gist's recommendations.

After more schools were flagged by McGraw-Hill in 2009, OSSE reneged and hired a Utah firm, Caveon Consulting, to conduct interviews with teachers and principals.  Caveon didn't conduct its own data analysis but somehow exonerated all but one of the eight schools chosen by OSSE for the audit.

2011 to 2012: OSSE Director Hosanna Mahaley

DCPS and OSSE both oversee the Washington, D.C. schools.  In 2008, the DCPS avoided coming clean while OSSE tried to uncover it.  Now, in 2012, the OSSE is playing the avoidance game along with DCPS.

In May 2011, The DC Examiner reported thata OSSE ordered an investigation into 18 classrooms for the year 2011 that showed "a suspicious number of incorrect answers in 2010 testing."  A spokeswoman for Chancellor Kaya Henderson stated only two classrooms demonstrated "possible testing irregularities" and one "had a confirmed case of testing impropriety."

OSSE Superintendent Mahaley used the 2011 probe that cleared 15 schools to "confirm our belief and support for the overwhelming number of students, teachers and staff that work hard and play by the rules."

Oddly enough, in the same May article, Mayor Gray took the opportunity to reference Michelle Rhee's tenure in D.C.  Gray suggested that the investigations "do nothing to tarnish former Chancellor Michelle Rhee[.] ... We're not looking to continue or detract from her legacy ... the results speak for themselves."  Rhee built her reputation on improving test scores in D.C. and is currently criss-crossing the country pushing education reform.  Did Gray suggest a motive for the cover-up?

Could it be entrenched interests?  Chancellor Kaya Henderson's and Michelle Rhee's relationship goes way back to Teach for America and the 1997 non-profit New Teacher Project, so there's little mystery surrounding Henderson's loyalty to Rhee.

What about Mahaley, who took over in December of 2010?  She promised to take cheating "seriously" and "to send a strong message to all those involved in educating our children" that they would be held accountable.

But upon closer examination of Mahaley's political and corporate connections, her failure to be open and above board is not surprising.  In fact, with Mahaley at OSSE, it's a good bet that this investigation is going nowhere.

Hosanna Mahaley Bio

According to online bios, Hosanna Farr Mahaley Johnson Jones (all names linked to her profile) went from a three-year stint as a math teacher in Oceanside, California to earning her executive MBA from Northwestern University.  In 1999 she began her public service career in the office of Chicago's Mayor Richard Daley as a summer intern.  She quickly became his education adviser and, in 2001, was named deputy chief of staff of the Chicago Public Schools.  In 2002 she was promoted to chief of staff of the chief education officer and began the famous Renaissance 2010 Initiative to replace underperforming schools with charters.

Coincidentally, Mahaley's Chicago ties are alive and well in the D.C. state superintendent's office today.  In August of 2011, six months after Mahaley went to Washington, D.C.'s Mayor Gray commissioned Illinois Facilities Fund, a Chicago non-profit firm heavily involved in the charter school movement, to study which D.C. facilities should be closed.

An executive director of an organization which works for improvement in school facilities in D.C. questioned Gray's choice of IFF regarding its ability to define the District of Columbia's particular issues.  It just so happened that in 2004, when Mahaley worked under Arne Duncan, IFF worked on her fledgling Renaissance 2010 project.  In 2007 the firm received a $10-million federal grant to finance charters in Illinois, Iowa, Missouri, and Wisconsin.

Mired in Chicago education reform as a Daley loyalist, Mahaley became chief of staff to Chicago Public Schools CEO Arne Duncan in 2003.  In 2005, while still functioning as Duncan's chief of staff, she took on the role of executive officer of New Schools in Chicago, where she pressed for more public funding of charter schools.

In 2007, then-Senator Obama requested Mahaley's presence at the Senate Committee hearing on the No Child Left Behind Reauthorization Act.  Mahaley talked about her Urban Teaching Residency program and told Senate committee members that she was "happy to see Senator Obama here -- and he knows a lot about the program."

