D.C. Cheating Scandal: A Conspiracy of Silence

It took nine years for rumors of cheating on test scores by school personnel in Atlanta to percolate and trigger a devastating nine-month investigation by their governor.  Will it take nine or more years for D.C. schoolchildren to get the same kind of justice?

Investigators in Atlanta reported '"a culture of fear and a conspiracy of silence" had existed during Superintendent Dr. Beverly Hall's reign.  It took 60 agents with subpoena power to break through Hall's firewall and eventually determine that 178 teachers and principals of 44 schools cheated on the 2009 test "either by giving inappropriate help to students or altering answer sheets."'

Presently, teachers and others implicated in the illegal activity are under "a criminal investigation by Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard. Howard is looking into felony indictments against the educators for altering state documents, lying to investigators and stealing government funds."  Though Hall was "not tied directly to cheating or the direct target of a subpoena[,]" she still ended up losing her position and has become a pariah in the education community.

Educators reaping financial rewards -- i.e., increased teacher pay based on test scores -- by altering test answers can't be good for the students.  Yet tying teacher pay to achievement data can have the same effect as that of asking a cat to ignore that mouse in the corner.  The temptation to go after the mouse will be too strong.

In comparison, the D.C. cheating probe has three separate agencies "investigating" its questionable test scoring during the reign of Chancellor Michelle Rhee from 2008-2010, but the effort on the part of officials is nothing like Atlanta.

No 800-page reports (see Atlanta's) have been issued by anyone in D.C. involved in the case, even after the D.C. inspector general, the Department of Education's inspector general, and now the consulting firm of Alvarez and Marsal have all gotten in on the act.

The Team

As a change agent extraordinaire, Rhee rode into D.C. in 2007 promising to earn the trust of the school district through a hard-line emphasis on accountability and personal responsibility.  Within months she lowered the boom.  Chancellor Rhee, answering only to newly elected mayor Adrian Fenty, fired principals and teachers; closed schools; and implemented a controversial, data-driven teacher evaluation program.

After fifteen months in D.C., the woman who called herself the "decider," not a "negotiator," declared, "if there's one thing I have learned...it's that cooperation, collaboration and consensus-building are way overrated."

To ensure a seamless transition with minimal interference, Rhee's team included Kaya Henderson, a vice president at the non-profit The New Teachers Project (TNTP), which Rhee founded in 1997.  Henderson acted as Rhee's second-in-command in D.C., then took over after her boss's resignation in 2010.

University of Chicago grad Jacqueline Greer, who also worked at TNTP, became Rhee's executive assistant during the transition, while Jenny Abramson, a 30-year-old advertising executive at the Washington Post and friend of fellow Stanford grad Chelsea Clinton, led Rhee's tight-knit group of "education specialists."  A spokesperson for the chancellor's office noted that they were in daily contact with the Washington Post during Rhee's tenure.  Abramson returned to the Post during 2010.

Although DCPS is just one of many school systems being investigated for standardized test cheating, Rhee's superstar status and high profile as CEO of the billion-dollar StudentsFirst non-profit make the stakes much higher if evidence of wrongdoing materializes.

The former D.C. schools chief will have a hard time shifting blame to nonexistent collaborators if investigators find that cheating occurred not only under her watch, but under her successor and protégé Kaya Henderson's as well.

Just last week, in a separate inquiry, Hosanna Mahaley's D.C. Office of State Superintendent of Education (OSSE) hired an outside firm, Alvarez and Marsal, to examine 2011 test results in 35 flagged public and public charter classrooms.  In a not-so-odd twist of fate, Alvarez and Marsal is the same firm hired by Rhee to conduct a forensic audit of DCPS's muddled finances back in 2007.

The company's website describes itself as "a global professional service specializing in turnaround and interim management."  Nowhere does it purport to possess expertise in educational testing anomalies.

OSSE's hiring of A&M comes on the heels of increased press coverage by both the alternative and mainstream media regarding an ongoing federal investigation of alleged widespread cheating.

