Michelle Rhee Cheating Scandal: Partially Her Fault?*

Michelle Rhee is as controversial as ever when it comes to education. Supporters insist she makes tough decisions for schools and puts “students first.” Detractors argue that her emphasis on accountability does much more harm than good. However, both sides can agree — Michelle Rhee is a self-proclaimed data-driven reformer.

Her constant insistence on measures like tying teacher pay to test results is perhaps only slightly less vehement than her belief that her policies are the silver bullet to bring equity to public schools. But in a recent leaked memo containing details about initial inquiries into accusations of a D.C. cheating scandal in 2008, concerns have risen that her demands for transparency and her “no excuses” mentality don’t go quite as far as she would like us to believe.

In the memo, consultant Fay Sanford details suspicions that student test scores in 2008 were elevated due to high numbers of wrong-to-right erasures (WTR). For example, in one fourth grade class, 97% of the erasures made were WTR. In another seventh grade class, the average number of WTR erasures sat at 12.7 per student, compared to the district-wide average — less than one per student. The memo implicates 191 teachers in 70 DC schools — and even suggests the erasures could have been ordered by administrators. Despite Sanford’s request for a broader investigation, Rhee did not dig any deeper — in fact, denied having seen the memo at all — even though she has always promised transparency as one of the key factors for success.

Rhee’s lack of investigation into this matter throws up several red flags. First, if a student’s test scores were inflated by WTR erasures, causing that student to pass when she or he may have failed, that student would not have received remedial classes or tutoring — or any of the federal aid that goes towards these activities. If Rhee truly puts students first, would she not worry about these students shuffling along without the support and the funds they need to succeed?

Secondly, Rhee uses her success in D.C. public schools to support her policy agenda. On her bio page at Students First, we learn that, while chancellor, D.C. Public Schools saw “unprecedented growth,” and that “under [Rhee’s] leadership, the worst performing school district in the country became the only major city system to see double-digit growth in both their state reading and state math scores in seventh, eighth and tenth grades over three years.” Rhee’s credibility is based on this success. If that “unprecedented growth” was due in large part to WTR erasures, her voice as a leader in the education reform movement would lose much of its gusto.

Finally, the revelations about teacher and principal cheating reveal deep truths about the fear cultivated in schools by standardized testing. The Atlanta Public Schools cheating scandal is a testament to what happens in these high-pressure environments. Teachers in Atlanta feared to speak out against the cheating, afraid of being the next target for firing. Principals at schools that did not meet testing goals were replaced; 90 percent were gone in 10 years. One veteran teacher kept silent and went along with the WTR erasures because, as a single mother, she could not afford to lose her job. Rhee would like us to believe that merit pay creates a culture that makes teachers excited about their jobs.

In reality, add merit pay on top of a teacher’s already taxing work environment, and you have a perfect storm for stressed, over-worked teachers pushed to the extreme and fighting for their jobs. Again, Rhee’s rhetoric and the reality of public education are not in sync.

At best, Rhee’s lack of investigation into possible cheating is an oversight, a mere negligence. At worst, it paints a picture of severely misconceived education policy that overlooks the real needs of students and teachers. Until Rhee calls for further investigation, continuing to emphasize the success of merit pay, accountability, and standardized testing in the face of apparent failure is not putting students first — in fact, it is putting students last.

*Originally Published on April 18, 2013 at Policy Mic.

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