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A culture of deceit in Columbus schools

Reader Comment: Let's step back and think: what is the purpose of these tests and our love affair with and belief in the cult of testing and efficiency.

Reader Comment: You want accountability? Start with the State Assembly? Start with the NCLB law.

Reader Comment: one of the more hopeful findings in the report is that the task of erasing absences and "breaking" enrollment fell to principals because the folks at the data center refused to do it unless the orders were put in writing. Then the principals were told to do it, and they did.

Reader Comment: Yes, punish the cheaters, but still, just for a moment, pause to look at the deeper issue...is this all we have to our educational imaginations? Overtesting, blind faith in a few numbers? THAT's our vision for children and learning communities?

Wall Street Journal Reader Comment: What, "no teachers were involved"??? That is impossible. Everyone knows that the teachers and their unions are the cause of the demise of education in this country. Clearly somebody is altering the facts to protect the guilty and cast an unfair light on administrators, who sole purpose is to just keep their jobs.

Wall Street Journal Reader Comment:Close the worthless Dept of Education before they do any more damage. They are nothing more than the Washington office of the Teachers Unions.

Note: During Harris' tenure as superintendent tenure as superintendent, U.S. News and World Report ranked 12 of the district’s high schools among the nation’s best in their 2010 America’s Best High Schools report; one high school receiving the "silver" award designation and 11 others receiving a "Bronze" designation.

Harris was named 2012 Ohio Superintendent of the Year.

See other awards here

President Obama and Arne Duncan visited the Columbus school district, with a presidential callout to Superintendent Harris.

Let's Play the Ohio School Attendance Data Rigging Blame Game

By Molly Bloom, Aug. 23, 2012

The fingers of blame are pointing every which way as the investigation into whether Ohio schools are improperly manipulating student attendance data to make their state report cards look better unfolds.

Here's how the blame game is going:

1. The State Auditor has suggested that the Ohio Department of Education could be to blame. The auditor has questioned whether the department showed a lack of oversight in making sure student data was reported correctly.

2. The Ohio Department of Education, in turn, has said it's up to school superintendents to ensure the data they send to the state is accurate and follows state reporting rules.

3. But some superintendents have said the Ohio Department of Education knew about the student attendance data manipulation and didn't tell them to stop.

4. See Item 1.

Today's New York Times education coverage is about DeVry University becoming an Olympic powerhouse and a French court rejecting a Roma girl's residency request.

The Wall Street Journal did cover the situation in Columbus. See below the Dispatch account.

By Bill Bush and Jennifer Smith Richards

Jan. 29, 2014

Columbus Dispatch

Former Columbus Superintendent Gene Harris surrounded herself with cheaters, and then nurtured and protected them.

The findings of an 18-month state investigation released yesterday tell a story of a superintendent who presided over a culture in which administrators lost sight of their mission to educate children and instead focused on creating an illusion that they were getting good academic results. State Auditor Dave Yost's long-awaited report found that some Columbus school employees set out to deceive the state and federal education departments -- and the people of Columbus.

"In fact, it appears that many of these children were seemingly being passed through the system without receiving an adequate education" or the help required by law, the audit found.

"They were making it up," Yost said.

Read State Auditor Dave Yost's report on data fraud in the Columbus schools (PDF)

When Harris was confronted in June 2012 with allegations that her own administrators were running a massive data fraud, she said she was shocked: "Why wouldn't they tell me they thought there was an action that was so horrible that was going on that needed to be stopped?"

But the audit found that, time and time again over several years, people did tell Harris about data scrubbing. Even so, when she learned that an internal investigation found one of her top administrators was manipulating data in 2011, she put him in charge of the new student-data system and sidelined the deputy superintendent who had uncovered the truth. At least one of her closest allies told investigators that she knew then that Harris must have known of the fraud.(emphasis added)

Harris did not return a phone call to her home seeking comment yesterday.

It is a "reasonable inference based on our interviews that she was at least aware of what was going on," Yost said.

The district is already making moves based on the report: Within hours, Harris' replacement, Superintendent Dan Good, began the process of firing four principals strongly implicated in data tampering. The district already has made dozens of changes to the way it collects and reports student data so that the manipulation will "never happen again," Good said.

Yost said he will refer those he believes are responsible to federal, state and city prosecutors by week's end. He wouldn't say whether Harris would be referred and noted that his team did not interview her. Yost would not say more about Harris, citing a federal rule that deals with interfering with the work of federal grand juries. Yost also said he'd refer some employees to the Ohio Department of Education, recommending action against their educator licenses.

Yost began investigating in June 2012 after The Dispatch reported widespread data manipulation in the district. His investigation confirmed what the newspaper found when it looked at the district's data files: Administrators made thousands of changes each year that would boost the district's performance on state report cards.

Columbus had a "top-down culture of data manipulation and employee intimidation," Yost said. Under Harris' supervision, former data czar Steve Tankovich and regional executive director Michael Dodds helped create a "bunker culture” in which people feared reprisals for challenging the system of data manipulation.

