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]]

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]]

Your Last Standardized Test Ever

Are you upset about all the tests—State tests, the new Common Core tests, the SAT and the ACT and on and on?  Well, if you answer every question on this test correctly, this will be the last standardized test you will ever have to take in your life. You will never have to take another one of these tests. Imagine that.

However, the stakes are high. Question #22 requires you to name the last place in the world that you would ever want to live. If you do not answer every question correctly, you will have to move there.

You will have just 10 minutes to answer the 23 questions on this test. That’s right, only 10 minutes. That’s not a lot of time, but don’t panic. Staying calm is absolutely essential.

Follow these directions carefully: Read the entire test through completely before answering any questions.  Then take the test.  For questions #2-21 and question #23, cross out the incorrect answers completely, leaving only the correct answer. Because our machines will be scoring your paper, we suggest using a #2 pencil.  You may use a #3 or #4 pencil if you wish. Using a #1 or a #6 pencil is not allowed. Please take a moment to check the number on the pencil you plan to use.

We told you that you would have 10 minutes for the test, but you used at least one minute reading these directions. That means that you now have less than NINE minutes left!  We suggest that you stop screwing around and get to work.

#1: What is your name?  ______________________________________________

#2: Are you sure?


#3: This is question #3.


#4: Whom is the Lincoln Memorial named for?


#5: Question #5 is not a True-False question.


#6: Rhode Island is not actually an island.


#7: Asking if Rhode Island is an actual island is a trick question.


#8: This is the third question involving Rhode Island. Three questions out of 23 about one state, especially a tiny one like Rhode Island, is evidence of what?


#9: Who is buried in Grant’s tomb?


#10: Question #9 is a trick question because President and Mrs. Grant are actually interred in Grant’s Tomb and not buried there.


#11: What the heck does ‘interred’ mean anyway?


#12: The “Common Core,” approved by all but five states, means we now have….


#13: The “Common Core” would have been called “American Standards” if that weren’t the name of a popular line of toilets.


#14: Whatever its name, the “Common Core” is going down the toilet anyway.


#15. The Los Angeles Lakers play their home games in what city?


#16: What were the last two states admitted to the United States?

#49 AND #50

#17: Dvorak’s Symphony #9 in E Minor, Opus 95, is written in what key?


#18: The most influential educator in America is


#20: This is question #19.


#19: There is no question #19


#21: The opening sentence of this test says this will be the last standardized test you will ever have to take.  That statement is a bold-faced lie.


#22: What is the last place in the world you would ever want to live, the absolutely most horrible place you can imagine?   ___________________________

#23: This stupid test is a waste of time.


Because you read the directions through completely before beginning the test, you do not have to take this test–or any more for the rest of your life.  Instead, you should put your pencil down and congratulate yourself on being smart enough to follow directions.  Everyone else has to move to the most horrible place in the world.

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]]

The Missing Memo

What follows is the story of a missing memo, numerous attempts to unearth it using the Freedom of Information Act, confidential sources, apparently lost email, and new questions about Michelle Rhee’s decision not to investigate widespread erasures on an important standardized test during her first year in Washington, DC.

Readers of this blog know that our Frontline film, “The Education of Michelle Rhee,” has stirred up the conversation about Chancellor Rhee’s tenure in Washington, DC. Debate continues about the ‘wrong to right’ erasures on the DC-CAS, and about the quality and depth of the investigation of those erasures. (Read more about these reactions, including my response, here.)

Erasures matter. The DC-CAS is a diagnostic tool whose wrong answers reveal where students are weak (say, multiplying fractions), so that teachers can provide the necessary catch-up instruction. If adults change answers, then the weaknesses are not discovered or remediated. If you believe, as I do, that education is a civil right, then those cheaters are denying children a basic civil right.

As the film documented, the new Chancellor extracted written guarantees of gains from her principals and offered cash bonuses to principals, assistant principals and teachers if their students’ scores jumped. The implicit message was that principals might lose their jobs if scores did not go up.

Scores jumped, sometimes as much as 42%.

In response to those dramatic increases, she awarded more than $1.5 million in bonuses to principals, assistant principals and teachers. As she said at the celebration–without a trace of irony–when awarding the bonuses, “These are unbelievable for a one-year time period.”

Shortly thereafter, Rhee was informed by Deborah Gist, the Superintendent of Education, that the test maker had discovered large numbers of erasures, most of the answers changed from ‘wrong to right.’ In an “action required” memo dated November 21, 2008, Gist asked Rhee to investigate. (Gist, now Rhode Island’s State Superintendent, declined to discuss this on the record.)

As our film documented, the normally decisive Chancellor responded to Gist’s memo by asking first for more time and then for more information. In the end, she did not investigate the possibility that adults had cheated in order to raise the scores.

What almost no one outside of Rhee’s inner circle knew–perhaps until now–is that the usually decisive Rhee did not stray from her normal pattern of behavior. She acted decisively, but she did this privately.

She turned to a trusted advisor, Dr. Fay G. ‘Sandy’ Sanford. Dr. Sanford began consulting for DCPS early in Rhee’s tenure. He had been approached by Erin McGoldrick, Rhee’s Chief of Data and Accountability, even before she began working for DCPS. “She didn’t have any background in data-driven instruction,” Sanford told me in mid-November of last year, “and so she asked me for help.”

Sanford’s undated agreement says he will be paid $85 per hour for work performed at his offices in California (his company is called Eduneering) and $1500 per day for work performed at DCPS, plus reimbursement for travel, food and lodging.

The document makes clear that he would be under the direct supervision of McGoldrick. His duties are broadly defined in five areas: professional development; data analysis and data modeling; critical review of plans, programs or any other related topics, program design and implementation; and–the open-ended job–”any other services not specified above but related to the data and accountability welfare of the district as directed by the Chief of Data and Accountability (McGoldrick).”

