Loose Lips

Dept. of Education: We Interviewed Former Principal

A long-awaited Frontline special on Michelle Rhee's tenure as schools chancellor finally aired last night. As the Post reported before the show aired, former Noyes Education Campus Principal Adell Cothorne alleged on the program that she witnessed possible answer tampering at the school but was never interviewed by the D.C. inspector general, who was tasked with investigating whether the District's public school test scores were legitimate.

“My speculation: They didn’t want to hear what I had to say,” Cothorne told Frontline.

But a lawyer for the U.S. Department of Education's inspector general's office, which conducted a joint investigation with the D.C. inspector general, says both her office and the U.S. Attorney's Office interviewed Cothorne about her allegations. The interview was prompted by a whistleblower complaint (posted below) Cothorne filed in May 2011, alleging that cheating at Noyes affected how federal funds were distributed, says Marta Erceg, counsel to the DOE's inspector general's office. In a statement, the DOE 's inspector general says "our investigation was unable to substantiate the allegations that false claims were made to [education department] for payment of funds, and the U.S. Department of Justice declined to intervene."

Neither Cothorne or her attorney have immediately returned calls seeking comment.

The news that Cothorne was interviewed by investigators who collaborated with the D.C. inspector general's office takes the wind out of the sails out of the Frontline piece (and makes the D.C. IG look slightly better.) Cothorne may very well be telling the truth that she wasn't contacted by the D.C. IG, but it's certainly not the whole truth, if she talked with federal investigators who were working with the IG.

In a statement yesterday, Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson cast Cothorne as a liar motivated by the chance of receiving whistleblower funds. "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," Henderson wrote.

Left out of Henderson's statement (or in a subsequent email exchange with LL) was any explanation as to why Noyes' test scores plummeted when Cothorne took over.

A quick review of Noyes' test score roller coaster: Rhee comes to power in 2007 and places great emphasis 0n the city's standardized test scores. Principals at schools that don't see an increase in test scores risk losing their jobs. Proficiency scores at Noyes soar, some more than 20 percent a year. Its then principal, Wayne Ryan, literally becomes a poster boy for Rhee's brand of reforms. The school's teachers and Ryan win accolades and cash bonuses.

But accompanying those test scores comes an astoundingly high rate of "erasures" indicating that answers had been changed. "The odds are better for winning the Powerball grand prize than having that many erasures by chance," USA Today reports about the erasure rate of one Noyes classroom. A Noyes teacher tells the IG he was instructed by school staff to give students correct answers on standardized tests, while 15 other teachers tell the IG that's false. That one teacher who admitted to cheating is fired.

After Cothorne takes over for Ryan during the 2010-2011 school year, she says she sees three staffers changing answers on a mid-year practice standardized test. Cothorne says she tightens test security for the real test and proficiency rates on those tests fall more than 25 percent.

Fictitious claims? Maybe, but if they are, then what else explains what happened with Noyes' test scores?

Here's Cothorne's complaint:

Photo by Darrow Montgomery

  • michelle jones

    Rhee's reign was never about who was and was not cheating nor was it about making a better educational system for DC. It was about gentrification and worse. It was mainly about getting blacks out of the city by any means necessary.

    Black children were being shot off systematically for 6 years in DC. The city is far to diverse for it to be random killings.

  • Burnt Orange

    The program didn't take advantages of all that the medium (TV) has to offer. Like at the end when she said ok, yeah, maybe there was cheating at SOME schools, but look at the schools where we made AND maintained progress.

    Maybe it was not worth investigating that claim, but it woulda been good to have seen a visual (a graph with those cool rising bars) showing the cheating schools and progress reported vs. the supposed non cheating ones, and progress reported and maintained there. Just something to wrap it all up, tie it and present her claims and the counter claims.

    I felt sorry for the new principal at Noyes.

    Otherwise, my impressions of the program were that it was good, and it really - for me - brought the picture of Rhee and of the school situation together.

    For instance, she really makes a fantastic case for outrage at the situation with tenured teachers and the lousy jobs they are doing educating students. So, she's articulate and persuasive. And then you contrast those images of her with those white white teeth, those big glossy lips and super shiny hair with the ones of maybe some dull teachers, beaten down, etc....and the answer is easy! Me want Michelle, please.

    But then by the end you realize that all she really ended up doing was stirring people up, one way or the other, without advancing the ball any. Things just didn't change that much, and you're left with a question of what price is she willing to pay to make a point? I mean, in the end, she was not all that effective, and that is 100% how she sold herself.

