Cheating for “Superman”


Few figures loom larger in the effort to corporatize education than former District of Columbia Schoosl Chancellor Michelle Rhee. Relentlessly self-promoting, Rhee has pushed a simple formula for education reform: just break the teachers’ unions, force out “bad” teachers (as measured by test scores), and everything will be super-awesome. Rhee has relentlessly touted and been touted for her successes in Washington, and since resigning last year, she’s been working to raise $1 billion to fight teachers’ unions, as well as advising Florida Gov. Rick Scott on education reform.

When union-supporting thugs like me point out that Rhee’s formula seems to be  “1. Bust Unions, 2. ???, 3. Profit!”, Rhee’s defenders (including Davis Guggenheim, who featured her in Waiting for “Superman;” and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie) point to her successes in Washington, and simply argue that Rhee’s track record – as measured by test scores – speaks for itself.

Except, well, there’s a problem with Rhee’s track record. It turns out that it may have been the result, not of Rhee’s brilliant leadership, but of cheating:

In just two years, Crosby S. Noyes Education Campus went from a school deemed in need of improvement to a place that the District of Columbia Public Schools called one of its “shining stars.”

Standardized test scores improved dramatically. In 2006, only 10% of Noyes’ students scored “proficient” or “advanced” in math on the standardized tests required by the federal No Child Left Behind law. Two years later, 58% achieved that level. The school showed similar gains in reading.

Because of the remarkable turnaround, the U.S. Department of Education named the school in northeast Washington a National Blue Ribbon School. Noyes was one of 264 public schools nationwide given that award in 2009.

Michelle Rhee, then chancellor of D.C. schools, took a special interest in Noyes. She touted the school, which now serves preschoolers through eighth-graders, as an example of how the sweeping changes she championed could transform even the lowest-performing Washington schools. Twice in three years, she rewarded Noyes’ staff for boosting scores: In 2008 and again in 2010, each teacher won an $8,000 bonus, and the principal won $10,000.

A closer look at Noyes, however, raises questions about its test scores from 2006 to 2010. Its proficiency rates rose at a much faster rate than the average for D.C. schools. Then, in 2010, when scores dipped for most of the district’s elementary schools, Noyes’ proficiency rates fell further than average.

A USA TODAY investigation, based on documents and data secured under D.C.’s Freedom of Information Act, found that for the past three school years most of Noyes’ classrooms had extraordinarily high numbers of erasures on standardized tests. The consistent pattern was that wrong answers were erased and changed to right ones.

Now, Rhee’s defenders may counter that Noyes’ cheating isn’t Rhee’s fault. And in some sense, they may be right – Rhee did create a pattern where she rewarded test scores above everything else, fired principals and teachers for not meeting ludicrous goals, and financially rewarded them for making questionable gains. But there’s no evidence that she herself was erasing and correcting answers.

Still, a school chancellor who cared more about her students than test scores would want to get to the bottom of something like this immediately. After all, if test scores say a child is proficient when they aren’t, they’re not going to get the kind of help they actually need to succeed. Surely, Rhee jumped all over this, right?

SA TODAY examined testing irregularities in the District of Columbia’s public schools because, under Rhee, the system became a national symbol of what high expectations and effective teaching could accomplish. Federal money also was at play: Last year, D.C. won an extra $75 million for public and charter schools in the U.S. government’s Race to the Top competition. Test scores were a factor.

USA TODAY initially looked at Noyes only because of its high erasure rates. Later, the newspaper found that Wayne Ryan, the principal from 2001 to 2010, and the school had been touted as models by district officials. They were the centerpiece of the school system’s recruitment ads in 2008 and 2009, including at least two placed in Principal magazine.

“Noyes is one of the shining stars of DCPS,” one ad said. It praised Ryan for his “unapologetic focus on instruction” and asked would-be job applicants, “Are you the next Wayne Ryan?”


In 2008, the office of the State Superintendent of Education recommended that the scores of many schools be investigated because of unusually high gains, but top D.C. public school officials balked and the recommendation was dropped.

