This year's obituary pages included stories that ran the gamut from triumph to tragedy.
New revelations about cheating on standardized tests in D.C. public schools are adding to the fallout over cheating scandals across the country. In Atlanta, dozens of educators and the former superintendent of the city’s school system were indicted. And in the District of Columbia, lingering questions about the integrity of standardized tests are overshadowing the academic progress achieved under former schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee.
- Greg Toppo Reporter, USA Today
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. Later in the broadcast, the future of U.S. Development aid, but first, ghosts from the past that still haunt public school systems across from D.C. to Atlanta.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFor the past two years, allegations of cheating on standardized tests have called into question the integrity of academic performance measurements in public school systems and the integrity of the officials running them. In Atlanta, more than two dozen educators under former superintendent of the city's system were indicted recently by a grand jury.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIMeanwhile, in the District, allegations about cheating have cast a dark cloud over the academic gains posted during Michelle Rhee's tenure as chancellor and whether those allegations were properly investigated. Joining us to explore the twists and turns of the scandals and what's ultimately at stake is Greg Toppo.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIHe is a reporter at USA Today who's been covering this issue. Greg Toppo joins us by telephone. Welcome.
MR. GREG TOPPOThanks, thanks for having me.
NNAMDIYou're welcome. A report released by D.C. state superintendent office late last week found that teachers in 18 of the cities classrooms cheated on standardized tests last year. This news came just after the publication of a January 2009 memo that warned of rampant cheating in D.C. schools during Michelle Rhee's tenure.
NNAMDIYou've been investigating these allegations in the D.C. system for several years now. What did you find significant about the events of the past week?
TOPPOYou know, I guess when it rains, it pours here. I will say one thing just to give credit where it's due. The original story's from D.C. in USA Today were by some of my really talented colleagues. I am sort of late to the game. I've been doing this for about the past year and a half. But I want to give credit to them. They're ones who broke the story in 2011.
TOPPOSo what I found interesting this week was that, as you said, office of the state superintendent found teachers in 18 classrooms in D.C. had cheated last year on their exams. And this, after security was tightened up after our stories ran, after a lot of these things happened. That's the thing I think that is the most interesting and it makes you wonder what was happening before all this went down.
NNAMDIBut this memo of course was dated as early as January 2009 so there were clearly questions being raised. Michelle Rhee herself claims she never saw that memo but you have to wonder who else saw it and why was there no more action on it. How important are these test scores in measuring the progress achieved during Michelle Rhee's tenure and planning out the future for where the system needs to go?
TOPPOYou know, these test scores have become more and more important in places like D.C. mostly because folks like Michelle Rhee have made them more important. She set in place a system that starting judging teachers on their students improvements on these tests. It's been described as both a carrot and a stick.
TOPPOThe carrot is that if your kids test scores go up you get a bonus. The stick is that if they don't you get fired. So she really covered both sides of it. And D.C. is just sort of a microcosm of what's happening all over the country and it's been happening almost for the past decade.
NNAMDIIn case you're just joining us, we're talking with Greg Toppo. He's a reporter at USA Today who has for the year and a half been covering some of the cheating scandals here in the District and around the country. You can join the conversation by calling 800-433-8850 if you have questions or comments.
NNAMDIGreg Toppo, a lot of people have been frustrated about this city's efforts to investigate the allegations because they focused on a small number of schools. What do you feel is still worth digging into when it comes to D.C. public education system?
TOPPOYou know, I think in this case, I'm not the only who's said this, but I think a lot of people are wondering when we're going to get sort of a full blown school by school racial analysis. I mean, you know, these, a lot of scores did, these tests did take place, you know, three, four, five years ago, but we really don't know what happened.
TOPPOIn the case of this new memo that we're talking about this week, you know, that was from the 2008 test year. We really don't have any evidence that anything happened after that. We had Michelle Rhee kind of step up and start investigating things from the 2009-2010 school year. But this memo kind of, you know, there's basically a black hole that met these findings.
NNAMDIWidespread or not is it significant that cheating was still identified by the state's superintendent's office last week. That would mean that cheating had to have taken place even after new security measures were put in place, correct?
TOPPOYes, that's what's amazing to me. It's almost like, it's sort of you almost get the sense that it's sort of unstoppable. That, you know, if you make this an important enough indicator that people will find a way to do it. you know, there's a sociological term called Campbell's Law, which says that if you make the stakes high enough people will do whatever they have to do to get to that point and I think a lot of people feel like this is a case where that happened.
NNAMDIWell, a lot of people obviously were doing this, they feel, in order to try to hold onto their jobs but what do you think is personally on the line here for Michelle Rhee herself?
TOPPOYou know, it would be one thing if she had just sort of gone quietly after Adrian Fenty lost in 2010, but she actually sort of turned up the volume. I mean, she is now, as a lot of your listeners may know, the head of an organization that is essentially taking nationwide some of the ideas she introduced in D.C.
NNAMDIAn organization that she founded herself, yes.
