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New allegations of test impropriety under Michelle Rhee in Washington DC follow 35 criminal indictments in nation’s largest ever cheating scandal in Atlanta

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JAISAL NOOR, PRODUCER, TRNN: As testing season is again underway for hundreds of thousands of public school students across the country, allegations of widespread cheating continue to rock several major school districts. Teachers and administrators who falsified test scores received cash bonuses because it appeared they were raising student achievement. While educators were rewarded, in some cases struggling schools lost money and resources.

Most recently in Washington, D.C., a newly released document has some renewing calls for investigations into alleged cheating during the reign of former chancellor Michelle Rhee. In the just leaked 2009 confidential memo, consultant Sandy Sanford warns Rhee of possible cheating involving 191 teachers at 70 D.C. schools. She had previously maintained there were no indications of widespread cheating during her tenure. Since leaving D.C. public schools, Rhee has become a leading proponent of corporate education reform and has lobbied dozens of states to adopt policies, like ranking teachers based on student test scores. John Merrow, president of Learning Matters and education correspondent for PBS’s NewsHour released the document.

JOHN MERROW, PRESIDENT, LEARNING MATTERS: The issue really is what did the Chancellor do when she got this information. And the answer is she did nothing. So there are a couple of issues here. Once is the alleged crime of erasing student answers on the standardized tests to boost scores. It seems pretty clear that that happened. And that’s a crime. I mean, that’s—means that some kids got falsified scores. They were told they were proficient when in fact they needed remedial help. That’s one.

The second is covering it up, not investigating. Now, my wife is a school principal, and she’s my role model. And I know that if someone brought her credible evidence that someone on her faculty might be cheating, she would be on that like white on rice or whatever the cliche is. That didn’t happen in DCPS. They chose to look the other way.

NOOR: In response, Rhee has said she doesn’t remember seeing the report. Merrow says he has reason to doubt Rhee’s claim.

MERROW: If you have look at the memo, it’s four pages, and all over it are confidential, don’t send this around. I mean, it’s not the kind of memo that you would not remember. And not only that, I have it from a reliable source that she and Deputy Chancellor Kaya Henderson discussed the memo in meetings. So that’s simply not credible for her to say she doesn’t recall it.

NOOR: The D.C. City Council has indicated it’s unwilling to re-open an investigation into Rhee’s tenure. As she has noted, she’s been cleared in two previous investigations into the alleged cheating. Rhee now heads StudentsFirst, an organization that lobbies to replicate her record in D.C. in dozens of states across the country by pushing policies such increasing test-based accountability, closing so-called failing schools, and expanding publicly funded but privately managed charter schools.

John Merrow says the memo should prompt a reevaluation of Rhee’s track record five years after she became chancellor of D.C. Public Schools.

MERROW: So you can now look at D.C. public schools and see whether her approach to fixing schools works. I mean, my children went to public schools in Washington. So it’s sad, it’s tragic to say that by almost every conceivable measure the public schools of Washington, D.C., are worse today than they were when Michelle Rhee arrived in 2007. It has the lowest graduation rate in the nation. Truancy is epidemic. Teachers churn. It’s a revolving door for teachers. A teacher coming in now stays two years. Nationally the average is between three and five. It’s principal churn.

Now, poor kids need stability. Schools are maybe a rock. Not in Washington, D.C. Test scores are down. The gap between white and black is wider. The central office which she made a big deal about shrinking is in fact larger today than when she arrived.

So you have direct evidence of whether Michelle Rhee produce-or-else approach works. It doesn’t.

NOOR: The newly leaked memo in D.C. comes on the heels of the largest cheating scandal in U.S. history. Thirty-five Atlanta educators, including former Atlanta superintendent Beverly Hall, were recently criminally indicted for orchestrating a massive cheating ring, where for years educators corrected students’ incorrect answers. The cheating made it appear the Atlanta school system was showing remarkable growth under Hall’s leadership. Principals and administrators were awarded hundreds of thousands of dollars in bonuses. Hall and the other accused say they’re innocent and have vowed to fight the charges.

Bob Schaeffer is with the education nonprofit FairTest, who for years has warned high-stakes testing creates an atmosphere that promotes cheating.

