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PBS Ombudsman

Michelle Rhee: Reformer, Zealot, Both or Something Else?

This past Tuesday evening, Jan. 8, PBS's top-rated documentary series Frontline, focused its cameras and its veteran education correspondent, John Merrow, on a now 43-year-old Korean-American woman named Michelle Rhee. She was the chancellor of the Washington, D.C., public school system for three years, from 2007 to 2010.

She was not at all well-known before then, but during those years she became the national face of a committed, confident, students-first, take-no-prisoners type of school reform aimed at fixing one of the nation's worst public school systems.

She — and her approach to teachers, principals, school staffers, administrators, politicians and, I would add, self-promotion — also became, and remain, enormously controversial, as do the results of her efforts. Since resigning when her chief supporter, former DC Mayor Adrian Fenty lost his re-election bid, she founded an organization in California called StudentsFirst, a non-profit, tax-exempt political advocacy organization which works on education issues such as ending teacher tenure. That has also become controversial. She has many supporters and perhaps even more, or at least more vocal, critics.

One snippet of the program, for me, seemed to capture at least the personality argument surrounding Rhee quite dramatically. It shows her, with a film crew in the room at her invitation, carrying out a sudden and fairly brutal dismissal of a principal (whose face is not shown) with the final words: "No, I'm terminating your principalship now." Then Rhee's biographer, Richard Whitmire, says: "Who would do that? Would you think that was a good idea, to fire a principal on camera, even if you can't see the principal's face? And I think the answer is just kind of a zealot, someone who so strongly believes that kids are getting cheated . . ."

The hour-long program, "The Education of Michelle Rhee," as might be expected, stirred up a lot of heated controversy because nobody, it seems, is neutral about Rhee. A lot of that is on display in blogs, chats, letters and interviews posted on the Frontline website. The episode did not generate a great deal of mail to the ombudsman, which surprised me. But in thinking about that, I feel it may be because viewers generally felt Frontline and Merrow actually did quite a good and fair job of reporting on a very volatile subject. I thought people on all sides of the Rhee controversy had their say, including Rhee, and the questioning was tough and blunt where it had to be.

But what did happen that pulled me into this are two reactions. In order to understand these reactions, however, you need to know a couple of things.

While much of the Michelle Rhee era was covered by Merrow in numerous segments over the years on the PBS NewsHour, with Rhee providing extraordinary access to Merrow and his cameras, the Frontline segment included, for the first time, an interview with a former DC elementary school principal, Adell Cothrone, who suggested that some cheating — in the form of numerous erasures from wrong to right on standardized tests — seemed to be going on to raise those scores dramatically and, along with it, the reputation of the schools, teachers, principals and Rhee, and make them eligible for bonuses and raises in some cases.

There had been previous reporting and questioning by news organizations about the validity of the test scores during Rhee's tenure, especially a 2011 investigation by USA Today and a number of articles and commentaries in The Washington Post.

Cothrone's interview provoked a strong reaction and statement from Kaya Henderson, the current DC school chancellor who had been Rhee's deputy chief. In that reaction, Henderson claims PBS "did not give DCPS the opportunity to respond to these specific allegations" among other things. The other reaction came from a particularly detailed "open letter" to me from a DC parent, Melanie Davis. Both Henderson and Davis also make reference to an investigation by the U.S. Department of Education. But the department's findings were not released until the day before the Frontline broadcast aired.

It is actually difficult to sort through all of this. But what follows is the Henderson statement and a response from Frontline Managing Editor Phil Bennett. Then comes Davis' letter followed by a response from correspondent Merrow. That makes for a long column. But that's the way it is in what strikes me as a program worth watching and critical exchanges worth reading.

Here's the Statement by DCPS Chancellor Kaya Henderson

Adell Cothorne was employed at DCPS from August 2010 to July 2011. During that time, she served as the principal at Noyes Education Campus. As has been widely reported in the press, Noyes was under scrutiny and investigated after several allegations of testing impropriety at the school. Since 2009, there have been multiple investigations looking into these allegations, including one by the DC Office of the Inspector General and one by the US Department of Education Inspector General. There was an instance of cheating at Noyes and the individual who was found to be guilty was terminated. All of the investigations have concluded in the same way that there is no widespread cheating at DC Public Schools.

During the Frontline documentary, Ms. Cothorne makes several specific charges of cheating at Noyes while she was the principal. During her tenure at Noyes, Ms. Cothorne was interviewed twice by an independent investigator about testing impropriety. During those interviews, she never made any mention of these specific charges. Even when asked if there was anything else she wanted to bring up to these independent investigators, she also didn't identify any testing problems.