McGoldrick and DCPS relied on Dr. Sanford to the tune of at least $218,935.45 in roughly three years. Sanford’s purchase orders and invoices, which we obtained through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) were invariably sent to the attention of Erin McGoldrick (with her email address) and paid by DCPS.

A confidential source told Producer Mike Joseloff that, around the time of Gist’s memo, DCPS asked Dr. Sanford to examine the same data that set off alarm bells in Deborah Gist’s office. It stands to reason that McGoldrick, Sanford’s direct supervisor, would have made the request on the Chancellor’s behalf.

Dr. Sanford confirmed that he had written a memo about the erasure data at the request of DCPS. He said that to Joseloff in late spring of 2012 and again to me in our phone conversation on November 20, 2012, a conversation that lasted for 44 minutes and 30 seconds (according to billing records).

I asked him for a copy of the 2008 memo. He said he would release it if DCPS agreed, but, because it was a ‘work for hire,’ he couldn’t simply send me a copy. He told me that he had already given copies to the Inspectors General of both DCPS and the US Department of Education, under subpoena.

Here beginneth our tale of FOIA frustration. Starting in early May of 2012, we submitted FOIAs to DCPS, the DC Inspector General, the Mayor and the US Department of Education. DCPS told us the document did not exist. The DC Inspector General told us he had it but wouldn’t release it, a decision echoed by the US Department of Education’s IG. The Mayor supported DCPS. I have copies of 46 communications on my desk as I write this, but there may have been more.

Careful readers will recall that Sanford reported to McGoldrick and that he regularly invoiced her for payments. We inferred from this that they probably communicated by email, given that Sanford was in California and McGoldrick in DC. Therefore, on July 3, 2012, we filed a FOIA with DCPS for email communications between the two. We sent ‘reminder’ requests on August 14 and October 1. On October 5 the DCPS FOIA officer, Donna Whitman Russell, wrote to say “We should receive the emails within the next 15 days. We’ll have to review them. And hope to have response in approximately 20 days.” Our November 5, 2012 FedEx letter to her was returned, unopened, with the notation, “moved.” However, Ms. Russell was still on the job as of January 15, 2013.

It’s been over six months, and we have still not received the McGoldrick-Sanford emails. How hard can it be to find email? Or could there be something in the McGoldrick-Sanford communications that DCPS does not want the public to read?

But we know the Sanford memo is out there. What does it say? Three secondary sources have told us that Sanford was troubled by the widespread erasures. An anonymous letter was mailed to me on June 20, 2012, stating in part, “The memo indicated there was cause for concern with a significant number of school test results….(Sanford) did not draw conclusions, but we all know he suspected cheating was widespread.”

A second secondary source told of being in a meeting where McGoldrick spoke of Sanford’s memo and conveyed his concern. A third secondary source said much the same thing.

Primary sources are the gold standard, of course, and in this case there is only one: the memo itself.

In my conversation with Dr. Sanford (November 20, 2012), he said to me, “You know, the memo doesn’t say what you think it says.”

And what is that, I asked him?

“You think it says I found cheating.”

No, I responded. I think it says that there was cause for concern.

He was silent.

Am I right, I asked? Is that what you reported, that there was reasonable cause to investigate?

He was silent.

I asked him to confirm or deny.

He was silent for a long time, and then he changed the subject.

I inferred from that exchange that he did not want to lie to me but that he also felt bound by the rules of his contractual relationship and could not answer. By this point in our conversation I come to feel that Dr. Sanford was a straightforward and honorable man.

I say that because I spent the first 30 minutes of the phone call learning his life story. He grew up in Tennessee and said he didn’t learn to read until he was in 6th grade. He hated school so much, he said, that he “had to be scraped from the car in the mornings.” He wouldn’t have made it through high school if it had not been for four very special teachers and music. He played the string bass and said he was an All-State musician who played rock, jazz and classical music.

After graduating from high school in 1965, Sanford joined the Marines and expected to be sent to Vietnam. Instead, this almost-dropout was assigned to teach math and physics to new recruits. Why me, he asked? “The tests show you can do this,” he said they responded.

So he went to junior college and earned enough credits to qualify to become a commissioned officer in the Marines. He eventually earned his Bachelor’s degree from the University of California and Master’s and Doctor’s degrees from USC.

After 24 years in the Marine Corps, he retired in 1989 and began teaching 4th grade. He rose through those ranks to become a principal.

When criterion-reference testing came to California, his skills were in demand, and he was promoted to the central office. He jumped from that in 2000 to form his own company. “Big mistake,” he said. “I made a grand total of $250 my first year.” But it grew and grew, finally becoming too big for his sensibilities, and so he sold it and started his current small consulting company, Eduventures.

Oh, he also took up motor car racing two years ago, at age 64. Said he’s good enough to win his age class, even won a big award that entitled him to go to Lotus Academy in England. ‘Math has served me well,’ he said, explaining that motor car racing is a matter of mathematics.

And so, when Dr. Sanford remained silent for a long time before changing the subject, I drew the inference that our secondary sources were probably right, and that this seemingly honorable man had seen enough in that raw data to believe an investigation was warranted.

If you have read this far, you must be wondering why we didn’t simply ask McGoldrick or Rhee for the document. I called McGoldrick at her home in California at least a dozen times. I never got anything but her answering machine (including once again this morning). I left messages with a call back number. She hasn’t called.

As for Michelle Rhee, we did ask, but even that story is a bit complicated. It begins with phone calls this past summer from a prominent Washington criminal attorney, Reid Weingarten. Mr. Weingarten indicated that, if we would submit our questions in writing, she would reply in writing.

I responded to Mr. Weingarten’s offer in good faith. In my email dated August 22, 2012, I asked the former Chancellor to release Sanford’s memo. She did not reply.

In that same letter, I asked for a formal sit-down interview for our Frontline film to give her ‘the last word.’ She did not reply.

So what does Dr. Sanford’s 4-page memo say? We haven’t seen it and have only circumstantial evidence that suggests its contents.

