Washington DC Schools: Education Reform's Hot Air Balloon
The current issue of The Washington Monthly contains an article by former journalist Thomas Toch, “Hot for Teachers,” the latest in continuing string of pieces designed to prove the “truth” of the school reform movement’s four Commandments: top-down management, high stakes testing, more money for teachers and principals whose students do well, and dismissal for those whose students do not.
Just as a hot air balloon needs regular burst of hot air to remain afloat, the DCPS ‘success story’ needs constant celebrations of its alleged success. Sadly, it has had no trouble finding agents willing to praise Michelle Rhee, Kaya Henderson, and their work. Absent good data, Toch, former Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, philanthropist Catherine Bradley, Mike Petrilli of Fordham, Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute, and writers Richard Whitmire and Amanda Ripley have lavished praise upon DCPS, often twisting or distorting data and omitting damaging information in order to make their case.
In his article, Toch distorts or omits at least eight issues. The distinguished education analyst Mary Levy and I have written a rebuttal, which is scheduled to appear in the next issue of The Washington Monthly. In this blog post, I want to consider in detail just one of Toch’s distortions: widespread cheating by adults: He glibly dismisses DC’s cheating scandals in just two sentences: In March 2011, USA Today ran a front-page story headlined “When Standardized Test Scores Soared in D.C., Were the Gains Real?,” an examination of suspected Rhee-era cheating. The problem turned out to be concentrated in a few schools, and investigations found no evidence of widespread cheating.
There are two factual errors in his second sentence. Cheating–erasing wrong answers and replacing them with correct ones–occurred in more than half of DCPS schools, and every ‘investigation’ was either controlled by Rhee and later Henderson or conducted by inept investigators–and sometimes both. All five investigations were whitewashes, because no one in power wanted to unmask the wrongdoing that had produced the remarkable test score gains.
Four essential background points: The rookie Chancellor met one-on-one with all her principals and, in those meetings, made them guarantee test score increases. We filmed a number of these sessions, and saw firsthand how Rhee relentlessly negotiated the numbers up, while also making it clear that failing to ‘make the numbers’ would have consequences.
Point number two: The test in question, the DC-CAS, had no consequences for students, none whatsoever. Therefore, many kids were inclined to blow it off, which in turn forced teachers and principals to go to weird extremes to try to get students to take the test seriously. One principal told his students that he would get a tattoo of their choice if they did well on the DC-CAS (They could choose the design; he would choose the location!).
Point number three: For reasons of bureaucratic efficiency, the DC-CAS exams were delivered to schools at least a week before the exam date and put in the hands of the principals whose jobs depended on raising scores on a test the kids didn’t care about. This was a temptation that some school leaders and some teachers found irresistible. Test books were opened, sample questions were distributed, and, after the exams, answers were changed. Some schools had ‘erasure parties,’ we were reliably told.
Point number four: Predictably, test scores went up, and the victory parties began.
Contrary to Toch’s assertions, the ‘wrong-to-right’ erasures in half of DCPS schools were never thoroughly investigated beyond the initial analysis done by the agency that corrected the exams in the first place, CTB/McGraw-Hill. Deep erasure analysis would have revealed any patterns of erasures, but it was never ordered by Chancellor Rhee, Deputy Chancellor Henderson, or the Mayor, presuming he was aware of the issue.
When the erasures continued in Ms. Rhee’s second year on the job, she came under pressure to investigate, and so in December 2009 she hired Caveon, a security firm that is based in Utah. Why Caveon? Ms. Henderson explained to a City Council subcommittee, “The reason that we hired Caveon was because we thought that we needed an objective third party to actually do the investigation and to make recommendations to us.”
Caveon was the perfect choice–if one wanted to turn a blind eye to any wrongdoing. Prior to its work for DCPS, Caveon had been hired by the (so-called) “Blue Ribbon Committee” established to look into allegations of cheating in Atlanta. Caveon looked–and reported finding nothing wrong in what turned out to be the epicenter of cheating by adults on standardized tests. Dr. John Fremer, the head of Caveon, 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 were 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, was 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.”
And so DCPS hired Caveon, which found nothing wrong in DC. And, almost predictably, that first Caveon investigation became the linchpin for all that followed, from DC City Council Chairman David Catania’s giving it a “Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval” to Rhee’s and Henderson’s claims that the investigations vindicate them.
But let’s dig deeper into the surreal world that Caveon inhabits. Caveon President Fremer maintains that his firm did not conduct an investigation in the normal sense of the word because his firm does not conduct investigations. “We use the word ‘investigation’ in our materials because everyone else does,” he said, “but we do analysis, with the goal of process improvement and quality assurance.” Then he added, “We were not brought in to help DCPS with an analysis of what had happened.”
The contract was for a two-part project: a security audit and questioning of certain people at just eight DCPS schools (even though many more schools had been implicated). But, he emphasized again in our conversation, it was not an investigation because Caveon was hired to “review and collect information.” He told me, “I give advice as to where to focus attention. I am not trying to position a client to put people in jail. Instead, we give them enough information about problems to allow them to fix them in the future.”
The security audit, he said, consisted of examining DCPS’ policies and procedures around the testing. Caveon did not seek to find out if principals and teachers actually followed the rules, and so Caveon apparently did not inform Chancellor Rhee just how easy it would be to cheat on the DC-CAS before, during and after its administration. Caveon did make some recommendations to improve security–recommendations, he said, that DCPS did not follow.
