On Jaime Escalante, Michelle Rhee and USA Today’s Erasure Investigation

Test gains at one of Michelle Rhee's favorite schools may have been accomplished by cheating.

Of all the memorable scenes in Stand and Deliver, the feel-good biopic of the late, great Jaime Escalante, one of the most compelling was when his students were accused of cheating on the Advanced Placement Calculus exam.

The position of the Educational Testing Service, or ETS, was that the students got the same answers wrong, raising suspicions of cheating.  Escalante countered that his particular method meant that students would approach the problems in a consistent fashion.

An outraged Escalante offers a stirring defense of his students, making the point to ETS officials, one of whom is Latino, that the skepticism about the high scores was happening in large part because of his students’ brown skin and poor backgrounds.

As moviegoers know, the students had to retake the exam, and, while not all did as well the second time as the first, enough passed again to appear to resolve the testing conundrum.

I use the word “appear” deliberately.  In his biography of Escalante, Jay Mathews, who since has gone on to become a cheerleader for charter schools and bring a U.S. News and World Report mentality to high school with his annual rankings, wrote that some of the students admitted to having cheated, then recanted and said they were joking.

Mathews does not offer a conclusive opinion in the book, and this reader sensed strongly that he believed something amiss had happened, even as he obviously held great admiration for Escalante and his ability to motivate and instruct his students.

I thought of Escalante today while reading a compelling and remarkably thorough investigation by USA Today about the number of students in schools throughout the country, but largely in the nation’s capital, that had a higher than average erasure of incorrect to correct answers than the district average.

Jack Gillum and Marisol Bello’s investigation is worth reading for a number of reasons, not the least of which is its well-organized use of the Document Cloud tool.

And, for the purposes of this post, the work is most intriguing because of the light it shines on the role cheating might have played in test score gains accomplished during the brief and stormy tenure of former schools chief Michelle Rhee.

I wrote not too long ago about Richard Whitmire’s largely admiring biography of Rhee.  The investigation focused on the Crosby S. Noyes Education Center, which was one of her favorite schools.  The authors note that the teachers and principal there both received raises during her time, and that the school went from “a school deemed in need of improvement to a place that the District of Columbia Public Schools called one of its ‘shining stars.'”

Yet the gains may have been propelled by cheating.

The investigation, which shows in extensive detail the challenges it had in getting thorough responses from district leadership, does not conclusively show testing fraud.

But it does raise troubling questions about the students’ accomplishments and the role cheating may have played in them.

In investigating reporting, the expression often goes, “If something is too good to be true, it probably is.”

In the case of Noyes, which was one of the controversial Rhee’s prouder accomplishment, this may have turned out to be the case.

Unlike Escalante in the movie, Rhee, who is leading an effort to raise $1 billion to help support public education, chose not to comment.

That is unsurprising and unfortunate.

There is certainly a legitimate and much-needed conversation to be had about the best way to assess student learning, the amount of time chewed up by test taking and the educational consequences for our young people of being schooled in this regimen.

There is also something to be said for the tenacity and thoroughness of the USA Today team, which raised and analyzed the issue in such a comprehensive manner.

How widespread is cheating on standardized tests?  Does the push for standards and linking teacher pay to student scores encourage this?  How should we evaluate students’ progress?

I’d love to hear your thoughts.



9 responses to “On Jaime Escalante, Michelle Rhee and USA Today’s Erasure Investigation

  1. Jeff, just watched this…Krashen makes some really good points in the era of tests, tests and more tests, and the billions that are spent on them. Maybe we use the money to buy books for all children…what a concept!


    Thanks for your article.

  2. Just read the hot link “a compelling and remarkably thorough investigation by USA Today” on your RSS feed, which doesnt show up as hot link in your story above.
    The USA Today story seems to be a combination of what I’m beginning to understand as the use of “computer assisted reporting” and “The Document Cloud” you refer to in your post.
    What I liked about the USA Today story is that it showers us with relevant data and, even though their data presents damaging evidence, makes us connect the dots re the ultimate question of cheating or no cheating.