But if Sanford concluded that the Chancellor had no cause for concern and no reason to investigate, wouldn’t it be in her best interests to release it? Why not provide Frontline with a copy and dispel suspicion?

If, on the other hand, Sanford suggested there was reason to investigate, then that means that two experts, Gist and Sanford, thought something might be amiss. And one of those experts was her own trusted data person.

What we know for certain is that Michelle Rhee did not investigate the DC-CAS erasures on the 2007-2008 test. She did not hire experts to perform erasure analysis or use other forensic tools to determine whether adults cheated. There’s no record of anyone in power even trying to find out if anyone might have witnessed cheating. It’s as if no one wanted to know.

Where is that memo?

Meet Adell Cothorne


Michelle Rhee is, of course, the central character in our Frontline film, “The Education of Michelle Rhee,” but I want to tell you more about Adell Cothorne, the former DC principal who appears at the end of our film. She was one of a small handful of DC educators willing to speak on the record about the widespread erasures that occurred during Michelle Rhee’s tenure in Washington–and I think what she has to say is important.

It’s not an exaggeration to say that producer Mike Joseloff, researcher Catherine Rentz and I made hundreds of phone calls to teachers and principals at schools with high erasures rates (with answers almost always changed from ‘wrong’ to ‘right’) on the District’s standardized test, the DC-CAS, and to those in Michelle Rhee’s central office. Many of those we called either hung up the phone, said ‘no comment,’ or ask to go ‘off-the-record.’ I think some changed their phone numbers, and a few managed to disappear from sight.

Why the code of silence? One person explained that she wouldn’t be able to find work in education if she spoke out—and then hung up. Others told much the same story.

So let me tell you more about Adell Cothorne, in her own words.

“I grew up in poverty. I’m a minority, of course, (laughs). (And the daughter of a) teenage mother. So I absolutely understand the value of a strong public school education. It will take you places you’ve never been before.”

Education enabled Adell Cothorne to rise from those unpromising circumstances, and she ended up as an Assistant Principal in Montgomery County, Maryland. For those unfamiliar with the Washington, DC, area, Montgomery County is a wealthy suburb of the Capital with excellent ‘Blue Ribbon’ public schools. It’s one of the top-ranked school districts in the nation.

Adell Cothorne, former principal of Noyes Education Campus

Her idealism burned brightly, and so she applied for a job in Washington, largely, she told Frontline, because of her admiration for Michelle Rhee.

“I still have the Time Magazine with Michelle Rhee on the cover,” Cothorne told Frontline. “I had been following her for a while, and I admired what I saw on the media and the news. And so to have the opportunity to dialogue and sit across from her and then have her say to me, you know, ‘It’s not a matter of when you’re coming to D.C., but where I’m going to put you,’ that was absolute confirmation for me. And I was over the top.”

Rhee installed Cothorne as principal of Noyes Education Campus, a ‘Blue Ribbon’ school that had achieved remarkable gains on the DC-CAS in previous years. In October Cothorne met again with the Chancellor, one-on-one, to discuss her plans for the year. (Rhee’s practice was to meet with every principal to get their written guarantees.)

She told Frontline that meeting, which took place early in school year 2010-2011. “You are to ‘goal set.’ You are to tell her, you know, ‘I will raise math scores by 5%. I will raise reading scores by 6%.’ And so, yes, she and I had that conversation. And I said to her in early October, ‘I’m very comfortable with a 6% gain in math and a 7% gain in reading.’”

JOHN MERROW: But … if you make the commitment for 6%, 7%, is it understood that if you don’t make it you are not going to be around?
JOHN MERROW: Produce or else?
ADELL COTHORNE: She– yes, she said that to me. Yes.
JOHN MERROW: She said–
ADELL COTHORNE: In a joking fashion, absolutely joking fashion, but she did say, ‘You know, Cothorne, if you don’t make this, don’t be upset if you get a pink slip.’ Those were her words to me. In a joking manner.
JOHN MERROW: Did you take it as a joke?
ADELL COTHORNE: No. (LAUGH) That’s my livelihood. No I did not.

Even as she was making that commitment, Cothorne knew she had a problem. What she had already seen in her new school did not jibe with the test scores that had been recorded. Here’s what she told Frontline:

“As any good administrator should, I visited classrooms and just made my presence known, (and) noticed a disconnect for myself and what was going on in the classroom. The level of instruction, because I’ve worked at Blue Ribbon Schools before, so the level of instruction that I know is needed for a Blue Ribbon School, I was not seeing on a daily ongoing basis. … There’s these huge disconnects. They’re struggling academically. Yet the data that I have been given is showing great gains. But what I see with my own eyes on a daily basis is not a true picture of great gains.”

I asked her to tell me more.

ADELL COTHORNE: Well, for instruction, I saw students who were struggling to read, which is absolutely what does not happen in a Blue Ribbon School. And did not coincide or line up with the data that I had been given as the new principal. I just really saw a lack of instruction across the board. There were only very few instances where I could go into a classroom and feel comfortable that instruction was going on and kids were learning. Wholesale, that was not happening at my school.
JOHN MERROW: It must’ve been upsetting.
ADELL COTHORNE: It was upsetting and it was a little nerve-wracking because I knew (LAUGH) it was my responsibility to raise the achievement of that school.

Her predecessor, Wayne Ryan had led Noyes with great success. In fact, Rhee had promoted him to her central office largely because of his school’s success on the DC-CAS. In 2007, for example, only 44.14% of Noyes’ students had scored at a proficient level in reading, but under Ryan’s leadership that number nearly doubled, to 84.21%, in just two years. Math scores had also nearly doubled, from 34.24% to 62.79.

What Cothorne did not know was that an awful lot of answers had been changed from ‘wrong’ to right,’ on DC-CAS answer sheets from Noyes–and in nearly half of Rhee’s other schools. At Noyes 75% of the classrooms were flagged for high erasure rates. (This problem began in Rhee’s first year, and she learned of it early in her second year. She had been urged to investigate the 2007-2008 erasures but did not, as the film details.)