The report shows nine key ways in which district employees altered data, often to the detriment of students, to make their schools appear to be better than they actually were. Auditors did not find that data was manipulated for financial gain -- to win bonuses or to bring more state money to the district.

Overall, the district's student records were a mess, Yost said, in part because they had been systematically manipulated.

They range from deleting absences to changing grades to fudging the true number of dropouts.

In a single school year, 2010-11, Columbus school employees deleted more than half a million student absences, the auditor found. They changed more than 7,000 grades, often arbitrarily and mostly for the better, without teachers' knowledge.

One assistant principal, Stanley K. Pyle, acted out his motto, "D 'em up," to change more than 600 grades from failing to passing at Marion-Franklin High School. He believed no student should get an F.

Kids taking online courses earned credit even if they didn't finish the classes. And employees created "zombie 12th-graders" when they marked students who were supposed to have graduated as high-school seniors, even though they weren't enrolled.

Some high-school principals singled out students with many absences or who had failed the Ohio Graduation Test and secretly withdrew them. That meant their test scores and attendance data wouldn't count against the school or the district on state report cards.

The investigation also details the stunning number of people whose concerns about the student-data scheme fell on deaf ears.

It recounts the times that half a dozen current or former district employees approached Harris, members of the school board or members of Harris' handpicked upper-management staff and told them what was going on, only for it to be brushed off with feeble action or none at all.

The fraud scheme dates back to at least 2002, auditors found.

Tankovich, who could not be contacted last night, ran the district's data systems back then; Harris managed to keep him under her employ after he retired twice and took a buyout, saying he'd be too difficult to replace. Tankovich demanded that his data workers manipulate student data by withdrawing and then immediately re-enrolling kids, the process called "scrubbing" that kicks their low test scores and absences out of state report-card calculations. But data-center employees demanded that Tankovich put in writing that he had ordered them to change student records. Tankovich refused, Yost said.

Instead, he began working directly with building principals, instructing them how to change the data themselves. He gave them lists of kids he wanted them to withdraw because they'd been absent a lot. He told them it was completely legitimate.

But it wasn't.

In 2004, a data-center employee anonymously wrote to several district officials, including Andrew J. Ginther, who is city council president and was then a school-board member. The writer said that Tankovich was cheating. Harris asked Tankovich if he was, and he denied it. Harris asked the state Education Department to review the district's policy manuals, though not what the district was actually doing, as a way to put the anonymous allegations to rest.

The district's internal auditor at the time opened an investigation, but once the state OK'd the district's policies, her authority and involvement was undermined. She was forced to resign.

That audit, which would have examined the types of fraud Yost found, withered away and died. Ginther told auditors that the district audit committee, which he led, let it die.

"Based on the information we had at the time, I asked staff to follow up," Ginther said yesterday. But internal auditors kept hitting dead ends without specific leads, and once the Education Department said the policies were OK, the matter was put to rest in favor of other pressing audits.

"Looking back on this, if I knew then what I know today, this would have been the highest priority," Ginther said.

A district social-work supervisor raised another alarm in 2005 about attendance fraud at Marion-Franklin High School -- found in Yost's report to have some of the most-profound data manipulation in the district. The alarm was all but ignored.

In 2006 or 2007, Dodds openly discussed his "scrubbing" method within earshot of Harris at an administrators meeting. Harris covered her ears in a hear-no-evil gesture, four separate people told Yost's investigators.

And in 2009, the same social-work supervisor, Katie Huenke, begged her supervisor in emails to look into attendance problems. The supervisor warned her to be careful.

The audit notes that Harris removed some employees who questioned the attendance data. Keith Bell, who was deputy superintendent between 2010 and 2012, toured high-school classrooms when he took the job. He was shocked to find the classrooms in high schools were half-empty even though the schools' data showed stellar attendance rates.

"When he asked about the law on student attendance, he was told that he did not understand the problems of urban schools," the report says. By the end of 2011, after Bell brought evidence of cheating to Harris, she called him into her office, took away all of his job responsibilities and told him to resign. Then she assigned Michael Dodds, whom the auditor named as helping orchestrate the district's data fraud, to oversee the district's new student-data system.

Bell, now the superintendent of Euclid schools, said he had tried to accept the explanations about Columbus' empty classrooms.

"But it didn't make any sense to me," he said in an interview yesterday. It nagged at him; he said he asked a lot of questions, which weren't welcome. But he said he can't say for sure that his discoveries about data manipulation led to Harris pushing him out.

"All of this happens, she calls me in and tells me there's questions about my leadership. I said, 'What's the basis behind that?' She cited some things I couldn't understand. ... It became really clear to me that it was something else other than that," Bell said.

Other longtime administrators have similar stories.

Elaine Bell worked for the district for nearly 50 years. When she started asking questions about the data-tampering allegations brought by Huenke and Keith Bell, she said she became persona non grata.

Harris had asked her to get her superintendent license so that she could apply to become deputy superintendent. Elaine Bell did, and then a panel recommended her as the finalist for the job. But by then, "She did not want me; I think it was because I was questioning things that were occurring," Elaine Bell said of Harris.

