I have to wonder if all school chiefs follow the same playbook when confronted with catastrophic evidence of cheating in their districts: Dodge, deny and dismiss.
It did not work for former APS Superintendent Beverly Hall, and it isn’t working for Michelle Rhee, the ex DC chancellor who is now confronting her own Erasure-gate as the result of a well done USA Today investigation.
USA Today’s investigation is similar in scope and findings to the AJC probe in 2008 that first revealed troubling score disparities in Atlanta schools and led to an in-depth statewide review that ultimately confirmed widespread test tampering.
In fact, some of Rhee’s defenses are exactly what Hall offered up to the AJC after its accounts of likely cheating within APS, down to the citing of the district’s own cheating investigation by Caveon.
(I have to note that Hall did sit down with the AJC over the years as the newspaper uncovered more and more evidence of cheating, but she minimized the extent of the problem and never explained how she, as data-driven superintendent, ignored such improbable score gaps.)
A strong New York Times piece criticizes Rhee’s willingness to chat up all sorts of media about her crusade to reform American education, while she rebuffs USA Today reporters who want to quiz her about possible cheating in Washington schools during her three-year tenure there. The Times notes that Rhee crisscrosses the country energetically promoting charter schools and an end to tenure, yet has little to say about whether the gains credited to her in Washington are real.
I would suggest that Rhee sit down with Hall. I think the two would have a lot to talk about now.
Ms. Rhee, the chancellor of the Washington public schools from 2007 to 2010, is the national symbol of the data-driven, take-no-prisoners education reform movement.
It’s hard to find a media outlet, big or small, that she hasn’t talked to. She’s been interviewed by Katie Couric, Tom Brokaw and Oprah Winfrey. She’s been featured on a Time magazine cover holding a broom (to sweep away bad teachers). She was one of the stars of the documentary “Waiting for Superman.”
These days, as director of an advocacy group she founded, StudentsFirst, she crisscrosses the country pushing her education politics: she’s for vouchers and charter schools, against tenure, for teachers, but against their unions. Always, she preens for the cameras. Early in her chancellorship, she was trailed for a story by the education correspondent of “PBS NewsHour,” John Merrow. At one point, Ms. Rhee asked if his crew wanted to watch her fire a principal. “We were totally stunned,” Mr. Merrow said.
She let them set up the camera behind the principal and videotape the entire firing. “The principal seemed dazed,” said Mr. Merrow. “I’ve been reporting 35 years and never seen anything like it.” And yet, as voracious as she is for the media spotlight, Ms. Rhee will not talk to USA Today.
At the end of March, three of the paper’s reporters — Marisol Bello, Jack Gillum and Greg Toppo — broke a story about the high rate of erasures and suspiciously high test-score gains at 41 Washington schools while Ms. Rhee was chancellor.
At some schools, they found the odds that so many answers had been changed from wrong to right randomly were 1 in 100 billion. In a fourth-grade class at Stanton Elementary, 97 percent of the erasures were from wrong to right. Districtwide, the average number of erasures for seventh graders was fewer than one per child, but for a seventh-grade class at Noyes Elementary, it was 12.7 per student. At Noyes Elementary in 2008, 84 percent of fourth graders were proficient in math, up from 22 percent in 2007.
Ms. Rhee’s reputation has rested on her schools’ test scores. Suddenly, a USA Today headline was asking, “were the gains real?” In this era of high-pressure testing, Washington has become another in a growing list of cheating scandals that has included Atlanta, Indiana, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Texas.
It took the USA Today reporters a year to finish their three-part series. So many people were afraid to speak that Ms. Bello had to interview dozens to find one willing to be quoted. She knocked on teachers’ doors at 9:30 at night and hunted parents at PTA meetings. She met people in coffee shops where they would not be recognized, and never called or e-mailed sources at their schools.
Hari Sevugan, a spokesman for Ms. Rhee, said the reporters were “provided unprecedented time and access to report out their story,” including many meetings with senior staff members and the chief of data accountability. By last fall, Mr. Sevugan said, district officials’ patience was wearing thin. The deputy press secretary, Satiya Simmons, complained in an e-mail to a colleague, “Jack Gillum isn’t going away quietly, Uggh.”
“Just stop answering his e-mails,” advised Anita Dunn, a consultant who had been the communications director for President Obama. The reporters made a dozen attempts to interview Ms. Rhee, directly and through her public relations representatives. Ms. Bello called Ms. Rhee’s cellphone daily, and finally got her on a Sunday.
“She said she wasn’t going to talk with us,” Ms. Bello recalled. “Her understanding was we were writing about” district schools “and she is no longer chancellor.”
On March 29, the day after the story came out, Ms. Rhee appeared on the PBS program “Tavis Smiley” and attacked USA Today. “Are you suggesting this story is much ado about nothing, that this is lacking integrity, this story in USA Today?” Mr. Smiley asked. “Absolutely,” Ms. Rhee said. “It absolutely lacks credibility.”
–From Maureen Downey, for the AJC Get Schooled blog