Cothorne told Frontline that she inadvertently discovered a possible explanation for the discrepancy between the high test scores and the students’ daily performance: Adults were changing answers on the tests. She had stayed late one night and heard noises coming from one classroom.

“So I walked into the room and I saw three staff members. There were test books everywhere, over 200 test books spread out on desks, spread out on tables. One staff member was sitting at a desk and had an eraser. And then there were two other staff members at a round table and they had test books out in front of them.
And one staff member said to me, in a light-hearted sort of way, ‘Oh, Principal, I can’t believe this kid drew a spider on the test and I have to erase it.’ … That was a little strange to me. I mean, the whole situation of all of these test books, over 200 test books being spread out in this room after school hours with three staff members. It’s not the way a testing situation is supposed to happen.”

This was not an isolated incident, Cothorne told Frontline.

JOHN MERROW: Were there any other indications?
JOHN MERROW: Of– that– teachers or staff members were behaving inappropriately on testing situations?
ADELL COTHORNE: Oh, in testing situations. Yes. … I personally walked into two different classrooms and saw two separate teachers giving instruction, trying to frontload students with information while test books are open and out. So I saw that with my own eyes.

That created a crisis for Cothorne. She felt compelled to report the incident, but her immediate supervisor was Wayne Ryan, her predecessor at Noyes. How could she call him up and accuse his former colleagues of erasing answers, without implying that he may have been part of the scheme? In the end, she told Frontline, she called someone else, who, she says, told her ‘not to worry’ but that was the last she heard from him.

She also told Frontline that one administrator summoned her to his office. She would not reveal his identity but told Frontlne about the conversation.

ADELL COTHORNE: When I was meeting with this higher up– the statement was made to me, ‘You don’t respect the legacy that has been built at Noyes.’ Once again, I processed, and looked at the person and said, ‘Could you repeat that?’ The person again moved closer and said, ‘You don’t respect the legacy that has been built at Noyes.’ And I answered with, ‘You know, I thought I was doing a very good job of looking at instruction and giving support.’ And the person just kind of smirked and set back.
JOHN MERROW: And how did you interpret that?
ADELL COTHORNE: “Be quiet.” That was my interpretation.

(Cothorne would not tell Frontline the name of that administrator, but in court documents that were unsealed the day before our broadcast she names Wayne Ryan as the individual. He was, of course, her predecessor at Noyes and the person she reported to directly at DCPS. Back in May 2011, Cothorne filed a ‘whistleblower’ action with the US Department of Education alleging widespread cheating and, therefore, fraudulent awards of federal funding. However, on the afternoon before our broadcast the Department of Education’s Inspector General reported that she had not found cheating by adults and therefore the Department of Justice would not pursue Cothorne’s case. Her full complaint can be found here (.pdf).  In it she names the DCPS officials she says she spoke to. We have not be able to contact those men, and DCPS claims it has no records of phone calls from Cothorne. Cothorne’s attorney says that one call was made on Cothorne’s cell phone and that she has supporting documentation.)

At Noyes, however, she was in charge of the building itself. I asked her to talk about the coming DC-CAS. Here’s our conversation:

JOHN MERROW: You, as principal of the school, had something to say about the DC-CAS and security. And did you do anything to make sure that DC-CAS would be a secure test?
ADELL COTHORNE: Yes. So I did speak with downtown, and– on a regular basis, after I witnessed what I saw earlier in the year, I had ongoing conversations with downtown. “Don’t forget, when DC-CAS comes around, I need extra, you know, monitors. I need some other people besides my staff in the building to ensure that everything is okay.”
And at that point, downtown was more willing to help because the USA Today article had come out, and so Noyes had gotten lots of publicity about an erasure scandal. So when CAS came around in 2011, I did have two extra people from downtown to help monitor to– the test, and then I had another two extra people who helped with, you know, having the test checked in to make sure all the tests came in. We had locks changed on doors so that myself and my assistant principal were the only two people that had the key to the room to get in to testing. No one– the test coordinator did not have it. No one else had the keys.
JOHN MERROW: So are you convinced that that DC-CAS in the spring of your year there, that that was a secure test?
ADELL COTHORNE: I would honestly say that was a secure test.
JOHN MERROW: So you– you’re certain there were no erasures on that test?
ADELL COTHORNE: Now, I cannot be certain because I did not stay at the school 24 hours (LAUGH) a day. But while I was there, and what I saw, I do think it was a secure test.

With heightened security, Noyes’ DC-CAS scores dropped 52 points in reading (from 84.21% in 2009 to 32.40%) and 34 points in math (from 62.79% to 28.17%). In fact, in 2010-2011 Noyes performed below its 2007, pre-Rhee, level.

JOHN MERROW: How do you explain the drop?
ADELL COTHORNE: Those were the true test scores.
JOHN MERROW: I’m sorry?
ADELL COTHORNE: Those were the true test scores, in my opinion. Those were what the students in that school actually were able to produce.

Take note, readers. The decline at Noyes was not an exception among ‘high erasure’ schools. At the 14 schools with erasure rates of 50% or higher, scores declined at 12, often precipitously, after security was tightened. For example, reading scores at Aiton fell from 58.43% in 2007-2008 to 20.80%; in math from 57.87% to 16%. Reading scores at Raymond went from 70% to 42.44%, while its math score dropped from 68% to 45.71%.

By the time the 2010-2011 DC-CAS was administered, everyone knew of the widespread erasures, thanks to USA Today’s brilliant and thorough investigation. Rhee was gone by then, but, under public pressure, Rhee’s successor asked DC’s Inspector General to investigate. He began at Noyes, where he had little success. Cothorne told Frontline, “At first, they tried to interview staff members after school, but then staff members would find a reason not to be interviewed.”

JOHN MERROW: Why would teachers play cat and mouse?
ADELL COTHORNE: That would be speculation, but I guess they had something that they didn’t want to be forthcoming.

