Officials: 138 Educators Implicated in Philadelphia Cheating Scandal

By Dale Mezzacappa & Philadelphia Public School Notebook — January 21, 2014 6 min read
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After more than two years of investigations by both the state and the school district, 138 Philadelphia educators have been implicated in test score cheating, according to information given to the School Reform Commission on Thursday.

The Pennsylvania Department of Education has filed or is pursuing actions against 69 current and former employees based on its investigation of 14 so-called Tier 1 schools—11 district schools and 3 charters—district officials told the SRC. They provided no more details on that group.

The district found grounds for disciplinary action against an additional 69 educators in 19 so-called Tier 2 schools that it investigated with the help of the law firm Morgan, Lewis & Bockius. Officials gave more details on the results of its own investigation.

Jessica Diaz of the district’s Office of General Counsel said that Morgan Lewis found evidence of cheating in 13 of the 19 district schools that it investigated. Three schools were cleared, and the results in three others were inconclusive. She did not identify the schools.

Of the 69 educators implicated in the district’s own investigation, 40 are still employed by the district. Twenty-nine others have since resigned, retired, or been laid off, Diaz said. The district is referring those cases to the state for possible decertification or other action.

Of the active employees, seven are administrators, 31 are teachers and two represent other school-based staff—a counselor and security guard.

The sheer numbers in Philadelphia alone make this one of the largest cheating scandals in the country. Some 178 educators were disciplined in Atlanta, 35 indicted on criminal charges, including the former superintendent.

In Philadelphia, the investigation of cheating on the state standardized test, the PSSA, was well underway when William Hite took over as superintendent in September 2012.

“Given the serious nature of the allegations and their impact on students, I provided staff with my full support and was committed to ridding our system of adults who participated in this type of behavior,” Hite said. “Although investigations are now completed, the school district will continue to devote resources to the disciplinary process against those suspected of violating basic ethical standards.”

He said he was “deeply disappointed” by the behavior of the educators, saying that they did not act in the interest of students. But he said he was “encouraged by the steps we are beginning to take tonight and in the future” to crack down on such misconduct.

So far, the state department appears to have completed disciplinary sanctions against just a handful of educators in Philadelphia, based on tracking of such actions on a state website set up for that purpose. Diaz said that the district will not discipline those educators until the state takes action.

The SRC also voted to approve a personnel resolution that included the terminations of three principals implicated in the cheating scandal, effective Friday. They are Deidre Bennett, Michelle Burns, and Marla Travis-Curtis.

Burns, now principal of Kensington Urban Education Academy High School, was principal of Tilden Middle School when the alleged cheating took place. Bennett, now principal of Cassidy Elementary, was on the staff at Huey Elementary. Travis-Curtis has been the principal of Lamberton Elementary School.

At Huey, proficiency rates on the PSSA dropped 43 points in math and 34 points in reading in 2012 after new security measures were put in place by the state and district. At Lamberton, scores dropped 31 points in both math and reading. At Tilden, scores dropped 28 points in both math and reading in 2011, the year after Burns left Tilden and was reassigned to Kensington Urban Education Academy.

The state Department of Education initiated a cheating investigation in 2011 after the Notebook and NewsWorks drew attention to a forensic analysis of PSSA test results in 2009 that showed a high likelihood of cheating in more than 200 schools statewide—based primarily on a statistically improbable number of wrong-to-right erasures on answer sheets. The state department subsequently did analyses of test booklets for 2010 and 2011, and the irregularities were probed for those three years.

While investigating several districts and charter schools around the commonwealth, the department has disclosed few results.

The state subsequently tightened security overall and imposed strict test protocols at a targeted group of schools across the state, including all Philadelphia district schools, whether implicated or not. PSSA scores fell across the district in 2012, in some cases sharply. Average PSSA scores across the state also declined.

Naomi Wyatt, the district’s chief personnel officer, said that educators here faced termination if there was clear evidence that they changed answers, provided answers, or told someone to violate testing protocols. She said actions were nearing completion on the first 20 of the educators, and disciplinary proceedings underway or beginning on the rest.

The number of implicated educators could go higher. Diaz said later that the district was just now collecting data on the 22 Tier 3 schools that were also flagged for significant statistical evidence of irregularities but not previously investigated.

Morgan Lewis interviewed 550 people, including some students, and spent 5,000 hours working on the cases of the 19 Tier 2 schools, Diaz said. They reviewed test booklets themselves in Harrisburg and visited the testing company headquarters in Minnesota.

The state investigation was conducted by the state department along with the state inspector general and the governor’s Office of General Counsel. It hired the law firm of Pepper Hamilton to help probe several districts and paid some $750,000 for its work in Philadelphia alone, according to documents obtained by the Notebook through the state Right-to-Know law. In late 2012, the state department reported filing more than 140 complaints against educators, but otherwise the department has offered little public accounting of its findings in Philadelphia or elsewhere.

Diaz said that the district’s reports on the 19 Tier 2 schools were completed in May. Spokesman Fernando Gallard said no decision has been made on whether to release those reports. But because of ongoing disciplinary proceedings, it is unlikely that they will be made public with names attached.

Wyatt said that there are other penalties besides termination. Educators can also be suspended if they failed to report inappropriate conduct. Other penalties include being barred from being a testing coordinator; in some cases, no action may be recommended.

Some disciplinary action may not be evident to the public. A suspension without pay can occur without a person actually stopping work, but rather getting reduced paychecks. A terminated teacher’s name might appear on the district’s list without any indication that it is as a result of misconduct relating to cheating.

Robert McGrogan, head of the bargaining unit that represents principals, said that while “under no circumstances do we condone cheating for any reason,” there may be cases where blame may have been fixed incorrectly. In those cases, he said, the union may get involved on behalf of the educator.

Republished with permission from the Philadelphia Public School Notebook. Copyright © 2014


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