Philadelphia Metropolis

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Cheating, Inc.

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USATodaytestartpencil.jpgMany years ago, I was a member of a team of reporters investigating the Philadelphia School District.  We worked for nearly a year on the series, which was called The Shame of the Schools, published in the Inquirer in 1981.

As part of it, we looked at the academic credentials of Superintendent Michael Marcase.  In those days, a superintendent had to have a Ph.D from an accredited university and Marcase did not.  He got his from a school in Florida that seemed, upon examination, to be a diploma mill for educators needing a quick advanced degree. No matter. The state waived the requirement for Marcase and he was able to take the job.  He was the guy Mayor Frank Rizzo wanted and the state yielded.

As part of our investigation, we looked not only at Marcase's degree, but also his Ph.D. dissertation that my colleague, Mary Bishop. who was education writer, felt was fishy.

The dissertation purported to show the efficacy of a reading program Marcase and a colleague had devised to improve reading scores among elementary students.  The idea was to have them read television scripts on the theory that their interest in the programs would propel them to be enthusiastic about reading.  The experiment was a success, if you took the word of the various charts and graphs in the report. The students made gains in reading comprehension.

However, we found no evidence of any study being conducted.  We contacted people mentioned in Marcase's dissertation and they had no memory of the project. The dissertation did not name the schools, but in an early interview with us Marcase identified Julia Masterman as one of the low-performing schools used in the study. Masterman is not now nor has it ever been low performing.  And no one at Masterman had any memory of any study being done there.

In short, the dissertation was fabricated.  He made it up.  He cheated.

Fast forward nearly 15 years when my colleagues Craig McCoy, Dale Mezzacappa and I were working on another investigation of the district. In a rare burst of openness, the district had turned over a vast storehouse of data about the schools and we were doing a computer-assisted analysis of it.

One thing we sought to do is create a "stress index" of high schools - take various indices, such as student and teacher absenteeism, test scores, suspensions, reported acts of violence, etc.--assign a certain weight to each and emerge with a portrait of the most troubled high schools.

We ran into a problem, though, with the reports on violence. They were all over the lot, from year to year, from school to school. Some schools - troubled in every other way - had little violence reported. Schools that were okay in most categories reported high violence.

As we made calls and talked to folks in the district we discovered that the numbers were, in fact, unreliable. Some principals would fudge the reports to make their numbers look good. There was no benefit in being targeted as a dangerous school, so they finagled. They cheated.

Fast forward nine years and a team of Inquirer reporters looked more in-depth at the violence numbers and proved - beyond a shadow of a doubt - that the district vastly under-reported incidence of student-on-student and student-on-teacher violence. In short, the cheating continued - and it wasn't isolated, it was systemic.

Now, let's step forward to last year. It began as a report from teachers in one district middle school alleging cheating on the PSSA, the state's standardized tests that measure student performance. The cheating wasn't done by students, but by teachers who, under pressure from their principal, erased wrong answers and penciled in correct ones after the tests were handed in.

The district portrayed it as an isolated incident. But, a subsequent investigation by the state Department of Education - using statistical analysis of the rate of erasures and handwriting analysis by forensic experts - revealed that the cheating was widespread and could involve more than 50 schools. (For details, read this report in the Public School Notebook by Dale Mezzacappa and Benjamin Herold.)

How widespread was it? Well, after the allegations were made and the investigation was begun, the state closely monitored the test taking in the schools this year. At many of the schools under investigation, scores plummeted. In fact, the PSSA scores for the district writ large fell significantly - further evidence, in my mind, over how widespread the finagling was.

This latest revelation calls into question the gains in test scores reported by the district in recent years. It could mean that the academic improvement was attained through fraud - via widespread, systemic cheating.

If the school district was a foreign country and you read reports about such incidents involving the head of state, the top echelon of administrators and even government people in the field, you would come to the logical conclusion that corruption in this nation was endemic - baked into the pie, so to speak.

The same can be said about the district. It is immersed in a culture of fraud and deceit that is long-standing and widespread.

This is something the defenders of the status quo need to address, once they get over their dreamy fixation on evil outside forces seeking to take over the district.

Can they make a plausible case that changes -- up and down the pyramid -- are not needed? How will they overlook or excuse the endemic culture of cheating and finagling done by adults? How can they simultaneously blame the central administration of the district for these ills, while actively opposing its dismantling? Someday, after emitting more primal screams, they may get around to answering these questions.

-- Tom Ferrick

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