Michelle Rhee’s High-Priced PR

In just one year{{1}} Michelle Rhee spent about $2 million to buy the public relations services of Anita Dunn {{2}} and SKDKnickerbocker.  It’s a continuing relationship that goes back to early in Rhee’s Chancellorship in Washington, and it’s probably the best money Rhee has ever spent (especially because it was contributed by her supporters).

Just consider the challenge facing the PR team: The former Chancellor of the Washington, DC public schools ignored clear evidence {{3}} of cheating by adults {{4}} on the District’s standardized exams, as Linda Mathews, Jay Mathews, Jack Gillum, Michael Joseloff and I documented in “Michelle Rhee’s Reign of Error.”

But Rhee went beyond covering up the misdeeds. Instead of making a sincere effort to root out the cheaters, Rhee stage-managed four ‘investigations’ so that they cleared her.  All the while, a feckless Mayor and the local newspaper averted their eyes, in sharp contrast to the vigorous investigation of a comparable cheating scandal in Atlanta. 

With her test-based accountability schemes discredited and her reputation as a fearless, tough-minded leader severely damaged, Ms. Rhee might have been expected to disappear from the scene.  However, that has not happened. Instead, she remains in the public eye, writing op-eds {{5}} and offering analysis of educational developments.  This fall she will be a presenter in the annual “Schools of Tomorrow” education symposium sponsored by The New York Times–even though the subject is higher education.

Even more surprising (to this observer anyway) was the omission of the District of Columbia from the list of cities with school cheating scandals in Rachel Aviv’s otherwise solid reporting about Atlanta. {{6}}

This can only be the result of a smooth PR campaign.

Another tribute to Dunn’s prowess is the fact that Michelle Rhee is still considered a Democrat, even though the organization she created after leaving Washington in 2010, StudentsFirst, has been spending hundreds of thousands of dollars, largely in support of conservative candidates and organizations. {{7}}

Politico’s Morning Education newsletter reported on July 3rd that “Rhee, who earns nearly $350,000 a year, also spent heavily on political activism in the year covered by the tax forms. StudentsFirst gave $500,000 to a business-backed committee in Michigan that successfully worked to defeat a union effort to enshrine collective bargaining rights in the state constitution. It also spent $250,000 to support a charter-school campaign in Georgia. StudentsFirst gives to candidates and committees from both parties but many of its biggest political donations went to Republican caucuses and conservative alliances in states including Florida, Maine, Michigan and Pennsylvania.

StudentsFirst gave $10,000 each to Republican Gov. Bill Haslam in Tennessee and Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon in Missouri. The group also donated to scores of state legislative candidates, including some tea party members who have worked against the Common Core – which Rhee supports – but who back other elements of the StudentsFirst agenda, such as vouchers or charter schools.”

However, on its 990 IRS tax form, however, StudentsFirst says it did not engage in political activities and declined to answer a question about lobbying activities. {{8}}

When she created the organization, she said she would raise $1 billion; she has fallen far short of that big number, but she has raised over $60 million, tax records reveal. However, she does not identify donors or list all donations.  Students First is reported to have 110 employees, up from 75 in 2012.

The most important of these has to be Anita Dunn.

On this I have some personal experience. While we were actively investigating Rhee’s response to the erasures for a Frontline documentary, I found myself the victim of a carefully targeted smear campaign. A 10-page letter dated January 24, 2012 and sent to Frontline, the NewsHour, PBS, and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, accuses me:

  • of “demonstrable and material misrepresentations of fact.”
  • of soliciting funds from “a wide swath of leaders in the education community including opponents of education reform and vocal critics of Michelle Rhee.”
  • of actively seeking “dirt” about Rhee and of hanging up on someone who praised Rhee.
  • of making “false allegations” about Rhee’s response to the widespread erasures.

The letter, signed by a StudentsFirst Vice President, urges PBS not to broadcast my reporting and closes by noting that “we are discussing our options with our attorneys.”

According to reliable sources inside StudentsFirst, Anita Dunn organized the carefully targeted smear campaign. Hoping to learn more about her work for Rhee and StudentsFirst, I have called Dunn’s office at least four times but have not been able to interview her. {{9}}

Every one of the accusations in the StudentsFirst letter is false, as I painstakingly demonstrated to Frontline, the NewsHour, PBS and CPB. However, ‘The Big Lie’ technique is effective, as others before Dunn have proven, because I spent three weeks marshalling the evidence to refute the charges, three weeks that I could not spend investigating Rhee’s behavior in regards to the erasures.

It is possible that I lost more than three weeks, because, even with the proof I supplied, I cannot say with certainty that none of the mud stuck. Is it possible that some who received the missive still have lingering doubts about my integrity? I hope not, of course, but I have no way of looking inside the minds of the letter’s recipients.

The smear campaign was hung on a slender thread, a personal email I sent to one possible supporter.  Apparently the recipient shared it, and eventually it made its way to StudentsFirst.  Here’s what I wrote: “We are editing a powerful documentary about Michelle Rhee, the controversial educator who has become a national figure. After she left Washington, strong evidence of widespread cheating on standardized tests in roughly two-thirds of her schools emerged, along with a paper trail that indicates that the Chancellor declined to investigate the situation, despite being urged to do so by the official in charge of testing.  When test security was eventually tightened–after three years–scores declined precipitously. In fact, at half of the schools with the highest erasure rates, where scores had jumped as much as 50%, achievement scores are now below where they were when the Chancellor took office.”

Every word {{10}} of that email is true.

I wrote that paragraph BEFORE I obtained a copy of Dr. Sandy Sanford’s devastating memo, the one that warned Rhee that some of her principals were probably responsible for the erasures.  The memo confirms that Rhee knew the truth, and we know that she looked the other way. In this, she had the support of right-leaning foundations and individuals, as well as opinion leaders who desperately want to believe that ‘getting tough on teachers’ will improve schools.

Rhee’s PR offensive hasn’t always gone smoothly. In the fall of 2013, she launched an effort to cast herself as a ‘healer,’ scheduling a series of “Town Meetings” that, she promised, would bring teachers and teacher union leaders together for a dialogue.  The not-so-subtle subtext of Rhee’s effort was that union leaders were on one side–the wrong one–of issues, regular teachers another. She criticized the polarized atmosphere, with no acknowledgment of her own role in its creation:  “Teachers’ voices are vital to the conversation about how to improve our national education system,” Rhee wrote to supporters. “Unfortunately, the dialogue around public education has become too often polarized, with extreme rhetoric and personal attacks overshadowing what’s important: getting all of our country’s kids into great schools with great teachers.”

The effort drew intense criticism when Rhee attempted to hold her Alabama meeting in the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, just a few days from the 50th anniversary {{11}} of the bombing that killed four little girls who were in the church basement at the time. After strong protests, the meeting was relocated.

One could argue that her “Town Meetings” were a success even though they produced no discernible ‘healing,’ because she garnered headlines and some favorable newspaper columns, including this piece {{12}} in the Financial Times.  And Rhee seems to crave attention.

To some, Rhee is simply a well-compensated mouthpiece for those with an ideological interest in tearing down public education, an analysis suggesting she doesn’t believe what she is saying.  I do not think she can be dismissed as a mere opportunist, although she certainly does know how to seize opportunities. She has–brilliantly–made the issue of “Last Hired, First Fired” her own, and the LIFO issue has legs.  It makes absolutely no sense, in a skill-based profession, to adhere to LIFO blindly and inflexibly. Those who cling to LIFO guarantee that Rhee will find a sympathetic audience.

Interestingly, Rhee may have become a pariah within the right-leaning community of democrats who favor a certain brand of education reform, at least according to a highly-placed source within Democrats for Education Reform (DFER).  She has, my source tells me, consistently bad-mouthed others who are nominal allies, in an effort to muscle them aside and claim grant money for her own organization.  “We’ve learned not to trust her,” my source says.

Michelle Rhee is smart, talented, hard-working, charismatic and ambitious, but, in the public education arena, she is a fraud. That this truth is not widely acknowledged is a tribute to the PR skills of Anita Dunn of SKDKnickerbocker.


[[1]]1. http://www.scribd.com/doc/98216272/StudentsFirst-501c4-Form-990-Final-NO-Sch-B-1-Nz [[1]]

[[2]]2. http://www.skdknick.com/staff/anita-dunn/ Ms Dunn was brought on while Rhee was Chancellor, ostensibly to keep her from inviting other camera crews to film her firing principals, and stuff like that. The money to hire Dunn was provided, sources tell me, by a well-meaning education reformer, Katherine Bradley, who also played a major role in selecting Kaya Henderson to succeed Rhee.  (Ms. Bradley also hosted a screening in Washington of our film about New Orleans, “Rebirth.”)  When Rhee left DC and started StudentsFirst, she retained Dunn’s services.  Careful readers of Dunn’s webpage will note that it does not mention her work for Rhee and StudentsFirst.[[2]]

[[3]]3. Rhee left Washington in November 2010.  USA Today broke the suspicious erasure story in March, 2011. The brilliant exposé was reported by Jack Gillum and Marisol Bello and edited by Linda Mathews. http://usatoday30.usatoday.com/news/education/2011-03-28-1Aschooltesting28_CV_N.htm [[3]]

[[4]]4. Principals changing answers to make test results look better is deplorable. In other places administrators have pushed low-achieving students out of school. Walt Haney documents instances in Texas, Florida, Alabama and New York in “Evidence on Education under NCLB (and How Florida Boosted NAEP Scores and Reduced the Race Gap),” In G.L Sunderman, (Ed.) Holding NCLB Accountable: Achieving Accountability, Equity and School Reform. (Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press, 2008, pp. 91-102).[[4]]

[[5]]5. Albeit for the Washington Post, her cheerleader, and the Wall Street Journal, an ideological soulmate.[[5]]

[[6]]6. July 21, 2014 issue. Aviv lists Philadelphia, Toledo, El Paso, Baltimore, Cincinnati, Houston and St. Louis but omits Washington, DC.  As USA Today reported in 2011, the magnitude of unexplained ‘wrong to right’ erasures in most Washington schools boggled the mind and defied the odds.  One has a better chance of winning at Powerball than of these erasures occurring by chance, it reported. [[6]]

[[7]]7. Rhee’s critics have applauded the news that StudentsFirst has ‘retrenched,’ pulling out of Florida, Maine, Minnesota, Indiana and Iowa, but the cheering might be premature because Rhee could be husbanding resources for specific campaigns in support of ending tenure, opening charter schools and creating voucher programs. “As an advocacy organization fighting for better education for kids all across the country, we frequently shift and reallocate resources around where they’ll have the most impact,” Francisco Castillo, the group’s national spokesman, said, explaining the changes.[[7]]

[[8]]8. The specific question is “Did the organization engage in direct or indirect political campaign activities on behalf of or in opposition to candidates for political office?”  Whoever filled it out checked the NO box and did not answer the following question about lobbying (“Did the organization engage in lobbying activities or have a Section 501(h) election in effect during the tax year?”).  Michelle Rhee signed the form. [[8]]

[[9]]9. On July 22nd I spoke with her briefly; she said she was too busy to talk then but would call back at 3 that afternoon.  At exactly 3PM her assistant called to say she was still too busy to talk then but would try at a later time. She has not called. I have continued to call her office, to no avail.[[9]]

[[10]]10. I wish it weren’t, because I wanted Rhee to succeed when she burst on the scene in 2007. My own children went to DC public schools, and so I knew first-hand that many were ineffective, an embarrassment to the Nation’s Capital.[[10]]

[[11]]11. Rhee scheduled her event for September 12th, a Thursday. The bombing occurred on Sunday, September 15th, 50 years earlier.[[11]]

[[12]]12.  To my annoyance, the columnist credits Davis Guggenheim’s film for the footage of Rhee firing that principal.  How much else he got wrong, I don’t know.[[12]]

Hypocrisy and the Washington Post

Is there any limit to the hypocrisy of the Washington Post’s Editorial Page?  What brings this to mind is the Post’s recent editorial attacking the District of Columbia’s Inspector General, Charles Willoughby, whose work the same editorial writers had praised a year earlier.

