The Adventures of Sampleman

In last week’s episode of “The Adventures of Sampleman,” a network television executive learned that 4,341,716 people watched her prime time program. She was happy about those numbers–until she got a bill for $38,900,000.

Why so much? Instead of monitoring a small representative sample, the ratings company telephoned every television household in America. That adds up pretty quickly.

And now, we bring you this week’s episode of “The Adventures of Sampleman.” (If on a mobile device, click here.)

The Adventures of Sampleman

In next week’s episode, a political pollster spends $17,000,000–his candidate’s entire campaign budget–on just one poll. How did he do it? Instead of polling a representative sample of voters, he and his staff went door to door and personally interviewed every registered voter.

The candidate’s numbers look good–59% say they will vote for her. However, she’s broke and may be forced to drop out of the race.

Be sure to tune in every week for ‘The Adventures of Sampleman’–because we will know if you don’t!

Opting Out

What to make of recent events in Colorado, where thousands of high school seniors refused to take a state-mandated standardized test? Is this a harbinger of things to come, an American version of “Arab Spring,” or was it an isolated incident with slight significance beyond the Rocky Mountain State?

These days most eyes are on Washington because Republicans have won control of both houses of Congress, but perhaps the big story in 2015 will be a louder student ‘voice’ about what goes on in schools.

At least 5,000 Colorado high school seniors opted out of the tests, given Thursday and Friday, November 13th and 14th.

I spent a fair amount of time on the phone with three Fairview high school seniors talking about the protest, Natalie Griffin (17), Jonathan Snedeker (also 17), and Jennifer Jun (18), all college-bound next year, and all remarkably articulate. {{1}} At their high school, 98% of the seniors opted out. Across the state, nearly 40% refused to take the test known as CMAS.

Given over two days, CMAS was designed to measure student knowledge of social studies and science. “It’s a no-stakes test for us,” Jonathan Snedeker explained. “The district and the state want data they can use to judge teachers and schools.” And, they say, Colorado is spending $36 million on the test, money they would like to see used to benefit their education.

Students from twelve Colorado high schools {{2}} wrote and posted an “open letter” to the citizens of Colorado explaining their decision to opt out. The letter, which presents five points of concern, is worth reading in its entirety. These two sentences jumped out at me:

We have been subjected to larger class sizes, cuts to art, music, and extracurricular activities, and fewer opportunities in school. Our reward for putting up with these difficulties is more standardized testing with questionable purposes and monetary costs.

The students have a clear goal: They want Colorado to restrict mandated standardized testing to the number required under federal law (grades 3-8 and 10 in English and math), and no more.

When I spoke with Natalie and Jennifer, they had just come indoors, after standing in zero degree weather in front of their high school. “We have 555 seniors who were supposed to take the test,” Natalie told me. “Well before today, the school had gotten opt-out letters from 435 of us, meaning they expected 120 to take the test.” That didn’t happen, she said happily. “Only 7 kids showed up for the test.” {{3}}

Two short student videos are worth viewing. The first is an overview, the second a report from the protest itself.

It was clear that these young people thought this through carefully and recognize the importance of being for something even as they were standing together against the test. And so, many protesters spent the testing time working in a food bank or organizing a food drive, while others worked on a email campaign directed at the Legislative Task Force that will be recommending a new policy on testing for Colorado. I asked if adults, including teachers, were helping them behind the scenes, and all three vigorously denied adult involvement.

“We used social media to communicate,” one told me, including Twitter, Google Docs and Google Drive. A Facebook page? I asked. “No, because a Facebook page would have been open to anyone, and we did not want that,” Jennifer told me, and so they created a Facebook Event, accessible only by students. The students told me that they kept their principal in the loop, because they did not want their school to be penalized by the state. {{4}}

Opting out is not new {{5}}, but something important seems to be happening here: savvy students with a clear goal using social media to communicate with each other, the citizens of Colorado, and–now–with a national audience.

What’s happening in Colorado emphasizes the importance of seeing students–not teachers– as the primary workers in schools. Students are, borrowing Peter Drucker’s term, “knowledge workers.” They are most certainly not manual workers. {{6}}

Because they are knowledge workers, they must be doing meaningful work that they can respect. Their view of the work matters, and, while they don’t get to decide what to do, their voices must be heard. (So too must teachers’ voices be heard, of course, because top-down decision-making almost always produces poor learning.)

