test tampering

Cheating allegations rise under de Blasio, continuing a Bloomberg-era trend

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

Allegations of test-tampering and grade-changing by educators this year are on a pace to exceed the number of complaints made in 2014, continuing a rise in such allegations that began during the previous administration and has persisted under Mayor Bill de Blasio.

The allegations come as New York City has scrambled to respond to a string of reports this year involving academic fraud and grade inflation, such as a high school that let students earn credits without receiving instruction and an elementary school principal who forged student answers on a state exam. Last month, the education department established a $5 million task force to closely monitor schools’ test scores and how they assign credits.

The rise in complaints does not automatically signal a rise in misconduct; it could also indicate that staffers are making greater use of an anonymous email complaint system, for instance. Still, the growing number of allegations suggests that some teachers and principals continue to feel intense pressure to show test score, pass rate, and graduation rate gains, even as de Blasio has tried to de-emphasize those numbers as the primary measures of schools’ success.

“Habits are stronger than words until someone comes in and says you can’t do that anymore,” said Lehman High School math teacher Jeffrey Greenberg, explaining that de Blasio’s rhetorical shifts did not translate into different grading policies or credit-assigning practices at his school last year.

Data: Office of the Special Commissioner of Investigation, Credit: Sarah Glen/Chalkbeat

By early August, more than 300 complaints that fall into the category of educator test-tampering or grade-changing had been filed with the office of the Special Commissioner of Investigation, an independent office that handles adult misconduct charges in the school system. That is the same number of such complaints made during all of 2014, making it very likely that this year’s total will be higher.

Last year’s allegations already exceeded the number from 2013, continuing a trend that began under former Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Under Bloomberg, who rated and closed some schools largely on the basis of test scores and graduation rates, the number of educator cheating allegations more than tripled, according to a 2011 New York Times analysis.

De Blasio scrapped his predecessor’s A-to-F school ratings and launched a program to revamp rather than close low-performing schools. However, those schools still could face closure or state takeover if they do not show academic gains within a short period. And despite de Blasio’s ambivalence about test scores, they may soon play a larger role in teacher evaluations under a new state law pushed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo.

“Things are getting worse,” said Arthur Goldstein, an English language teacher at Francis Lewis High School, referring to the state’s teacher evaluations. “The pressure they put on teachers is just terrible.”

The cheating allegations represent only a portion of the complaints made to Richard Condon, the special commissioner of investigation. Last year, his office fielded 5,287 complaints — the most in its 25-year history.

The office investigated just three of last year’s 300 test-tampering and grade-changing complaints and did not substantiate any of them, according to Condon’s spokeswoman, Regina Romain. This year, 10 of those complaints are under investigation, she said.

Still, the office refers most academic fraud allegations to the education department’s investigative unit, the Office of Special Investigations. Education Department spokesman Harry Hartfield would not say how many cheating complaints the agency has received or investigated this year.

The department’s new six-member “Academic Integrity Task Force” will examine the way schools award credits, including their use of credit-recovery courses, which allow students to earn credits for classes they previously failed. While credit recovery has come under new scrutiny, it is a longstanding practice in city high schools that many educators say was ramped up under the Bloomberg administration as schools sought to avoid sanctions tied to student credit-earning and graduation rates.

In addition to the task force, staffers at the department’s new school-support centers will review school data for potential improprieties. And at any school where allegations have been made, officials are investigating student transcripts and the school’s procedures for giving credits and enrolling students in courses, Hartfield said in a statement.

“We have zero tolerance for schools that don’t abide by our regulations,” he said.

The moves suggest the department will try to more aggressively seek out instances of fraud, rather than wait for whistleblowers. They follow a spate of high-profile investigations and media reports about grade inflation and test tampering.

In July, the department removed the principal of John Dewey High School in Brooklyn after a yearlong investigation found that students who had failed classes were able to pass by taking credit-recovery courses that consisted of little more than completing work packets — sometimes without any instruction from teachers. One teacher was told to give students credit simply for attending those courses, the investigation found.