Of course, Cothorne expected to be questioned. After all, she had filed a complaint, and Noyes was the epicenter of the story.

JOHN MERROW: Were you interviewed?
ADELL COTHORNE: No, I was not.
JOHN MERROW: Why weren’t you interviewed?
ADELL COTHORNE: Again, my speculation, they didn’t want to hear what I had to say.

The Inspector General spent 17 months but investigated only one school, Noyes. Oddly, he did not examine data from 2007-2008, the year with the largest number of erasures but looked only at Rhee’s second and third years. At Noyes, the IG finally managed to interview 32 school personnel–but not Cothorne–and 23 parents. He reported finding a number of problems with test security but on the issue of Noyes personnel erasing answer sheets, “investigators found no evidence to corroborate these allegations.”

The Inspector General would not agree to an interview with Frontline.

Linda Mathews, the lawyer/journalist who supervised the USA Today investigation, told Frontline that , if one of her reporters had submitted a report like the one compiled by DC’s Inspector General, “I’d fire him on the spot.”

I asked Cothorne if she understood why an administrator or teacher might be tempted to cheat?

ADELL COTHORNE: Pressure. There’s pressure from central office to raise test scores. And that pressure is given to principals. And it is very clearly explained to you, not only in D.C., but many other school systems, your job is tied to test scores. Increase test scores. Period.

JOHN MERROW: Did you think there were people who, you know, outside of school, above the school, who knew something was wrong and maybe didn’t want to know?
ADELL COTHORNE: Not that they didn’t want to know, they wanted to keep their jobs. So I think that they knew, and, you know, because of the economic times that we’re in, decided to go along.
JOHN MERROW: Do you think that was widespread?
ADELL COTHORNE: In my opinion, yes.

I ask you to pay special attention to the next section of this piece.

Playing Devil’s Advocate, I suggested that changing a few answers was a victimless crime. She nearly jumped from her chair.

ADELL COTHORNE: No, it’s not a victimless crime. There are many victims. There are thousands of victims. It’s the students that are the victims.
ADELL COTHORNE: Someone is putting forth a picture that you are able to do something that you have no capability of doing. And so you keep moving to these different levels and the next person’s saying, “Oh, Janie can read on a fifth grade level and she can do fifth grade math.”
And Janie gets into your sixth grade middle school class, Janie can’t read, ‘See the dog run down the street.’ Janie can’t do the math. And so Janie becomes frustrated, because you are putting these sixth grade expectations on her and she has first grade ability. So then what happens to Janie? She waits her time, and when she’s 16 she’s out.

Although Cothorne became disillusioned with Michelle Rhee, she suggested that the problem went beyond the Chancellor. To Cothorne, Rhee was swept up in the national obsession with test scores everywhere, created by the 2001 federal No Child Left Behind law.

She described it in these words: “(I)nstruction shuts down in February because you have to do test prep from February until the test. So instruction in many districts was already shaky in the beginning, and now you’re basically shutting down all instruction in February to do all of this test prep. Because for many administrators and many school districts, it’s as important to make sure that kid knows how to take the test than it is, ‘Did they truly learn the content?’ “

Because Cothorne is also the mother of a young child, she also sees education from a parent’s perspective. She talked about that in our interview.

ADELL COTHORNE: My frustration as a parent is that education as a whole has lost the ability of students to be natural learners. No Child Left Behind has put in the caveat that every kid must get it by Tuesday at 2:00, and if you have an IEP, we’ll give you until 2:15. But at 2:15 we’re moving on.
And you’ve got to get it. So children who need a little more processing time, children who may be able to give you the idea, but they have to write a song about it, or they have to create a picture about, (but) … when the rubber meets the road, it’s not about differentiation at the end of the day. That teacher is judged on, ‘What scores did those children get on that test?’

And that test doesn’t look at, ‘Could you sing the information?’ or ‘Could you create a poem?’ It looks at, ‘Could you write a short essay and could you bubble in the right answer?’ So that has been the focus. How do they pass that test? Not ‘Did they learn anything?’ but ‘Are they able to pass numerous tests?’ Because we test all year long.

Adell Cothorne, a dedicated educator who was completing work on her doctorate, resigned her principalship and gave up a reported annual salary of roughly $130,000. She has opened up a bakery, “Cooks ‘n Cakes,” in Ellicott City, Maryland, surely a gamble in these difficult economic times.

I hope it’s a rousing success. When you stop by (to buy), please congratulate her on her courage.

Education Predictions for 2012


What can we expect in the world of public education in 2012? (For a good review of what happened in 2011, check out this link.) I’ll start by considering three nagging questions.

1. Will this be the year that some school districts say ‘No mas!” to No Child Left Behind’s harsh rules?

2. Will we have that long-awaited national conversation about the goals of public education?

3. And will political leaders rise up against the excesses of for-profit education, so effectively documented in the New York Times (December 13, 2011), where we learned that the school superintendent of one for-profit charter chain that enrolls 94,000 students is paid $5,000,000 a year? (By contrast, Dennis Walcott, who is responsible for over one million New York City public school students, earns $213,000 a year.)

Sadly, I fear that the answer to those three questions is NO, NO and NO. Professional educators — who are generally reactors, not actors — will be busy trying to keep up with the latest new new thing (this year it’s the Common Core). I don’t expect rebellious behavior from superintendents and school boards, no matter how much they claim to be chafing under NCLB. Expect instead a further narrowing of the curriculum, more testing, larger classes, and the continued heroic behavior of most teachers under difficult circumstances.

Because this is an election year, the politics of public education are even crazier than usual, meaning that serious debate over the federal role in education won’t occur in 2012. Republicans are running against the very existence of the federal Department of Education, not debating subtleties of achievement measures. Not only is there zero chance of a national dialogue, the probability that anything useful will happen in the re-authorization of NCLB is pretty slim, unless it happens very early this year.

