What Did the Billionaires Know about Cheating in D.C. Schools, and When Did They Know It?

Corporate "reformers" have continued to support Rhee's test-driven "reforms" and her attacks on the teaching profession. What will they do now that there is proof that Rhee and her successors turned a blind eye to cheating?
04/16/2013 01:27 pm ET Updated Jun 16, 2013

John Merrow has found "the smoking gun," or the confidential memo warning Michelle Rhee of the extent of cheating that may have occurred in Washington, D.C. schools in response to her draconian "reforms." He summarizes the evidence of an inexcusable failure to investigate the cheating and recalls the lesson of Watergate that the cover-up is often worse than the original crime. Merrow concludes with the question, "What did Michelle know, and when did she know it?"

Merrow's report leads to the more important question of "What did the billionaires know and when did they know it?" After all, corporate "reformers" have continued to support Rhee's test-driven "reforms" and her attacks on the teaching profession. What will they do now that there is proof that Rhee and her successors turned a blind eye to cheating?

A cornerstone of Rhee's reign was her IMPACT evaluation system that used test scores to fire hundreds of teachers. That experiment was funded, in part, with $65 million from the Broad Foundation, the Arnold Foundation, the Robertson Foundation, and the Walton Foundation. Funding was contingent on the continuity of leadership within D.C. schools, as well as meeting "student achievement outcomes detailed in the 'Predicted Gains' document" of 2010. So, what did the foundations know about circumstantial evidence of cheating, and when did they know about the highly respected reporter's search for that the "long-buried" memo of 2009 presenting evidence that test scores in 70 schools may have been inflated by cheating?

Merrow has reported on D.C. schools since 2007. It has been nearly six years since Rhee told him, "If there are rules standing in the way of that, I will question those rules." What did the billionaires know and when did they know that Rhee finished her statement with "I will bend those rules."

Merrow's scoop about Rhee's disinterest in investigating the possible cheating by 191 teachers and by principals she hired is the headline of the day. His worst revelations, however, were about other abuses that also have long been suspected. He tells of Associate Superintendent Francisco Millet's meetings with principals and the pressure they placed on principals to raise test scores. Merrow then quotes Millet, "Everybody felt this urgency to improve test scores, and there was no focus on instruction. The entire focus was on improving test scores."

What did the billionaires know about the charge, "There came a point in time where we almost abandoned teaching. After Christmas, there was nothing but test prep?" When did they know that Merrow's reporting team, "saw hours and hours of drill on basic concepts?" They "heard parental complaints like this one: 'There's no attention to the actual depth of instruction going on in the classroom.'" The reporters saw "the quick-fix solutions of choosing to work intensively with kids who you knew could boost their test scores if they just got a few extra hours of instruction on particular glitches in their own test results."

There is a bigger reason why we need to know what the billionaires knew about reports in the 2011 reports in USA Today and the Washington Post about the refusal of Rhee's people to investigate credible charges of cheating and of complaints about such educational malpractice. After her resignation as D.C. chancellor, Rhee announced that her new organization, Students First, would raise a billion dollars to promote her agenda. She would not name donors, but billionaire Eli Broad said that he "expect[ed] to be a major contributor." Since then, Rhee has been a major force in promoting test-driven accountability across the nation.

That brings us to the key question of when the billionaires knew the fact that Merrow reported, which is, "Sadly, D.C.'s schools are worse by almost every conceivable measure." Do they know that students, especially poor children with learning deficits, need stability? What do they know about the effects of the revolving door of teachers and principals that Rhee created? What do they know about the reliable NAEP test and when did they finally know that student performance progress slowed under Rhee, as the achievement gap grew? Do they know why the most revealing metric is the 8th grade NAEP reading score? When did they know that it dropped by two points for black students during D.C.'s "reform years?"

Now that the billionaires can't avoid the sordid truth about Rhee, will the accountability hawks hold her accountable? Now that they can't avoid the facts presented by Merrow, will they take an interest in the social science which explains how and why cheating was one, but only one, negative result of Rhee's "reign of error?" After spending such enormous amounts of money promoting bubble-in accountability, will the billionaires do some homework on what it really takes to improve schools?

Or, will we soon be asking what the billionaires knew about their contribution to wrecking public schools? And, when did they know that the result of their efforts -- and Rhee's efforts -- could be privatization?