What changed? How, in just ten months, did Mr. Willoughby go from being a trustworthy source to an inept hack in the eyes of the Post?  The answer is painfully obvious: Back then, the Post was defending Michelle Rhee, which it has shown time and again that it will do at all costs and in the face of clearly contradictory evidence.

This is what the Post wrote in April 2013: “Several investigations have been conducted into student testing by the public school system. All – including inquiries by the D.C. inspector general and the U.S. Education Department’s inspector general with the participation of the U.S. attorney  – concluded that no widespread cheating occurred.” (emphasis added)

As the Post knew (and as we had reported in detail on Frontline), the Inspector General conducted a slipshod inquiry that doesn’t really deserve to be called an ‘investigation.’ Despite evidence of widespread ‘wrong-to-right’ erasures in over half of DC’s public schools, Mr. Willoughby spent 17 months–more than 500 days– ‘investigating’ one school.  In that time he interviewed just 34 people!  However, the Post’s editorial writers chose to overlook his inept work–a performance that would unquestionably have gotten a Post reporter sacked. It chose instead to cite Mr. Willoughby’s work as evidence that no cheating occurred.

Now, however, the Post is “shocked, shocked” to discover that the same Mr. Willoughby has done sloppy investigative work.  A February 16th Post editorial about questionable ethical behavior by some DC officials charges that Mr. Willoughby ‘glossed over’ the matter and has ‘shown an inability to grapple with these issues in a serious way.’  (emphases added)

The Post editorial further criticizes Mr. Willoughby for producing a 3-page report, in contrast with the 27-page report written by ethics officials who have fewer resources but “have demonstrated a vigor and muscle that is strangely lacking in the work of the inspector general.”  Those words could easily have been written about his work regarding the erasures, of course.

At one point last year I analyzed the editorial coverage of cheating scandals in two major US newspapers, the Washington Post and the Atlanta Journal Constitution.  It’s a sad story because the Post was once one of America’s great newspapers. While the Atlanta editorial page vigorously pursued the truth despite the embarrassment to the city, the Washington Post has never wavered from its initial 100% commitment to Michelle Rhee’s approach to ‘fixing’ the schools.

Here’s part of what I wrote: “When “Michelle Rhee’s Reign of Error” revealed the existence of Dr. Sanford’s secret memo, with its clear implications that Chancellor Rhee’s own school principals might have done the erasing, the Post called it ‘old news,’ echoing Rhee and current Chancellor Kaya Henderson. ”

The slavish devotion of the Post’s Editorial Page to the false narrative that Michelle Rhee transformed DC schools must embarrass the reporters at the Post.  And to its credit, Washington Post journalists continue to produce outstanding reportage.  Witness its receiving THREE of one of journalism’s most treasured prizes, the George Polk Award, this year, as just one example.

And just this morning it was announced that Post reporters took home two awards from ASNE.

The Post’s editorial closes by asking for Mr. Willoughby’s head: “Mr. Willoughby’s term expires in May; we hope the mayor and council take that opportunity to give the office a good hard look and give the public the watchdog it needs.”

I was brought up to believe that a newspaper’s editorial page is also supposed to “give the public the watchdog it needs.” I am truly sorry the Washington Post isn’t fulfilling that role where the city’s public schools are concerned.

Justice Denied…


Well, old man, I will tell you news of
your son: give me your blessing: truth will come
to light
; murder cannot be hid long; a man’s son
may, but at the length truth will out.
(Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice)

Does the truth come to light eventually?  Are perpetrators eventually exposed and punished, or at least publicly humiliated?  When the alleged offenses involve government agencies and officials, the law is on the American people’s side.  The federal Freedom of Information Acts of 1966 and 1967 (and subsequent legislation in 1974) make most federal government documents a matter of public record, with exceptions for material that is national-security related, personal, private or ‘deliberative.’ All 50 states and the District of Columbia also have public records laws or their own version of FOIA which allow members of the public, including reporters, to obtain documents and other public records from state and local government bodies.

The District of Columbia’s Freedom of Information Act specifically allows agencies and departments to police themselves.  So, for example, reporters who want to examine documents involving the District of Columbia Public Schools must ask DCPS, which then decides whether or how to honor the request.

The expression “Fox guarding the chickens” may pop into your mind at this point, but my experience with DCPS for nearly two years involves some combination of incompetence, foot-dragging and duplicity. More about that in a minute.

The truth about school cheating is emerging in other cities, including Atlanta, Philadelphia and Columbus, Ohio.

Even in Washington, DC, which remains the epicenter of official denial, we know for certain that, despite her denials, Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson was fully aware of the cheating allegations. For this revelation, we must thank Jack Gillum{{1}} and Ben Nuckols of the Associated Press.

Here’s a link to the emails (.pdf).

What’s particularly revealing is the spin suggested by the PR department.  Tell everyone that the dramatic test score increases are the result of hard work, experience, and great ‘structures’ and ‘implementation,’ the PR lady advises Henderson.

Please explain by saying the new principal has empowered the leadership team, including the SAM coach, to be data driven and instruction focused.  The coach has a stronger role this year than she has had during the past two years. She knows the model well and has been able to move fidelity much quicker this year.
About Noyes – even though there is a new principal and coach, the staff has had two years under Wayne (Ryan) and a strong SAM coach so they continued the implementation with support from the Program Coordinator.
About Simon – as the SAM coach said, “I finally get it.  We have worked for two years to put structures and procedures in place so  now we can see the results and focus more on instruction.

But the AP’s success notwithstanding, the District of Columbia continues to play fast and loose with the truth and the law, when it comes to releasing public documents having to do with the widespread ‘wrong to right’ erasures on DC’s standardized tests that occurred during Michelle Rhee’s tenure, 2007-2010.

Perhaps Shakespeare is right and ‘truth will come to light’ eventually, but it isn’t easy for it to emerge when one party, in this case the Democrats, control all the levers of power. And it’s even more difficult when the Mayor, the City Council, the current Schools Chancellor and the city’s leading newspaper do not have any real interest in knowing whether principals and teachers received hundreds of thousands of dollars in undeserved bonuses, or whether hundreds of children were inappropriately promoted or denied remedial attention, or whether their school system’s dramatic improvement was a hoax and a lie.

We began seeking the facts two years ago. That’s when Producer Mike Joseloff and I filed our first Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request with the District of Columbia Public Schools. We were–and are–seeking correspondence between Rhee’s chief data person and the outside expert she hired to review test data showing widespread erasures on the District’s standardized test during Rhee’s first year on the job.

Between that March 2012 letter and today, we have filed several dozen requests, which were denied or dismissed, and subsequent appeals.

How seriously did DCPS consider our request for email between Rhee’s data person and Fay “Sandy” Sanford, the outside consultant hired to review erasure information between October 1, 2008 and March 1, 2009?  Did DCPS follow the letter and spirit of the law?

Here are five examples. You decide.

1.  In November 2012 it informed us that no communication could be found. On appeal, however, we learned that DCPS searched only in 2008.  The Mayor’s General Counsel directed DCPS to search again.

2. Which it did, again turning up nothing.  This time, however, it searched for the words “Sandy AND Sanford” and “Fay AND Sanford,” but not his email address. Did the searchers expect those words to appear in an email address, or were they designing the search so it would prove inconclusive?   On appeal, the Mayor’s General Counsel ordered DCPS to search again.

3. In May 2013 DCPS misspelled the email address it was supposed to be searching for.

4. The law requires DCPS to act expeditiously, but on one occasion DCPS allowed six months to elapse between our request and its response, even though the Mayor’s Deputy General Counsel had ordered DCPS to resume its search.

5. On July 5, 2013, DCPS reported that it could not find any electronic communication between McGoldrick and Sanford.  Why?  Because, believe it or not, DCPS reported that it had searched “within the subject line,” not the address or CC lines!

Again we appealed, and in August the Mayor’s Office told DCPS to take another look, this time in the right place.  Lo and behold, this time DCPS found more than 400 emails.

Is this a track record of incompetence, foot-dragging or duplicity?  Should the people in charge be held accountable for breaking the law or fired for incompetence?  Neither has happened apparently, because I am still communicating with the same people today that I began writing to two years ago.

Only once in nearly two years has the District released the requested material in a timely fashion, Sanford’s invoices for about $200,000 in consulting work.

When DCPS informed us in December that it had ‘found’ 430 emails from the period we requested, it released only 276.  About 99% of those it released are group emails, where either DC’s data person or the outside expert were among the recipients. Most are trivial, such as this note from the business manager.

Subject: Great News
Today, I spoke with our accounting department and they explained to me that your check will be issued and mailed to you on March 9, 2010. If you have any additional concerns, please contact me.

And DCPS sent us a few like this:

What the public is entitled to read are the other 154 emails, correspondence which we believe include communications between DCPS’s Erin McGoldrick and Dr. Sandy Sanford regarding his review of the erasure data.  We believe these may shed more light on just how much Chancellor Rhee knew of the strong likelihood that some of her principals were responsible for the erasures, including men and women she had just given bonus checks totaling hundreds of thousands of dollars.

However, DCPS seems to have redacted every piece of one-to-one email correspondence between Ms. McGoldrick and Dr. Sanford that occurred between August 2008, when State Superintendent Deborah Gist first informed Chancellor Rhee of the suspicious erasures, and January 30, 2009, the date of Sanford’s confidential memo warning DCPS that the evidence pointed to widespread erasures by school principals.

The DCPS FOIA statute allows material that is personal or ‘deliberative’ to be withheld, but are we supposed to believe that all the email between the two during that time was either ‘deliberative’ or ‘personal’ in nature?

It is simply not credible to assert that the two did not correspond, because we know that Sanford routinely sent McGoldrick his invoices, which we have acquired through FOIA.

1. Sanford billed McGoldrick for $13,387.50 for work done between August 21 and September 7, 2008.
2. Sanford billed DCPS for an additional $5,397.50 for work done between September 21 and October 20, 2008.
3.  He billed DCPS for $5,737.50.50 for work done between October 8 and December 31, 2008.
4. In November 2008, Sanford traveled to DC for 5 days of work at DCPS, for which he was paid $6,000.
5. McGoldrick brought Sanford to DC  on January 26th, 2009, for 5 days, work which culminated in the confidential memo.

It is noteworthy that none of these invoices specify the nature of the work. That is a striking contrast to Sanford’s later invoices that describe in detail the ‘professional development,’ ‘new teacher orientation,’ or ‘principal training’ Sanford provided.  It seems reasonable to suspect that their emails would have touched upon the analysis he was doing.

We know that McGoldrick relied heavily on Sanford and would have turned to him for guidance on the erasures.  In his 4-page confidential memo he addresses several aspects of the problem, including its substance, the implications of the public becoming aware of the problem, the possible legal challenges if DCPS attempts to ‘claw back’ bonuses awarded to principals and teachers, and strategies for delaying OSSE.  Did McGoldrick delineate those tasks?  What did she say when she informed him of the problem in the first place, or when she sent him the data files? Such emails would not be ‘deliberative’ in nature, nor would they qualify as ‘personal.’