I am occasionally asked what I think we should expect in education now that the Republicans control both Houses of Congress. From Washington, not much. But I expect to hear more ‘voices’ from outside our Nation’s capital, the voices of parents {{7}}, teachers {{8}} and–especially–students.

Savvy students, fed up with being treated as numbers, may take to social media and organize opting out and other protests against what they deem to be excessive testing. They’ll have to push away adults, left and right, who will want to guide (and control) them, or simply take credit for what the kids are doing. If they are savvy (as the Colorado students seem to be), they will be FOR stuff, and not just against this test or that one. They will have to educate the adults in charge, not an easy task. They will be taking on entrenched economic interests like Pearson, the College Board and others who profit from testing.

But if students are the knowledge workers in schools, then they have a right to be doing interesting and valuable work. As protester Jonathan Snedeker told me, “We spend too much time being tested, and not enough time learning.”

[[1]]1. Jennifer describes herself as a political moderate. She hopes to go to Stanford, Georgetown or Penn and study international diplomacy. Jonathan hopes to study molecular biology at Johns Hopkins. Natalie, who works part time in the biology lab at UC Boulder, has applied to Brown, Princeton, Emory, Northwestern, Duke and the University of Virginia.[[1]]
[[2]]2. Mostly seniors, but a few underclassmen and some graduates also signed it.[[2]]
[[3]]3. She later corrected that number. Actually NINE showed up, out of 555. That’s less than 2%. At least one of the nine took the test because one of her parents is a teacher and she feared that opting out would jeopardize her job, Natalie told me. On day 2, ten seniors took the test. [[3]]
[[4]]4. Schools are required to demonstrate that they made an “adequate effort” to test at least 95% of students or risk censure by the state. Student organizers urged students to send in an opt-out notice to the principal’s office so the school would know how many computers and proctors it would need to have on testing days.[[4]]
[[5]]5. It happened before in other places, of course. Some students at an elite high school in New York City opted out of a test in the fall of 2013 because they believed that the goal was to play gotcha with their teachers. FairTest publishes a weekly ‘scorecard’ of protests against excessive testing, which you can find here The list is growing, although not every item is an example of direct action. While some label FairTest as ‘anti-testing,’ its stated position is in favor of ‘testing resistance and reform.’ [[5]]
[[6]]6. I am indebted to Deborah Kenny for reminding me of Drucker’s insights. Her book, Born to Rise, is well worth your time, if you haven’t already discovered it. (Harper Collins 2012) Dr. Kenny also writes about kaizen, the Japanese philosophy of continuous improvement in all aspects of an organization. [[6]]
[[7]]7. Some 22 states have passed or are seriously considering passing what are called “parent trigger” laws. Much of the activity is in California. Politico’s Morning Education reports “More than 400 families from across the country will gather this weekend at a trade college in Los Angeles for a “Parent Power Convention” hosted by Parent Revolution, the education reform group that lobbied hard for California’s parent trigger law. Expect a lot of talk about the Vergara decision striking down teacher tenure in California – and how that landmark court case can be replicated in other states.” (November 14)
California is the site of the first–so far, only–school converted to a charter school under the trigger law. The school apparently achieved gains in reading and science. But all may not be well, if this left-leading publication is correct.
The ‘parent trigger’ movement is not exactly grass roots, with strong support from the right-leaning organizations. Does that make it a not-quite-genuine ‘voice’ of parents? At the least, it’s highly debatable.
But there are other parents who support or lead opt-out efforts, sometimes with their children in tow, sometimes arm-in-arm. These parents are being heard from in several Florida communities, Pittsburgh, and a host of other cities and towns.[[7]]
[[8]]8. Do teachers have a ‘voice’ beyond that of their unions? I believe they do, and, as evidence, I cite the growing number of teacher-led schools, Barnett Berry’s Teacher Leader Network, school-community organizations like the Coalition of Community Schools, and social media networks like the Coalition of Essential Schools, where teachers share insights and support each other. [[8]]

How Much Do We Test?

