If a prominent urban school leader told you he couldn’t recall being informed that half his city’s schools may have allowed the gross mistreatment of students to occur, would you believe him? And even if you did, would you still want him in charge of your children?
Now imagine that the leader in question is not just prominent locally, but nationally as well. Imagine that this individual has appeared on the cover of iconic news magazines and been interviewed on Oprah’s iconic couch. And imagine that this person has come to embody a singular approach to determining the effectiveness of schools and teachers — the rationale for which would be challenged if the allegations of mistreatment were ever proven to be true.
Would you want to know if any actual wrongdoing had occurred?
This is not a hypothetical question, but an actual one we can apply to the nation’s capital, and to our nation’s most visible school reformer, Michelle Rhee. It is, therefore, a question fraught with potential implications for how we think about (and assess) modern American education reform. And it’s a question that has been given new life in the wake of PBS reporter John Merrow’s publication of a confidential memo in which an outside consultant suggested that as many as 191 teachers, scattered across nearly half the city’s public schools, may have erased and corrected their students’ answers on the city’s high-stakes standardized test, the DC-CAS, in 2008.
No one in a position of authority to inquire further is doing so — yet. Both D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray and David Catania, the chairman of the D.C. Council’s education committee, say they do not plan to reinvestigate — even though all previous investigations forbade any sort of erasure analysis or an examination of the original answer sheets. Rhee herself, a self-described “data fiend,” stands by her original statement: “I don’t recall receiving a report … regarding erasure data from the DC-CAS.”
The significance of a potentially uninvestigated cheating scandal in Washington extends beyond the personal reputation of Rhee. Other cities across the country have already suffered their own scandals, including El Paso and Atlanta. Increasing numbers of parents are opting their children out of standardized tests as a form of civil disobedience to what they see as the deleterious results of the high-stakes testing era. And anyone who spends serious time in schools knows how many educators are struggling to stay motivated in a policy climate that, albeit unintentionally, disincentivizes them from valuing anything other than literacy and numeracy.
If no subsequent investigation occurs, we will be witness in Washington, D.C., to what happens when powerful people try to sweep uncomfortable subjects under the rug. Ironically, however, Atlanta has demonstrated what happens when the opposite occurs — and courageous public officials, combined with a watchful free press, commit to uncover the truth, whatever it may be. As Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal, a Republican, put it: “When test results are falsified and students who have not mastered the necessary material are promoted, our students are harmed, parents lose sight of their child’s true progress, and taxpayers are cheated.”
Deal’s investigative team was equally forceful: “Superintendent Beverly Hall and her senior staff knew, or should have known, that cheating and other offenses were occurring,” they wrote in their 813-page report — a report based on interviews with more than 2,000 people and a review of more than 800,000 documents. “A culture of fear and conspiracy of silence infected (the) school system and kept many teachers from speaking freely about misconduct.” As a lead member of the Atlanta investigative team told Merrow this year, “There’s not a shred of doubt in my mind that adults cheated in Washington. The big difference is that nobody in D.C. wanted to know the truth.”
Whether or not widespread cheating occurred in 2008 should matter greatly to all of us, even in 2013. What matters more is whether we are willing to find out. Because when we lose the courage and the curiosity to inquire deeply into our own practices — and the unintended consequences they may reap — we lose the capacity to reimagine education for a changing world.
Sam Chaltain is a senior fellow at the Institute for Democratic Education in America. He writes about K-12 education reform for Education Week, CNN and The Huffington Post. firstname.lastname@example.org