Part Two of Caveon’s work–the questioning–is even more interesting. Dr. Fremer told me that DCPS gave him a list of the eight schools it was authorized to go into. DCPS also gave Caveon about 50 questions to ask of teachers, proctors, principals and assistant principals. He said DCPS indicated that Caveon was not to stray from the list. Follow-up questions, the essence of a good investigation, were actively discouraged, according to Dr. Fremer.
He told me that DCPS’ list of questions did not include “Did you see anyone erasing answers?” or “Did you participate…” or “Are you aware of organized erasures?” or “Are you aware of cheating?”
Dr. Fremer told me that his employees never use words like ‘cheating’ or ‘illegal behavior’ because they are ‘too emotional.’ Instead, he said, they asked individuals if they could explain huge discrepancies in wrong-to-right erasures between classrooms.
Caveon was contractually obligated to show DCPS drafts of the report before it was made final, which Dr. Fremer said was completely appropriate. “There was no pressure to ‘sweeten the sound’ of our report,” Dr. Fremer said. “We wanted DCPS to check for mistakes and make certain that we did not reveal the identities of individuals.”
Caveon sent DCPS its final report in February 2010, saying that it had not found evidence of cheating–which it had not been looking for, as Dr. Fremer explained.
Caveon I and II were Chancellor Rhee’s first foray into ‘investigation,’ and she and Henderson regularly cite the Caveon reports as evidence that all was well–because Caveon did not find cheating–which it was not looking for.
Next in this row of dominos is DC’s Inspector General Charles Willoughby, who leaned heavily upon Caveon’s report as he exonerated DCPS. If Caveon’s work was superficial, Inspector General Willoughby’s investigation was downright inept. Just how weak was Mr. Willoughby’s effort? As we reported on Frontline, the Inspector General’s investigation is remarkable for what it did not investigate. He chose not to investigate 2008, the year with the most erasures. He chose not to investigate Aiton, a school notable for its high rate of wrong to right erasures. He did not examine the test answer sheets or perform an electronic analysis. And he did not investigate J.O Wilson – a school with excessive WTR erasures in 100 percent of its classrooms – simply because Chancellor Henderson had assured him that it was a good school.
Although more than half of DC’s schools had been implicated, he focused only on Noyes Education Campus, the school that USA Today had made the centerpiece of its investigation. Over the course of 17 months, his team interviewed just 60administrators, teachers, parents and teachers, all from Noyes Education Campus. By contrast, Atlanta investigators interviewed over 2,000 people and reviewed 800,000 documents. Rather than seek outside experts as Atlanta investigators had, he relied heavily on information from Caveon, which had been, of course, in the employ of DCPS. He did not ask to perform erasure analysis but relied on interviews–sometimes conducted over the phone. And he produced a 17-page report, in sharp contrast to Atlanta’s (post-Caveon) 813-page report.
Without the power to put people under oath, he told City Councilman Kenyan McDuffie in February that he just asked them if they had cheated. If they said they hadn’t, that was the end of it, because, he explained, he “wasn’t conducting a fishing expedition.” Test monitors sent by the central office to patrol Noyes for the 2010 test told Mr. Willoughby that they had been barred from entering classrooms. School officials denied that charge–and Mr. Willoughby believed them, not the monitors.
At a DC City Council subcommittee hearing, Mr. McDuffie asked Mr. Willoughby why he had examined just one school, Noyes, and had not scrutinized other high-erasure schools. “Because we didn’t find evidence of a conspiracy to cheat at Noyes,” he replied, and because that was what was recommended to him. Was it prudent to take the word of firms that were paid by DCPS instead of seeking an outside, independent opinion and to rely on media reports, Mr. McDuffie asked. “Yes,” Mr. Willoughby replied.
Asked if he had tried to find an explanation for the pronounced test score drops when security was tightened, Mr. Willoughby replied, “We were told that it was caused by an influx of new students.” Mr. Willoughby found no evidence of widespread cheating at Noyes but cited some security concerns and noted that one teacher had been dismissed for coaching students on a test. The IG’s essential message: except for that one teacher, all was well.
Finally, there was the U.S. Department of Education’s Inspector General’s investigation, which leaned heavily upon Mr. Willoughby’s work when it reported in January, 2013, that “No information was obtained or developed during the course of the investigation that substantiated the allegation of false claims made to the federal government or confirmed widespread cheating on standardized tests.”
Rhee and Henderson defend their approach. The investigations “found that there was some cheating, but that it was isolated to only a few schools,” Rhee said in February, 2013. Henderson is proud of how she conducted the inquiries. “We have had six investigations that have cleared DCPS of widespread cheating,” she said in April, 2013. “I am frustrated because people are saying I haven’t done enough,” she told ABC News. “I have used every tool in my tool kit to get to the bottom of cheating.”
The exact opposite is true. Rhee’s and Henderson’s insistence on higher test scores created a climate that encouraged people to game the system. The adults who changed answers, coached students during testing, and shared exams before the tests were not thinking about their students, just themselves, their jobs, and the appearance of success. Kids were numbers, nothing more, nothing less. That is what Toch, once an aggressive reporter, should have told his readers, because Rhee and Henderson were stealing children’s opportunities to get a decent education.
The fantasy that top-down, data-driven, test-centric ‘reform’ works is perpetuated by articles like Tom Toch’s. Sadly, his piece has been widely distributed by the editorial pages of the Washington Post, influential blogger and co-founder of Democrats for Education Reform Whitney Tilson, and others.
Please share this, and our Washington Monthly rebuttal when it appears, with everyone you know who believes that public education ought to focus on children and youth, not test scores and adult aggrandizement.