Saturday, October 31, 2009

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.


Anonymous said...

The kids who are in school today are being set up for failure. The practice of changing grades, moving kids on when they are not ready, changing Regents scores is rampant. At my school, a student made up 12 CREDITS IN A WEEK and went on to graduate. The teachers were stunned but not surprised. Our principal went on to be a White House fellow. It's all a sham - all smoke and mirrors. When Bloomberg finally leaves and there is a nonpartisan look at these last 8 years, people will be stunned. It will take another 10 years to dig ourselves out of this mess.

Anonymous said...


Marc Sternberg, 36. Hometown: New York, NY. Marc Sternberg is the Founder and Principal of the Bronx Lab School. Bronx Lab is a non-selective college preparatory high school that serves 430 students from the Bronx and upper Manhattan. Founded in 2004, Bronx Lab has been called one of New York’s high profile new schools by The New York Times, and has earned praise from, among others, the Gates Foundation, The Economist, and Education Week Magazine. The school graduates its second class of students in June 2009. In a borough with a graduation rate of less than 40%, more than 90% of the Bronx Lab Classes of 2008 and 2009 have graduated having earned more than $4 million in scholarship dollars and nearly four college acceptances per graduate. Bronx Lab graduates attend Middlebury, Brandeis, Connecticut College, Syracuse, SUNY Binghamton and scores of other colleges and universities. After earning a B.A. from Princeton University in 1995, Marc served as a Teach for America corps member in the South Bronx where he taught for three years. He then earned a joint MBA and Masters in Education from Harvard University, after which he returned to New York City as Vice President of Victory Schools, an organization that launches and manages charter schools

Anonymous said...

I learned this week that a former Lehman HS student, who is now a school safety agent, needed 5 credits to graduate. Leder gave him the 5 credits, no work, no classes, and this person graduated. There should be a committee of administrators, teachers, and parents who should review the criteria of grade changes. In this committee, there should be only tenured teachers, the chapter leader, and the PA president They, through consensus, should determine if a grade should be changed based on state guidelines. The principal should not have this absolute power of being the chief rating officer. When bonuses are involved, corruption takes the lead! I always thought that corruption only existed in the business world, but lately it has been rampant and shameful in the school system. Thank you Mayor Bloomberg for pressuring people to cheat, lie, and steal! You will go down in history as the mayor who boast about the school system's bogus stats! Let's continue to Leave Every Child Behind and give them credits where credit is NOT really due.

Anonymous said...

Nice guess on the White House Fellow but I don't work in NYC and that's not my principal. I wouldn't have been stupid enough to publish about my principal if I thought it would be that easy to figure out. When Bloomberg goes and reformers like him, you can bet everyone's going to be running for cover. How many kids will be struggling with student loans that they took out to go to colleges they didn't have a prayer to graduate from?

Anonymous said...

right on ms. colon! she was a great teacher who inspired me to attend law school.

Anonymous said...

This cheating scandal was an awful act, But we need another active in front these acts.

Melinda Watson.

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Anonymous said...

The Bronx School for Law, Government & Justice, once touted as the most up and coming school in the Bronx, has many of the same issues. The principal has changed test scores and even placed students in AP classes who had failed their subjects the previous year. There was also an investigation by the DOE when a asst. principal kept several students in the gym all day for an infraction and forced them to scrub the floors. No wrongdoing was found. Students were jumped in the halls during class changes and, although these incidents were reported by teachers, there was no punishment for the attackers except to stay in a makeshift classroom outside the dean of discipline's office for a day or two. Then, these students would be returned to the classroom and sit next to their victims. And that is just the tip of the iceberg.