Frontline counters lies from Kaya Henderson

You’ve probably heard Kaya Henderson’s attempts to discredit Adell Cothone and John Merrow of Frontline. Let me reprint here what Frontline replied:

Response from Frontline’s Phil Bennett

In her statement, DC Public School Chancellor Kaya Henderson asserts: “PBS did not give DCPS the opportunity to respond to these specific allegations. PBS contacted DCPS about doing a documentary on education reform, but did not share any allegations of impropriety or offer DCPS the opportunity to refute any claims.”

This statement is misleading. FRONTLINE made repeated interview requests to current and former DCPS officials including Chancellor Henderson to discuss allegations of cheating — including the 2011 report by USA Today. In response to an email request for an interview, Henderson wrote to our correspondent, John Merrow, “I would prefer not to be interviewed further for your documentary.” It is unclear why Henderson wrote “further” since an earlier introductory phone call from Merrow was not an on-the-record interview. Merrow and Producer Michael Joseloff sought responses to Cothorne’s allegations from the DC Inspector General, who investigated allegations at the Noyes Education Campus (but did not interview Cothorne), and repeatedly from Wayne Ryan, Cothorne’s predecessor at Noyes and later her supervisor when he moved to the DCPS central office. Neither would agree to an interview. FRONTLINE also asked Michelle Rhee for a final interview after we had learned of Cothorne’s charges. She declined to answer a list of questions that we submitted in writing. We did not return to Henderson with a list of specific allegations after she declined our interview request. One reason for this was that the practices that Cothorne says she discovered at Noyes took root during Rhee’s tenure, not Henderson’s.

It is disingenuous for DCPS officials to suggest that they were blindsided by allegations of cheating at Noyes. They were given multiple opportunities to talk with us, and refused. Rather than address the serious questions raised by the film, many of them beyond the alleged cheating scandal, Chancellor Henderson chose to attack the messenger.

As for the question of whether Cothorne was interviewed by investigators twice, as Henderson asserts, we reported in the film that the DC Inspector General did not interview Cothorne about alleged cheating at Noyes, even though she was the principal of the school. This is accurate — neither DSPC nor the IG has challenged our reporting on this point. This is significant because DCPS cites the IG investigation as the most recent and thorough report on the allegations. We did not address in the film whether Cothorne was questioned by Caveon. When we interviewed Cothorne on camera, she told us she had not been interviewed by Caveon about the 2010 DC CAS (Comprehensive Assessment Test). On the morning of the broadcast, she told us that she had misspoken. She said then that she had been interviewed by Caveon, but was asked only about test security procedures and not cheating. She told us that she had not volunteered her charges of cheating because she feared retaliation. She told us that she had later reported her concerns to DCPS and was called to meet with a “higher up” (her whistleblower lawsuit indicates it was Wayne Ryan) prior to the Caveon interview and was warned off of the subject.

We do not know what Henderson is referring to when she says Cothorne was interviewed “twice by an independent investigator.” According to USA Today, Caveon’s interviews at Noyes about the 2009 DC CAS took place on Jan. 29 and Feb. 10, 2010. Cothorne did not become principal until July 2010.

On this subject, as with the film overall, we absolutely stand by the story we presented to viewers. “The Education of Michelle Rhee” is an exhaustively fair, thorough and accurate treatment of a tumultuous period in the DC public schools, the influence of which continues to be felt not just in classrooms in Washington but in the critically important national debate about the future of education.

Lists of DC Public Schools With Suspiciously High Wrong-to-Right Erasure Rates


Please note that it was the TESTING COMPANY ITSELF that found all of these erasures over the past three years to be suspicious. They informed the State Superintendent of Education, who has exactly zero power in DC, so she asked Rhee and Henderson and their underlings to investigate. The latter group, naturally, stonewalled, and hushed the whole thing up.

As jaded and as cynical as some of you might think I am, I had no earthly idea that this evident fraud was so widespread. Naturally, Michelle Rhee has now said that she thinks that the USA Today investigation itself is an “insult” to teachers and students. I disagree. I think that everything that Michelle Rhee has done since she quit teaching in Baltimore has been an insult to parents, teachers, students, and honest administrators.

I think that the DC Inspector General’s office needs to investigate this fully and to indict the leaders who caused this fraud to happen.

There was a time that the IG office actually did their job and investigated serious crimes and official misdemeanors in DC; but apparently those days are over. In Atlanta, the investigation was far-reaching and has revealed widespread corruption. See this, this, this, and this. The way they got the ‘goods’ on the higher-ups was the usual: low-level teachers and counselors who did the cheating under orders or threats were offered immunity in exchange for truthful testimony.

Here is a link to the USA Today article. Lots of tables!

Is your school on the list?

By the way, classes were “flagged” as suspicious if the number of wrong-to-right erasures on a test was four or more full  standard deviations above the mean. Four standard deviations (or ‘four sigma’)  is a TREMENDOUSLY HUGE increase over the normal number of such erasures. For comparison, there are typically 2 or 3 such erasures on a single student’s test.

To put it in more familiar terms, think about the average adult man’s height in the USA: about 5 feet 9.5 inches. Anybody within about 3 inches of that (taller or shorter) is within one “sigma” of the mean – and this means, statistically, that about 68% of all adult males are between 5’7″ and 6’1″ – and that includes this writer.

So, ‘one sigma’ in terms of adult US male height is about 3 inches of variation in height.

To be over four sigma higher than the mean adult height is to be a giant.  Here is a little table that will allow you to look at what it means. When you look at it, also try to think about the fact that there are just about one hundred million adult males in the US. (100,000,000) So to be one of those 3,200 people who are four sigma above the mean is to be, basically, a freak of nature. And there are only 28 people who are five sigma above the mean. And there are only TWO humans in the entire WORLD (over six BILLION people) who are 6 sigma above the mean. (Source is here.)

Notice that four sigma above the mean (i.e., 6’7″ and higher) doesn’t even show up on this graph!

However, in DCPS, according to the testing company that scored the DC-CAS (not according to me!) we have HUNDREDS and HUNDREDS of classes where the AVERAGE number of erasures is FOUR SIGMA above the mean.

There is only one reasonable explanation for this situation.

I will soon post documents from the previous investigations, so you can look at them for yourself. Stay tuned!

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