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District to release report on cheating investigation at 19 schools

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The Philadelphia School District plans to release a report on its investigation of adult cheating on standardized tests in 19 city schools that will give a sense of the scope of the problem and say how many educators will face disciplinary charges. But the report, which will be released within the next three weeks, will not name names, sources have told the Notebook.

Sources indicated that infractions were found at most of the 19 schools. These 19 represent one of three groups of schools identified for further investigation through statistical anomalies, such as high numbers of wrong-to-right erasures on answer sheets that forensic analysis found would be virtually impossible to occur by chance.

Altogether, 53 District schools and three city charters were flagged for investigation, with the state dividing them into three tiers. The state itself is investigating 12 Tier 1 schools, where the evidence was strongest. It told the District to probe the 19 Tier 2 and 22 Tier 3 schools.

The District’s investigation of the so-called Tier 2 schools was primarily conducted pro bono by attorneys from the law firm Morgan Lewis & Bockius. Two partners and more than a dozen associates from the firm have been working for more than a year and provided a report of findings at each school. They interviewed 550 people and logged some 5,000 hours, said District spokesman Fernando Gallard.

The District has not yet decided whether it will release the individual school reports, Gallard said.

The state Department of Education has made no public accounting of its findings regarding its investigation of the 12 Tier 1 schools, which is now nearly two years old. Sources said that infractions were also found at most of those schools and that proceedings to revoke or suspend educators' credentials, which only the state can do, were initiated against a score of them. State officials have said that over 100 educators were being targeted statewide.

The District’s summary of its investigation into the 19 Tier 2 schools will likely include the number of teachers and the number of administrators who have been identified for potential disciplinary action, disclose how many still work for the District and how many have resigned or retired, and indicate how many are working elsewhere, including in charter schools. It will also describe the nature of the infractions.

Sources said that the District has either started or will soon start disciplinary proceedings against educators who have been implicated. But it is unclear how it will make such actions public. And it is also not determined whether any except those who have had the most severe penalties lodged against them – termination by the District and/or the revocation or surrender of their credentials – will ever be known. In the most egregious cases, the District could terminate an employee and file a complaint with the state to revoke his or her credentials.

The state publishes the names and actions against all educators who have been disciplined by the state on a website set up for that purpose, along with the reason for the action. The District releases the names of terminated employees at each School Reform Commission meeting, but generally gives no reason.

Short of termination, District sanctions against educators can range from suspension to letters placed in the person’s file.

In general, the District does not announce details of disciplinary actions against educators. This situation, however, is presenting officials with a dilemma.

“We don’t want to take steps out of ordinary process to name people,” said one District source. “There are other ways for names to become public, including the state website when certification is suspended or on the list from the School Reform Commission where individuals are being fired.”

At the same time, said another source, the goal is “to identify cheating, make sure people are punished, and take steps to make sure it doesn’t happen again.”

Employees have the right to contest disciplinary actions taken against them. Initiating a state complaint or internal District proceeding does not mean that the charges will stick and the sanction will be carried out. 

It will be awhile before it is known against how many people sanctions are actually carried out. And it is still unknown whether the District will make public a tally or other details about disciplinary actions that are taken.

“That’s been the holdup all along, the issue about naming people,” said a District source.

During the course of the probe, attorneys often interviewed people several times, according to people close to the investigation. It was sometimes difficult, they said, to crack a school’s culture and get people to say what happened. Determining the truth in these cases and who did what is not easy. In a few cases, the investigations were inconclusive because witnesses by and large would not cooperate.

“People not affiliated with this are wondering why it is taking so long,” said one person with knowledge of the investigation. The goal, this person said, is to “do it right. The worst thing that can happen is … the charges don’t stick. That sends the opposite message to the field: Here’s the way get around charges.”

But with reputations and careers at stake, it is important to be certain of the information before taking action against someone.

So far, two District principals have had surrendered their credentials or had them suspended temporarily by the Pennsylvania Department of Education as a result of its investigation into the 12 Tier 1 schools. This means that any others who received educator misconduct letters from the state are likely contesting the actions, or haven’t come to agreement on a sanction.

Sources told the Notebook that one of the principals still under investigation is Arthur “Larry” Melton, who retired from Bok Technical High School. Bok was one of dozens of schools whose scores plummeted in 2012 after PDE instituted stricter test-taking protocols. It is one of 24 schools that the School Reform Commission voted to close down this year.

The test coordinator at Bok was Ronald Paulus, who is the only teacher so far to be sanctioned by the state in the probe. While denying any wrongdoing, Paulus had his teaching license suspended for two months during the summer, a lenient penalty that could mean he has cooperated with the investigators. 

Melton did not respond to several messages left at his home. 

PDE hired the law firm of Pepper Hamilton to investigate potential cheating and paid the firm at least $750,000 for the work done in Philadelphia. It also investigated other districts around the state and several charter schools.

The state has told the District to investigate the 22 Tier 3 schools. That investigation will begin in September, a District spokesperson said.

Additional reporting by Monika Zaleska.

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Dale Mezzacappa

@dalemezz
Dale is a contributing editor at the Notebook. She has reported on education since 1986, most of that time with The Philadelphia Inquirer.

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