ROBERT SCHAEFFER, BOARD OF DIRECTORS, FAIRTEST: Well, it’s a sad situation that so many educational leaders in Atlanta cheated students out of education in order to boost test scores. But unfortunately what took place in Atlanta is nowhere near unusual. It’s more like the tip of an iceberg, that our new studies show that in the last four school years, cheating cases have been confirmed in 37 states in the District of Columbia, and that in about a dozen of those jurisdictions the cheating cases have been systematic and widespread.

And so it’s important when you have an epidemic like that to see what the cause is. And the root cause appears to be the gross overemphasis on high-stakes testing to make life-and-death decisions about students, teachers, and schools which have been imposed from the top down by politicians and their corporate and foundation allies and set schools up for failure or to cheat because they’re required to boost scores by degrees that have never been obtained in the real world.

NOOR: While educators in those schools received large cash bonuses, in some cases their schools lost hundreds of thousands of dollars. That’s because the artificially increased test scores made it appear the schools were no longer struggling. Therefore they no longer qualified for extra funding to help struggling students. The New York Times reported one Atlanta school, Parks Middle, lost $750,000 alone. Again, Bob Schaeffer of FairTest:

SCHAEFFER: Students are the biggest losers from cheating. In the case you cited, one school’s scores increased so much that it lost three-quarters of a million dollars in additional federal aid, money that could have been used to help kids who were really way behind, and instead the principal was lauded for boosting test scores, and the kids were left even further behind. It’s ridiculous.

There’s even a worse case in El Paso, which hasn’t gotten anywhere the coverage of Atlanta. There the superintendent of schools is in federal prison, having plea-bargained with the FDI, who found out that he was orchestrating a scheme to lock out low-scoring kids, generally second-language Mexican-American immigrant kids from enrolling in schools because they bring down average scores.

NOOR: Some, like Bruce Dixon of Black Agenda Report, argue that while both former Atlanta superintendent Hall and D.C. Chancellor Rhee both actively worked to privatize public schools, cheating scandals like the one in Atlanta provide an opportunity to greatly discredit and undermine the institution of public education.

BRUCE DIXON, MANAGING EDITOR, BLACK AGENDA REPORT: What Beverly Hall and Michelle Rhee have in common is that they both ran big-city school systems. But Michelle Rhee had distinguished herself early as being an ideological spear-carrier for the corporate drive for so-called valued-added testing and data-driven academic decision-making, all of which were corporate jargon for running schools like a business, and ultimately privatizing schools.

Beverly Hall, on the other hand, represents an older generation. Beverly Hall is old enough to be Michelle Rhee’s mother, okay? She represents an older generation of black educators who just want to go along and collect their six-figure salaries and that’s it.

Beverly Hall, during her time in Atlanta, has gone for every piece of corporate-inspired nonsense that the Chamber of Commerce and the mayor’s office have thrown her way, all sorts of ridiculous testing schemes and teacher evaluation process. Beverly Hall was even instrumental in diverting hundreds of millions yearly in property taxes that should go to Atlanta public schools to a gentrification scheme that the mayor and the Chamber of Commerce are behind called the Belt Line.

Beverly Hall has been giving the Chamber of Commerce and giving the mayor’s office and giving the corporate education deformers everything they wanted. But at some point they must have realized that a willing tool for a superintendent still doesn’t give them a crisis.

NOOR: Grassroots groups who have called for boycotts of high-stakes tests say such cheating scandals validate their arguments that these tests hurt children. The two-month-old teacher-led test boycott is continuing in Seattle, and this week in New York hundreds of parents have vowed to opt out their kids from taking high-stakes tests.

Reporting for The Real News, this is Jaisal Noor in New York.


DISCLAIMER: Please note that transcripts for The Real News Network are typed from a recording of the program. TRNN cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.

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Jaisal is currently the Democracy Initiative Manager at the Solutions Journalism Network and is a former TRNN host, producer, and reporter. He mainly grew up in the Baltimore area and studied modern history at the University of Maryland, College Park. Before joining TRNN, he contributed print, radio, and TV reports to Free Speech Radio News, Democracy Now! and The Indypendent. Jaisal's mother has taught in the Baltimore City Public School system for the past 25 years. Follow him on Twitter @jaisalnoor.