Anyone who has ever spent time reporting on anything that is protracted, especially scandals and litigation, understand these two things. The first? That everyone involved has some sort of ax to grind because they all have something to gain or lose. [This is why journalists and media types must also keep themselves from being in the position of either glorified stenographers or verbal arms dealers in these situations; there is rarely a side of the angels to be had.] The second? The first adage is especially true when it comes to anything involving torts or litigation, even whistle-blower suits in which the person exposing a crime likely participated in the misbehavior themselves, yet stand to profit from the allegations being tossed around. Such situations are clearly one of those times for the apt old journalism rule of asking someone if their mother loves them and how do they know it.
This is why I have viewed everything surrounding questions over allegations of cheating in D.C. Public Schools under the watch of Michelle Rhee with skepticism. On one side, traditionalists, who view Rhee as the second coming of the Anti-Christ, want to grasp on to anything that proves their perspective. On the other hand, Rhee and her successor, Kaya Henderson, also have plenty of reasons to not make more light of allegations of high levels of test erasures — or changes to student answers on tests made by teachers — at 14 D.C. schools. The players at hand, along with the facts at play, leaves no one with the ability to make what litigators love to call a prima facie for or against Rhee on this.
So I am just as skeptical about both the allegations leveled this week by Adell Cothorne, a former D.C. principal who now runs a cupcake shop out of Ellicott City, Md., who claims that the school district’s inspector general hasn’t actively looked into her Qui Tam complaint filed nearly two years ago — and the responses from those who support Rhee and dismiss Cothorne’s allegations of “systemic” test-cheating. A key interview in the documentary on Rhee broadcast earlier this week by the PBS show Frontline, Cothorne alleges in her suit that she “personally observed” three teachers at Noyes Elementary School engage in such actions as leaving open test booklets for the latest round of the District’s exams, then found herself frustrated by both school leaders she oversaw at the school as well as by Wayne Ryan, her predecessor as principal of the school who was also Cothorne’s supervisor. Her story has proven to be both grist for the mill of traditionalists who enjoy any opportunity to take shots as Rhee, as well as discomforting to Rhee and her allies.
Yet as Washington City Paper‘s Alan Suderman has pointed out, Cothorne has left out the fact that while the district’s inspector general didn’t investigate her claims, the U.S. Department of Education most certainly did. In fact, the federal agency was working with the district on investigating those allegations, which they ultimately concluded there wasn’t enough evidence to prove. This doesn’t exactly render Cothorne’s allegations as fiction, and it doesn’t mean that there wasn’t cheating at Noyes Elementary under Cothorne’s predecessor’s watch. In fact, it doesn’t even suggest that there wasn’t cheating at any of those schools at all. At the same time, as seen in the test-cheating scandal that continues to engulf Atlanta Public Schools, it is hard to keep the lid on any massive fraud — especially when it involves someone such as Rhee, who is not exactly beloved among former D.C. teachers and school leaders who have no reason to stay silent. The fact that the estimable (even when he’s wrong) John Merrow, who produced the documentary, couldn’t get former employees who worked at Noyes and other schools to state anything on the record (and would only talk “off the record”) does suggest that some aren’t willing to talk publicly because they would implicate themselves in unethical behavior.
There’s also the matter of a profit motive for Cothorne, in the form of the 15 percent-to-30 percent payout that Cothorne would have received as a whistle-blower as a result of any charges and civil claims lobbed against the district for alleged test cheating. Cothorne’s share of Race to the Top funds alone if her whistle-blower claim was successful would have led to a payout of between $11.3 million and $22.5 million. This fact, left out of the discussion so far about Cothorne’s allegations, is one that should be considered.
Yet the questions surrounding Cothorne’s allegations don’t let Rhee or Henderson off the hook. The fact is that publications such as USA Today have detected overly high levels of test erasures is one that neither have addressed to anyone reasonable person’s satisfaction; the data is at least that clear. The fact that the investigation by the district’s inspector general hasn’t extended beyond Noyes is also a problem. Certainly there may have not been an orchestrated conspiracy to engage in pumping up test scores. More than likely, laggard teachers and school leaders who realized they couldn’t hack it under increased scrutiny of their performance decided to take the easy way out, and in the process, cheated children out of accurate assessment of their knowledge that they need in order to get the remediation they deserve. But in remaining silent (and giving the appearance of nefarious wrongdoing when it may not be so), Rhee and Henderson aid and abet those failures. At the same time, their silence gives tacit support to arguments by traditionalists that standardized testing should not be used in evaluating teachers or for systemic reform (even when, as seen this week from American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten and others critical of the state education policy report card issued by Rhee’s StudentsFirst, find it convenient to use test score data for their own purposes).
More importantly, the lack of strong statements from Rhee and Henderson about the alleged test cheating also casts a dark cloud on what both can claim to be successes in crafting policies and practices that will help D.C. children get high-quality teachers and strong, comprehensive college-preparatory curricula for decades to come. The IMPACT teacher evaluation program launched under Rhee and refined under Henderson exemplifies the comprehensive teacher evaluation system that other districts and states should build upon. But the test cheating allegations cast a cloud over those successes — and makes it harder for reformers to do the work needed to help all children succeed.
So your editor is back at square one on the D.C. test-cheating affair: Skeptical and plain skeptical about both sides. You should be skeptical too. I guess I’m supposed to call for more candor from everyone involved. But I’ve been around long enough to know that it’s more likely to lead to more noise from all sides and that’s not useful. What we need, instead, are more objective facts.