TOPPOAbsolutely. So she is actually, you know, her big idea is that not only test-based accountability, but sort of accountability for teachers in general and a different kind of, you know, quality assurance is what -- not only D.C., but what everybody needs.
NNAMDIWhy was the investigation into the Atlanta allegations run so differently? They had special investigators hired, people with subpoena power.
TOPPOYes, I mean, that's, you know, if you ever needed a case where this was, you know, where everything was done exactly the opposite way as in D.C., Atlanta really is that case. I mean, the short answer to your question is that you had a Republican governor who wasn't squeamish about calling the cops, about getting the Georgia Bureau of Investigation interested in this.
TOPPOAnd they really threw a lot of resources at this, I mean, they introduced, excuse me, interviewed, you know, hundreds and hundreds of people. You know, in the time that the D.C.I.G. interviewed 60 people I think these guys interviewed, I can't remember exactly what the number was, but it was, you know, hundreds of people. I think, you know, hundreds of thousands of pages in documents. I mean, we got obviously different results.
NNAMDIWe're talking with Greg Toppo, he's a reporter at USA Today. We're talking about test cheating. Going to the phone now, here is Robert in Baltimore, Md. Robert, your turn.
ROBERTThank you. I just wanted to mention and that some of these things that are generalizing about education and testing on the backdrop to this is that there's really sort of two systems in the country, one being urban and the other being suburb and these problems are sort of confined to the urban schools, which often bring an achievement gap to the table and given that sort of the No Child Left Behind mandate that is largely a punitive effect, it happens with this.
ROBERTThat, you know, basically you have teachers who are going to be penalized professionally maybe for what their students bring to the classroom in terms of achievement bumps. So obviously there's a discouragement that teachers who choose to teach in these schools that are disadvantaged in this way in the first place are at a disadvantage.
ROBERTAnd then, you know, the schools are threatened with closing, with people losing their jobs it's not surprising, I think, that some people are going to decide to, you know, fudge the test results.
NNAMDIAnd Greg Toppo, of course, there are going to be court cases forthcoming in Atlanta, Ga. about this but in covering this, what have you learned about the motivation of teachers, I said earlier, people trying to hold onto their jobs?
TOPPOYes, I mean, this is, like I said, this is a big issue. This is, and I think your caller actually has, makes a really good point. You know, I mean, this is a phenomenon that's taking place mostly in urban settings, you know, where a lot of, you know, for one thing a lot of the federal resources are going and a lot of the attention.
TOPPOYou know, going back to 2002 and No Child Left Behind has been on this, has been on, you know, making these improvements in urban schools. I mean, I think it's something, you know, we in education have been talking about for a decade now and this is just sort of one result of that.
NNAMDINow, frustration about these tests themselves has become a big part of the fallout. You wrote recently about educators who were boycotting tests. "The Washington Post" ran an article about, today about parents who are opting out of tests. Where do you see this all headed?
TOPPOWell, and the one thing you're leaving out is there's students too who are boycotting tests. There have been a couple of groups of high school students mostly in places like Providence and Portland and Seattle who are saying, you know, we're not going to take anymore.
TOPPOI think it's really interesting time because I think people are coming to this with a bit more sophistication. They know more about the tests themselves but also the thing I think we can't forget is that the tests are changing and in some cases, I think, there's some hope that they're going to change for the better. It's not going to be, you know, just these sort of fill in the bubble multiple choice tests.
TOPPOIt's not going to be sort of a looking into, you know, very basic just math and reading skills. I mean, we haven't talked about, you know, things like the common core but there's a lot of hope from some quarters that it's going to be testing sort of deeper thinking, something that you can't just look over to classmate and get their answer or something that a teacher can't just erase the answer and put a correct one. It's a lot more writing, a lot more thinking, a lot more sophistication in addition to a more secure test.
NNAMDIGreg, how much flexibility is there to use tests, but also incorporate other things to measure performance? You mentioned the common core standards, anything else that you're seeing out there that can act as performance measurements that are not simple multiple choice tests?
TOPPOI mean, one of the interesting things I've been following and I think you're going to hear more about this is, there's a lot of interest in, believe it or not, student surveys and getting students take on how their teachers are doing. There's some research showing that's a pretty accurate indicator about the quality of a teacher and that if we listen more to students at just about every level we'd learn a lot more about how well their, if we pay more attention about how students think of their students we'd learn more about how their teachers are actually doing it in an objective way.
NNAMDIAnd places like Montgomery County have peer review for teachers and they're very proud of their system.
TOPPOYes, and Montgomery has been kind of a pioneer in that and there a lot of places who are doing things like this and they, one of the things that they found not just Montgomery but a lot of places have found that not only is it a good way to judge a teacher but the teachers feel better about their results. That is, they feel like it's a more fair reflection of what they've done or not done.
NNAMDIThan relying too heavily on tests. Greg Toppo is a reporter at USA Today. Greg Toppo, thank you for joining us.
TOPPOSure it's been fun.
NNAMDIHe joined us by phone. We're going to take a short break. When we come back, looking at the future of U.S. development aid. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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