The Race Card

Bill Turque of the Washington Post interviewed Henderson in early March 2012 about the investigations.  (Henderson, in an April 1, 2011 letter to DCPS staff just days after USA Today published a detailed account of the allegations, requested the D.C. inspector general to look into the matter.)  When asked by Turque if either the local IG or Duncan's DOE IG, who joined the investigation in July 2011, had been in touch with her, a defensive Henderson responded:

BT: Do you see the Ed Department Inspector General's or the D.C. IG's tracks? Is there any evidence that they are around, doing an investigation?

KH: I don't know because there is a firewall. And if I did know, you'd accuse me of, not you but...

BT: They haven't talked to you?

KH: No one from the IG's office has contacted me personally.

Henderson then expressed the same sentiment of her predecessor Rhee who had stated in an earlier interview that cheating accusations "were an insult" to hard-working minority children:

Henderson: And the subtext, frankly, is that there are a lot of people who do not believe that kids in DCPS, or in Atlanta, or Baltimore or any other place where they look like me could make significant gains. We're not putting that on the table as squarely as we're putting some other stuff on the table. So I just feel like we've got to tell the truth and shame the devil, right?

Coincidentally, Beverly Hall's response to the preliminary investigation in Atlanta echoed Rhee and Henderson, projecting blame onto those who believe that poor, disadvantaged children could not excel in reading and math. 

The issue is not a question of whether low income students can learn; the issue is whether the Rhee administration created a culture of cheating.

Unfortunately for Hall in Atlanta, where charges of racism didn't work, two grand jury subpoenas were issued last September for records dating to the late 1990s, when she had taken over the failing urban district.  Will the race card help D.C.?

The Inspectors General and Private Consulting Firms

In July 2011, the Washington Post reported that the U.S. Department of Education would join the District's IG Charles Willoughby to look into the cheating allegations.  Willoughby's spokesperson, Charles Burke, told the Post reporter at the time that he did "not know how long it [DOE] had been playing a role or whether its help had been requested by the District."  A cursory search of the internet pulls up no information on exactly who from the DOE has actually been assigned the case.

Seven months later, things heated up when a February 26, 2012 New York Times article questioned Secretary of Education Arne Duncan's appearance with Michelle Rhee at a January education conference given the DOE's pending involvement with the case.

When asked by the Times about the apparent conflict of interest, Mr. Duncan's spokesperson called the columnist "irresponsible ... to presume guilt before we have all the facts."

Richard L. Hyde, who led the Atlanta investigation, disagreed:

I'm shocked that the secretary of education would be fraternizing with someone who could potentially be the target of the investigation.

But the same Times article fails to mention that the DOE's inspector general, Kathleen Tighe, also heads the Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board overseeing Stimulus fund distribution.  How can the IG of the DOE be a watchdog over $100 billion in Stimulus funds designated for that same institution?  Another conflict of interest to add to the growing list?

The stakes are high for Ms. Rhee, who has secured a place in the national spotlight as an education reformer par excellence.  Her relentless pursuit of a data-driven, pay-for-performance educational model led to a rapid rise in test scores over a three-year period.  Rhee rewarded schools, principals, and teachers with bonuses in addition to receiving federal and private funds for the improved scores.

It wasn't until over half of D.C. schools were flagged by McGraw-Hill because of wrong-to-right erasure rates that an outside firm -- Caveon Consulting Services LLC, a test security firm -- was called in to investigate in 2009.

Caveon, the same firm hired by disgraced Atlanta Superintendent Beverly Hall, "did not find any evidence of cheating at any of the schools."  The president of Caveon admitted later that the investigations were limited but that the company did what it was asked to do by D.C. officials.

In 2011, Atlanta Public Schools cheating scandal investigators criticized Caveon in the 800-page report, noting that "many schools for which there was strong statistical evidence of cheating were not flagged by Caveon."

With three ongoing investigations, Michelle Rhee's troubles are far from behind her.  After the USA Today published its extensive report in March 2011, over 3,700 parents and teachers petitioned the Department of Education and the Government Accountability Office (GAO) to conduct an in-depth analysis of the test scores from 2008 through 2010.  They also requested that Rhee and others be questioned under oath about their possible involvement in the high number of wrong-to-right erasures.

