Michelle Rhee, the hard-charging and polarizing former Washington, D.C. school chief, knew much more than she’s let on about the possibility of teacher cheating on student high-stakes tests under her watch. On Thursday PBS’s John Merrow published a heretofore secret memo written by a consultant Rhee hired which suggested that teacher cheating was widespread in D.C. schools, including possibly some 191 teachers at 70 schools.
Rhee told Merrow that she “received countless reports, memoranda and presentations,” and couldn’t remember ever seeing this particular document. Yet other district staffers say that Rhee and D.C.’s current school chief Kaya Henderson discussed the memo in meetings.
It’s a bombshell revelation for Rhee, who built her reputation as a no-nonsense superintendent determined to clean up D.C.’s public schools and who has since has leveraged the national acclaim and notoriety she garnered as D.C. schools chief to become one of the nation’s most visible education reformers.
The problem is about more than just some adults behaving badly. Teacher cheating has become a serious, widespread problem in the U.S. education landscape. As the mainstream education reform movement, fueled by federal accountability laws like No Child Left Behind and initiatives like Race to the Top, have ratcheted up the use of test scores for determining everything from the stability of a school community to the efficacy of a teacher, people’s livelihoods and student’s school campuses have come to depend on how well their students performed on standardized tests. Rhee herself was a prominent supporter of this kind of approach.
But the flipside is that teachers and principals have faced serious pressure to maintain and raise their student test scores. Just this month 34 Atlanta educators and former superintendent Beverly Hall, once an education reform darling, were indicted for their alleged roles in a massive teacher cheating scandal uncovered in 2011.
One of the most common ways for teachers to fudge test scores is by erasing wrong answers and rebubbling in the correct ones. By analyzing erasure rates, that is, the frequency of answers changed from a wrong to a correct one, experts are able to pin down sites of possible cheating. The erasure rates at 70 schools were far too high than what would be expected of students correcting themselves on their own. The consultant, Dr. Fay G. “Sandy” Sanford, wrote in his 2009 memo (PDF) that he needed more information. Yet Rhee did not call for any deeper investigation, despite promising total transparency.
The revelation will surely lead to calls for a deeper inquiry into what went down under Rhee’s watch, and could endanger her standing as a leader in the education reform movement.