by David Safier
Michelle Rhee is the tough-as-nails, take-no-prisoners ex-Chancellor of DC schools who became a conservative icon for creating dramatic increases in test scores during her tenure. The problem is, there have been serious allegations of cheating on standardized tests when she headed the school district, which Rhee adamantly denies. Now, a secret 2009 memo has surfaced where the person Rhee picked to investigate the possible cheating, Fay G. Sanford, wrote that more likely than not, there was systematic, widespread cheating at some DC schools.
Here's the memo, which is headed "Sensitive Information–Treat as Confidential." Sanford warns the recipients, "Don't make hard copies and leave them around." She knew the memo would be a bombshell if it got out. Rhee has never mentioned the memo, and when the journalist who just published it talked to Rhee, she claims she doesn't remember it, which means we can add "probable liar" to her resume. Sorry, no one forgets reading a memo like that.
In the memo, Sanford says evidence points to 191 teachers at 70 schools who very possibly erased students' wrong answers and bubbled in right answers. As an example, she cites Aiton Elementary where staff members were given hefty performance bonuses for their students' high test scores. Sanford says in some classes, student tests have an average of 6 to 7 wrong-to-right erasures while the district average is more like 2. She gives more statistical data that makes it look very unlikely these third to sixth graders made the erasures themselves.
Rhee's story of raising student achievement in one of the nation's lowest achieving districts is referred to regularly by conservatives to show that a tough school leader who rides roughshod over unions and fires non-performing principals and teachers can make great things happen. But if the whole story is a lie based on cheating — as has been considered likely by many people for years, given the evidence — the story falls apart.
After Rhee lost her job as DC chancellor, she began a group called Students First, a high profile, well funded nonprofit. She's closely allied with all the heavy hitters in the conservative "education reform" movement. They hope they can protect the reputation of one of the few among them who has actually been a K-12 educator, let alone someone who has shown dramatic results. Put the story of cheating during Rhee's tenure together with the recent indictments of 35 people in a huge test cheating scandal in Atlanta, and the validity of all these stories of dramatic improvement — and the idea of putting so much faith in test scores which can be so easily manipulated — come into question.