Michelle Rhee’s Potential DC Cheating Scandal

Michelle Rhee rose to prominence in the education reform ranks thanks in large part to methods that helped raise test scores in the perennially low-scoring Washington D.C. school district she oversaw as chancellor.

Her tough stance on low-performing schools and teachers, which included firing those whose students didn’t measure up on standardized tests, endeared her to reformers like Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan.

A Shining Star

Using a merit pay inspired bonus system to spur performance in both teachers and students, Rhee’s reforms seemed to work. Schools like Crosby S. Noyes Education Campus made spectacular gains on the standardized test used by the No Child Left Behind Law to measure student academic growth. In 2006, Noyes ranked in the 10% and was labeled a school “in need of improvement” but two years later ranked 58% and was one of Rhee’s “shining stars,” proof that her reform efforts worked.

Teachers at Noyes were rewarded with $8,000 bonuses and the principal received $10,000 on two different occasions within a three-year period. Parents, however, complained that the test scores made no sense. Their children still couldn’t perform basic math, but they were ignored. Test scores, after all, don’t lie.

But sometimes, teachers do.

Altering Test Answers

A recent examination of the tests given in Rhee’s former district has revealed that perhaps her incentives worked too well and not in a good way. Noyes students’ tests, for example, revealed a high number of erasure marks on the test sheets. A frequency higher than would be expected normally and always from an incorrect answer to a correct answer. In one Noyes seventh grade classroom, the average wrong to right erasure marks averaged 12.7 compared to a district wide average of less than 1. The odds of winning the Powerball, in fact, are greater than such an occurrence being merely chance.

At least half of the schools under Rhee’s tenure appear to suffer from the same higher than should be expected erasure problem. Taking into account what was at stake for teachers and principals, it evokes questions. Had some schools engaged in widespread answer changing to secure bonuses or jobs?

What Do You Think?

Rhee’s methods have been touted by no less than the White House. But what if the miraculous turnaround of schools under her charge was the result of cheating?

The current Education Secretary, Arne Duncan, came into his White House appointment under similar circumstances. His tenure as the superintendent of the Chicago Public schools system supposedly resulted in widespread improvement based on test scores that turned out to be questionable.

If the “reformers” aren’t really reforming, why has no one put the brakes on the dismantling of public education? Even NCLB has fallen far short of it’s promise without anyone questioning the wisdom of allowing it to be the law of the land.

What do you think? Are we doing our children good, or harm, by jumping on every bandwagon and following every reformer without first testing their theories on a smaller scale to see if they have merit? What should we be doing?


photo from: erase by a loves dc

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L. Jamie C.
L. Jamie C.4 years ago

Redefine tests, rethink and redesign them so they can reflect the students effrots and preparation. Tests are a big part of LEARNING and should be welcomed by students. When teachers can incorporate "tests" in their teaching, the students will then acquire the learning skills tailored to fit and maximize their individual style.

Marilyn L.
Marilyn L.4 years ago

Neither Duncan or Rhee seem to have a clue and neither does President Obama. If he wanted to get serious about education he should have attended (yes him not an appointee) the first Teaching Summit in New York. He might have gotten a clue.

Ad Du
Ad Du4 years ago

Are there any university professors involved in changing the school standards and system in the USA ? This country has Princeton, Harvard, Berkeley, Yale, MIT, Stanford etc.

A young man from a poor country went to Paris and got his PhD there - 1878, proving for the first time (after two results to the contrary) that planetary orbits were NOT stable in the long run. Returned home, he became Minister of Education and reformed his country's educational system, reportedly by basing it on the French model.

Not long afterwards - in 1959 - his country had the nerve to challenge the world to the introduction of the IMO, where it held its ground pretty well, in competition with the world's giants at the time.

Where are your giants, America ? Why are they not visible ? Why are they not heard ? They lack "common sense" ?

"Spiru C. Haret (15 February 1851 – 17 December 1912) was a Romanian-Armenian mathematician, astronomer and politician. He made a fundamental contribution to the n-body problem in celestial mechanics by proving that using a third degree approximation for the disturbing forces implies instability of the major axes of the orbits, and by introducing the concept of secular perturbations in relation to this.
As a politician, during his three terms as Minister of Education, Haret ran deep reforms, building the modern Romanian education system. He was made a full member of the Romanian Academy in 1892.


Silvia H.
Silvia H.4 years ago

The problem is a lot more complex, but I will say a couple of things: teaching to the test is not teaching; incentives for teachers to raise tests scores are not working because after all teachers are humans and have mortgages, bills to pay and a family to maintain; pitying younger teacher against older teachers is a mistake, it is like blaming senior workers on the state of the company; top-down reforms without taking into considerations teachers and parents and anybody who is actually working with the kids is just a mistake; running a school like a business is a bigger one.

Michelle Rhee failed to do her job because she does not understand all the above issues; she is barking at the wrong tree, but she has an ego and the media has fed into that ego. She should follow Diane Ratvich's path who have had no problem recognizing she made mistakes.

William Y.
William Y.4 years ago

Get rid of standardized tests and go back to teaching basics.

Marie W.
Marie W.4 years ago

Its multiple problems and most of them start with the parents...

Shar F.
Sharon F.4 years ago

Ms Rhee is another Palin, Bachmann & Pawlenty wrapped into one troublemaker.

Why all the discussion of teacher quality? Why nothing said about the incompetent, bloated US military who cannot end a war after ten years??

Sound Mind
Ronald E.4 years ago

Ill defined goals will lead to this kind of abuse. I always scored high on tests but believe half of them are just plain stupid. In this instance, ALL of them are.

Ann L.
Ann Lawrence4 years ago

It's reassuring that so many here could read/ comprehend/evaluate the article. Education works. We need to get through to the "decision makers"--education is not defined by test scores.

Will W.
Will Will4 years ago

Of course is people are given an incentive to cheat the system the probably will and the system needs to be designed to prevent that. We cannot just expect people to be honorable when when incentivize them not to be.

Measuring real educational progress is always going to be a complicated task.