DCPS’ initial response to OSSE’s memo about the erasures was to ask for a second analysis by a second organization.  Did this suggestion come from Sanford in an email to McGoldrick?  That would not be ‘deliberative’ or ‘personal’ either.

On January 7, 2009, McGoldrick asked OSSE for an extension before reporting its findings regarding the erasures.  Did Sanford suggest that in an email?  McGoldrick’s long report to OSSE at the end of the extension, dated February 28, 2009, adopts the suggestions made by Sanford in a confidential memo of January 30, 2009 (in which he offers to help with the response). Are we to believe that the two did not exchange any emails about this delaying action?  No congratulatory emails when the probe was shelved?

Frankly, DCPS’ response to our efforts to bring the correspondence to light, which began more than 18 months ago, seem to us to be part of a continuing effort to cover up embarrassing and inappropriate behavior.  This pattern of behavior violates the spirit and the letter of FOIA and is a fundamental violation of democratic principles.  Sunshine is essential to democracy, but DCPS seems determined to keep the behavior of a key employee hidden away in the dark, an action which keeps the public from knowing the truth.

Why this matters: We know from Sanford’s memo that Rhee knew how serious the erasure situation was. We suspect that the coverup and non-investigations were carefully orchestrated as Sanford suggested, but certainly not by McGoldrick or Sanford.

Will the truth emerge eventually?  In the District of Columbia, a 1-party system makes it easy for those in power to keep the lid on, and that’s what’s happening.  By way of context, consider the benefits of a system where political power is contested, as in New Jersey:

We know a lot about the politically-motivated closing of access lanes to the George Washington Bridge.  Abuses of power are harder to hide when there’s a 2-party system, because 1-party rule invites abuses of power.  The New Jersey case also proves that a single subpoena is more effective than hundreds of FOIA requests.

On January 15, 2014, I filed another FOIA, this one an appeal with the Mayor’s Office. To date, the Mayor’s Office has not responded.


[[1]]1. Jack was one of three USA Today reporters who first exposed the widespread erasures that occurred when Rhee was Chancellor.[[1]]

NAEP and “Getting Tough on Teachers”

When the scores on the 2013 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) were released, much was made of gains registered in Washington, DC, which led the nation in rate of improvement. Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson called them “breakthrough gains” and attributed the increases to a stronger curriculum, better teachers, and the District’s ‘get tough’ approach to evaluating teachers. She told the New York Times, “When you raise expectations for students and teachers, they rise to the challenge and produce.” The Times noted that the “get tough” approach preceded Henderson’s tenure. “The district’s new policies, initiated by the former chancellor, Michelle A. Rhee, have come under criticism from teachers’ unions and others who say they put too much emphasis on test scores,” Motoko Rich wrote.

Teach for America issued a press release praising TFA alumna Henderson.{{1}} All in all, these NAEP improvements represented, much of the press and many politicians said or implied, the triumph of the no-nonsense, “get tough on teachers” approach begun by Rhee.

I understand spin and the desire of those responsible for current policies to want to make things look good, but the rest of us need to take a deep breath and a second look.

In fact, a closer look at the DC data reveals all sorts of contradictions. It raises the possibility that DC is celebrating prematurely. It could be that reports of the triumph of ‘get tough’ policies are misleading–and perhaps just plain wrong.

You know the old saw about “Lies, Damn Lies and Statistics,” of course. I offer a variation: “Lies, Damn Lies, and Headline Writers.” Take your pick, because the DC NAEP press reports could have been headlined “DC Achievement Gap Grows Wider.”

Or “District Schools Tied with Mississippi for Worst in the Nation.”

Or “DC’s 20 Years of Educational Progress Continues at Same Rate.”

And so with that, let’s take another, deeper look. NAEP scores began rising in Washington long before Rhee arrived in the summer of 2007. Take 4th grade math, for example. Fourth graders scored 193 in 1992, and in 2013 scored 229, a dramatic rise of 36 points in 17 years. But they had jumped to 214 before she was hired, meaning that 21 points of that 36-point gain, 60% of it, did not occur on Rhee’s watch or result from her policies.

Or look at 8th grade math, which has improved from 231 in the early 1990s to 265 in 2013, a gain of 34 points over 21 years. Again, much of the credit ought to go to those running the schools before Rhee arrived, because 17 points–half the gain–occurred before she came to Washington.

Graph the changes, as Guy Brandenburg has done, and you see that the steep climb began long before Rhee.

That the improvement has continued is praiseworthy. However, what most reports do not mention is that DC is still bringing up the rear, roughly even with Mississippi.

And if you dig deeper into the data, a disturbing picture emerges. Michelle Rhee came to Washington determined to close ‘The Achievement Gap,’ but–as I have reported before –it widened on her watch. The performance gap between higher performing students (those at the 75th percentile) and lower performing students (those at the 25th percentile) is now 47 points, and that is SIX points larger than it was in 1992.{{2}} Rhee and Henderson have widened The Achievement Gap, but of course they are not issuing press releases about that.

But maybe it’s not on them. There’s likely a demographic explanation, because DC is gentrifying. The percentage of White students has increased from 4.7 in 2003 to 11.2 today. Given DC’s history of racial and economic inequity, it’s likely that most of those new White families are middle- or upper-income, and we know that test scores are highly correlated with family income. That–and not the Rhee/Henderson policies–could explain both the gap and the NAEP increases.

The percentage of DC students scoring at Basic or Above increased from a mere 24% in 1992 to 66% today. That’s a praiseworthy jump, but the percentage of students scoring BELOW Basic remains at 34%, as contrasted to the national average of just 18%.

Combine “Basic” and “Below Basic,” and the news is still not good. Nationally, 59% of students are in that combined category, but in Washington an astonishing 73% of students score at that level. ‘Basic’ amounts to a grade of C, hardly a cause for celebration; rather, it’s questionable whether students scoring at Basic or below are adequately prepared for a fast-changing world.

Celebrating is premature for two other reasons: First, we don’t know how much of the increase can be attributed to students in private schools and public charter schools, close to 40% of total student enrollment.{{3}} Second, DCPS muddies the waters. It treats the scores of higher income students as ‘low income’ if they happen to attend a school where 40% qualify for free or reduced price lunch. That’s explained in detail in the footnote, {{4}} but the bottom line is that scores identified as ‘low income’ cannot be relied upon. That change is “masking whatever is actually happening,” Jack Buckley, the Commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics, told the Washington Post. He cautioned against relying on the 2013 results to draw conclusions about the progress of the District’s low income children.

Sadly, DC students score significantly below students in every state except Mississippi; the two are now in what amounts to a dead heat for last place in the academic race to the bottom. For more state-by-state comparisons, see Gary Rubenstein’s blog or the NAEP website.

About the reporting: A small handful of critics, including Diane Ravitch and Bruce Baker, pointed out the contradictions that most of the press and politicians like Secretary Arne Duncan overlooked: the ‘get tough’ approach did not work across the board. Scores went up in DC and Tennessee and to a lesser degree in Indiana (all of which use what Ravitch calls “Test and Punish” strategies), but NAEP scores were stagnant or even declined in the “get tough” states of Wisconsin, Colorado, Delaware, Louisiana, Rhode Island, Connecticut and North Carolina. As Ravitch asks in her blog, “If test-and-punish strategies work, why don’t they work everywhere?”

Rhee is trying to rebuild her reputation, which is in tatters after USA Today, Frontline and this blog revealed the extent of the cheating on her watch and, more importantly, her failure to investigate. Given that reality, the press needs to be more vigilant and skeptical. Of course, she and Henderson will boast about these results, but there’s far less than meets the eye. And there’s nothing that I can see to support a “get tough on teachers” approach as a way of improving educational opportunities for children.

Since leaving Washington, Michelle Rhee has lobbied aggressively for ‘get tough’ teacher evaluation policies, with some success. But most places that are doing as she encourages did not do particularly well on NAEP, as Bruce Baker skillfully notes in his blog, School Finance 101.

Perhaps by now state policymakers and politicians have figured out that a “buyer beware” approach is in order when it comes to the “get tough on teachers” policies that Michelle Rhee and her lobbying group are peddling.


[[1]]1. But pointedly did not mention Rhee, although she is arguably TFA’s most prominent graduate.[[1]]

[[2]]2. Another report says the gap was 55 points in 2013 and 62 in 1992, which would mean that it’s now slightly smaller. Whatever the 21-year spread may be, the gap between the groups widened on Rhee’s watch.[[2]]

[[3]]3. That information should become available in mid-December when the analysis of large school districts is released.[[3]]

[[4]]4. This from Mary Levy, a widely respected analyst: “DC changed the basis on which students receive free lunch in 2013, as described in more detail in the attached.  Most schools have stopped collecting the income-level forms.  Instead of free lunches for students whose families had submitted forms stating that their income was below the cut-off, all students at schools where at least 40% of the students are homeless, in foster care, or are from families receiving TANF or food stamps receive free lunch.  Most of the schools, both DCPS and charter, are in this category and are reported as having 99% free-lunch students, a big change from prior years.  This resulted in increasing the reported percentage of DCPS low-income students to 77%, which matches the percentage of DC NAEP test-takers.  This means that students in many schools who are not in fact low income would have their NAEP scores reported as free-lunch eligible.  Since these students in the past had significantly higher NAEP scores on average, shifting their scores into the low-income category almost certainly raised the low-income average.”

From the Washington Post:  “It is nearly impossible to track the performance of poor children because the method for identifying low-income students in the District has changed since 2011.

A child’s poverty status is measured by their eligibility for a free or reduced-price lunch. Until last year, children became eligible for free meals by turning in forms showing household income. Now, if 40 percent of children in a D.C. school are in foster care, homeless or receive welfare benefits, every child in the school is deemed eligible for free meals.

The change in the District is a test of a new federal policy meant to ensure that more hungry kids have access to free meals. It means that some children who are not actually poor but who attend high-poverty schools are now included in the low-income category, said Jack Buckley, commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics.

That change is “masking whatever is actually happening,” said Buckley, who said his office is concerned about and working to address the inability to track the progress of poor children. He cautioned against drawing conclusions about the progress of the District’s poor children based on the 2013 test results.”[[4]]

No More Rhee

I am done reporting about Michelle Rhee. For one thing, there are many education stories of greater national significance to cover. But I have also been advised by trusted friends to get off the Rhee story because, as one said, “It’s beginning to look like a vendetta, and some people say you are ‘picking on poor Michelle.’”

Another friend believes I’ve become obsessed. That stopped me in my tracks. Was I like Carrie, the heroine of “Homeland”? Think of the opening sequence of the series, where she (Claire Danes) is obsessing over having missed warning signs before 9/11. Her supervisor, Saul (Mandy Patinkin), attempts to reassure her by saying “We all missed something,” and she blurts out, “I’m not everyone.”

I guess I do feel a bit like Carrie. I had unprecedented access to Rhee during her Chancellorship, and I missed some warning signs that all was not legitimate. I was not skeptical enough back then, and my failure then partially explains my desire to get it right this time.

But there’s more to my ‘obsession.’ Once producer Mike Joseloff, researcher Catherine Rentz and I began tugging on threads during our Frontline investigation, the enterprise took on a life of its own. Learning that “the truth is out there” fueled my determination to uncover it. In the Cub Scouts we were taught that “cheaters never win, and winners never cheat,” and I’ve never completely lost that naive optimism, despite lots of evidence to the contrary.

If you have followed the story, you know that we did not get Dr. Sandy Sanford’s confidential memo in time to include it in the Frontline program. The memo (.pdf) showed up on my desk in a plain white envelope a few weeks later and proved to be ‘the smoking gun’ that showed just how much Rhee knew about the erasures–and made her failure to investigate all the more revealing about her educational priorities.