And because money talks in education, the for-profit crowd seems likely to continue its creeping expansion. A few more exposés like Stephanie Saul’s wonderful New York Times piece (linked above) won’t be enough to make us care about what amounts to the selling of other people’s children.

What will happen here in 2012?

However, I can imagine four and perhaps five hopeful scenarios for 2012. In ascending order of importance (my judgement call), they are ‘Growth in Home Schooling,’ ‘Shutting Down Failing Charter Schools,’ ‘Board/Union Cooperation,’ ‘Whole School Evaluation,’ and ‘Blended Learning.’

I think it’s safe to predict more Home Schooling, fueled by a stagnant economy, policies that allow home-school students to participate in some school activities, and parental dissatisfaction with public education’s relentless focus on math and reading. Parents want more for their kids, and, if one parent can’t find a paying job outside the home, why not teach your own?

A larger number of failing charter schools will be closed in 2012. It’s happening now in California, New Orleans and Washington, DC. While the stated reason is often financial, as Andy Rotherham wryly notes, that’s how they got Al Capone. What that means: it’s easier to prove financial mismanagement than educational malpractice, but they often go hand in hand. If the non-profit public charter movement gets its act together and both raises and adheres to high standards, there’s no stopping this movement in 2012.

Board/Union Cooperation is not some dream scenario. It’s happening because the Race to the Top competition got the two sides talking, because the Gates Foundation and the U. S. Department are putting dollars behind it, and because quite a few leaders on both sides of the table are reading the tea leaves. Union leaders are well aware of the threat posed by charter schools, which do not have to unionize. Whether there’s pressure on school boards to stop their meddling is an open question, but there’s a trend toward decentralization that could grow. It’s not just Hillsborough, Florida, folks. This could be big in 2012. Maybe we will see shorter contracts that leave more decisions in the hands of the people in the school, instead of dictates from on high.

Whole School Evaluation is a sleeper for 2012 because all the public attention has been directed toward measuring the effectiveness of individual teachers (often so the ineffective ones can be removed). But quietly and behind the scenes, a few leaders have recognized that evaluating every teacher individually would entail testing every subject in every grade — and that’s both illogical and insane!

Concrete plans are being developed and implemented that use multiple measures to draw conclusions about how much or how little the entire school is progressing. And when a school rises, everyone involved — including office staff, custodians, attendance officers and the like — stand to benefit. Washington, DC, which has been in the spotlight (and sometimes the cross hairs) for its controversial “Impact” system, uses what seems like a sensible Whole School Evaluation approach. Esther Wojcicki and I wrote an op-ed, “Trust but Verify”, on this subject a few months ago, if you’d like to know more about how it could work.

But my personal pick in 2012 is Blended Learning, an idea whose time has certainly come. Sal Khan and the Khan Academy are the most visible (and most successful) manifestation, but I hear that forward-thinking educators in many districts are recognizing that, while kids are going to be in schools, there is no reason they cannot be connected with students across the district, the state, the nation and the world. What’s more, the traditional ‘stop signs’ of 8th grade, 9th grade, 10th grade and so forth are now meaningless. If a child can use technology to help her move through three years of math in one, she should be encouraged to dig deep and move at her own pace. And when a child needs a year-and-a-half to get through Algebra, that’s fine too.

There are plenty of hurdles to the widespread acceptance of Blended Learning, chief among them being habit and tradition. Teachers are going to need help with this, because they haven’t been trained or encouraged to ‘let go’ of control, and, frankly, Blended Learning can make life difficult for the adults in charge. After all, it requires close personal attention to individual kids, instead of the usual practice of grouping kids by their age. In this approach, learning is a two-way street that demands exploration and always entails failure. No doubt some are going to try to co-opt Blended Learning either to make money from it or to cut the labor force (teachers), but, all that aside, Blended Learning is my bet for education’s big winner in 2012.

So, there you have my predictions/hopes for 2012. What are yours?

What are you thankful for in education?


In a recent tweet, I wondered aloud about what we should be thankful for in education (a similar discussion happened before Thanksgiving on the Learning Matters website). I got a variety of responses, including:

  • Students who are hungry to learn;
  • Parents and other family members who work in concert with teachers to support effective learning;
  • Growing collaboration between School Boards and Unions, often made possible by foundation grants;
  • Teacher collaboratives, like Barnett Berry’s Teacher Leader Network and the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards;
  • A rich and broad variety of well-written blogs that assist in solving problems;
  • Research and documentation of pedagogy and materials that have a positive impact on learning; and
  • The Internet itself, which allows teachers to connect and support each other.

That’s a nice list. However, although I am basically a ‘glass half-full’ personality, it’s hard to be cheerful given what we are doing in public education. While I was in California last week, a friend in Palo Alto told me that his daughter was one of 40 students in her high school math class, one of 38 in her history class. In Palo Alto, one of the state’s richest communities! Our 2005 documentary history of California education, “First to Worst,” is due for a sequel, “First to Burst.”

Or take the U.S. Department of Education. It seems to me that the push for higher standards, the emphasis on early education, and the support for developing common tests are all positive. But, with its other hand, the Department is supporting more cheap and dumbed-down testing when it encourages grading teachers based on bubble test scores. Now, I know someone will tell me that I am misrepresenting Arne Duncan and send me quotes from his speeches, but I think we are past listening to what’s being said, and into actually watching what’s being done.

What should inspire this reaction in education?

I would be happier if the Department supported policies that rewarded entire schools, not individual teachers, because education is a team sport. After all, federal legislation punishes entire schools for not making ‘adequate yearly progress.’ So why not create some carrots to go along with the stick? How about ‘OYP’ for ‘Outstanding Yearly Progress?’

In California last week at a 1-day meeting about “next generation” assessments, I was struck by the richness of what’s being developed in New York, Ohio, California and elsewhere. In these approaches, project-based learning leads to complex and comprehensive assessments. The logic is clear: kids will dig deep into subjects, and the assessment that follows will respect their efforts. In this (future) world, simple bubble tests will be trumped by assessments that are also learning experiences.