Well, of course. Because Noyes was getting the results Rhee wanted. She didn’t want to investigate because an investigation might show that her gains were ephemeral. She didn’t want to investigate because it might wreck the narrative. In 2009, after another round of questions, the district ran a cursory investigation, but there’s no evidence they were digging too hard.

After the 2009 tests, the school district hired an outside investigator to look at eight D.C. public schools — one of them was Noyes, USA TODAY learned – and to interview some teachers.

John Fremer, president of Caveon Consulting Services, the company D.C. hired, says the investigations were limited. The teachers were asked what they knew about the erasure rates but not whether cheating had taken place, Fremer says. They told Caveon that they “did what they were supposed to do and they didn’t do anything wrong,” he says.

And lest one think that this is a practice limited to Noyes, there questions at other schools as well.

McGraw-Hill’s practice is to flag only the most extreme examples of erasures. To be flagged, a classroom had to have so many wrong-to-right erasures that the average for each student was 4 standard deviations higher than the average for all D.C. students in that grade on that test. In layman’s terms, that means a classroom corrected its answers so much more often than the rest of the district that it could have occurred roughly one in 30,000 times by chance. D.C. classrooms corrected answers much more often.

In 2008, the Office of the State Superintendent of Education (OSSE) – the D.C. equivalent of a state education department — asked McGraw-Hill to do erasure analysis in part because some schools registered high percentage point gains in proficiency rates on the April 2008 tests.

Among the 96 schools that were then flagged for wrong-to-right erasures were eight of the 10 campuses where Rhee handed out so-called TEAM awards “to recognize, reward and retain high-performing educators and support staff,” as the district’s website says. Noyes was one of these.

Rhee bestowed more than $1.5 million in bonuses on principals, teachers and support staff on the basis of big jumps in 2007 and 2008 test scores.

At three of the award-winning schools – Phoebe Hearst Elementary, Winston Education Campus and Aiton Elementary – 85% or more of classrooms were identified as having high erasure rates in 2008. At four other schools, the percentage of classrooms in that category ranged from 17% to 58%.

Now, Rhee’s defenders will no doubt point out that there could be innocent explanations for all this. Maybe the teachers were coaching students to erase excessively, to change answers repeatedly. It’s possible. It was also possible that Bernie Madoff really was earning the kind of returns he was reporting. It’s just passing unlikely.

And ultimately, it was students in Washington who paid the price. Parents who might have had concerns about their children were given information that said they shouldn’t worry. There were, no doubt, students whose parents may have tried to coach them in math or reading who didn’t, because their test scores showed they were doing fine. Sure, it doesn’t seem like little Johnny or Susie is proficient in addition, but the test scores say they are – so why worry about that?

This won’t dent Rhee’s reputation among those who have been pushing her star aloft. After all, Rhee’s argument – that unions are all that prevents us from having a perfect education system – is perfectly in sync with the thinking of Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, or Ohio Gov. John Kasich. The fact that her best results are now under an ethical cloud won’t matter to people who want to marginalize public unions or a party whose presidential candidates are openly attacking the very idea of public education.

But to those of us who care about the education of the next generation, this should give us pause. Because it’s not just Rhee’s love affair with breaking unions that this scandal calls into question. The fact is that when we make high-stakes testing the only measure of educational achievement, we guarantee that some schools will cheat to meet the arbitrary bars of “success” that we create for them.

I’m not saying that we should eliminate standardized testing. Useful data can come from it. But standardized testing is not the end-all and be-all of educational measurements. As a parent, I’ve never gotten any information on my daughter’s standardized tests that was a shock or surprise to me. I have heard information from her teachers, however, that has spurred her mother and I to action. Why? Because her teachers know her far more than a computer possibly can.

I care about my daughter’s education. And I certainly want to improve the quality of our nation’s education system. But the answers to that are not simple, not easy, and don’t begin and end with punishing teachers. Rhee represents the worst impulses of the current education reform movement, but she’s far from alone. If we as a society want to truly improve education, we need to start asking tough questions, and passing on too-easy solutions. After all, that’s what we were taught to do in school.