D.C. should decline this award

Jay Mathews
Columnist April 27, 2011

I have known many winners of The Washington Post’s Distinguished Educational Leadership Award. Since 1986, the prize has gone to the school principals chosen by their districts for exemplary service to kids. The DELA recipients I know have been wise, energetic, erudite and honest.

But this year, for the first time, I have serious doubts about a winner of the awards, which are given by The Washington Post Company Educational Foundation to principals chosen by their school districts. (Neither I nor anybody in the newsroom is involved in the selection process.)

Jay Mathews is an education columnist and blogger for the Washington Post, his employer for 40 years. View Archive

I don’t think the D.C. Public Schools should have chosen J.O. Wilson Elementary School Principal Cheryl Warley. I hope D.C. school leaders decline the award or give it to someone else. The awards reception is Thursday night.

On the face of it, Warley’s record looks exemplary. She became Wilson principal in 2002 and built a student-designed playground, added green space and created a $250,000 state-of-the-art library media center. Since 2006 her school’s percentage of students testing proficient and advanced in math has gone from 29 to 76 percent and in reading from 46 to 67 percent.

Roger Caruth, who has two children at the school, told me Warley has a “deep understanding of the kids, their backgrounds and their personal home lives.”

The problem is those test score gains are suspicious. USA Today discovered that 103 public schools in the District, including Wilson, have been flagged by the company that handled the D.C. Comprehensive Assessment System tests for having highly unusual numbers of wrong-to-right erasures on answer sheets.

The USA Today story focused on Noyes Elementary School in Northeast Washington because it was designated a Blue Ribbon school by the U.S. Education Department and twice earned large bonuses for its principal and staff for significant increases in student achievement.

Wilson, also in Northeast, had an even higher rate of erasures than Noyes did. In 2008, 93 percent of classrooms tested at Wilson had extremely large numbers of answers changed from wrong to right, compared with 75 percent at Noyes. In 2009, Wilson had 83 percent of classrooms flagged for high erasures; Noyes had 81 percent. In 2010, Wilson had the highest flagged rate in the city, 100 percent of classrooms tested, compared with 80 percent for Noyes.

Full disclosure: My wife, Linda Mathews, conceived and edited the USA Today investigation, but no one has contradicted the extraordinary number of wrong-to-right erasures her reporters uncovered. In 2008, two Wilson classrooms averaged 8.9 such erasures per child. In 2009, one class averaged 13.1 and another 9.9. In 2010, two Wilson classrooms averaged more than 10 erasures per child, about five times the normal wrong-to-right erasure rate in the District.

D.C. officials say there could be innocent reasons for this. Those third-, fourth- and fifth-graders marked their answers and then had flashes of insight that led them to make their wrong answers right nine to 13 times in a single test. I have yet to find any child behavior expert who thinks that makes sense. Children usually don’t bother to check their work. If they do, they often change as many right answers to wrong as they do wrong to right.

I don’t know whether Warley had anything to do with the high erasure rates at her school; my attempts to reach her in the past few days at her home and school have failed. But I don’t think she should receive an award at a time when there are legitimate suspicions that adults may have changed the answers after the kids went home.

In an e-mail I will post in full on my blog, washingtonpost.com/class-struggle, acting Chancellor Kaya Henderson told me that Warley has inspired “some of the strongest teaching I’ve seen in the District” and deserves the award. Henderson said she is so high on Wilson that she tried to enroll a family member who, she was sorry to see, ended up not being picked in the school’s out-of-boundary lottery.

Henderson said I was raising “unsubstantiated allegations.” She did not mention the erasures or give any indication she had asked Warley about them. But she did acknowledge that the test scores were among the reasons she picked Warley for the award.

Limits placed on previous investigations of the erasures were so controversial that Henderson has requested a new probe by the D.C. inspector general. It will be some time before we get that report.

Wilson was not among the schools that an earlier round of investigators focused on. Let’s hope that the inspector general does better and talks to everyone involved in the erasures at Wilson and other schools — particularly students and parents who can tell us whether children remember making all those changes.

Until a thorough report by the inspector general or some other independent entity is completed, a cloud will hang over Wilson. And until then, the DELA should not go to Warley. For the sake of the reputations of our schools and hardworking educators, it is time to stop pretending that nothing could have gone wrong.

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