This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
A confidential memo suggests that high-profile education reformer Michelle Rhee knew of, and then ignored, evidence of widespread cheating as early as her first year as chancellor of Washington, D.C., schools.
The secret memo, written in January 2009 and obtained by PBS education reporter John Merrow, could refute Rhee’s longstanding claims that she was unaware that rampant adult cheating on standardized tests was likely, despite mounting evidence to the contrary. That is, if she in fact saw the memo.
Two earlier probes into a possible cheating scandal, prompted by investigations by USA Today, found no evidence of wrongdoing, though those investigations were limited in scope.
Merrow writes that reliable and anonymous sources confirmed to him that both Rhee and then-Deputy Chancellor Kaya Henderson discussed the contents of the four-page document with staff.
Asked for comment, Rhee responded with what Merrow calls a "careful statement."
“As chancellor I received countless reports, memoranda and presentations. I don’t recall receiving a report from Sandy Sanford regarding erasure data from the DC CAS, but I’m pleased, as has been previously reported, that both inspectors general (DOE and DCPS) reviewed the memo and confirmed my belief that there was no wide spread cheating.”
After receiving this statement, I sent her the memo; her spokesman responded by saying that she stood by her earlier statement.
Henderson, too, says that she “has no recollection of receiving/reading this document, nor of discussing it with then-chancellor Rhee,” her spokesman told the Washington Post. Like Rhee, she stands by the results of the previous cheating investigations. A statement from the District said that the confidential memo was based on incomplete information and flawed methodology.
Post columnist Valerie Strauss notes that although the memo doesn’t suggest conclusively that cheating took place, it nearly begs for a "thorough probe to be conducted — this time by investigators with subpoena powers." Could she really have ignored suspicions of cheating by almost 200 educators? asks Strauss.
USA Today’s Greg Toppo, who helped break the D.C. story, writes that the memo’s findings "stand in stark contrast to public statements made both by Rhee and her onetime deputy, Kaya Henderson, now D.C.’s chancellor."