Rhee Cheating Sh*tstorm: Part I

There was an intensely-guarded internal memo about possible cheating on the DC CAS during Michelle Rhee’s tenure as chancellor in Washington, DC. After nearly five years, the memo has been freed. Learning Matters reporter John Merrow had been trying to get it for a long time. The work he has done in the run-up to this has been fantastic.

The memo in question is an internal DCPS communication summarizing the results of studies conducted by outside organizations hired to look into test irregularities indicative of cheating on DC’s city-wide test, the DC CAS, in 2008. The memo discussed the results of the reports, reviewed possible implications of the findings, and urged secrecy. It also began to map a strategy for moving ahead.

You should read it for yourself so I’m not cherry-picking quotes for you, but it seems clear the writer deems the existence of this information an emergency and warns of different ways it could break badly. It’s 4 pages long and interesting to read. Merrow spent a long time trying to get this. You can spend two minutes reading it. Think of it as a primary source you would want your students to read.

The memo provides evidence that cheating on the DC CAS was very likely much more widespread than had been known or reported up to that time. Michelle Rhee and her inner circle, including current chancellor Kaya Henderson, were given the names of 191 teachers at 70 different schools who had probably cheated on the tests. But they did nothing and kept quiet.

The two quotes I will provide from the memo are these. In the things-we-better-start-thinking-about section of the memo, # 2 warns that this “could be devastating with regard to our reported [DC CAS] gains in 2008.” Those schools had amazing gains in test scores. They were awarded enormous cash bonuses. They put the pictures of those principals on the sides of city buses. Yes. This could all turn out very, very bad.

In the things-we-better-do-right-now section, #1 is “That we keep this Erasure study really close hold. No more people in the know than necessary until we have more conclusive results.” This is responsible advice. The person who wrote the memo doesn’t sound like a political hack. The problem is that the “more conclusive results” were never found. The choice was made not to look for them, and it seems everybody tried to forget what they had learned.

My instinct tells me that, under normal circumstances, Michelle Rhee might find the idea of catching a bunch of teachers breaking the rules and being able to fire them rather pleasing, even erotic. But circumstances in November 2008 were not normal. She turned this city upside down, but she was delivering on her promise: Test scores were up. If that disappeared in the wreckage of a cheating scandal, her power would have taken a pounding. It might have stopped her cold very early in the game. Michelle Rhee’s interests would be hurt the most by this. So the memo was buried.

But now it’s back.

I stay up late, but I bet Michelle Rhee and the folks in the office at DCPS will be up even later. This is going to be a cage match. And the bell just rang…

Mr. Teachbad

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