Day of the Dead
San Francisco's Day of the Dead procession - photo sent by Ellen Schneider, her comment on what is happening in public education

The results of our survey are beginning to come in. In hopes of encouraging more superintendents and school boards to provide data, I offer this early report, with the caveat that it is based on information from a handful of the nation’s 14,000 school districts.

The average number of mandated, machine-scored standardized tests administered in a district in a year: 22.

Of those, all but one are reported to be mandated by the state, not the district. (While there are no federally mandated tests in public education, the federal No Child Left Behind Act does require that students in grades 3-8 be tested in reading and math. {{1}})

Eleanor Chute of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette cautions that some mandated standardized tests, such as DIBELS, are not machine-scored, which means the reported number may be higher. In September Ms. Chute reported on the steps that the Pittsburgh School Board was taking to reduce ‘excessive’ testing. Those eye-opening numbers deserve your attention:

The biggest reductions are planned in grades 3, 4 and 5 where the number of periods spent in testing are to decline from 85.5 periods to 41.5 periods. After school board member Sherry Hazuda was told one period equals 45 minutes, she said, “No wonder people are complaining when you see it like that.”
“This has a great impact on the amount of time our children have to learn,” said board member Carolyn Krug, who said it will reduce stress as well.
In kindergarten, the number of periods spent testing is to be cut from 13 to 11. In grade 2, the reduction is from 45 periods to 26. {{2}}

Districts report that the average lag time between when students take a test and when the results become available is nearly two months.

This confirms the conventional wisdom. However, the situation may be worse than it appears because so-called “end of year” tests are often given well before the school year actually ends. If those tests are administered in mid-May {{3}} and school ends in late June, then the results–which arrive during the summer when teachers are off–don’t come into play for four months, and only after the kids have moved to new classrooms and new teachers. Here’s where the journalist’s question, “Who benefits?”, is worth asking.

We asked how many mandated tests a student would take if he or she went through the system from kindergarten to graduation. The average: just over 37 tests in 13 years…

Is that a lot? Kids generally aren’t subject to mandated, machine-scored standardized tests in kindergarten, first or second grade. The pattern I am most familiar with is testing in grades 3-8, grade 10 and grade 12, and only in English Language Arts and Math.

Districts report that, on average, testing occurs in about 40 of the 180-day school calendar.

If you’re a percentage person, that means that on 22% of the school days, some children somewhere in the district are taking one of these tests {{4}}. It does not mean that schools come to a standstill on those 40 days.

How about ‘test prep’ time? Here I fear that the numbers reported so far may not be reliable. One district said its teachers spend ZERO hours preparing kids for tests, while another reported its teachers spend 100 hours.

So far no school district has reported disciplining, firing or giving bonuses to teachers based on student test scores.

Many states now require using student performance as a piece of teacher evaluation. How much scores should count is what is being debated. Judging teachers by test scores is only going to increase down the road, because the Administration’s “Race to the Top” program requires it.

No district reports that cheating by students or adults has been a problem.

We need more hard data.




Number of Students in District _______
Name of District ______ (this will be masked in survey results)

Students in our district will take ____ standardized, machine-scored tests during the course of the year. (We are seeking the number of different tests given. So, if a particular test is administered to three grade levels, that counts as three tests, not one.)
Of these tests, ___ were selected by the district, and ____ are required by the state.
A student who attends our district from Kindergarten through graduation will take ____ standardized tests during his or her time in school.
There are ____ days on our 180-day calendar when a standardized test is NOT being administered.
Some test results determine a child’s promotion, while others are used to evaluate schools and teachers. Is this the right approach? How useful is this information? Should we test only a carefully drawn sample of students when we want to evaluate schools, instead of testing every student?
Right now we test all students in only ____ subjects. However, if we are going to evaluate all teachers according to their students’ scores, we will need to test in more subjects, including art, science, social studies and music.
There is a ____ month lag time between the administration of a test and the delivery of the results.
Our school district spends $_____ per year to buy and score standardized tests. (These out-of-pocket costs do not include the labor costs.) This amounts to less than _____ % of our annual school budget.
We devote _____ hours per year to testing, out of approximately 900-1000 hours of actual class time during the 180-day school year.
In addition, many teachers devote an estimated ____ hours to what is known as ‘test prep.’ The numbers vary from teacher to teacher and school to school and are difficult to pinpoint.
Last year we removed ___ teachers because their students’ scores did not go up sufficiently.
Last year we distributed $$ _____ in cash awards to teachers whose students’ scores went up well beyond the expected level.
Last year we investigated ___ incidents of alleged cheating on standardized tests, ___ by students and ___ by teachers and other administrators.


