Cheating scandal at Lehman: DOE's response and echoes of the past

Everyone needs to check out this terrific investigative report by GothamSchools about the growing scandal at Lehman high school, in which the principal allegedly invented credits and increased student grades by changing their transcripts after the fact.

Janet Saraceno was appointed to Lehman in the fall of 2008, and given a $25,000 bonus as the city's second "super principal," a program supposed to be reserved for principals who agreed to take on the challenge of a low-performing school -- despite the fact that, as noted at the time, Lehman was already one of the city's higher performing high schools. She was due to receive another $25,000 bonus if she managed to raise graduation rates at the school.

The sort of manipulation that appears to have occurred at Lehman is predicted by Campbell's Law, and is just the tip of the iceberg, considering how widespread these practices have become in recent years among NYC public schools. (See for example, numerous comments from teachers on the NY Times blog about the scandal, and our book, NYC Schools under Bloomberg and Klein: What Parents, Teachers and Policymakers Need to Know.)

Increased teaching to the test, cheating, and grade tampering are all expected results of the DOE accountability system , in which test scores and graduation rates determine a school's grade, whether the staff will receive hefty bonuses, and if the school will be closed-- which in turn determines whether its staff will keep their jobs or be placed on absent teacher reserve.

Regents scores, credit accumulation and graduation rates largely determine a high school's grade in the DOE accountability system. These figures are even easier to manipulate than the state test scores that determine the grades of elementary and middle schools. Why?

Because, incredibly, Regents exams are graded by teachers at their own schools, and principals are allowed to raise both Regents scores and student grades, as long as they inform teachers in writing about these changes.
In this case, the principal of Lehman apparently stepped over this very flexible line, by failing to inform the teachers about the changes made in student transcripts, and not merely raising test scores but also adding credits for courses never taken .
(Graduation rates are also easy to manipulate also by "discharging" or "pushing out" students -- transferring them to GED programs or the like. This raises the graduation rate because all discharged students are excluded from the cohort and never counted as dropouts. A recent report found that the number of NYC students who have been discharged in their first year of high school has doubled in recent years.)

None of this is particularly surprising, but what is is especially disconcerting is the ham-handed response of the administration to these revelations, both initially and since the scandal broke.

According to a message sent by chief press officer David Cantor to our NYC education list serv, Joel Klein learned about these allegations as far back as March of 2009. Yet instead of immediately suspending the principal pending the outcome of investigations, Cantor reports that Klein met with the teachers, referred the case to chief counsel Michael Best, and then:

"Within a few days, I believe--I can get you the dates--Best met with teachers from the school, after which he referred their allegations to the Special Commissioner of Investigation (who in turn referred them to the Office of Special Investigation). "
How aggressively the DOE's Office of Special Investigations pursued this case since that time cannot be known, of course, but the principal cannot have been seriously concerned as she was still changing student transcripts throughout the summer of 2009, according to the records obtained by GothamSchools.

When the story broke this week, Chris Cerf, formerly Deputy Chancellor of DOE and now working for the Bloomberg campaign, responded:

"We cannot comment on any aspects of this, but we certainly do not condone the kinds of things that are alleged. But at the same time, we believe that accountability for student outcomes is a central driver of positive reform and we believe it is critical to hold everybody in the system accountable for student results.”

In other words, accountability has nothing to do with either honesty or transparency, but simply raising test scores. Message to principals: lie, cheat or steal, it hardly matters as long as test scores and graduation rates go up.

Then, DOE announced they would launch an investigation of the teachers who provided GothamSchools with the evidence of grade-tampering. Why? Because, as Cantor wrote, “The privacy of student records is protected by federal law. School staff are not permitted to provide their students’ transcripts to reporters."

As GothamSchools reporter Anna Phillips points out, FERPA, the federal law Cantor was referring to, says that providing transcripts is only forbidden if "personally identifiable information” is transmitted. In this case, student names were all crossed out.

“All I can say is we are going to investigate the release of the student records publicly to the press,” Cantor said.
This scandal is eerily similar to the allegations made by nine veteran teachers in 2004, in which they accused a principal of another large high school in the Bronx, Anthony Rotunno of Kennedy High school, of hiking the Regents scores of 16 students. Two years later, after an extended investigation by DOE's Office of Special Investigations, no report was ever written, not because the allegations were found to be incorrect, but because DOE concluded that Rotunno had the right to change these Regents scores.
Despite articles and columns in the NY Times as elsewhere about the allegations, the only person who ended up punished was Maria Colon, the school's UFT chapter leader, who was charged with faxing student transcripts to a reporter to show that tampering had occurred. Colon was consigned to the rubber room for a year and half for this supposed transgression, before a state hearing officer exonerated her of all charges.

Colon was later "excessed" from the school. According to Randi Weingarten's testimony on before the City Council in 2007, "... the principal excessed every single bilingual social studies teacher in the school in order to get at her."
Meanwhile, Rotunno is still principal at the school.
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