We reported on Frontline about the inadequacy of the DC Inspector General’s investigation into the widespread erasures–but not on the other investigations that Rhee and her successor, Kaya Henderson, regularly cite as ‘proof’ that they have been exonerated. So of course I then looked into those and discovered that they were superficial in nature and/or largely controlled by Rhee.

The Atlanta scandal was running on a parallel track, and so contrasting the two newspapers’ treatment was a natural story to follow. It was sad and disappointing to see how the Washington Post’s editorial pages have functioned as a cheerleader for Rhee, but facts are facts.

The refusal of Washington DC’s Mayor and the City Council to dig into this story also fueled my determination to get it out, particularly because the schools in DC are worse today by almost every conceivable measure. The leader of this ‘see no evil’ crowd has been Councilmember David Catania, who, as head of the education subcommittee, has made it clear that he has no interest in ‘digging up the past.’

Another factor in my obsession with getting at the truth was an “off the record” conversation with a top leader in DC who was in a position to intervene early but apparently lacked the courage. That same person had similar “off the record” conversations with at least two other reporters, giving them damning information that they were unable to use publicly. I can’t and won’t identify that individual, although I wish I could.

Our Frontline program introduced a whistle-blower, principal Adell Cothorne, to a national audience. I wrote about her in my blog, feeling that readers ought to know more about her courageous stand. As I reported, she gave up her DCPS principalship and opened a bakery, a loss to public education (and a huge salary cut for her). Well, I am happy to tell you that Adell Cothorne is back where she belongs, in education. She’s working with the great Catherine Snow at the Harvard Graduate School of Education in a project called SERP for “Strategic Education Research Partnership.” This work keeps her in schools, working with teachers, principals, district staff and students, as she helps implement a vocabulary building program for kids in 4th-8th grade. She is also a member of the Leadership Faculty for ASCD, providing professional development for current and aspiring administrators. Her new beginning is a well-deserved happy ending.

People often asked me how I feel about Michelle Rhee. She was great fun to cover, because she’s bright and confident and tireless. She was a great interview, candid and forthright (at least until she hired a slick PR person, Anita Dunn, to shape her image and teach her political tricks of the trade). As Rhee’s biographer, Richard Whitmire, told Frontline, Rhee is “a zealot.” As she told me, she does not look back and reflect; she does not have any regrets because she’s too busy moving forward. She lives in a black-and-white world. I don’t think she’s a cheater, but it’s clear that she failed a fundamental test of leadership when confronted with strong evidence that adults on her watch cheated.

But Michelle Rhee is not the point of all this. What matters much more is what she failed to accomplish in Washington. She espoused a certain approach to reforming failing schools, a path that she and her successor have followed for six years, and that approach has not worked. That’s the central point: Rhee’s “scorched earth” approach of fear, intimidation and reliance on standardized tests scores to judge (and fire) teachers and principals does not lead to improved schools, educational opportunities, graduation rates or any of the other goals that she presumably embraces.

Full disclosure: I am still trying to get copies of the emails between Sandy Sanford and his immediate supervisor, Erin McGoldrick, using the provisions of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). For over a year now, DCPS has managed to avoid finding any electronic communication between them, except for his invoices. It has been a comedy of errors: DCPS has entered incorrect search terms and even a wrong email address–and then reported (surprise!) that it could not find any communications. We’ve appealed each time, and each time the Mayor’s General Counsel has told DCPS to search again. If the Mayor’s General Counsel were to do more than chide DCPS, perhaps we would get their emails, and that might shed more light on the situation. If that happens, I will be back on the story.

And if another insider were to come forward with more information about the cover-up, I would return to the story.

But as of now, I’m back on the education beat where I belong.

A Story About Michelle Rhee That No One Will Print

Michelle Rhee lobbies across the country for greater test-based accountability and changes in teacher tenure rules.  She often appears on television and in newspapers, commenting on a great range of education issues.  Easily America’s best-known education activist, she is always introduced as the former Chancellor of the public schools in Washington, DC, the woman who took on a corrupt and failing system and shook it up. The rest of the story is rarely mentioned.

The op-ed below has been rejected{{1}} by four newspapers, three of them national publications. One editor’s rejection note said that Michelle Rhee was not a national story.


Today, too many of America’s children are not getting the quality education they need and deserve. StudentsFirst is helping to change that with common sense reforms that help make sure all students have great schools and great teachers. (StudentsFirst press release, emphasis added)

Michelle Rhee created StudentsFirst after leaving her post as Chancellor of Washington, DC’s Public Schools in the fall of 2010. She announced her intentions on “Oprah” that December: to fix America’s schools by enrolling one million members and raising one billion dollars.{{2}}

Easily America’s most visible education activist, she has been crisscrossing the country lobbying for change and donating money to candidates whose policies she supports. StudentsFirst claims to have helped pass 110 ‘student-centered policies’ in 18 states.

Because Ms. Rhee is trying to persuade the rest of the country to do as she did in Washington, it’s worth asking what her ‘common sense reforms’ accomplished when she had free rein to do as she wished.

She was definitely in charge. Her boss, a popular new mayor, told his Cabinet that trying to block his Chancellor was a firing offense.  The business community, a public fed up with school failure, and the editorial pages of The Washington Post were enthusiastic supporters. Moreover, she had virtually no opposition: the local school board had been abolished when the Mayor took over, and the teachers union, reeling from its own financial scandals, had an untested rookie president. She knew how lucky she was.

I’m living what I think education reformers and parents throughout this country have long hoped for, which is, somebody will just come in and do the things that they felt was in the best interest of children and everything else be damned. (Interview, fall 2007)

She lived that dream for 40 months.  She opened schools on time, added social workers, beefed up art, music and physical education, and dramatically expanded preschool programs.  The latter may represent her greatest success, because children who began their schooling in the expanded preschool program tend to do well on the system’s standardized test in later years.

Ms. Rhee made her school principals sign written guarantees of test score increases. It was “Produce or Else” for teachers too. In her new system, up to 50% of a teacher’s rating was based on test scores, allowing her to fire teachers who didn’t measure up, regardless of tenure.  To date, nearly 600 teachers have been fired, most because of poor performance ratings. She also cut freely elsewhere–closing more than two-dozen schools and firing 15% of her central office staff and 90 principals.

When Ms. Rhee departed in October 2010, her deputy, Kaya Henderson, took over. She has stayed the course for the most part, although test scores now make up–at most–35% of a teacher’s rating score.

Some of the bloom came off the rose in March 2011 when USA Today reported on a rash of ‘wrong-to-right’ erasures on standardized tests and the Chancellor’s reluctance to investigate.  With subsequent tightened test security, Rhee’s dramatic test scores gains have all but disappeared. Consider Aiton Elementary: The year before Ms. Rhee arrived, 18% of Aiton students scored proficient in math and 31% in reading. Scores soared to nearly 60% on her watch, but by 2012 both reading and math scores had plunged more than 40 percentile points.

But it’s not just the test scores that have gone down. Six years after Michelle Rhee rode into town, the public schools seem to be worse off 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 understood to be between three and five years. Veterans haven’t stuck around either. After just two years of Rhee’s reforms, 33% of all teachers on the payroll departed; after 4 years, 52% left.

It has been a revolving door for principals as well.  Ms. Rhee appointed 91 principals in her three years as chancellor, 39 of whom no longer held those jobs in August 2010. Some chose to leave; others, on one-year contracts, were fired for not producing quickly enough.  Several schools are reported to have had three principals in three years.

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 Ms. 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.

Although Ms. 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 of the districts surrounding DC.  In fact, the surrounding districts reduced their central office staff, while DC’s grew.  The greatest growth in DCPS over the years has been in the number of central office employees making $100,000 or more per year, from 35 when she arrived to 99 at last count.

Per pupil expenditures have gone up sharply, from $13,830 per student to $17,574, an increase of 27%, compared to 10% inflation in the Washington-Baltimore region. So have teacher salaries; DC teachers now earn on average more than their counterparts in nearby districts in Virginia and Maryland.

Enrollment declined on Ms. Rhee’s watch and has continued under Ms. Henderson, as families continue to enroll their children in charter schools or move to the suburbs.  The year before she arrived, DCPS had 52,191 students. In school year 2012-13 it enrolled about 45,000, a loss of roughly 13%.

Even students who have remained seem to be voting with their feet, because truancy in DC is a “crisis” situation, and Washington’s high school graduation rate is the lowest in the nation.  The truancy epidemic may be the most telling data point of all, because if young people in this economy are not going to school, something is very wrong. They are not skipping school to work–because there are no jobs for unskilled youth.

Ms. 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 her two immediate predecessors, and Washington remains at or near the bottom on that national measure.

The most disturbing effect of Ms. Rhee’s reform effort is the widening gap in academic performance between low-income and upper-income students, a meaningful statistic in Washington, where 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 percentile points 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, generally did not fare well during Ms. Rhee’s time in Washington.

English Language Learners in Washington’s schools are also struggling. Title III of ESEA requires progress on three distinct measures: progress, attainment and what ‘No Child Left Behind’ calls ‘adequate yearly progress.’  DC failed on two out of three last year.

DC doesn’t fare well in national comparisons either.  Between 2005 and 2011, black 8th graders in large urban districts gained five points in reading, while their DCPS counterparts lost two points, according to a study by the DC Institute of Public Policy released this spring. Between 2005 and 2011 in large, urban districts, Hispanic eighth-graders gained six points in reading (from 243 to 249), black eighth-graders gained five points (from 240 to 245), and white eighth-graders gained three points (from 270 to 273). In District of Columbia Public Schools, however, Hispanic eighth-graders’ scores fell 15 points (from 247 to 232), black eighth-graders’ scores fell two points (from 233 to 231), and white eighth-graders’ scores fell 13 points (from 303 to 290).

The states that have adopted her approach, and others now being lobbied, might want to make their own data-driven decisions.

That’s the op-ed you didn’t get to read elsewhere.  Perhaps you will share it with friends, colleagues and any editors you might be acquainted with.

The 2012-13 DC-CAS results, which were released on Tuesday, are being celebrated by Mayor Vincent and Chancellor Henderson as evidence that the reforms are working.

Roughly 50% of DC students are now scoring at a ‘proficient’ level, a significant improvement over 2007, the year before Rhee arrived; however, a closer examination of the data suggests that the increase may be largely attributable to changes in the socio-economic status of the student body and to growth in charter school enrollment (now over 40%).  (The data [.pdf])

For example, take a look at the individual schools plagued by excessively high ‘wrong to right’ erasures rates on the DC-CAS during Rhee’s tenure: At Aiton, the school referenced in the unpublished op-ed, DC-CAS scores went down again, from 19.1% in 2012 to 15.9% in 2013.  That composite math/reading score is below Aiton’s performance level before Rhee’s appointment.

At Noyes Education Campus, the epicenter of the erasure scandal, scores continued to decline, from 32.4% to 29.8%.

Ron Brown Middle School declined from 27.1% to 24.7%;

Shaw’s scores fell from 32.3% to 28.6%;

Garrison Elementary dropped an astonishing 15.9 percentile points, from 47.8% to 31.9%;

And at Dunbar High School, once the District’s flagship high school, DC-CAS scores went from 23.7% to 17.3%.  Most of those high school students have probably been in the DC schools for their entire academic careers, and, as they prepare to leave school for the adult world, only 17.3% are ‘proficient’ in reading and math. And DC’s graduation rate remains at the bottom nationally, while dropout and truancy rates remain unacceptably high.

Spin it as energetically as they wish, Mayor Gray, Chancellor Henderson and former Chancellor Rhee cannot run from these numbers.