[[1]]1. Thanks to Diane Ravitch for calling my attention to my initial inelegant phrasing.  The Feds don’t say which tests to use, but they do require testing.[[1]]

[[2]]2. Her story on the extent of testing in Pittsburgh received (well-deserved) national attention. [[2]]

[[3]]3. For example, Pennsylvania’s “Keystone” exam, the PSSA (for Pennsylvania State System of Assessment) is given in mid-May.  Pittsburgh is moving up the opening of school to try to get more of the curriculum covered before the kids are tested on it—what a concept–which means that the lives of children and families are being reordered to accommodate the machine.  Why not move the test date to later in the school year?  Because then there wouldn’t be enough time for the machines to process the answer sheets!  [[3]]

[[4]]4. Please bear in mind that the data presented here does not include teacher-made tests (which are generally recognized to be the most effective way of measuring student knowledge). [[4]]

Angry About Drag Racing, Town Bans Jaywalking

Bizarro, Nevada, October 1–In a powerful response to hordes of young adults using Main Street for drag races “day and night,” an angry City Council voted to impose $250 fines and 30-day jail terms for jaywalking. “These damn hot rodders are endangering our citizens, and the only way to stop them is to keep our citizens out of the streets.”

Well, OK, that didn’t happen. There is no town of Bizarro, Nevada, and I hope no one would pass laws to punish the victims…but that’s what came to mind when I read a Wall Street Journal report about schools’ beefing up test security, headlined Schools’ Test: Beat the Cheat.

The gist of the article: Because no school district wants to be “the next Atlanta,” where intense pressures from leadership led to massive cheating by some principals and teachers, they are investing heavily in security measures to keep students and teachers from cheating. But the Journal article says nothing about addressing the cause of widespread cheating, the pressure from leadership to produce high test scores. It might have at least raised the question of whether districts were treating symptoms, not causes.

Here’s an analogy: Imagine you are sitting on a bed of nails and screaming in pain–and, to cure the problem, someone gives you strong pain pills and then stuffs a gag in your mouth to stop you from screaming. Problem solved, right?

The reporting is flawed in another important way. The Journal cites as the leading authority on cheating prevention the founder of Caveon Security, John Fremer. Clearly no one did a simple background check. If they had, they would have learned that Caveon’s track record includes some significant failures, starting with Atlanta. That’s right: Caveon was hired by the Atlanta School Board to investigate allegations of cheating…and its investigators found nothing wrong!

“Caveon couldn’t find its ass with either hand,” said one of the two lawyers who led the subsequent investigation demanded by Georgia’s governor; that’s the one that found the cheating, identified the alleged cheaters, and produced the indictments. (The trial began on September 29th.)

Caveon had been hired by the (so-called) “Blue Ribbon Committee” established to look into allegations of cheating in Atlanta. Caveon looked–and reported finding nothing wrong in what turned out to be the epicenter of cheating by adults on standardized tests. Dr. Fremer told me that while he ‘knew’ there was widespread cheating going on, that was not mentioned in his final report. “We did not try to find out who was cheating,” he said. “Our purpose was to rank order the schools beginning with those with the most obvious problems (of unbelievably dramatic score increases), in order to make the task of investigating more manageable.” In other words, Caveon produced a list!

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

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

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

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

Caveon also conducted two deeply flawed ‘investigations’ into allegations of cheating in Washington, DC, again finding nothing of consequence.

For the full story:

Penetrating the Smokescreen
Michelle Rhee and the Washington Post
Michelle Rhee’s Reign of Error

Having failed to tells its readers of Caveon’s track record of failure in Atlanta and Washington, DC, the Journal then reports–without irony–that security providers like Caveon are enjoying a huge upsurge in business. Mr. Fremer says that Caveon’s revenue has grown by 40% every year for the past three years.