PBS did not give DCPS the opportunity to respond to these specific allegations. PBS contacted DCPS about doing a documentary on education reform, but did not share any allegations of impropriety or offer DCPS the opportunity to refute any claims. I am disappointed that PBS elected to produce a poorly researched piece rather than offering a meaningful contribution to improving education. We have a great responsibility to the families, community members and greater city to tell the truth, to investigate incidents of concerns and to hold ourselves accountable. It is disheartening that PBS does not share these values.

Ms. Cothorne claims to have reported this to DCPS. We have no record of this report. Staff close to the school and staff named in her complaint have no record of these alleged conversations. These allegations come two years after her time as principal and after multiple investigations. DCPS provides multiple avenues to facilitate reporting of suspected testing impropriety including an anonymous tip line and independent investigations. We investigate all allegations of impropriety. It is a disservice to our children that Ms. Cothorne refused to take any steps to notify DCPS of a concern. The fact that she has decided to attempt to personally profit financially through fictitious claims, rather than improve educational opportunities for our students, is extremely disappointing.

What remains clear through all of this is the proven point that the staff and school leadership across DCPS are committed to helping our children succeed through honest, hard work and dedication. We take test security incredibly seriously and will continue to do so even after our name has been cleared. The final report from the US Department of Education corroborates the findings of all the other investigations. There is no widespread cheating at DCPS. Our teachers work hard every single day in our classrooms, and deserve credit and support, not unwarranted suspicions and doubt.

Response from Frontline's Phil Bennett

In her statement, DC Public School Chancellor Kaya Henderson asserts: "PBS did not give DCPS the opportunity to respond to these specific allegations. PBS contacted DCPS about doing a documentary on education reform, but did not share any allegations of impropriety or offer DCPS the opportunity to refute any claims."

This statement is misleading. FRONTLINE made repeated interview requests to current and former DCPS officials including Chancellor Henderson to discuss allegations of cheating — including the 2011 report by USA Today. In response to an email request for an interview, Henderson wrote to our correspondent, John Merrow, "I would prefer not to be interviewed further for your documentary." It is unclear why Henderson wrote "further" since an earlier introductory phone call from Merrow was not an on-the-record interview. Merrow and Producer Michael Joseloff sought responses to Cothorne's allegations from the DC Inspector General, who investigated allegations at the Noyes Education Campus (but did not interview Cothorne), and repeatedly from Wayne Ryan, Cothorne's predecessor at Noyes and later her supervisor when he moved to the DCPS central office. Neither would agree to an interview. FRONTLINE also asked Michelle Rhee for a final interview after we had learned of Cothorne's charges. She declined to answer a list of questions that we submitted in writing. We did not return to Henderson with a list of specific allegations after she declined our interview request. One reason for this was that the practices that Cothorne says she discovered at Noyes took root during Rhee's tenure, not Henderson's.

It is disingenuous for DCPS officials to suggest that they were blindsided by allegations of cheating at Noyes. They were given multiple opportunities to talk with us, and refused. Rather than address the serious questions raised by the film, many of them beyond the alleged cheating scandal, Chancellor Henderson chose to attack the messenger.

As for the question of whether Cothorne was interviewed by investigators twice, as Henderson asserts, we reported in the film that the DC Inspector General did not interview Cothorne about alleged cheating at Noyes, even though she was the principal of the school. This is accurate — neither DSPC nor the IG has challenged our reporting on this point. This is significant because DCPS cites the IG investigation as the most recent and thorough report on the allegations. We did not address in the film whether Cothorne was questioned by Caveon. When we interviewed Cothorne on camera, she told us she had not been interviewed by Caveon about the 2010 DC CAS (Comprehensive Assessment Test). On the morning of the broadcast, she told us that she had misspoken. She said then that she had been interviewed by Caveon, but was asked only about test security procedures and not cheating. She told us that she had not volunteered her charges of cheating because she feared retaliation. She told us that she had later reported her concerns to DCPS and was called to meet with a "higher up" (her whistleblower lawsuit indicates it was Wayne Ryan) prior to the Caveon interview and was warned off of the subject.

We do not know what Henderson is referring to when she says Cothorne was interviewed "twice by an independent investigator." According to USA Today, Caveon's interviews at Noyes about the 2009 DC CAS took place on Jan. 29 and Feb. 10, 2010. Cothorne did not become principal until July 2010.

On this subject, as with the film overall, we absolutely stand by the story we presented to viewers. "The Education of Michelle Rhee" is an exhaustively fair, thorough and accurate treatment of a tumultuous period in the DC public schools, the influence of which continues to be felt not just in classrooms in Washington but in the critically important national debate about the future of education.