  3. Oops, disregard comment re USA link not appearing in story above…

  4. Titus Flavius Vespasianus

    I’m one of those she fired. Nine great years in Calfiornia teaching, where I missed only one day of work in all of that time. Credentialed. Tenured. Had my work published in a national magazine. Came to DC to be closer to my mom, who’s by herself and getting on in years. Deepest social dysfunction I have ever seen was in those schools. Several fights a day. Parents visibly in the heroin nod. Kids dirty, with ringworms and other communicable diseases, and often homeless, rotting in big government programs and social engineering. My idiot principal obsessed over raising test scores because his job depended on it, but we couldn’t cheat because our school was heavily monitored during testing. Why? So we wouldn’t improve much. Why didn’t she want us to improve much? Because she had already handed our school over to a charter outfit from Philly over Christmas break. My principal was fighting for his life when he was already dead! I was fired along with the entire staff in June 2010. I had been with DCPS for 18 months. I worked at Stanton Elementary, and that episode taught me all I need to know about the nature of this country, it’s leadership, and it’s character.Now I tell any poor black kid I meet that it’s best to sell drugs in a smart way and arm themselves to defend themselves against a hostile government and economic system. Look to the cartels in Mexico, I say. I would never tell a kid to get an education and work hard and play by the rules.

  5. Titus Flavius Vespasianus

    By the way, I’m a black male and hold a Master’s degree in my field, and passed the Praxis II with ahigh score on the first attempt to obtain a clear teaching license. My mother was a hospital adminstrator, and holds a Master’s, and my father has an MBA. Nobody in my family has ever received public assistance, we worked. I don’t have illegitimate children, I have no children. And I was penalized because others have different priorities, and now the lazy and the irresponsible get to laugh at me because I believed in the big lie. Well I’ve learned. From Wall Street to the projects to Michelle Rhee, it’s all about scheming and scamming and living off the government. Believe me, I get it.

  6. A while back, I was part of an effort that turned a large, failing South Side Chicago high school into 4 separate small schools. The principal of the failing school was an inept, controlling blowhard and he was despised by the stronger teachers at the school.

    As we began the planning, one day one of those stronger teachers walked me into what was commonly referred to as the “Eraser Party.” This was an “invitation only” event from the principal (a very persuasive invitation) that included some of his crony teachers and staff. The better teachers refused to join the party and this marked the battle lines in the school. Additionally, everyone knew that being a whistle-blower to this party was not as straight forward as it might seem for those teachers as they were taking on an experienced “player” with decades of building political and community allies. This was clearly not the only school with an eraser party.

    The good news is that the principal was fired, though for reasons other than test cheating. There were plenty of other corruptions and ineptitudes to choose from to justify the firing. The group of stronger teachers did a solid job of taking on the task of turning the culture and school around

    Like we’re finding out from the faux Texas turnaround, we may start finding more evidence of gaming the system in D.C. Without a doubt, an incentive for many administrators is to rocket-boost their short-term portfolio by any means necessary, cash their bonus check and get out of dodge before the skeletons fall out of the closet. Kind of like being an NCAA DI football or basketball coach.

    The many teachers and administrators who fight that temptation deserve much more credit than they often get. Unfortunately, they are often left with the option of turning their classrooms into massive test prep operations during test time.

    As a parent, I spend much of my time trying to figure out which teachers best balance that tedious test prep work, which bore my kids to tears, with some of their own unique teaching hooks to otherwise engage the kids. It’s a tall order for teachers and hard work as a parent in discerning the teachers that can best ensure my kids develop a love of learning.

    Given our backgrounds, Carol and I are probably better equipped than many parents in figuring this out. More precise, our goal is really to make sure our kids get advanced and gifted curriculum placements. This is where teachers have more leeway in curriculum and, usually, where some of the strongest teachers are. We work hard on this front.

    For many parents, this is the sad gaming of the system for which we spend spend so much time and energy – it should not be this difficult. Of course, you need to have access to a sufficient school or system to make this happen. As they say, there is already “choice” in education, it’s called your mortgage.

  7. Jaime Escalante went on to represent a Scientology division, btw. This was my first hint that there might be a crack in his integrity.

    If a success seems too good to be true, it may very well be.

    • jeffkellylowenstein3

      Interesting articles, although the connection between Scientology and Escalante does not appear to be completely conclusive.

      Thanks for sharing, and please come back often.


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