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The Philadelphia School District’s cheating scandal: Part two, scene one

On September 7, 2011 and again on August 17, 2012 the reported on a cheating scandal that had been unearthed at several of the schools in the Philadelphia School District.

Bravo for the teachable moment and showing parents and staff why you were hired.
Bravo for the teachable moment and showing parents and staff why you were hired.
May have been a mistake, but the state doesn't think so

At first the school district stated that there were only 13 schools who were involved in cheating during the PSSA (Pennsylvania System of School Assessment) tests. By the time that Pennsylvania’s Department of Education and the school district actually investigated, the number swelled to 53 or 25% of the schools.

The school district established numerous protocols although it took them seven months to do it and by the same time the following year the tests scores had dramatically dropped. The state, despite the district’s measures, included some measures of their own. The state set up a tier system and placed these 53 schools into tiers between 1 and 3.

Whatever level a school was placed depended on how severe the suspected cheating appeared to be. Tier 1 was for the worst possible offenders (11 schools were initially placed in this tier).

In this tier schools were being investigated by people from the state and the school district; that these selected staff members were going to be in the schools as well as monitoring the students and staff while the PSSAs were being given.

There were 20 schools placed in Tier 2 and these schools were to be investigated by the state and the law firm of Morgan, Lewis & Bockius. These schools were found to have a lot of erasure marks where answers were changed from wrong to right.

Tier 3 consisted of 22 schools who weren’t going to be investigated, but would be monitored the same as the other schools.

After the usual yelling and screaming complete with finger pointing as well demands to fire staff members Philadelphians, as they usually do, found something else to be upset about and the cheating scandal faded from the media’s attention.

The public felt that Governor Corbett had purposefully down played it because, well, it was Philadelphia. In fact the state actually said at that time that they had no intention of legally pursuing action against the individual school’s administrator and any other staff that may have been involved.

Corbett’s actions in fact indicated that the matter had been resolved and that the state’s part in all of it was finished.

Or was it?

Despite the district’s attempts to monitor the schools and keep the tests scores up they have failed. That would probably be called non-proficient if they were being tested on their achievements.

Tests scores from the last two years (2011-2013) have significantly dropped. The state has reported that math scores fell from 51% to 47%, reading scores went from 44.8% to 42.3%. In addition to that 39.8% of students passed the algebra I test, 20.3% of students passed the biology portion of the test and 53.4% of the students passed the literature section. In other words 80% of students are failing biology and 60% are failing algebra I.

The district always the romantic idealists say that out of 186 schools 46 of them showed an increase in students scoring proficient in reading and 25 schools showed an improvement in math. That’s great, but it’s like removing water out of a sinking boat with an eyedropper and claiming that there’s less water in the boat. Sure there’s less water, but does it change the fact that there’s water in the boat? Of course not.

Whenever the Philadelphia School District has unpleasant news about the substandard level of education there’s always a well-meaning if not misguided person from a pro-public education group who stands ready to offer excuses as to why most of the students continue to fail.

In this case it was Susan Gobreski who is director of Education Voters of Pennsylvania and she feels that the blame should be put on all the cuts that were made as well as the unavailability of staff supports.

That might be true if the tests or even the cheating scandal only covers 2012-2013, but it doesn’t. The cheating scandal has been traced as far back as 2009 and the test results cover 2011-2013. In April of 2011 there were no cuts or layoffs. The only employees who knew in April that they were going to be laid off in June were the Parent and Community Ombudsmen who were non-teaching staff. In June the Student Advisors and Bilingual Counseling Assistants followed the Ombudsmen out the door. They were also non-teaching staff.

These test results were due to the measures that the state and the school district took to stop further cheating. If certain schools couldn’t cheat then the scores were bound to drop most likely because the school’s educators put more effort into crafting a fool proof plan to beat the system than developing a plan to help their students succeed the honest way.

In January 2014 after a two year investigation the SRC (School Reform Commission) announced that 138 district employees have been accused of participating or even orchestrating the cheating incidents.