Failure pays! There’s a lesson for Wall Street Journal readers.

In another interesting omission, the Journal reporters do not cite Washington as a place where cheaters prospered. Houston and Philadelphia get mentioned but not our nation’s capital, where then-Chancellor Michelle Rhee handed out large bonuses to principals whose schools had made ‘unbelievable’ gains on the city’s standardized test….and where student answer sheets were discovered to have an inordinately high rate of ‘wrong to right’ erasures.

Buried deep in the WSJ article is one person’s expression of concern that schools are overcompensating, spending money on testing security that ought to be spent on art, music, teaching and learning. But that person is Randi Weingarten, familiar to WSJ readers as the strident president of a teachers union.

For a newspaper that focuses on financial matters, the article is notably short of numbers. We don’t learn how much money any district is spending on enhanced security. That dollar figure would be useful to have, because it could then be translated into terms we can understand: number of assistant teacher positions, number of counselor slots, and so forth.

Even deeper in the article is one parent’s complaint that her child’s school now resembles a prison.

There’s stuff going on in the testing arena that might also have been part of the Journal’s coverage. (Perhaps it will come up in future pieces.) I’m referring to growing evidence of a ‘great awakening’ about the impact of test-based school reform.

Consider Massachusetts, for example:

The new chair of the state Board of Education raised concerns about the focus on standardized test preparation in Massachusetts schools, as board members on Tuesday discussed whether some districts give too many practice tests to prepare students for the MCAS.

Board chairwoman Margaret McKenna said some schools test students 20 to 25 days per school year, including practice and pre-tests. Board members said some school officials are blaming the state for the test prep focus.

“What I keep hearing is the districts keep saying it’s the state; the state keeps saying it’s the districts,” said McKenna, who was appointed to the board by Gov. Deval Patrick in August.
McKenna said the intention of the test seems to have gotten lost.

“I think it’s time for the state to say, ‘Wait a minute here, that is not the intention.’ We’ve got to figure out a way to make sure people are not teaching to the test,” said McKenna, who spent 22 years as president of Lesley University in Cambridge.

And in Florida:

The Lee School Board struck down the district’s proposed testing calendar at its Tuesday night meeting, effectively eliminating 68 tests from grades kindergarten through fifth grade and putting assessment decisions back in teachers’ hands.

The motion passed 3-1 with Cathleen Morgan in opposition and Chairman Tom Scott absent due to illness after school board members deliberated the necessity of district-mandated tests.  ….

(Board member Mary) Fischer said the amount of testing in recent years have been a form of “child abuse.”

“We’re supposed to have a learning environment for kids that is safe, and makes them ready to learn,” Fischer said. “So when they’re coming in afraid of the testing, and you tell them they’re failing and parents are stressed out, it negatively impacts children in a psychological way.”

Two well-placed political types recently told me that legislators in their states (one eastern, one western) were hearing one message from constituents: ‘Too much testing.’

The left is salivating about what it sees as–and hopes is–a growing revolt against ‘excessive’ testing. FairTest publishes a weekly scorecard, an example of which you can find here. Regular updates are at

The proper adjective for the right might be “concerned.” Some stalwarts have published a Guiding Principles statement headlined “An Open Letter On School Accountability To State Superintendents of Education and Governors.” While you may be interested to see who has signed it, and who has not, please don’t let that keep you from reading what they have to say about the dangers of overreacting to the pressure to dial back on accountability.

But the canary in the mine–real evidence that test-based accountability may be counter-productive–is this year’s Broad Prize for Excellence in Urban Education. Every year I can remember there have been four or five finalists, but this year only two of the 75 eligible districts were deemed to be doing well enough to be considered for the Prize. The judges use a ‘green, yellow, red’ grading system in a bunch of categories; one judge told me that, of the 20 semi-finalists, most scored ‘yellow’ or ‘red’ in most categories. It was, he said, a cause for concern.

Ben Weider of the blog 538 does a wonderful job of deconstructing the issue here, in a piece entitled “The Most Important Award in Public Education Struggles to Find Winners.” The headline may suffer from hyperbole, but the article is well-reasoned and sourced.