School failure in the Nation’s Capital is national news. Covering up failure is also a national story.  Urging other states and districts to “do as we did in Washington” is rank hypocrisy.


[[1]]1. There seems to be a pattern.  Earlier this year, a meticulously researched and painstakingly footnoted exposé called “Michelle Rhee’s Reign of Error” was rejected by a national magazine and two national newspapers.  I suspect the mainstream media is ignoring this version of the Michelle Rhee story because it doesn’t fit the popular narrative of school reform, which asserts that extraordinary “Produce or Else” pressure on principals and teachers is the best way to improve schools.[[1]]

[[2]]2. She seems to have fallen well short.  Last year she raised just over $28 million.  Students First doesn’t release membership numbers but is rumored to count anyone who responds to prompts on its website as a ‘member.’[[2]]

Is Michelle Rhee a Fraud?

“Thank you for showing the world that Michelle Rhee is a fraud.” The woman who said that to me at a banquet at the Harvard Club last week is known to serious education wonks. “I have been sending your exposé to governors and legislators all over the country,” she added. “In fact, Governor (name withheld by me) told me he was grateful for your one-man crusade against Rhee because she is hurting the teaching profession.”

This was a crowded and noisy social event, and so I could correct only one part of her statement, the ‘one-man crusade’ mistake. I reminded her that the critical piece of reporting, “Michelle Rhee’s Reign of Error,” is the work of FIVE veteran journalists with more than 175 years of reporting experience.

Linda Mathews is a Harvard-trained lawyer who led the investigative team at USA Today that uncovered the erasure scandal in 2010.
Jack Gillum, one of three reporters on that remarkable USA Today story, is now an investigative reporter for the Associated Press.
Jay Mathews is the distinguished reporter and columnist for the Washington Post whose “Class Struggle” column is must reading for those interested in education.
Michael Joseloff, a producer for ABC, CBS, PBS and the NewsHour, has received four Emmy Awards for his work.

The five of us have written eight books and have received two George Foster Peabody Awards, four Emmy Awards, the George Polk Award, the Grantham Prize, two Benjamin Fine Awards, five Ciné Golden Eagles, an American Bar Association Silver Gavel and the McGraw Prize.

Had we not been in a crowd, I would also have said that fraud was her word, not ours. We documented how Michelle Rhee looked the other way when presented with pretty strong evidence that adults, not students, were responsible for the suspicious erasures. We don’t know why she failed that leadership test, only that she clearly did. Perhaps, as Jack Nicholson thundered in “A Few Good Men,” she couldn’t “handle the truth.” Perhaps she was putting her own career ahead of the interests of children. Does that make her a fraud? That’s your call, not ours.

In a less crowded and rushed atmosphere, I would also have disputed the use of the word ‘crusade.’ Linda, Jack, Jay, Michael and I are interested in the truth, but that doesn’t make us ‘crusaders.’

Finally, I would have told her that the full story still has not been told. For months now the DC schools have been dragging their feet on my Freedom of Information request for email correspondence related to Sandy Sanford, the author of that secret memo. “Soon,” they keep saying. What are they hiding?

Meanwhile, down in Atlanta, the criminal justice system is preparing to try Beverly Hall and others for their alleged roles in the cheating scandal in that city.

Making Demands

If you were regional sales manager for, say, washing machines, auto parts or lawn fertilizer, you might insist on performance guarantees from your sales reps, perhaps with the promise of bonuses for superior performance.  But suppose you were a school superintendent?  What guarantees would be appropriate to demand from your principals?

I pose the question because some former principals in Washington, DC, recently shared their correspondence with former Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee.  Here are two examples, one of which uses ‘safe harbor’–a gain of at least ten percentile points–as the target.

On September 27, 2007, Chancellor Rhee wrote Carol Barbour, principal of Rudolph Elementary School, “You are guaranteeing me that you will see a bump in test scores from 29.2% in English and 26.9% in math (proficient and advanced) to ‘safe harbor’ in the coming year. I plan to hold you accountable to these goals.”{{1}}

One day later the Chancellor wrote Lucia Vega, principal of Powell Elementary School, “You are guaranteeing me that you will see a bump in test scores from 22.7% to 27.7% in English and 22.0% to 37.0% in math of students who are proficient and advanced. This is a substantial amount of progress to make in one year, and I plan to hold you accountable to meeting this goal.” {{2}}

Those one-on-one meetings were tense affairs, according to former Associate Superintendent Francisco Millet, who sat in on many of them.{{3}} “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.”

As I read those emails, I found myself wondering what I would want school principals to guarantee in writing if I were their superintendent.  Here’s my thinking: Because what we choose to measure reveals what we value, I would use performance guarantees to send a clear message to my principals about what matters:

Dear Principal Smith,

In our meeting we established the following eight goals for your school.  Please understand that I am going to hold you accountable for achieving them, just as I expect you to hold me accountable for providing you with the resources you need to achieve them.

1. Daily recess of at least 30 minutes for every child;

2. Art and/or music at least three times a week for every student;

3. Detailed records of pupil and teacher absenteeism, including patterns and your strategies for dealing with problems;

4. At least one opportunity per week for every teacher to observe a colleague’s teaching;

5. At least four evening events involving parents and interested community members, such as a student talent show;

6. A maximum of one week of ‘test prep’ activities;

7. Evidence of ‘project-based learning’ and other group projects using technology to involve others schools, either in-district or out;

8. Reliable evidence of academic improvement, including student performance on our district’s standardized test.


John Merrow, Superintendent

Every one of these goals is measurable.  Perhaps some should be more specific. Perhaps I have omitted goals that you would insist upon. Feel free to edit them.

I leave you with two big questions: “Is it reasonable for superintendents to enter into this bargain with their principals?”  And “Could setting multiple and varied goals, such as the ones I chose, be a healthy giant step away from our current obsession with test scores?”

Your thoughts?


[[1]]1. Principal Barbour ‘resigned under duress,’ according to a grievance she filed in August, 2008. Rudolph did not achieve the ‘safe harbor’ gains. It improved from 29.23% to 36.45% in reading but declined in math from 26.92% proficient to 16.82%.[[1]]

[[2]]2. Principal Vega made both goals. Her students went  from 21.97% to 48.94% in math and from 22.7% to 34.04% in reading. However, she resigned under pressure in the spring of 2008–before the test results were announced.  According to sources, about two dozen principals, including Ms. Vega, were offered a choice between resigning or being fired. Ms. Vega wrote in her undated letter to the Chancellor, “It is with great sorrow that I am hereby tendering my resignation to you effective July 15, 2008. Although there is much to say, I believe the reasons leading to this decision are known by you, and I will therefore leave them unsaid at this time.” [[2]]

[[3]]3. For more, see “Michelle Rhee’s Reign of Error”[[3]]

Michelle Rhee and the Washington Post

The disturbing news of yet another testing scandal comes from Columbus, Ohio. Kudos to the Columbus Dispatch for its reporting on erasures and the ‘scrubbing’ of attendance records, and to the paper’s editorial pages for demanding action.

The paper’s editorial on May 7 quotes Secretary of Education Arne Duncan as follows: In a visit to Columbus last month, U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan was emphatic that this district lacks strong leadership. “There’s been a lack of oversight and a lack of accountability.” Even more astonishing was Duncan’s statement the Columbus’ data-scrubbing scandal is in a league of its own, because it could involve not just proficiency-test manipulation, but also brazen grade-changing to increase the graduation rate. “I almost don’t know of another situation like this,” Duncan said.

Is there ‘another situation like this’ anywhere in America? Well, there’s Atlanta, of course, and El Paso, where the former superintendent is serving time. And then there’s the city that Secretary Duncan works in. I have documented here and here the extent of the problem and the inadequacy of the so-called investigations in Washington, DC.

I don’t know the details about El Paso, but in Atlanta, Columbus and Washington, many adults in powerful positions worked very hard to deny that anything was amiss, and–in Washington at least–still are.

Why is Washington in denial? Fear of Michelle Rhee’s wrath? An unwavering commitment to 2007’s great narrative about the fearless young reformer who “challenged failing schools and incompetent teachers”? I wish I knew the answer.

In March a major national magazine rejected “Michelle Rhee’s Reign of Error,” despite its pedigree (five reporters {{1}} with 175+ years of covering education) and its meticulous sourcing. An editor explained the decision: “The problem is just that we don’t really have the resources (legally or editorially) to handle investigative pieces like this one.” {{2}}

At the annual meeting of the Education Writers Association at Stanford last week, I asked Secretary Duncan whether, in light of the new information, the rash of erasures in Washington should be investigated. He declined to provide a direct answer. “If anyone in Washington or anywhere else is turning a blind eye to things that are illegal or immoral, that should be investigated,” he said, adding that DC had been investigated repeatedly.

Why won’t Washington’s Mayor address the issue? Requests for an interview with Mayor Vincent Gray were rejected a year ago (“The Mayor will not be available”) and again earlier this month (“Thank you for the inquiry, however, the Mayor is focused on moving the District and District schools forward.”) (sic)

At least the Mayor’s office wrote back. DC Councilmember David Catania has ignored my requests for comments. {{3}}

What about the city’s unelected power structure? “I see no evidence of an Atlanta-style conspiracy. If I did, I would want an investigation. However, I see no value in digging into the past. … I want to move forward .”{{4}} That’s what a well-regarded community leader told me a few days ago. Councilmember Catania said much the same thing at a recent hearing, indicating that, if he had any inkling that DC had an ‘Atlanta-style’ situation, he would be all over it in a heartbeat . {{5}}

There’s a great line of inquiry: Does Washington have an ‘Atlanta-style’ situation? In some respects, yes. There are four striking similarities: Irregularities at a majority of schools in both cities; a secret report buried by the school administration in both cities; pseudo-investigations in both cities; and widespread support from ‘the establishment’ in both cities.

There’s one key difference between Atlanta and Washington: the role played by the local newspapers.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s reporters {{6}} and its editorial page have done their jobs, while the Washington Post’s editorial page has been a reliable cheerleader for Michelle Rhee. {{7}} Reading the Post’s editorials side-by-side with those that appeared in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution is revealing. It’s also deeply depressing for someone who relied on and loved the Washington Post, as I did when I lived in DC from 1974-1988.

What some call the adoration of Michelle Rhee began on December 16, 2007 in a signed editorial by Jo Ann Armao, describing her day with the new Chancellor, “Data inform every decision. How come, the chancellor asks when looking at numbers flashed on a projection screen, one constituent services employee is generally able to close out complaints in two days when it takes others as long as 12 days? The discussion is about “deliverables,” about meeting and then exceeding objectives. No session ends without a to-do list.”

Rhee was quietly scrambling to contain stories about the widespread erasures when the Post celebrated her first two years with an editorial on June 16, 2009 that began this way:

“You can list Michelle A. Rhee’s accomplishments since becoming D.C. schools chancellor two years ago today, and they run more than 10 pages: boosting math and reading test scores; putting art, music and physical education classes in every school; streamlining the central office; closing 23 schools; recruiting new principals.”

The cheerleading continued. On May 2, 2010, a Post editorial asked: In the recent tumult over a proposed contract for District schoolteachers, the key question has been ignored: Why is everyone in the city not working together to make sure that Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee sticks around?

And when Chancellor Rhee made some outrageous comments about firing teachers for having sex with students, the Post’s editorial page managed to turn her wholly inappropriate words into an attack on the teachers union: “Certainly she owes an apology to the dedicated teachers her words may have inadvertently hurt, but so does the union for its hand in enabling some of these unfit teachers to stay in the classroom.”