The petition presumably led to the DOE's July 2011 announcement of their intention to join the probe ensuring a thorough and comprehensive investigation.  Secretary Duncan, who said he was "stunned" by the widespread cheating uncovered in Atlanta last summer, also suggested that this "was not an isolated individual or two, this was clearly systemic, this was clearly a part of the culture in Atlanta. That simply can't happen, that is absolutely inexcusable."

However, Secretary Duncan's shock over the educational culture of corruption under Beverly Hall has not motivated him to aggressively pursue the truth surrounding the same possible corruption in play under Rhee.  When asked recently about the federal probe, Mr. Duncan's spokesman Justin Hamilton echoed the cover-up language of former Atlanta officials, stating that "our inspector general is investigating the cheating issue in DC public schools and we should  let the findings speak for themselves."

Sitting side by side at the January 19, 2012 Data Quality Campaign conference in D.C., Michelle Rhee and Arne Duncan argued that education personnel can use student data, including test scores, to rate teachers.  Despite the looming D.C. cheating scandals, both are still on message, pushing the importance of quantifying the progress of individual students.  Rhee summed it up at the conference:

The data can be an absolute game changer[.] ... If you have the data, and you can invest and engage children and their families in this data, it can change a culture quickly.

The desire to change a culture quickly and deliberately is the personality type of a dictator, and unless taxpayers want an education system with a top-down "do as I tell you" approach, there's no place in our children's classrooms for this kind of leader.

According to a 2009 Atlantic profile, Rhee's fanatical devotion to numbers began early on when she was a Teach for America recruit: 

What makes a good teacher? And how do you recognize one? For Rhee and her fellow reformers, the answer is data. Lots of data. There may be many unquantifiables in teacher quality, but most of the traits that matter to reformers can be put into numbers.

It's an attitude born of Rhee's experience in Teach for America..."TFA is a machine," says Jennifer Kirmes, who taught for the program in Washington and now works in its Chicago office. "Everything is done with data and analysis."

Rhee's promise of transparency, accountability, and merit-based compensation in 2007 rings hollow as she continues to elude the press when it comes to speaking about her area of expertise -- test data as it relates to teacher performance and subsequent charges of cheating under her watch.

Friends in High Places

A year after the USA Today exposé, Rhee, the media darling, is still riding high.  Appearing on cable news shows, PBS, and network television; crisscrossing the country, speaking to varied audiences; pushing legislation; and heading up StudentsFirst, the advocacy group she founded, Rhee appears unstoppable.  If her public image remains mostly untarnished, it may be due to nothing less than friends like Arne Duncan and former White House operatives.

In late summer 2011, after a USA Today reporter made a number of attempts to get Ms. Rhee on the record about the cheating scandal, Rhee's StudentsFirst PR representative, SKDKnickerbocker's Anita Dunn (also President Obama's former communications director), advised the D.C. chancellor's office to "just stop answering his [Jack Gillum's] e-mails." 

Hari Sevugan, Rhee's VP of Communications at StudentsFirst, served as former national press secretary for the DNC and before that worked as senior spokesman for President Obama's 2008 campaign.  Along with Dunn, he covered for Rhee, saying reporters "were provided unprecedented time and access to report their story."  Answering for D.C. officials last fall, Sevugan suggested that they were running out of patience with reporters' attempts to get a statement from Rhee. 

Rhee did answer written questions submitted by USA Today last May, but out of the eleven pertaining to the cheating scandal, she refused to respond to ten.

Secretary Duncan's closeness to Rhee poses a significant obstacle to getting to the bottom of the D.C. investigation.  In Atlanta there were "subpoenas for signed copies of any and all oaths of office" taken by the former superintendent Beverly Hall.  Where are the subpoenas for information from Michelle Rhee and DCPS?  After nine months, there are still no definitive conclusions from the DOE inspector general's office.  Who's protecting whom?

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

If you experience technical problems, please write to helpdesk@americanthinker.com