The key point: the NAEP scores of most of the Broad Prize winners have been flat for years. These are the districts that have been living and dying by test scores, and it’s not working.

Mixing clichés, the canary in the mine {{1}} is also the elephant in the room. It is an issue we cannot afford to ignore, because, if things are so bad that only two of 75 urban districts are making significant progress, then we shouldn’t be doubling down on that approach to schooling. Rather, those who are concerned about urban education should examine general practices in urban districts. I’d suggest starting by questioning the frequency of bubble testing, their purposes and the use of their results {{2}}.

Public school districts shouldn’t be spending time, energy and money on strategies to prevent cheating. Those resources ought to be devoted to creating a more challenging curriculum that gives students more control over their own learning and engages them in the deeper learning of project-based classes. Technology, when ‘blended’ with (and by) skilled teachers, allows students to dig deeper and soar higher, and that’s what our young people need to experience when they go to school. More ‘rigorous’ training in regurgitating information (and passing tests) is a flawed strategy, and all the expensive security measures in the world will not obscure that truth.


[[1]]1. Speaking of a canary in the mine, I was struck by Geoff Canada’s comments at the Broad Foundation Award event on Monday.  Mr. Canada, the creator of the Harlem Children’s Zone, is well-known for his anti-union stance, his role in “Waiting for ‘Superman,’” and his alliance with Michelle Rhee, but on Monday he went way ‘off message’ to criticize excessive testing. We often test without purpose, he said, giving tests in March or April but not getting results until late August.  If I heard him correctly, he was saying that we test too much and trust teachers too little.  Mr. Canada was responding to my tweeted question, but I wasn’t the moderator and so could not push him on what he was saying. But if an educator with the following and stature of Geoff Canada is questioning testing, something is happening.[[1]]

[[2]]2. The US uses test scores to evaluate, rate, punish and (sometimes) reward teachers. Most advanced countries use testing and assessment to assess students![[2]]

A Teacher Speaks Out

Dear Friends and other readers,

How do classroom teachers feel about standardized, machine-scored testing?   Below is a letter from a young classroom teacher whose identity I am not revealing.  This teacher, who has been teaching more than 6 years, fears retribution, apparently with good reason. The letter arrived last week.

Hi Mr. Merrow,

We’ve corresponded before.  I’ve been teaching in (WITHHELD) public schools for the past (WITHHELD) years.  I’m an ESL teacher but am also certified in Remedial Reading.  I want to tell you about administering of the (STATE NAME WITHHELD) test to 3-5 grade ESL students last April.  This event was the thing that broke the camel’s back for me when it came to deciding whether or not I could continue with a career in public school education.

As I’m still teaching in (WITHHELD), I chose to email you rather than respond on your blog. They told us they can monitor our social media use and ‘discipline’ us based on that, so…

For three solid weeks I had to administer a computer-based test that was not only too difficult for my students to navigate (computer issues, not having adequate keyboarding skills, English language deficits, etc.) but had specific lessons to be taught prior to the exam, lessons that were bizarre at best.  As any good teacher would tell you, you don’t teach a lesson and test on it immediately, yet the (WITHHELD) exam seems to think it’s perfectly fine.  Hmmm.  My third grade students were instructed to cite three sources in their answers, yet this is not a skill that they are taught in the third grade.  The layout/format of the test was such that most students simply answered the questions, and didn’t read the passages.

As teachers, we were instructed to give no help other than say, “Do your best.  I can’t help you in any way.  Do your best.”  We could touch the computer only to log on a student.  Some computers crashed up to 11 times each test session.

The most heartbreaking part, the one that tipped me over, was having to test a third grade student who had only been in the country a few weeks and was suffering trauma due to family issues. She had to be tested on the math part.  She spoke no English.  She was faced with a math test of mostly word problems. She looked at us pleading for help, but all we could say was, “Do your best…”

We used Google Translation to try to tell her that it was OK, she could just guess, just finish the job, etc. but she really didn’t understand.  This child had to take THREE Math sections.  She understood nothing.  When she finished each day (it sometimes took hours), I had to return her to her regular classroom with both of us in  tears. After I told her classroom teacher what had happened, the teacher would be in tears, too!