Why has the Post’s editorial page been so uncritical? {{8}} Some have suggested that it must emanate from the top of the masthead, from Donald Graham, the Chairman of the Washington Post Company. He denies exerting any direct influence, although he did say that it has been the Post’s long-standing tradition to support the superintendent, whoever that may be, because, he told me, “The Post wants the schools to improve.” {{9}}

Regarding the editorial page, Mr. Graham said, “Anyone who knows Fred (Hiatt, the Editorial Page Editor) or Jo Ann (Armao, the editorial writer who focuses on education) knows that no one tells them what to write.”

Mr. Hiatt explained his thinking in a 2011 interview with Media Matters. ‘Our view was that by abolishing the elected school board and taking full responsibility for the schools and then appointing a strong chancellor committed to a strong set of reforms, Mayor Fenty offered the best opportunity in a long time to actually make progress. And that if this chancellor missed, it might be a long time before the stars would align again and a serious attempt to improve the public schools would take place. Over the four years, our view was that Mayor Fenty and Chancellor Rhee took a lot of hard decisions that were necessary. After four years the schools were in much better shape than they had been four years before and that was measurable and demonstrable.’

He further told the magazine: ‘I’ve given you my assessment of why I think, why we thought this was the most important issue, why we thought people who were seriously committed to reform should be supported and how if you look at the actual facts, the result suggests there was progress over four years,’ he said. ‘To me that’s the important question: Were the schools getting better or weren’t they?’ {{10}}

By 2009 the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, which had welcomed Beverly Hall when she arrived in Atlanta, was deep into its investigation of dramatic test score increases, which in 2009 led to an audit. Here’s how the AJC editorial page handled the situation on September 20th of that year. “The APS’ refusal to accept the audit’s main finding does nothing, though, to inspire confidence among those who abhor cheating and worry that children were harmed by inflating their scores, thus masking learning challenges that should be addressed.
The district’s position also casts an unintended cloud over APS’ many accomplishments in recent years. That’s a shame.”

AJC reporters blew the whistle in Atlanta. By contrast, Washington’s shameful situation was not exposed by the Post but by USA Today, {{11}} a national newspaper that happens to have its headquarters in suburban Virginia, in March 2011.

How did the Post react to the exposé? “….to use the issue of erasure marks at a handful of schools to disparage the very real improvements made in recent years by D.C. schools is irresponsible..’

However, the Post did take umbrage at one point. “Attention should be paid to how tests are administered and how suspicious test activity is investigated,” its editorial page thundered on July 30, 2011, in an editorial condemning the illegal behavior in Atlanta. That editorial, which makes no reference whatsoever to what was going on in Washington, is headlined “No Excuses for Atlanta’s Cheating Scandal.”

Just how strongly was the AJC on the case? See for yourself.

February 21, 2010: {{12}} “For the good of its students, APS should drop its defensive posture and do everything necessary to examine this issue in an objective manner. …The seriousness and breadth of the allegations warrants an outside inquiry. … A thorough, unbiased and independent investigation is called for … any cheating must be uncovered and the perpetrators dealt with quickly and fairly, using all means at administrators’ — or even prosecutors’ — disposal.”

August 8, 2010: {{13}}“As of now, the tenure of Atlanta Public Schools Superintendent Beverly Hall is, and will be, regarded more for what went outrageously wrong than for what went well.”

By contrast, here is how the Post’s editorial pages responded to our January 8th Frontline program. The editorial on January 11 is headlined “DC Schools Pass Yet Another Test.” Still, those who believe in measuring student success, as we do, have to recognize that as the importance of testing grows, so does the incentive to cheat. If the answer were to eliminate high-stakes testing, there would be no SATs or professional licensing exams. We believe the vast majority of educators would never stoop to tampering with tests. But cheating allegations have to be taken seriously and security protocols put in place. D.C. officials say they have done both, and there is still no evidence to the contrary. (emphasis added)

When “Michelle Rhee’s Reign of Error” revealed the existence of Dr. Sanford’s secret memo, with its clear implications that Chancellor Rhee’s own school principals might have done the erasing, the Post called it ‘old news,’ echoing Rhee and current Chancellor Kaya Henderson. {{14}}

“Several investigations have been conducted into student testing by the public school system. All — including inquiries by the D.C. inspector general and the U.S. Education Department’s inspector general with the participation of the U.S. attorney — concluded that no widespread cheating occurred. But the public airing of a 2009 memo from a schools consultant about possible cheating is seen by critics of Ms. Rhee as a smoking gun that widespread cheating occurred and was covered up. The memo, which was known to investigators, contained no proof of cheating and warned that ‘much of what we think we know is based on . . . incomplete information.’”

This November 21, 2010 editorial in the AJC may remind careful readers of what happened with Dr. Sanford’s memo. “This month, the AJC reported that Hall saw a report in May validating the AJC’s reporting on questionable test score increases. The report was kept from the public and most of the school board. That suggests the scandal has expanded from inadequately addressed cheating allegations to a cover-up intended to protect image and not children.” {{15}}

One must surmise that no one at the Post recalled the Atlanta newspaper’s warning from three years earlier. {{16}} “The AJC has revealed cheating our schoolchildren may be a nationwide nightmare. Now parents and taxpayers everywhere should heed Atlanta’s painful lesson and demand full investigations. … School districts large and small can study the example Atlanta has set. They should each test the simple, yet profound thesis question first raised by the AJC: ‘Are these results valid?’”

No one in power in Washington is asking that fundamental question, and their failure taints Michelle Rhee’s legacy. Would a careful investigation have implicated the former Chancellor? I have never heard or seen any evidence that indicates that she was directly involved, and not even her harshest critics accuse her of that level of involvement, but why not try to find out what she knew, and when she knew it? She is, after all, America’s best known education advocate.

Unfortunately, with the complicity of Washington’s power structure and the unreflecting love of the Washington Post, the evidence {{17}} has been ignored or swept under the rug. No one wanted–or wants–to know what happened on her watch.

The Atlanta cheating and cover-up were exposed {{18}}, of course and on July 10, 2011, the AJC editorialized thusly {{19}}: “Denials, deceit, destruction and damage. That is the legacy of departed Atlanta Public Schools Superintendent Beverly Hall and those who colluded with her. Whatever good Hall and her team achieved during their reign was erased by their collective and individual misdeeds and failings. … APS leadership steadfastly persisted in a pattern of denials backed by outright, and perhaps even illegal, deceptions. …. The power of truth and the pungent scent of likely wrongdoing picked up by others prevented district officials from getting away with their cover-up.”

And whither the newspaper that uncovered Watergate and published the Pentagon Papers? It’s not too late for the Washington Post to insist that the City Council put Dr. Sandy Sanford, former Chancellor Rhee, Chancellor Henderson, former OSSE head Deborah Gist and others under oath. While it is probably too late to find out who cheated or to claw back the generous bonuses Ms. Rhee handed out, whether there was a deliberate cover-up (the buried Sanford memo, the severely limited investigations) should be investigated, and the truth established, for once and for all.

A strong stand by the Post could also sharpen the national debate about the wisdom of high-stakes testing. As noted at the top of this piece, cheating by principals, teachers and students seems to have reached epidemic proportions. We shouldn’t ban testing, of course, but we ought to be debating how to hold students, teachers and principals accountable.

Neither the City Council nor the Mayor seems to have the appetite for an investigation, but the Washington Post could supply the backbone they clearly lack. If the Post cannot or will not step up, then perhaps a revision of the closing lines of T.S. Eliot’s The Hollow Men is (sadly) appropriate.

This is the way the Post ends
This is the way the Post ends
This is the way the Post ends
Not with a bang but a whimper