'Open Letter' from Melanie Davis

I am writing as a concerned parent with a child in DC public schools regarding the recent piece by PBS Frontline entitled "The Education of Michelle Rhee," which examines former Chancellor Rhee's tenure at DCPS. In addition to the reforms Rhee implemented, a focus of the story is on allegations of cheating on citywide reading and math tests — the DC CAS — by DC educators.

While most of the allegations have been thoroughly examined in the past, the Frontline piece offers one new allegation from the former principal of the Noyes Education Campus, Adell Cothorne.

According to the Washington Post account of her appearance, the former principal who took over Noyes for 2010-2011, Cothorne, alleges:

[J]ust after students took a midyear practice version of the city's annual standardized test, she stumbled upon three staff members sitting late at night in a room strewn with more than 200 test booklets. One of the adults was at a desk, holding an eraser. The other two sat at a table, booklets open before them. 'One staff member said to me, in a lighthearted sort of way, 'Oh, principal, I can't believe this kid drew a spider on the test and I have to erase it' . . . Cothorne told filmmakers, offering the first such direct testimony about potential tampering with answer sheets in D.C. schools. Cothorne told "Frontline" that she reported the incident to the central office, but to her knowledge nothing was done.

After an 17-month investigation into the matter, the DC Inspector General concluded that while there may have been isolated instances of educators altering test sheet, there was no evidence of wide-spread cheating in the District.

This conclusion is corroborated by the fact that on six exams administered since allegations of cheating were raised, DC students continued to show steady progress rather than a system wide drop off as you would expect under increased testing security.

However, Frontline implies that the DC Inspector General's investigation was not credible and relies on Cothorne's testimony to substantiate this point. Again according to the Post:

Cothorne, the former principal who alleges that she saw staff members after hours with erasers and test booklets, said investigators never interviewed her. 'My speculation: They didn't want to hear what I had to say,' she told 'Frontline.'"

Notwithstanding the fact that the DC Inspector General's office did find cheating took place at Noyes thus addressing Ms. Cothorne's concerns, Frontline omitted the fact that the US Department of Education (USDE) launched an investigation based on Ms. Cothorne's allegations. The federal department which had the benefit of Cothorne's allegations reached the same conclusion as the DC Inspector General — while there were isolated cases of erasures, there was no systematic cheating in the District.

If Frontline wanted to make the point that the credibility of one investigation was called into question because they didn't speak to Cothorne, it was incumbent upon them to note that another investigation based on her allegations reached the same conclusion.

According to the Post, Cothorne also spoke to Caveon, the investigators retained by DCPS in March of 2011, and did not make any of the claims she made on camera to Frontline regarding erasures at the time.

What was also missing from the Frontline story was that Cothorne filed a federal lawsuit against DCPS based on the allegations she made in the Frontline piece in May of 2011— two months after speaking with Caveon and not raising any of these claims.

According to the published reports the Cothorne's suit alleges "that DCPS submitted false claims to ED for payment of funds from the Race to the Top program under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, false statements to ED for receipt of funding under the Together Everyone Achieves More awards program and false statements to ED under the Blue Ribbon Schools Program."

According to the Post: "Cothorne sought a percentage of any potential financial proceeds had the case gone to trial."

Indeed, if the government had intervened on her behalf in the suit she stood to get up to 30% of the claim which was for millions in federal education grants. Grants for Race to the Top to DC alone stand at approximately $75 million.

The fact the Cothorne had a significant financial interest in making these claims — claims that she did not make when asked just two months earlier — would seem to be a material fact that was ignored or rejected by the Frontline producers, and which speaks to the credibility of her claims now.

Please consider making a public statement about these omissions from the Frontline story if they are not included as Ms. Cothorne's allegations do nothing more than to cast false doubt on the hard work of DC's students, parents and teachers. The progress we've made was hard earned and is tough enough to retain without baseless allegations like Ms. Cothorne's being simply repeated, rather than tested, by the media.

Here's PBS's John Merrow's Response

I appreciate the opportunity to respond to your open letter to the PBS Ombudsman. Let me begin by addressing the timing of the statement by the USDE Inspector General. It was released just hours before our national broadcast, and it was only then that Frontline learned of Adell Cothorne's legal complaint, which had been sealed from public view until it was released by the IG. Although it was too late to include this information in the body of the film, Frontline made extraordinary efforts to include detailed information about the USDE IG's statement and Cothorne's filing, and included links to documents in the coda to the film and on its web site.