What did this measure?  What did this tell us about our teaching?  What did this do to help the student?  NOTHING. If she was reluctant to come to school before the test, now she was MORE reluctant.

All states give a ‘pass’ to ESL students who have been in the country less than a year, but ONLY on the English Language Arts part.  You could literally arrive in the country on Monday, and if the Math test is administered on Tuesday, you must take it.  But today’s math tests include “explain your answer.” Or they are word problems.  Or they test on math aspects that the student may not have been taught yet in his or her country.

The party line we get is “Math is universal…”  Rote calculations, yes, but word problems, and introduction of geometry and algebra concepts in third grade are not universal.

I love teaching my students, but I feel, as do many of my ESL colleagues, that our voices are irrelevant.  And when we complain that the tests are not measuring anything or that they test skills that have not been taught, we are told (or at least the message is implied) that we are ‘negative,’ ‘lazy,’ ‘old-school,’ et cetera.

Thanks for letting me vent.  I know that there are MANY ESL teachers who are feeling the same way.

Do you have any advice for this young professional?  Stick it out, or find a new line of work?

How many other teachers feel as this one does?  Can our system afford to drive away teachers like this (GENDER WITHHELD)?

Three weeks of testing, sometimes for three or more hours a day?  Have we lost our minds?

The current ‘moratorium’ is the ideal time for state-wide conversations about testing and assessment.  I hope many of you are asking your school boards and superintendents to fill out that form I provided last week.

For your convenience, here it is again:

Students in our district will take _____ standardized, machine-scored tests during the course of the year.  Is this an appropriate number?

Of these tests,  _____ were selected by the district, and  _____ are required by the state.

A student who attends our district from Kindergarten through graduation will take  _____ standardized tests during his or her time in school. Is this number too high, too low or about right?

There are only  _____ days on our 180-day calendar when a standardized test is NOT being administered. {{1}}

Some test results determine a child’s promotion, while others are used to evaluate schools and teachers. Is this the right approach?  How useful is this information?  Should we test only a carefully drawn sample {{2}} of students when we want to evaluate schools, instead of testing every student?

Right now we test all students in only  _____ subjects.  However, if we are going to evaluate all teachers according to their students’ scores, we will need to test in more subjects, including art, science, social studies and music.  Is this advisable?

There is a ____ month lag time between the administration of a test and the delivery of the results.  Is this acceptable?

Our school district spends $_____ per year to buy and score standardized tests. (These out-of-pocket costs do not include the labor costs.)  This amounts to less than _____ % of our annual school budget. {{3}}  Is this amount low, high or about right?

We devote  _____ hours per year to testing, out of approximately 900 hours of actual class time during the 180-day school year.  Is this amount excessive, too little, or about right?

In addition, many teachers devote another  ____ hours to what is known as ‘test prep.’ The numbers vary from teacher to teacher and school to school and are difficult to pinpoint, but nevertheless the issue merits public discussion.

Last year we fired  _____ teachers because their students’ scores did not go up sufficiently.

Last year we distributed $$ _____ in cash awards to teachers whose students’ scores went up well beyond the expected level.

Last year we investigated  _____ incidents of alleged cheating on standardized tests,  _____ by students and  _____ by teachers and other administrators.


[[1]]1. Be prepared to be surprised by the answer here because Lee County is not alone. Christina Veiga of The Miami Herald reported a story headlined ‘In Miami-Dade the Testing Never Stops.”  She wrote, “Out of the 180-day academic year, Miami-Dade County schools will administer standardized tests on every day but eight.”[[1]]

[[2]]2. This is a perfectly plausible approach, as we reported on the PBS NewsHour recently,[[2]]

[[3]]3. This number will probably NOT be high because most schools buy cheap tests. In Lee County, Florida, for example, the $5,258,493 it spends on testing is not even one-half of one percent of the district’s budget.[[3]]

Mistreating Teachers and Students in the Name of Higher Test Scores

A few days ago I received a letter from an experienced teacher in an eastern state that recalled Yogi Berra’s observation, “Deja vu all over again.” Her story brought to mind the treatment that caused my older daughter, a talented teacher, to leave the profession, and it makes me grieve for students, teachers and the institution of public education.