The Pennsylvania Department of Education has started to file or pursue legal action against 69 former and current employees based on evidence they uncovered during an investigation of 14 schools that were put into Tier I status. This number of employees that are under investigation consists of 11 district schools and 3 charter schools.

Furthermore there have been grounds for disciplinary action towards 69 educators in 19 of the schools that were placed in Tier 2. Out of the 69 employees 40 still work for the district including 31 teachers, 1 counselor and 1security guard. The other 29 employees have either resigned, retired or have been laid off. These cases involving employees are being referred to the state for possible action.

Listed in the plus column out of all of this is Dr. Hite. He did not attempt to derail or block the investigation as was the case with Dr. Ackerman. While these staff members that are now being accused did little to provide their students with a teachable moment Dr. Hite did by letting the process take its course and by making sure that those accused are held accountable for their actions.

As usual Philly lives up to their motto “Go big or go home.” The cheating scandal that was uncovered was the largest one in the nation with Atlanta, Georgia coming in second. Unfortunately this is not something that Philadelphians want be known for because this is an epic fail that has hurt the city’s children and has tarnished the reputationsof those who didn't cheat; it has put an ugly, unremovable stain on the Philadelphia School District. It should be noted that other schools in Pennsylvania also saw their test scores decrease, but didn't cheat.

During the same time that this news was reported residents also found out that three principals had been fired for their part in the cheating scandal. Deirdre Bennett was the principal at Huey Elementary School. Huey would go on to be placed on the Tier 2 list. After the new measures had taken place Huey’s test scores had dropped 43 points in math and 34 in reading.

The second principal that was fired, Michelle Burns, was at Tilden Middle School at that time. Tilden had also been placed on Tier 2. The school would go on to drop 28 points each in math and reading.

The third principal, Marla Travis-Curtis, is still (or was) at Lamberton Elementary School. Lamberton was also placed on the Tier 2 list. After the scandal broke and security measures put in place the school’s scores also did a nose dive with dropping 31 points in both math and reading.

As if all this wasn’t bad enough, a couple of days after residents heard all this news Kathleen Kane, who is the attorney general for the state of Pennsylvania, announced that she is leading a criminal investigation into the cheating that has implicated 100 educators in the Philadelphia school system.

The fact that the attorney general has gotten involved is a huge deal and it’s doubtful that Kane would have involved herself or her office unless there was significant evidence that crimes may have been committed.

A representative of the principal’s union also has some insights that provide an excuse as to why a principal would risk a career that they spent years honing, a great salary and the ability to have a positive affect on so many young lives by helping them succeed in life. It’s because of the pressure they receive from their bosses to improve test scores and that the principal are also given warnings that were related to achieving a certain type of performance on the PSSAs.

In other words, their school had to make AYP (Advanced Yearly Progress) or to at least improved their scores.
Is there a lot of pressure to make AYP? Yes. Are principals harassed and sometimes even threatened by their bosses? Yes. However it’s not an excuse to not only cheat, but to tell your students to cheat. Is it okay if you lose your job to go out and rob a bank? Of course not and you’ll eventually go to jail because of it. There really is no good reason for committing a crime or doing something that will hurt people for years to come.

Every principal deals with the same pressure. Every principal did not encourage cheating and drag other employees into their illegal activities. The principals who are being investigated should have had a couple of tricks up their sleeve and initiated some kind of plan as to how to get students to perform well on the PSSAs.

Currently the unions are devising their plan of attack to get a lot of these charges dropped just as the state is devising their plan of attack on making them stick as well. The state also wants to set an example for other educators; that if they too do exactly what these employees did then they may find themselves out of a job and risking their freedom.

At the end of the day it boiled down to these employees who wanted to make themselves look good as well as collect any bonuses that were being offered to the principals for making AYP; they wanted the fortune and glory without the work.

Perhaps what they really don’t get is when the school’s educators encouraged cheating by whatever means necessary ultimately they were cheating the kids.

To that end Attorney General Kathleen Kane is certainly going to have her teachable moment.

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