    But the sad thing is, nothing changed, despite her promsing start of outrage. We are still left with a bad system. Who won the argument? Michelle Rhee, gone. George Parker, gone. Test scores, not good. Public schools, closed. Teachers, fired.

    Was it just scorched earth?

  • Burnt Orange

    Maybe she simply wanted to be the wrecking ball in advance of mass privatization.

    Her motivation is still not clear to me, but the overall picture of what happened is.

  • Drez

    Things changed a lot. The new contract changed the game.
    This is apart from the closures, enrollment gains, rise in charters, etc.

  • Drez

    Say... Everyone (critical of Rhee) used to talk about how Baltimore was negotiating a new union contract that had many of the same reforms SC's does- but was doing it in a much less... contentious manner.
    How did that ever turn out?

  • Drez

    DC's. Not SC's.

  • B

    Excellent reporting. "Left out of Henderson's statement (or in a subsequent email exchange with LL) was any explanation as to why Noyes' test scores plummeted when Cothorne took over."

    When is this question ever going to be answered?

  • noodlez

    @B-IT WILL NEVER BE ANSWERED BECAUSE EVERYONE CHEATED TO GET THOSE BONUSES. EVEN THE UPPER NW WHITE SCHOOLS MORESO BECAUSE NO ONE WOULD EVER SUSPECT THEIR SCORES WERE FIXED! WE ARE FISHING AROUND PULLING UP MONEY ORDERS, SILLYMON BROWN AND LOAN APPLICATIONS WHEN THE RHEE SCANDAL IS THE BIG BUBBA THAT GOT AWAY! SHE SET BACK DCPS YEARS WITH HER INEXPERIENCE AND IGNORANCE.

    WHEN MONEY IS INVOLVED IN ACHIEVING INCENTIVE BASED GOALS YOU CAN COUNT ON SOME SORT OF IMPROPRIETY. THAT WITCH SHOULD'VE BEEN BURNT AT THE STAKE FOR WHAT SHE DID TO OUR CHILDREN AND THOSE TEACHERS THAT DIDN'T DESERVE HER DISRESPECT. ON TOP OF IT ALL IS THE CRAZY AMOUNT OF SALARY SHE WAS PAID TO FUCK THINGS UP.

    MS. HENDERSON NEED TO STEP HER GAME UP! WHEN SHE DOES EVERYONE ELSE WILL!

    ONE CITY!

  • http://inandoutwithjeff.blogspot.com Jeff Epton

    I agree with those of you who were disappointed by the Frontline piece. It aggregated material from a lot of sources, but it didn't do much true investigative reporting. It would have been nice to have more detail about how thorough and how credible the cheating investigations were.

    The Frontline piece also gave Rhee (who has the kind of credibility that comes attached to celebrity, rather than the credibility of wisdom or experience) ample opportunity to speak in her own defense, but did not present the opinions of a critic with the same sort of national status to summarize and sharpen the criticisms of Rhee.

    The former superintendent is most assuredly a fierce fighter on her own behalf, and that matters. But she also seems to have been both an autocrat and a political naif. What little she accomplished is outweighed by the social conflict she caused and the wreckage she left behind.

    Mayor Gray's singular accomplishment--getting rid of Rhee--is deeply compromised by his choice of Henderson, Rhee's second, as successor.

    Jeff Epton

  • http://inandoutwithjeff.blogspot.com Jeff Epton

    Actually, I just read a follow-up piece by John Merrow, the lead in making the Frontline piece, that shares a lot more information about the investigation by the DC IG's office and also includes additional detail about whistleblower Adell Cothorne, the principal at Noyes for all of one year. The piece (which can be found here: http://takingnote.learningmatters.tv/?p=6070) mentions the fact that the IG did not even look at the test scores from Rhee's first year, and that Cothorne's supervisor was her predecessor at Noyes and had received a cash bonus for substantial increases in test scores--the very increases Cothorne was challenging.

    Jeff Epton

  • RealDC

    Rhee was a fraud from day one!

    The Fenty legacy is the gift that never gave DCPS anything, oh I am sorry, some schools got new buildings and still got crappy test scores. Fenty was the worse mayor this city has ever seen!!

    Gray wake up and lead the city, put Kaya on notice.

    And now Bowser wants to be mayor, don't do it DC, she is as bright as a box of rocks. She is Fenty in a wig with a bigger bottom....dont be fooled, again!

  • NE John

    It is so much easier to send your kids to private schools. The end

  • Burnt Orange

    Oh definitely. All you need is $280,000 income per year, preferably more.

    Done !

    The end.

  • NE John

    Not nearly that much, but that would make it easier to bear

  • truth hurts

    Most "investigations" the city conducts on itself are worthless.

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