"When I came across things that were questionable and took them to her ... she gave me a book called Ethical Eddy. Inside it, she wrote 'Ethical Elaine,'" Elaine Bell said. She retired late last year. (She is not related to Keith Bell.)

Harris has vehemently denied that she knew of the data-manipulation plan and, even when she retired unexpectedly at the end of last school year, insisted that the data scandal played no role.

In a meeting with The Dispatch editorial board in August 2012, she passionately argued that she would get to the bottom of the scandal, though she said she had no knowledge of what had gone on under her watch.

"The last thing that I would be interested in personally or directing or allowing to happen is to have some folks who are in the district doing some actions that amount to cheating so that the community no longer has any faith in us. That doesn't help us. That doesn't help the district one bit. That doesn't help a single child," she said.

What's next for Columbus schools? Board keeping mum

District officials said yesterday that as many as 15 employees who had ties to the data scandal have left, either on their own or in agreement with the district. While they did not name those employees, the number includes the four high-school principals that the district started action against yesterday. Those principals appeared to be on a quest to improve their schools' standing, even by cheating.

They are: Tiffany L. Chavers, who was the principal at Linden-McKinley STEM Academy and was recently reassigned to the central office; Mifflin Principal Jonathan Stevens; Independence Principal Christopher Qualls; and Marion-Franklin Principal Pamela Diggs.

The auditor's report doesn't name them, though it does point out large numbers of data changes at their schools.

Yost also had strong words for the Columbus school board yesterday, which he said "helped create the environment where administration felt free to play fast and loose with the data, contrary to Ohio law." He specifically blamed "policy governance," the hands-off governing model the board adopted many years ago. It urges board members to put their trust in the superintendent and manage the district only from a high level.

School-board President Gary L. Baker said at a news conference yesterday that the board is re-examining whether policy governance is the best model.




Columbus, Ohio, School District Hit By Cheating

Wall Street Journal

January 29, 2014

By Stephanie Banchero

A state investigation of Columbus, Ohio, public schools found a "top-down culture of data manipulation and employee intimidation" in connection with changes to test scores and student grades, officials said Tuesday, in the latest testing scandal to engulf a school district.

Auditor of State David Yost said staff in Ohio's largest district believed they would be demoted or fired if they didn't alter data—changes that artificially inflated schools' academic performance.

He said he would recommend to city, county and federal law-enforcement officials that some administrators be criminally charged. He wouldn't say how many names he would refer, but he said that no teachers were involved in the alleged wrongdoing.

Mr. Yost said interviews with Columbus district employees showed that some of the alleged manipulation was led, in part, by data chief Steve Tankovich, who Mr. Yost said directed principals to make changes. Mr. Tankovich, who resigned last year, couldn't be reached for comment. Mr. Yost said he believes former Columbus schools Superintendent Gene Harris "was aware" of what was going on. Ms. Harris couldn't be reached.

Current Superintendent Dan Good, who arrived at the district after the data rigging was alleged to have taken place, said four current or former principals were put on paid leave Tuesday and would be recommended for termination. "We intend to continue holding accountable those whose willful, deliberate and inappropriate actions can be clearly documented," he said.

The district launched an internal probe after the allegations first surfaced, and officials said the district has overhauled its data-collection policies to ensure employees don't manipulate data. Eleven people whose names surfaced during the investigation have either chosen to leave or been encouraged to leave, said Jeff Warner, spokesman for Columbus City Schools.

The investigation into the academically and financially struggling school district is part of a growing national drama over alleged cheating in public schools. In the past few years, teachers or administrators in Philadelphia, Atlanta and El Paso, Texas, have been accused of everything from scheming to change test answers to stopping low-performing students from taking state exams—all in an effort to boost academic performance numbers.

Experts say the recent spate of cases has come, in part, because data-investigation techniques have become more advanced and because states and districts are ramping up their analyses.

James Wollack, an educational-psychology professor at the University of Wisconsin and co-editor of a handbook on testing security, said the issue has "escalated to a point where parents and others should put pressure on districts and states" to verify test results and "ensure schools are as good as they say they are."

The Columbus schools investigation grew out of a 2012 statewide probe into student-attendance manipulation. Nine school districts were accused of tampering with attendance records to make it appear that low-performing students were absent for chunks of time. That broke their enrollment and nullified their state test scores for school-accountability purposes.

But Mr. Yost also launched a probe into broader data-rigging allegations in Columbus schools. He said investigators discovered evidence that nonteaching personnel changed more than 7,000 student grades from failing to passing, and found thousands of cases where students were dropped from the rolls and re-enrolled later in an attempt to drop their scores from the overall school rating.

He also said he found dozens of instances where students were kept on the rolls even though they didn't attend classes—what one staffer called "zombie 12th-graders." Mr. Yost said keeping such students on the books could boost state funding.

Write to Stephanie Banchero at stephanie.banchero@wsj.com

— Stephanie Banchero
Columbus Dispatch and Wall Street Journal





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