Kaya Henderson (Marvin Joseph/WASHINGTON POST)

I sat down with Chancellor Kaya Henderson on Monday, the day before her comments to the Education Department symposium on cheating. She expanded on some of the themes that were the basis for her remarks to the conference. They include the contention--also made by her predecessor, Michelle Rhee-- that lurking within allegations of cheating in the District and other urban school systems is the belief that minority children can’t make significant gains on test scores without improper intervention from teachers or administrators.

Here’s our conversation, edited for clarity and length.

BT: You told the D.C. Council that the cheating allegations were harmful because they were unfounded. How do you know they’re unfounded with an investigation still going on?

KH: Based upon what we have to date. All I can say is what’s been turned over to us, which is the Caveon report. Absent something that says otherwise, I have to go with what has been provided to us. If somebody shows me cheating has happened, nobody around here thinks I won’t act swiftly. But what I cannot do is indict my teaching force when I don’t have any evidence.

I feel like what happened was two-fold with this whole USA Today thing. First, people said the flagging [of classrooms with high rates of wrong-to-right answer sheet erasures] was wrong, the methodology we used was wrong. I’m held responsible for that when it’s not my job to flag. The second thing that happened was a question around the quality of the investigation and the methodology of the investigation. We know for sure that if DCPS went out and investigated its own teachers, people would say you have no incentive to turn over the results or find your people guilty of cheating. So we do what we think is the reasonable thing. We find the best people in the country [Caveon] to do this. And they say we do not find reason to say there is widespread cheating, that there are some things we can’t confirm or deny. So in an abundance of caution [Caveon says] move those people out of the testing situations and we did that. But then people said their methodology is not good.

BT: I don't think they said their methodology wasn’t good...

KH: That their investigation was not complete...

BT: That they didn’t use every forensic tool at their disposal because that’s not what the client wanted.

KH: Well, in fact, I think one of the differences between D.C. and Atlanta was when Caveon went into Atlanta, they said, “We need more information.” Caveon did not say that to us. From my perspective I did what I could do. We hired the best firm and we got slammed. I called up the U.S. Department of Education and said I think that states and districts need some clear guidance on what is an appropriate set of standards around flagging and investigation. What should an investigation look like that would give people confidence that we seriously looked into this?

BT: Some people would say the Georgia model.

KH: The question is do you think that by criminalizing, treating all your teachers as criminals, and threatening them with jail, is that the right way to get the answer that you’re looking for? It’s one way for sure. But is there a different way to do it that is more palatable and doesn’t assume that people are guilty until they are proven innocent?

BT: Do you see the Ed Department Inspector General’s or the D.C. IG’s tracks? Is there any evidence that they are around, doing an investigation?

KH:I don’t know because there is a firewall. And if I did know, you’d accuse me of, not you but...

BT: They haven’t talked to you?

KH: No one from the IG’s office has contacted me personally.

BT: I think the thing that concerns people is that there’s no player in this process who really has an incentive to get to the truth.

KH: Why is it not in my best interest? Why do I not want to know the truth? Because if you’re cheating, you either have to keep cheating or you have to to get good really fast. And kids are being cheated. So why do I not want to know this?

BT: Because it will call into question gains that have become the basis for a lot of claims about progress in the District.

KH: But if they’re not real, I need to know that. Because I’m building on that foundation. Can I say one more thing? I am mystified, in fact I’m offended a little bit that our NAEP progress doesn’t seem to mean anything. That on a completely separate, non-cheatable test we’ve shown gains consistent with the CAS.

BT: NAEP scores were up in Atlanta too. And there was cheating in Atlanta.

KH: Yes, but my question at the end of the day is, are kids learning? That’s what I need to know. And if the CAS is not the right way to do that, then we should figure that out, But at the end of the day, kids were learning in Atlanta. And the subtext, frankly, is that there are a lot of people who do not believe that kids in DCPS, or in Atlanta, or Baltimore or any other place where they look like me could make significant gains. We’re not putting that on the table as squarely as we’re putting some other stuff on the table. So I just feel like we’ve got to to tell the truth and shame the devil, right?

BT: Tell the truth and shame the devil...

KH: My grandma says that. All old black ladies--not all old black ladies-- but a lot of old black ladies say that. I just think that I’m not sure what people want me to do. We took the advice of the OSSE [Office of the State Superintendent of Education] and looked into the classrooms they said. We hired the right people to do it on our own money. We moved people out, and people are like, “Why are you not a statistician extraordinaire?” I called for the inspector general, people are like, “How come you don’t know where the inspector general is?” I can’t win for losing.”

More to come next week, on IMPACT and food service.