In a series of articles this summer, the New York Post documented more instances of credit-recovery classes that appeared to violate city and state regulations. Several stories focused on grade inflation at William Cullen Bryant High School in Queens, which is now under investigation.

In April, the principal of Teachers College Community School in Harlem filled in questions left blank by third graders on this year’s English exams, according to a city investigation. Shortly after a whistleblower filed a report about the principal, Jeanene Worrell-Breeden, she jumped in front a subway train and later died.

David Bloomfield, an education professor at the CUNY Graduate Center and Brooklyn College, said the new task force could help the city move beyond whistleblowers as its main tool for catching academic fraud by educators.

“I’m hoping that the task force will soon report its findings and recommendations,” he said, “and institute a 360-degree system of prevention, monitoring, and identification.”

Sharing Stories

Tell us your stories about children with special needs in Detroit

PHOTO: Patrick Wall

Parents of students with special needs face difficult challenges when trying to get services for their children. Understanding their children’s rights, getting them evaluated and properly diagnosed, and creating an educational plan are among the many issues families face.

Chalkbeat Detroit wants to hear more about those issues to help inform our coverage. We are kicking off a series of conversations called a “listening tour” to discuss your concerns, and our first meeting will focus on children with special needs and disabilities. We’re partnering with the Detroit Parent Network as they look for solutions and better ways to support parents.

Our listening tour, combined with similar events in other communities Chalkbeat serves, will continue throughout this year on a variety of topics. In these meetings, we’ll look to readers, parents, educators, and students to help us know what questions we should ask, and we’ll publish stories from people who feel comfortable having their stories told. We hope you’ll share your stories and explore solutions to the challenges parents face.

Our special education listening tour discussion will take place from 5:30-7:30 p.m., Tuesday July 24, at the Detroit Parent Network headquarters, 726 Lothrop St., Detroit.

As our series continues, we’ll meet at locations around the city to hear stories and experiences parents have while navigating the complexities of getting children the education and services they deserve.

Next week’s event includes a panel discussion with parents of children with special needs, responses from parent advocates, and an open discussion with audience members.

Those who are uncomfortable sharing stories publicly will have a chance to tell a personal story on an audio recorder in a private room, or will be interviewed by a Chalkbeat Detroit reporter privately.

The event is free and open to anyone who wants to attend, but reservations are required because space is limited. To register, call 313-309-8100 or email frontdesk@detroitparentnetwork.org.

If you can’t make our event, but have a story to share, send an email to tips.detroit@chalkbeat.org, or call or send a text message to 313-404-0692.

Stayed tuned for more information about listening tour stops, topics and locations.

First Person

I’m a principal who thinks personalized learning shouldn’t be a debate.

PHOTO: Lisa Epstein
Lisa Epstein, principal of Richard H. Lee Elementary, supports personalized learning

This is the first in what we hope will be a tradition of thoughtful opinion pieces—of all viewpoints—published by Chalkbeat Chicago. Have an idea? Send it to cburke@chalkbeat.org

As personalized learning takes hold throughout the city, Chicago teachers are wondering why a term so appealing has drawn so much criticism.

Until a few years ago, the school that I lead, Richard H. Lee Elementary on the Southwest Side, was on a path toward failing far too many of our students. We crafted curriculum and identified interventions to address gaps in achievement and the shifting sands of accountability. Our teachers were hardworking and committed. But our work seemed woefully disconnected from the demands we knew our students would face once they made the leap to postsecondary education.

We worried that our students were ill-equipped for today’s world of work and tomorrow’s jobs. Yet, we taught using the same model through which we’d been taught: textbook-based direct instruction.

How could we expect our learners to apply new knowledge to evolving facts, without creating opportunities for exploration? Where would they learn to chart their own paths, if we didn’t allow for agency at school? Why should our students engage with content that was disconnected from their experiences, values, and community?