[[1]]1. Linda Mathews, Jack Gillum, Jay Mathews, Michael Joseloff and me[[1]]
[[2]]2. I also approached the Post’s Outlook editor, Carlos Lozada, about publishing the article, but my emails were not answered for many days. Finally Mr. Lozada wrote, saying that my emails had gotten swept up by his spam filter. By that time I had posted “Michelle Rhee’s Reign of Error” on my blog.[[2]]
[[3]]3. May 8, 2013
Dear Councilmember Catania,
I am continuing my reporting on the erasures and the lack of an adequate investigation and am hoping that you will provide an answer to my previous question regarding the Caveon report. I think my interview with John Fremer made it clear that he himself did not consider what he did to be a thorough investigation but rather a security audit. And yet the DC Inspector General based his study on Caveon, and then the USDE Inspector General relied on Mr. Willoughby’s work. None seem to deserve ‘The Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval,’ at least from what I have learned.
Have you changed your view regarding the adequacy of the first five investigations? Do you intend to pursue this further? Do you feel that the DC schools are measurably better off today than when Michelle Rhee was appointed Chancellor?
Thank you
[[4]]4. It strikes me that phrases like ‘moving forward,’ ‘not obsessing about the past’ and ‘improving the future’ are what people say when they don’t want to know what might have happened in the past.[[4]]
[[5]]5. Councilmember Catania and Mayor Gray could find out what happened by arranging for a deep erasure analysis of the answer sheets in question (still held by McGraw-Hill/CTB). They could also look into Chancellor Rhee’s failure to investigate overwhelming evidence of adult misbehavior to determine whether there was a deliberate cover-up. Mr. Catania has the power to compel people to testify under oath. That’s how the Atlanta cover-up began to crumble.[[5]]
[[6]]6. Heather Vogell, Alan Judd and John Perry[[6]]
[[7]]7. For a detailed analysis of the Post’s attitude toward Michelle Rhee, look at this October 2011 article in Media Matters, “Steadfast, Protective and, At Times, Adoring.” http://mediamatters.org/blog/2011/10/12/steadfast-protective-and-at-times-adoring-the-w/183112 [[7]]
[[8]]8. Its support has caused internal friction that has occasionally bubbled over in public, most notably between reporter Bill Turque and Jo Ann Armao. For details: http://www.washingtoncitypaper.com/blogs/citydesk/2010/01/28/washington-post-editorial-board-livid-over-turque-blog-post/[[8]]
[[9]]9. Personal conversation, May 14, 2013. Mr. Graham acknowledged feeling conflicted about the erasures because of his great respect for Post reporter/columnist Jay Mathews (“the best education reporter on the planet!”). “Jay believes bad things happened, and I don’t discount that possibility. But I don’t want to focus on the past. We need to move forward and fix the schools,” he said.[[9]]
[[10]]10. Media Matters, October 2011. My emails to the Post’s editors were not answered. My note to Mr. Hiatt included an op-ed submission about the current state of the public schools, arguing that by most measures the schools are not better than they were in 2007, pre-Rhee.[[10]]
[[11]]11. Washington Post reporter Bill Turque was on the erasure story well before anyone else. His persistence so angered Rhee that she campaigned to have him taken off the education beat and refused to recognize him in public meetings. Here the city’s ‘establishment’ helped out. A wealthy philanthropist, Katherine Bradley, made a $100,000 grant to the school system’s foundation so DCPS could hire Anita Dunn, a highly skilled PR executive who had worked for President Clinton. Ms. Dunn also advised DCPS on how to handle inquiries from Jack Gillum of USA Today during its investigation. “Just disengage,” she advised.
Mr. Turque was eventually assigned to another beat, a decision he and others say had nothing to do with DCPS and everything to do with the Post’s need for another reporter on the political campaign beat.[[11]]
[[12]]12. “For the good of its students, APS should drop its defensive posture and do everything necessary to examine this issue in an objective manner.
The state’s recommendations call for school superintendents to look into the answer sheet erasures in districts where schools showed “severe” or “moderate” concerns. It’s within reason to give local district officials first crack at examining the matter.
In Atlanta’s case, given that questions were raised about more than two-thirds of the city’s elementary and middle schools, it’s heartening that the Atlanta school board called last week for an independent investigation. The seriousness and breadth of the allegations warrants an outside inquiry.
A thorough, unbiased and independent investigation is called for, given that students would suffer the most harm from any cheating that might have occurred. If CRCT scores were wrongly inflated, that imposes a terrible, undeserved punishment on struggling students whose shortcomings were papered over. Falsifying tests could keep those children from getting needed help that would improve their chances of making the real grade on the next round of testing. If APS educators are truly dedicated to their charges, any cheating must be uncovered and the perpetrators dealt with quickly and fairly, using all means at administrators’ — or even prosecutors’ — disposal.
If that doesn’t happen, the latest allegations about testing irregularities at APS will call into question — perhaps unfairly — any legitimate gains achieved during the tenure of Superintendent Beverly Hall.”[[12]]
[[13]]13. “As of now, the tenure of Atlanta Public Schools Superintendent Beverly Hall is, and will be, regarded more for what went outrageously wrong than for what went well.
That may be tough news to hear for a nationally renowned educator known for driving data-fueled, top-to-bottom reform and improvements. Nevertheless, it must be said and heard.”[[13]]
[[14]]14. Post columnist Valerie Strauss took a different tack. “If the memo isn’t enough to spark a new investigation, this should be: My colleague Emma Brown reported in this new story that teachers in 18 D.C. classrooms cheated last year on high-stakes standardized tests during the chancellorship of Henderson, Rhee’s successor in the post, according to the results of an investigation released Friday by the Office of the State Superintendent of Education. This confirmed cheating took place after security was tightened as a result of the earlier suspicions. All in all, a new probe — by investigators with real subpoena powers, which is how the Atlanta cheating scandal was uncovered — is clearly warranted.” April 13, 2013[[14]]
[[15]]15. http://www.ajc.com/news/news/opinion/opinion-atlanta-school-chief-shouldnt-wait-until-j/nQnDn/[[15]]
[[16]]16. April 1, 2010[[16]]
[[17]]17. http://www.dcfpi.org/an-uphill-climb-for-dc-schools-a-look-at-dc-cas-test-score-trends[[17]]
[[18]]18. “We believe the reporting of this story stands alongside the most important work this newspaper has done during our community’s history.” signed editorial by Kevin Riley, editor in chief, July 8, 2011[[18]]
[[19]]19. http://www.ajc.com/news/news/opinion/special-report-aps-cant-close-the-book-on-cheating/nQJNM
“Denials, deceit, destruction and damage. That is the legacy of departed Atlanta Public Schools Superintendent Beverly Hall and those who colluded with her. Whatever good Hall and her team achieved during their reign was erased by their collective and individual misdeeds and failings.
Last week’s release of a comprehensive, unflinching report on up to a decade’s worth of cheating on the Criterion-Referenced Competency Test at APS confirmed yet again what we at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution have suspected for more than two years. Which is that a sorry subset of APS staff engaged in a long-running pattern of pervasive cheating. Their actions injured children for the benefit of adults. These cheaters stood to gain job security or bonuses within a system obsessively focused on achieving good numbers, no matter the cost to integrity or ethics. The result was a despicable robbery of students’ right to get the help they needed, as well as a fleecing of taxpayers who pay for public education.
Time and again, AJC reporters exposed questionable test performance at too many schools. The odds that these gains occurred without adults gaming the system — cheating — were far too long to be believed by even those who had a stake in the outcome. Even a blue ribbon commission’s 2010 report trumpeted by Hall as showing that “there is no orchestrated cheating in Atlanta Public Schools” mentioned odds of one in a “quadrillion” or “quintillion” that some test events would have occurred naturally.
As this newspaper continued to report on CRCT irregularities, APS leadership steadfastly persisted in a pattern of denials backed by outright, and perhaps even illegal, deceptions. The district even brought on a consultant to, in effect, disprove the AJC’s work that was apparently causing so much heartburn at APS. Not surprisingly, the district later denied that a copy of that consultant’s report even existed within its purview. Last week’s findings confirmed that the report, which largely exonerated our work, had in fact been received and subsequently deleted from Hall’s computer.
Such duplicity was part and parcel of APS’ pattern of operation during Hall’s tenure. The CRCT report says that, “On multiple occasions, APS administrators attempted to explain away evidence of cheating.” The power of truth and the pungent scent of likely wrongdoing picked up by others prevented district officials from getting away with their cover-up.[[19]]

Penetrating the Smokescreen

A great deal has happened since “Michelle Rhee’s Reign of Error” appeared in this space two weeks ago.

  • DC Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson testified under oath that she learned of Sandy Sanford’s long-buried memo from my blog this past January. My source recalls being in at least one meeting when Ms. Henderson and then Chancellor Michelle Rhee discussed the memo and its contents.  Someone is lying.
  • The DC City Council held what it called a ‘round table’ that, for the most part, danced around the crucial issues and failed to address an important question: “Did Chancellor Rhee cover up the 2008 erasures?”
  • The DC Inspector General continued to evade direct questions, further embarrassing himself and his inadequate investigation.
  • The Rhee-Henderson smokescreen–their claim that six investigations have proved they did the right thing–has become easier to see through. It turns out that everything rests on the first ‘investigation’ done by Caveon, a shaky foundation if ever there was one.

At the risk of burying the lead, I propose to examine these points in order.{{1}}

“The first time I ever saw the Sandy Sanford memo was in January of this year. John Merrow reported on it, and I had to ask my staff, ‘What is this Sandy Sanford memo? Can I see it?’  It has been alleged that I have been in meetings with former Chancellor Rhee about this issue. That was not something that I would have been engaged in, in the scope of my responsibilities at that time.”

That is Kaya Henderson’s sworn testimony before the City Council’s ‘roundtable’ hearing on education on April 18, 2013.  She prefaced her statement by acknowledging that she knew she was under oath.

As noted above, my source told me about being present at ‘at least one meeting’ in 2009 when Ms. Henderson and Ms. Rhee discussed the memo and its contents.  My source is absolutely terrified of being publicly identified, and I have sworn to protect my source’s identity, but I can tell you that my source had little to gain by speaking to me in the first place. “If anyone ever figures out that it was me, I will never work in education again,” my source said, trembling.  Such is the level of fear that Ms. Rhee and Ms. Henderson inspire.

But leave aside the contradiction between Ms. Henderson and my source for a moment. Consider instead the likelihood of Henderson’s not being involved in discussions of this deadly serious challenge to Ms. Rhee’s leadership.  Ms. Rhee and Ms. Henderson are best friends, as both have said many times.  Is it credible that best friends would not unite to face this most challenging moment, when powerful evidence had emerged suggesting that Ms. Rhee’s own principals might have been responsible for the rash of ‘wrong-to-right’ erasures?  Is it credible that Ms. Rhee would not have asked her best friend to help her figure out how to react to this threat to her claim of unprecedented academic success?  What are best friends for?


The Council hearing was called by David Catania, who chairs the newly reconstituted Education Committee. The key witnesses were Chancellor Henderson and Inspector General Charles Willoughby.  Two other Council members, Kenyan McDuffie and David Grosso, joined Mr. Catania.  One purpose of the hearing was to advance Mr. Catania’s own legislation to make cheating a crime (which it apparently is not under current District law). But he acknowledged that the publication of Dr. Sanford’s memo had given the hearing a second purpose: to look back at what transpired in 2008 and 2009.

Reading from what he called a ‘timeline’ of events, Mr. Catania said that Dr. Sanford had been asked to review the testing data on January 28, 2009 and wrote his memo the next day. Dr. Sanford actually traveled to Washington on January 25th and spent the next five days at DCPS, apparently writing his memo on the fifth day of his work there.  (Dr. Sanford also billed DCPS for 16.5 hours of work done before flying to Washington.)  He did not, as Mr. Catania’s timeline suggested, get the data one day and dash off a memo the next. He took it seriously, as well he should have.

While the timeline error is minor, it highlights a pattern of minimizing the memo itself, which both Ms. Rhee and Ms. Henderson have done publicly.  They have cited Dr. Sanford’s warning that ‘the picture is not perfectly clear,’ while omitting the rest of his point: ‘the possible ramifications are serious.’

Chairman Catania kept pressing on the absence of an investigation of the 2008 erasures. Every other year has what he called a “Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval” investigation.  After all, Mr. Catania said, we have investigations by “independent outsiders” in 2009, 2010, 2011 and 2012.  Why not 2008?

And the Chairman made his own position clear: “If I found any evidence that suggested there was a coverup or significant cheating, this would be a different situation.”

Several times he contrasted the DC situation with Atlanta, usually saying something to the effect that ‘this is not Atlanta.’

Later he noted, “We may never really know what happened in 2008 because the trail runs cold.”

As the Chairman must know, the trail has not ‘run cold.’ And while there is no proof that cheating in 2008 was not as extensive as it was in Atlanta, the truth is out there: CTB/McGraw-Hill still possesses all of the materials from the 2008 DC-CAS.  He, the entire City Council or the Mayor could demand a sophisticated erasure analysis to determine if the WTR erasures reveal patterns. We already know that hundreds of classrooms in about half of the schools had WTR erasures that were four, five and six standard deviations away from the norm.  That suggests but does not prove hanky-panky.

A deep analysis might reveal that almost all the students answered the hard questions correctly–after erasing their original wrong answers.  Bingo!

If someone wants to know the truth, it’s right there in the files.


Councilmember McDuffie questioned Inspector General Willoughby at some length, following up on his own hearing on February 21, 2013.  At that first hearing, Mr. McDuffie asked the IG why he had not looked at other high-erasure schools. “Because we didn’t find evidence of a conspiracy to cheat at Noyes,” he replied. Was it prudent to take the word of firms that were paid by DCPS or OSSE {{2}} instead of seeking an outside, independent opinion and to rely on media reports, Mr. McDuffie asked. “Yes,” Mr. Willoughby replied.

Asked by Mr. McDuffie if he had tried to find an explanation for the pronounced test score drops when security was tightened, Mr. Willoughby replied, “We were told that it was caused by an influx of new students.” His 17-month investigation resulted in a 14-page report, which he released August 8, 2012. (The Atlanta report runs 813 pages.) He found no evidence of widespread cheating at Noyes but cited some security concerns and noted that one teacher had been dismissed for coaching students on a test. The IG’s essential message: except for that one teacher, all was well.{{3}}

The IG’s investigation had been requested by Ms. Henderson (who had succeeded Ms. Rhee as Chancellor) not long after USA Today revealed the extent of the erasures. Even today she boasts of the thoroughness of her approach: “I am frustrated because people are saying I haven’t done enough,” she told ABC News recently. “I have used every tool in my tool kit to get to the bottom of cheating.”

Mr. Willoughby’s February testimony did not assuage Mr. McDuffie’s concerns. In a letter dated April 17, 2013, the Council Member wrote that he continued to be ‘gravely concerned.’While I do not wish to make inflammatory accusations, the discovery of this memorandum creates doubt that your investigation thoroughly and expansively examined the allegations,” Mr. McDuffie wrote.  In his testimony, Mr. Willoughby had referred to ‘factors that limited the scope of his investigation,’ but the tone of Mr. McDuffie’s letter suggested he saw the five factors as excuses. “In my review of the factors I cannot help but conclude that your office did not investigate further because you were told that no cheating occurred anywhere else.”

Mr. Willoughby was called back before the Council on April 18th and was closely grilled once again by Mr. McDuffie. It is sad and disappointing to watch Mr. Willoughby’s weak defense of his badly compromised report.  Unfortunately, Mr. McDuffie could not get a straight answer when he tried to get Mr. Willoughby to explain why he ignored the 2008 data.