While we had heard rumors of an investigation by the USDE IG, we were unable to confirm them and could not identify any DC educators who had been interviewed by the USDE IG. We understand now that she [the USDE IG] did her work 'in tandem' with the DC Inspector General.

You write " . . . on six exams administered since allegations of cheating were raised, DC students continued to show steady progress rather than a system wide drop off as you would expect under increased testing security." I would make two important points. First, the relevant comparison is not to the entire system but to the schools which were flagged for high erasure rates. If one examines the data for the 16 schools with erasure rates of 50% or higher, it is clear that heightened security had a significant impact.

The DC-CAS scores at Noyes, where 81% of classrooms were flagged for high erasures, are themselves circumstantial evidence that supports Cothorne's allegation. Below are the Noyes DC-CAS scores over five years; 2011 represents the year that security was tightened.

    2007 2008 2009 2010 2011
Reading 44.14% 61.53 84.21 61.36 32.40
Math 34.24% 57.69 62.79 53.64 28.17

That represents a drop of nearly 50 points in reading between 2009 and 2011, and a drop of roughly 34 points in math. Note also that in 2011 Noyes students were scoring below their pre-Rhee level.

In all, data are available for 16 schools with erasure rates of at least 50%. DC-CAS reading scores rose in only two schools after security was tightened. Math scores rose in just 4 schools and declined in 12.

Here are three examples:

* At Aiton, (which, like Noyes, had been awarded large cash bonuses) scores in reading dropped from 58.43% proficient to 20.80%, well below pre-Rhee levels. In math, Aiton dropped from 57.87% to 16%, which is also below pre-Rhee levels.

* Raymond also received large bonuses from the Chancellor. Its scores in reading fell from 70% to 42.44%, and its math scores fell from 68% to 45.71%. The reading score is below pre-Rhee levels.

* Savoy went from 46.51% to 20.39% in reading and from 38.37% to 15.38% in math, also well below pre-Rhee levels.

Second, you reference 'steady progress,' and it is true that the DC-CAS scores have shown very slow but steady growth (a point made by Rhee in her final interview and shown in our film). That change is credible and consistent with what students of measurement say can be expected in schools that are making progress. However, huge gains and losses are greeted, quite properly, with skepticism by experts, although not by Rhee or her team.

Moreover, as noted in the film, DC schools continue to rank among the worst districts in the nation and have the absolute lowest graduation rate in the US.

The co-investigator of the cheating scandal in Atlanta, Georgia (where investigators had subpoena power and put those testifying under oath) told Frontline that they considered wrong-to-right erasures at a rate of three or more standard deviations away from the norm to be prima facie evidence of cheating. In some classrooms at Noyes, the rate was five or more standard deviations away from the norm, and yet this did not trigger an in-depth investigation.

'In depth' would mean erasure analysis and a search for patterns. This can reveal if the person doing the erasing corrected the easier questions or the more difficult ones. If the latter, that raises questions.

No erasure analysis was conducted by Caveon or the DC Inspector General or requested by Rhee.

You write: "Frontline implies that the DC Inspector General's investigation was not credible and relies on Cothorne's testimony to substantiate this point." That is incorrect. We examined the IG Report carefully and reported the facts. Which are: The DC IG report did not examine DC-CAS results during Rhee's first year, the year with the greatest number of erasures. He did not perform erasure analysis. He did not interview Cothorne. Individuals who spoke with him were not under oath. His report cites one instance where he heard conflicting testimony and simply accepted the word of one individual and rejected the other's, but he provides no support for that decision. During his 17-month investigation he interviewed just over 50 people. 17 months is approximately 515 days, meaning that he interviewed, on average, one person every 10 days.

He did not examine other schools. In fact, the IG acknowledges that he eliminated one school, Wilson, because the current Chancellor convinced him that Wilson faculty and staff were working hard. However, Wilson's scores dropped 19% in reading and 23% in math between 2009 and 2011, and 100% of its classrooms had been flagged for high erasures.

We requested an interview with the DC IG to discuss his report, including Cothorne's charges, but that request was rebuffed.

After interviewing Cothorne, Frontline also attempted to interview Chancellor Rhee. It is accepted form in journalism for the subject of a program to be given 'the last word,' a final opportunity to respond to what others have said, and we wanted that to be the case in this instance. We negotiated with Rhee's attorney, Reid Weingarten, who insisted on seeing written questions that we would be asking. Frontline submitted a number of written questions, which we will not release because they include references to other allegations not made public. Weingarten had indicated that Rhee would respond in writing and, at the same time, consider an on-camera interview. In fact, she did not respond in any way.

Frontline stands by the program, and I stand by what I wrote in Taking Note, my blog.

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