We’ve read articles about a debate over personalized learning centered on Silicon Valley’s “takeover” of our schools. We hear that Trojan Horse technologies are coming for our jobs. But in our school, personalized learning has meant developing lessons informed by the cultural heritage and interests of our students. It has meant providing opportunities to pursue independent projects, and differentiating curriculum, instruction, and assessment to enable our students to progress at their own pace. It has reflected a paradigm shift that is bottom-up and teacher led.

And in a move that might have once seemed incomprehensible, it has meant getting rid of textbooks altogether. We’re not alone.

We are among hundreds of Chicago educators who would welcome critics to visit one of the 120 city schools implementing new models for learning – with and without technology. Because, as it turns out, Chicago is fast becoming a hub for personalized learning. And, it is no coincidence that our academic growth rates are also among the highest in the nation.

Before personalized learning, we designed our classrooms around the educator. Decisions were made based on how educators preferred to teach, where they wanted students to sit, and what subjects they wanted to cover.

Personalized learning looks different in every classroom, but the common thread is that we now make decisions looking at the student. We ask them how they learn best and what subjects strike their passions. We use small group instruction and individual coaching sessions to provide each student with lesson plans tailored to their needs and strengths. We’re reimagining how we use physical space, and the layout of our classrooms. We worry less about students talking with their friends; instead, we ask whether collaboration and socialization will help them learn.

Our emphasis on growth shows in the way students approach each school day. I have, for example, developed a mentorship relationship with one of our middle school students who, despite being diligent and bright, always ended the year with average grades. Last year, when she entered our personalized learning program for eighth grade, I saw her outlook change. She was determined to finish the year with all As.

More than that, she was determined to show that she could master anything her teachers put in front of her. She started coming to me with graded assignments. We’d talk about where she could improve and what skills she should focus on. She was pragmatic about challenges and so proud of her successes. At the end of the year she finished with straight As—and she still wanted more. She wanted to get A-pluses next year. Her outlook had changed from one of complacence to one oriented towards growth.

Rather than undermining the potential of great teachers, personalized learning is creating opportunities for collaboration as teachers band together to leverage team-teaching and capitalize on their strengths and passions. For some classrooms, this means offering units and lessons based on the interests and backgrounds of the class. For a couple of classrooms, it meant literally knocking down walls to combine classes from multiple grade-levels into a single room that offers each student maximum choice over how they learn. For every classroom, it means allowing students to work at their own pace, because teaching to the middle will always fail to push some while leaving others behind.

For many teachers, this change sounded daunting at first. For years, I watched one of my teachers – a woman who thrives off of structure and runs a tight ship – become less and less engaged in her profession. By the time we made the switch to personalized learning, I thought she might be done. We were both worried about whether she would be able to adjust to the flexibility of the new model. But she devised a way to maintain order in her classroom while still providing autonomy. She’s found that trusting students with the responsibility to be engaged and efficient is both more effective and far more rewarding than trying to force them into their roles. She now says that she would never go back to the traditional classroom structure, and has rediscovered her love for teaching. The difference is night and day.

The biggest change, though, is in the relationships between students and teachers. Gone is the traditional, authority-to-subordinate dynamic; instead, students see their teachers as mentors with whom they have a unique and individual connection, separate from the rest of the class. Students are actively involved in designing their learning plans, and are constantly challenged to articulate the skills they want to build and the steps that they must take to get there. They look up to their teachers, they respect their teachers, and, perhaps most important, they know their teachers respect them.

Along the way, we’ve found that students respond favorably when adults treat them as individuals. When teachers make important decisions for them, they see learning as a passive exercise. But, when you make it clear that their needs and opinions will shape each school day, they become invested in the outcome.

As our students take ownership over their learning, they earn autonomy, which means they know their teachers trust them. They see growth as the goal, so they no longer finish assignments just to be done; they finish assignments to get better. And it shows in their attendance rates – and test scores.

Lisa Epstein is the principal of Richard H. Lee Elementary School, a public school in Chicago’s West Lawn neighborhood serving 860 students from pre-kindergarten through eighth grade.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect that Richard H. Lee Elementary School serves 860 students, not 760 students.