The Washington Post

D.C. should decline this award

I have known many winners of The 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 Co. Educational Foundation to principals chosen by their school districts. (Neither I nor anybody in the newsroom is involved in the selection process.)

I don’t think the D.C. Public Schools should have chosen J.O. Wilson Elementary School Principal Cheryl Warley. I hope leaders decline the award or give it to someone else. The award 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 she 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 compared with 81 percent for Noyes. 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 9 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, and my attempts to reach her over 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 posted below, 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 that 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 reputation of our schools and hard-working educators, it is time to stop pretending that nothing could have gone wrong.

Here is the e-mail acting D.C. Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson sent me when I asked for a response to my view that the D.C. schools should decline the award to Wilson Principal Cheryl Warley because of the high rate of test erasures there:


I nominated Cheryl Warley, principal at J.O. Wilson Elementary School to be principal of the year because of her distinguished service to the Wilson community, her tireless efforts to improve student learning, and her positive impact on school culture. During Principal Warley’s tenure, J.O. Wilson students have made significant gains in achievement as measured by the DC CAS. From 2008 through 2010, the number of students who demonstrated proficiency in math increased by 22 points while the number of students who demonstrated proficiency in reading increased by 14 points. However, test scores aren’t the only things that I took into account in nominating Principal Warley.

- J.O. Wilson’s enrollment is up significantly over the past 3 years. By building a strong school culture and community, Principal Warley has successfully recruited families to the school that would have never previously considered Wilson. She is doing a yeoman’s job of bridging different constituencies into a unified, supportive parent and community group.

- Principal Warley’s leadership, including multiple partnerships with community organizations, has helped transform the lot next to the school into a student-designed playground, green space, track and soccer field and the old school library into a $250,000 state-of-the-art library media center. Those partnerships also provide her students with unique enrichment experiences through partners like the Washington Ballet, and The Fishing School.

- Some of the strongest teaching I’ve seen in the district is happening in classrooms at J.O. Wilson. I’ve personally observed in a number of classes at Wilson and seen amazing lessons being delivered by talented instructors. The teachers report feeling supported by school leadership and having the resources they need to be successful. In fact, J.O. Wilson was one of our family’s choices in our out-of-boundary lottery application last year (unfortunately, like many families, we didn’t get in!)

- Principal Warley has created an environment where students and teachers want to be – as evidenced by high student and teacher attendance rates – and has provided consistent, strong leadership at the school over more than 8 years.

Perhaps most importantly, in my visits to J.O. Wilson, I have observed a school where students are dedicated to learning and teachers are focused on improving student outcomes. I invite anyone to observe Principal Warley’s work at J.O. Wilson and judge her success for themselves.

In 2008, the Office of the State Superintendent of Education identified J.O. Wilson as a school with unusual erasure patterns but ultimately directed DCPS not to investigate. Consistent with this finding, J.O. Wilson has sustained, and in many cases built upon, the test results in subsequent years and has never been identified again as a school with any testing improprieties.

I take testing security very seriously. As you know, I have asked the Inspector General to conduct an investigation into testing at schools that have already been cleared of wrong-doing by the most reputable test security company in the country. I will continue to be vigilant in acting upon any indication of impropriety.

I also understand that the real engine of school reform is our teachers and principals. Sadly, this USA today article has placed our hardworking staff members under attack by assuming that all allegations of impropriety are true. I respect our principals too much to deprive them of the commendations they deserve simply because unsubstantiated allegations have surfaced. I am very sad that in your zeal to stake out a position, you raced to adopt a position not supported by facts and failed to contemplate the real impact your words could have on the career of a dedicated principal. In fact, after putting together a packet of information that the Post selection committee agreed was evidence enough to select Cheryl Warley, I find myself having to defend our selection to you in an effort to protect Mrs. Warley’s reputation, which is sure to be sullied by your article. She doesn’t deserve that. Way to thank someone who is doing exactly what we want them to do for students and families.

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


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