Mr. McDuffie chastised the IG for relying on news reports as his source, for not looking beyond Noyes, and for relying on companies hired by DCPS. Mr. Willoughby spoke positively of his reliance upon Caveon’s investigations and responded to the Council member’s criticism by saying “I stand by the report…It is an excellent report.”


And speaking of Caveon…..

The investigations “found that there was some cheating, but that it was isolated to only a few schools.” (Michelle Rhee, February 8, 2013)

“We have had six{{4}} investigations that have cleared DCPS of widespread cheating. (Henderson, April 16, 2013)

If you believe Michelle Rhee and Kaya Henderson, those multiple investigations prove that Rhee and Henderson were on the case.  What’s more, the fact that the investigations failed to turn up credible evidence of widespread illegal behavior bears witness to their integrity.

If you believe them….

It turns out that the first Caveon investigation is the linchpin for all that follows, from Chairman Catania’s citing it as the first to have a “Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval” to Ms. Rhee’s and Ms. Henderson’s claims that these investigations vindicate them.

You recall that the rash of ‘wrong-to-right’ erasures in half of DCPS schools during Ms. Rhee’s first year has never been thoroughly investigated, beyond the initial analysis done by CTB/McGraw-Hill.  Deep erasure analysis, a process that would have revealed any patterns of erasures, was never ordered by Chancellor Rhee (or by the Mayor, presuming he was aware of the issue).

When the erasures continued in Ms. Rhee’s second year on the job, she was under pressure to investigate, and so in December 2009 she hired Caveon, a security firm that is based in Utah. Why Caveon?  Ms. Henderson explained to Mr. Catania’s Committee, “The reason that we hired Caveon was because we thought that we needed an objective third party to actually do the investigation and to make recommendations to us.”

However, according to Caveon President John Fremer,{{5}} his firm did not conduct an investigation in Washington in the normal sense of the word because his firm does not conduct investigations. {{6}}  “We use the word ‘investigation’ in our materials because everyone else does,” he said, “but we do analysis, with the goal of process improvement and quality assurance.”  Then he added, “We were not brought in to help DCPS with an analysis of what had happened.”

The contract was for a two-part project: a security audit and questioning of certain people at just eight DCPS schools (even though many more had been implicated).  But, he emphasized again in our conversation, it was not an investigation Caveon was hired to “review and collect information,” he said.  “I give advice as to where to focus attention. I am not trying to position a client to put people in jail. Instead, we give them enough information about problems to allow them to fix them in the future.”

The security audit, he said, consisted of examining DCPS’ policies and procedures around the testing.  Caveon did not seek to find out if principals and teachers actually followed the rules, and so Caveon apparently did not inform Chancellor Rhee just how easy it would be to cheat on the DC-CAS before, during and after its administration. {{7}}  Caveon did make some recommendations to improve security–recommendations, he said, that DCPS did not follow.

Part Two of Caveon’s work–the questioning–is even more interesting.  Dr. Fremer told me that DCPS gave him a list of the eight schools it was authorized to go into. DCPS also gave Caveon about 50 questions to ask of teachers, proctors, principals and assistant principals.  He said DCPS indicated that Caveon was not to stray from the list.  Follow-up questions, the essence of a good investigation, were actively discouraged, according to Dr. Fremer.

He told me that DCPS’ list of questions did not include “Did you see anyone erasing answers?” or “Did you participate…” or “Are you aware of organized erasures?” or “Are you aware of cheating?”

Dr. Fremer told me that his employees never use words like ‘cheating’ or ‘illegal behavior’ because they are ‘too emotional.’  Instead, he said, they asked individuals if they could explain huge discrepancies in wrong-to-right erasures between classrooms.

Caveon was contractually obligated to show DCPS drafts of the report before it was made final, which Dr. Fremer said was completely appropriate.  “There was no pressure to ‘sweeten the sound’ of our report,” Dr. Fremer said. “We wanted DCPS to check for mistakes and make certain that we did not reveal the identities of individuals.”

Caveon sent DCPS its final report in February 2010, saying that it had not found evidence of cheating–which it had not been looking for, as Dr. Fremer explained. It recommended some changes in security procedures.

How much control did Chancellor Rhee have over what Caveon did? It seems obvious that she could have demanded a deep analysis of the erasures–after all, it was her contract. But she recently told one of her supporters that she was frustrated by what went on. Here’s what Whitney Tilson wrote to me after talking with Ms. Rhee this week: “She also expressed frustration at some of the investigations because she agrees that they were weak – but she didn’t control them and any attempt by her to influence them would be inappropriate.”

That is her public position: she didn’t control the process and was frustrated but didn’t interfere because that would have been inappropriate, but she had approved (and possibly designed) the process for Caveon to follow, and Caveon was contractually obligated to let DCPS review its drafts.

At the April 18th hearing Chairman Catania alluded to what he called Caveon’s ‘positive’ role in helping expose the Atlanta cheating.  That is an overstatement, to put it mildly. Prior to its work for DCPS, Caveon had been hired by the (so-called) “Blue Ribbon Committee” established to look into allegations of cheating in Atlanta.  Caveon looked–and reported finding nothing wrong in what turned out to be the epicenter of cheating by adults on standardized tests. {{8}} Dr. Fremer told me that while he ‘knew’ there was widespread cheating going on, that was not mentioned in his final report. “We did not try to find out who was cheating,” he said.  “Our purpose was to rank order the schools beginning with those with the most obvious problems (of unbelievably dramatic score increases), in order to make the task of investigating more manageable.”   In other words, Caveon produced a list!

Dr. Fremer admitted that he knew some Atlanta teachers were lying to him, but he said his hands were tied because he didn’t have subpoena power.

Georgia’s investigators are contemptuous of Caveon’s efforts, labelling it a ‘so-called investigation.’  Richard Hyde, one of the three leaders of the investigation, told me that “either by coincidence or design, it was certain to fail.”  Mr. Hyde denied that Caveon needed subpoena power because its investigators were representing a governmental agency, and under Georgia law it is a felony to lie to someone representing the government.  What’s more, Mr. Hyde said, Caveon had a fundamental conflict of interest–it was investigating its employer, at least indirectly, because the “Blue Ribbon Commission” (which Mr. Hyde dismisses as “The Whitewash Commission”) included a deputy superintendent of schools.

Robert Wilson, another leader of the Georgia investigation, is even blunter. Of course Caveon didn’t find cheating because “Caveon couldn’t find its own ass with either hand,” he scoffed.  Why anyone would hire Caveon was, he said, beyond him–unless they didn’t want to find out anything.

Dr. Fremer seemed hurt and offended by the criticism. “We try to be non-emotional,” he said, acknowledging that “People who listen only to the law enforcement side do not respect us.”


Caveon I was Chancellor Rhee’s first foray into ‘investigation,’ and she and Ms. Henderson regularly cite it as evidence that all was well–because Caveon did not find what it was not looking for.

Next in this row of dominos is Charles Willoughby, who leaned heavily upon Caveon’s report as he exonerated DCPS.

Then there’s the Department of Education’s Inspector General’s investigation, which leaned heavily upon Mr. Willoughby’s work when it reported on January 17, 2013, that “No information was obtained or developed during the course of the investigation that substantiated the allegation of false claims made to the federal government or confirmed widespread cheating on standardized tests.”

For some reason I hear Harry Belafonte singing “Hosanna.”

House built on a weak foundation
Will not stand oh no
Story’s told throughout creation
Will not stand oh no

So let’s connect the dots: Scores rose dramatically on the 2008 DC-CAS after Chancellor Rhee required her principals to give her written guarantees of test score increases.  The subsequent discovery of a rash of wrong-to-right erasures suggested collusion by adults but the erasures were not (and have never been) investigated. Caveon was hired to ‘investigate’ the 2009 results even though it does not do investigations, and, surprise, it did not find evidence of cheating. And Caveon’s supposed ‘clean bill of health’ is the foundation for the claims by former Chancellor Rhee, Chancellor Henderson and Chairman Catania that all is well.

All is not well.


[[1]]1. If you think I’ve become a fanatic, or as one blogger put it, “Ahab,” please consider this: It’s easy to say “We’ll never know what happened, so let’s move on,” but those smudge marks on the 2008 answer sheets represent real kids who may have been denied remedial help because adults conspired to cheat. And given Michelle Rhee’s national prominence, it could happen again.

If you’ve made up your mind one way or the other, you can stop reading now. But if you are on the fence and can keep an open mind, please read on.  A web of deception that has been woven with great care over the past five years now seems to be unravelling.[[1]]

[[2]]2. He was referring to Caveon and Alvarez & Marsal, hired by either DCPS or OSSE, the Office of the State Superintendent of Education.[[2]]

[[3]]3. Just how weak was Mr. Willoughby’s effort?  As we reported on Frontline in January, the Inspector General’s investigation is remarkable for what it did not investigate. He chose not to investigate 2008, the year with the most erasures. He chose not to investigate Aiton, the school Dr. Sanford had singled out for special attention because of its high wrong to right erasures. He did not examine the test answer sheets or perform an electronic analysis. And he did not investigate J.O Wilson – a school with excessive WTR erasures in 100% of its classrooms – simply because Chancellor Henderson had assured him that it was a good school.

Although more than half of DC’s schools had been implicated, he focused only on Noyes Education Campus, the school that USA Today had made the centerpiece of its investigation. Over the course of the next 17 months, his team interviewed just 60 administrators, teachers, parents and teachers, all from Noyes Education Campus. (Atlanta investigators interviewed over 2,000 people and reviewed 800,000 documents). Rather than seek outside experts (as Atlanta investigators had), he relied heavily on information from Caveon, which had been, of course, in the employ of DCPS. He did not ask to perform erasure analysis but relied on interviews–sometimes conducted over the phone.

Without the power to put people under oath, he told City Council member McDuffie in February that he just asked them if they had cheated. If they said they hadn’t, that was the end of it, because, he explained, he “wasn’t conducting a fishing expedition.” Test monitors sent by the central office to patrol Noyes for the 2010 test told Mr. Willoughby that they had been barred from entering classrooms. School officials denied that charge–and Mr. Willoughby believed them, not the monitors.

One of those witnesses was breaking the law by lying to an official of the DC Government.  Washington has enacted a statute that is parallel to US Code 18-1001, which makes it a crime to lie to an official of the US Government, according to the office of the Attorney General of the District of Columbia.[[3]]

[[4]]4. Two of them (Caveon I and II) were directly controlled by Rhee and Henderson, and the first Alvarez & Marsal investigation was paid for by OSSE.  Willoughby’s investigation was heavily–perhaps inappropriately– influenced by DCPS. A sixth investigation, by the US Department of Education’s Inspector General, was narrow in scope.  The investigation of 2012 DC-CAS results–by A&M–was more aggressive; not surprisingly, it is the only one that has turned up a significant amount of cheating by adults.[[4]]

[[5]]5. We spoke on the phone–twice–for over an hour on April 22, 2013.[[5]]

[[6]]6. Dr. Fremer did tell me, however, that he was convinced that there had been a significant amount of cheating, involving what he called ‘collusion.’ “It would have been nearly impossible for individual teachers to have done that much erasing,” he said.  He suggested two possible explanations: 1) teachers working with the classroom proctors during the test; and 2) organized erasing after the test was over.[[6]]

[[7]]7. I refer you to “Michelle Rhee’s Reign of Error” for details on how easy it would have been to cheat.[[7]]

[[8]]8. 35 people indicted, including former Superintendent Beverly A. Hall[[8]]