Indeed, Obama did know a lot about Chicago education initiatives.  He had been working on education issues since Bill Ayers named him to chair the Chicago Annenberg Challenge, a school reform organization, in 1995.  Even his wife, First Lady Michelle Obama, worked with young people in Chicago -- first as an assistant to Mayor Daley in the early 1990s, and later as the executive director of Public Allies Chicago, a nonprofit dedicated to hooking up Chicago students with various community activist organizations.

Mahaley, like Daley's other famous ex-employee Michelle Obama, hit the big time.  As part of Arne Duncan's exclusive $100,000 club, she was making $132,000 for "privatizing and charterizing as many Chicago schools as possible."  Almost 1,000 education officials were making over 100 grand working for CPS at the time.  And while he was handing out hefty salaries to public-sector employees, Duncan went before the Illinois General Assembly to moan that the school system faced a $300-million deficit.

After Mahaley left Chicago in 2007, she headed for Atlanta.  Since 1999, Atlanta had earned national fame for a miraculous turnaround in test scores.  Under highly paid Superintendent Beverly Hall, the Georgia capital became a mecca for education entrepreneurs.  It was this special relationship between the business community and Hall which helped keep the "test score Ponzi scheme" under the radar until it surfaced in the summer of 2011.

Mahaley's Chicago experience with the private sector served her well in Atlanta, where she became president of the newly formed Atlanta Education Fund.  In this position, she directed tens of millions of dollars from investors into Superintendent Hall's education reform -- most notably $22 million from the General Electric Foundation for science education.  GE's vice-chairman, John Rice, became "one of [Beverly] Hall's closest confidantes."

After two years, she resigned from AEF and managed to escape scrutiny for her debatable role in "accelerating student achievement" when an 800-page government investigation exposed a culture of intimidation and corruption under Beverly Hall.  A Blue Ribbon Commission of 15 business leaders failed to convince Georgia Governor Perdue that Hall was an innocent do-gooder.  Perdue's own investigators concluded that the "cheating was widespread and systemic."

Representative Edward Lindsey (R-Atlanta), who supported partnerships between businesses and educators in his district, regretted that leaders from both areas were so desperate to keep the city from "spiraling downward" that they failed to recognize obvious signs of cheating.  "We were so enamored with the perception," said Lindsey, "that we didn't see the reality."

The Atlanta scandal wouldn't hit the mainstream until 2011.

In the meantime, Mahaley went to work for Wireless Generation, an education company which builds large-scale data systems centralizing student data.  Wireless currently serves 200,000 educators and 3 million students.  Back in 2006, when Mahaley was Duncan's chief of staff, Chicago Public Schools signed a no-bid contract with Wireless for $1.3 million.  The company renewed the contract for $2.3 million in 2008.

Mahaley had met Wireless Generation CEO Larry Berger when both were inaugural fellows of the Aspen Institute‐New Schools Venture Fund Entrepreneurial Leaders for Public Education Program.  Berger praised Hosanna as a "rising star" in the reform movement.

In 2009, the rising star had arrived.  She was named a Broad Superintendent Academy fellow, joining other anointed superstars like Michelle Rhee.  The Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation heavily funds the education reform movement, including Rhee's programs in D.C.  Broad, who once declared he knew nothing about how to operate a school, has placed his brand of education engineering in school systems across the country.

The elite club of edu-reformers is a tight-knit group.  Self-interests and covering for each other abound.  That can't be good for the 50 million K-12 students the club uses as trading cards -- their value rises and falls according to the latest business deal or political posture.

Are the journalists' and interested parties' suspicion about a major cover-up in the D.C. cheating scandal much ado about nothing?  If there's no real issue there, why not lay all the facts on the table?  Atlanta's highly publicized, massive cheating scandal should serve as a cautionary tale to those who think that kicking the can down the road will make the story go away.

Read more M. Catharine Evans and Ann Kane at Potter Williams Report.

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