Right now, however, bubble tests rule. Teachers spend as much as one-sixth of their time getting kids ready for the test, administering the test and test makeups, or going over the test. Imagine that: 30 out of 180 days on testing stuff, days that could be spent on learning and teaching. New York State just announced plans to expand testing, so that third graders will now take a 3-hour reading test, and Washington, DC, has announced its intention to give standardized exams to second graders!

We won’t get to a brighter future until we figure out ways to turn our backs on the idiocy of the current system–while keeping our focus on achievement and accountability.

A final note of thanks: Learning Matters has received a challenge grant that will give us $100,000 if we can raise $100,000. Right now we are about $40,000 shy of the goal. If you want to help, click here. Invest $20 or $100 or an amount of your choice, and I promise you will get that back tenfold in quality reporting.

Questioning the conventional wisdom


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The phrase “conventional wisdom” is often an oxymoron, at least in education. At a bare minimum, conventional wisdom ought to be questioned. Which is what I propose to do here about ‘Time on Task’ and the new Common Core standards.

‘Time On Task’ is a concept educators love to talk about. It often goes this way: someone asks about extending the school day and/or the school year, prompting this response: “Good idea, because more time on task produces academic gains.”

Odds are good that what comes next is an emphatic statement about the importance of quality time on task — which strikes me as akin to supporting motherhood and apple pie.

Everyone nods approvingly at this conventional wisdom.

But they have it backwards. It’s not ‘quality time’ that matters so much. It’s ‘quality tasks.’ Anyone who’s spent much time in high school lately knows that much of what goes on there is mind-numbing. It’s the tasks, not the time, that ought to take precedence.

You may have read my earlier comments about creating knowledge, so I won’t rehash them here, except to say that teachers have remarkable opportunities to work with young people on tasks that build their skills and knowledge, tasks that challenge their creativity, and tasks that help them sort through the flood of information that surrounds them 24/7 and turn it into knowledge.

So it’s not ‘quality time on task’ that we should be talking about. Instead, it’s ‘Time on Quality Tasks.’ See that the tasks are meaningful, and we won’t have to worry about time — most students will want to complete quality tasks.

The second example of conventional wisdom that ought to be scrutinized involves the Common Core (national) standards for math and English, which have now been endorsed/adopted by 45 states. Bandwagons in general scare me, and the Common Core bandwagon is moving at high speed, endorsed not just by most states but also by teacher unions and many other education associations. Education Secretary Arne Duncan and I talked about it at our Twitter Town Hall this past Monday, and he was lavish in his praise, while taking extreme care to point out that the federal government had not written these standards.

(However, his Department of Education has thrown a lot of money at this and also made acceptance of ‘higher standards’ one of the four requirements for qualifying for its “Race to the Top” competition. Not that there’s anything wrong with that…)

Is this a sign that our children should be seeing year-to-year?

The Common Core will be a game-changer, the Secretary asserted. Perhaps they will be, but I have to wonder how many people have actually read them? (The PDFs, available for download at the site linked in the first paragraph above, are quite lengthy.)

One thing is clear: What we have now in public education is unacceptable. It’s a hodgepodge of standards, many quite low because of the ‘dumbing down’ effects of No Child Left Behind. As Robert Rothman makes clear in his valuable new book, Something in Common, America has been wrestling with this issue for years. So I am not arguing for the status quo. However, I am afraid that we are missing an opportunity to re-examine our 19th Century approach to school organization. Let me explain.

Because I taught English in high school and college at the beginning of my career, I have been poking around in the ELA standards (English Language Arts). They are very detailed, by year, and ‘strand’ and category. So be prepared to crack the code, ‘Rl.5.4,’ ‘Rl.9.10.10,’ and so on.

On the subject of ‘Range of reading and level of text complexity,’ by the end of the year, fifth graders are expected to “read and comprehend informational texts, including history/social studies, science, and technical texts, at the high end of the grades 4–5 text complexity band independently and proficiently.”

Before you say ‘huh’, read on.

In that same category, this is what’s expected of 9th graders: “By the end of grade 9, read and comprehend literature, including stories, dramas, and poems, in the grades 9–10 text complexity band proficiently, with scaffolding as needed at the high end of the range.”

“Scaffolding” is educational jargon. Think building blocks. First you learn to add and subtract, then you build on that scaffold and learn to multiply and divide, that sort of thing. An awful lot of learning does NOT occur that way, but that’s probably beside the point here.

Leaving aside the mind-numbing jargon that makes my eyes glaze over, I have a serious issue with the Common Core and the conventional wisdom that these detailed national standards are just what we need. They are pouring concrete around our antiquated, age-segregated approach to learning. Just when modern technologies allow students to move at individual and different speeds, the Common Core standards seem to set in concrete the notions of 5th grade, 6th grade, 7th grade, and so on.

I worry that these markers will become stop signs, just as the grade demarcations now operate. Not long ago I heard a school principal complain that he had to tell his 9th graders to ‘motor down’ to get ready for the 9th grade test — because they were doing 11th grade math. All they will get credit for, naturally, is the 9th grade. Isn’t “Slow Down!” a horrible lesson about the irrationality of the world for those young people to absorb?

Schools work around age segregation by creating programs for ‘the gifted,’ which allow precocious 9-year-olds to do work that’s usually for older kids. Sometimes kids skip a grade, but no one seems to question age- and grade-segregation.

I want to be clear here. I am not arguing for ‘fewer standards,’ something the writers seemed to have anticipated, because they write, “It is important to recognize that ‘fewer standards’ are no substitute for focused standards. Achieving “fewer standards” would be easy to do by resorting to broad, general statements. Instead, these Standards aim for clarity and specificity.”

‘Specificity’ they’ve achieved, but ‘clarity?’ Re-read the excerpts quoted above.