Below is an excerpt from her letter, followed by my daughter’s story.

Let me tell you what a horrific day I had at work.

OK, so yesterday I had to spend the entire morning proctoring the state science assessment for 5th graders. Today I was called to the office and told I needed to proctor yet another test for the 5th graders, whose results would be used to determine what ‘track’ they will be on in middle school. The test had four sub-tests. I was told that I had to pick up all the fifth grade ESL students and get their tests and subtest answer sheets and bring them into another room. None of the classroom teachers knew anything about this test, either.

So my ESL colleague and I took the kids to a separate room and started the test. ESL kids get ‘extended time’…but while we’re giving the test, the noise level outside the room is unbelievable–the assistant principal is yelling to the secretaries because she won’t get off her butt to ask them a question but would rather yell from her desk. Talk about disrespect for the ESL kids.

We started at 9:30. The first two parts took until 11:30, then we had to dismiss the kids to their art, music, gym, etc, classes. After those classes they had to come back to us to be tested on math. Oh, and by the way, we needed calculators for them, but the administrators ‘forgot’ to tell any of the teachers about this. Then LATER we found out the kids were supposed to get a reference sheet about math terms, but the administrators said “just give them the test anyway…” Then came lunch and recess, and they had to come back again because they STILL weren’t done. When we finally finished, it was 2:30. Remember, we started at 9:30.

TOMORROW, I have to give them ANOTHER test. Friday, I have to give them ANOTHER test, then they spend the rest of their day finishing up the ESL test on the computer…and the computers keep crashing.

I called the ESL person in charge and told them about the proctor who was reading instead of doing his job. She told me that the only reason I was complaining was that I didn’t want the proctors there in the first place.

I’ve called in the union. I don’t think they will actually do anything, but this is child abuse and MY NAME is on these tests. And these scores go on MY evaluation.

Trader Joe’s looks better every day.

Reading this letter, I immediately thought of my older daughter’s experience teaching Italian in a middle school in Spanish Harlem here in New York City about ten years ago. She had been hired because she’s fluent in Italian and the school wanted the kids to learn a second language (most kids spoke limited English and Spanglish, but not Spanish). She had energized her 8th graders by challenging them: If they learned Italian to a certain (high) level, she would treat them to a meal in a real Italian restaurant in midtown Manhattan, an establishment with cloth napkins and real silverware, where they would order their meals in Italian! Most of her kids had never ventured outside of Spanish Harlem or been to a fancy restaurant, but they rose to the challenge. In fact, they were doing so well that she had begun a fundraising campaign to raise the money to pay for the restaurant meals.

At that point—roll of drums—her principal came in and announced in front of the entire class, “OK, Ms. Merrow, that’s enough Italian for the year. The tests are coming in three weeks, and I want you to put Italian aside and spend the time prepping for the math test.”

She protested, but he overrode her, dismissed her concerns and ordered her to get to it.

She did as directed. Of course, it did not work. And while the kids didn’t learn any math (or any more Italian), they learned THREE important–if unintended–lessons: 1) Italian was irrelevant. 2) Their teacher was equally irrelevant. 3) Only the test mattered!

The real world consequence of this idiocy was that, the day after the last test, about 2/3s of her students simply stopped coming to school. It was still May, and the school year did not end in NYC until late June, but the kids had absorbed the essential lessons from that brainless administrator.

I wrote the ESL teacher asking for permission to use parts of her letter. She gave her OK and added, “the testing mania has caused people to lose their minds and their ability to see that having students sit for hours and hours of testing does NOT enhance their abilities, other than their ability to take a test. Last school year I felt like all I did was teach kids how to game the test.

There is nothing intellectual going on in schools, just taking tests to provide quantifiable data that will be used to judge teachers, schools, districts, pigeonhole students into tracks and leave us with a generation of students who no longer find school fun, but find school a boring, frustrating place to be.”

My daughter left teaching, a real loss because she was and is a gifted teacher. I hope the woman whose letter I cite above will persevere. Perhaps her union will get involved, or perhaps she will share her story with other teachers, who will then speak as one voice on behalf of their students. Sadly, it seems more likely that she will choose another profession.

This is insane.

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.