I have a suggestion. Rather than perpetuate grade-based learning, could we set standards for age groups? Standards for children ages 6-10 that say, ‘This is what every 10-year-old is expected to be able to do.’ Standards for kids ages 11-14 that say ‘This is what every 14-year-old is expected to be able to do.’ And graduation standards for those ages 15-18: ‘This is what every HS senior is expected to be able to do before getting a diploma.’ Then our system could actually be learner-centered.

Is that a pipe dream? What do you think?

Is teaching a team sport?


John’s book, The Influence of Teachers, is currently available on Amazon.

I had an interesting conversation with Barnett Berry, the lead author of Teaching 2030, earlier this week. We covered the waterfront: how teaching has changed and is changing, whether schools of education were up the the challenges facing them, why so many teachers leave, and so on. You will have to wait for our PBS NewsHour piece — it’s in a quiz format, by the way — and the accompanying podcast to find out what the brilliant Mr. Berry believes, because right now I want to explore his final comment, over coffee after the cameras had been turned off.

“Teaching is a team sport,” he opined before rushing off to a meeting, leaving me wondering.

Is it? Who says so? And if it is, why are so many politicians and state governments rushing to support ways of measuring individual teachers?

And what’s a ‘team sport’ anyway?

Well, baseball is a team sport. We watched the Cardinals perform the near-impossible, and we saw that nearly everyone in a Cardinal uniform contributed to the team’s climb from 10.5 games out in late August to win the wild card spot on the last day of the season, upset two heavily favored teams to win the National League pennant and then overcome impossible odds to win the World Series. No one who saw it will forget Game Six, when the Cards were twice within one strike of losing it all to the Texas Rangers. Twice they rallied to tie, later winning on David Freese’s 11th inning walk-off home run. Freese won the series MVP award, but his teammates put him in the position to succeed.

Case closed: Baseball is a team sport, but with individual statistics and individual honors.

Now, what about teaching? That’s a tougher argument for at least six reasons.

World Series
Baseball is clearly a team sport, as the Cardinals evidenced throughout the summer and fall. But is teaching?

The “egg crate” architecture of most schools does not support the notion that teaching is a team sport: Individual classrooms resemble cartons, isolated from each other.

The typical school schedule does not support the notion that teaching is a team sport. Most American public school teachers spent almost all of their school time in their classrooms, which means they have very little time to work as a team.

The language of education does not support the notion. Occasionally a couple of teachers will ‘team teach,’ which implies that the rest of the staff is not team-teaching! That is, you are only on a team when you are actually working in the same classroom with another teacher.

Nor does the evaluation of teachers support the notion that teaching is a team sport. It’s all done on an individual basis, with the possible exception of few rating points being given for ‘contribution to the school environment’ or something like that. In my experience, when an administrator praises a teacher for being ‘a team player,’ he means that the teacher doesn’t make waves.

The governance of most schools contradicts the notion that teaching is a team sport. Often it’s ‘labor versus management,’ with teachers punching a time clock twice a day. That’s a far cry from the St. Louis Cardinals, where manager Tony LaRussa had such trust in Albert Pujols that he let him call a hit-and-run play on his own. LaRussa was in charge, but he occasionally deferred to his coaches and his players. He left a pitcher in the game, for instance, after consulting with the catcher, who told him the pitcher had another inning in him (turned out to be wrong, but that’s not the point).

Finally, the emerging pay structure for teachers flies in the face of the idea that teaching is a team sport. The hot issue is some form of ‘merit pay’ based on the academic performance of the individual teacher, whether it’s ‘value-added’ test scores or good old standardized test scores. The policy makers who are supporting these schemes are paying scant attention to the implications (test all students in all subjects!); the fact that with high student turnover, a kid might have three different teachers in one year; or to the evidence indicating that merit pay doesn’t work.

In some places, if teachers are on a team, it’s probably their local union team, but not the PS 112 team or the Mather Middle School team.

I’m afraid my friend Barnett is letting the wish be the father of the thought. He wants teaching to be widely recognized as a team sport, which it is in the best schools. In those schools, teachers have time to meet and discuss individual students, to plan curriculum, to develop both short- and long-term goals. They have time to breathe. They work as a team and hold each other accountable. Yes, each school has the equivalent of Tony LaRussa, the manager, but he or she is not ‘management’ and the teachers ‘labor.’ They all have their eyes on the prize.

I believe that most teachers want to play a team sport. They prefer to work together and to have big hopes, dreams and goals for their school and all its students. One of my strong memories from my own high school teaching in the late 1960s was the joy of working with other English teachers, even to the point of swapping classes for a few weeks so each of us could teach a play or a poet we felt particularly well-qualified to teach.

So here’s my pitch: Teaching should be recognized as a team sport, and education as a team activity. The ‘team’ is the school, and everyone in the school is on the team, including secretarial staff and custodians. Education’s ‘won-loss’ record is more complicated than baseball’s and should include academic measures, teacher and student attendance, teacher and student turnover, community involvement, and more. (I wrote about this recently in ‘Trust but Verify’ and invite you to revisit that blog post).

And just as the Cardinal team divided the World Series loot into individual shares, so too could merit pay be divvied up when the team achieves its agreed-upon goals. Cardinal players, coaches, equipment managers et cetera shared the rewards. In this system, teachers, administrators, counselors, secretaries and custodians would all share the rewards.

But, going back to the St. Louis Cardinals, here’s the critical point: Notice that in writing about them, I described what the team did over a two-month period, not on one day or in one hour. I showed you the movie, not a snapshot.

Snapshots don’t help much in baseball or in education. In Game 3, Albert Pujols hit three home runs, had five hits for 14 total base and drove in five runs. A great snapshot that is actually very misleading, because he had a disappointing World Series overall.

Pujols also made a key fielding misplay in the series; suppose instead the snapshot had been taken in that game? It would have been just as misleading, but the movie reveals just how valuable he was to the Cardinals.

Because education now relies on snapshots — one score on one test on that one big day — and because so much of schooling tilts against the team sport concept, we have miles to go before anyone can confidently assert that teaching is a team sport.

I’m interested in your thoughts on this.