Stories & Grievances
UFT President Randi Weingarten Wants Whistleblower Protection For Teachers
Ms. Weingarten stands up for justice and a "fair deal" for her teachers.
Testimony of Randi Weingarten, President, United Federation of Teachers (UFT) Before the City Council Education Committee on Proposed Whistle-blower Legislation
Mar 2, 2006 10:27 AM
The UFT has a long and proud history of advocacy on behalf of New York City’s public school students. In this tradition, I come before you today to urge the passage of legislation protecting “whistle-blower” educators in our city’s schools.
School-based educators are the system’s canaries in the coal mine. Schoolchildren and parents depend on them to sound the alarm when special education students are not getting appropriate services, when dangerous school conditions threaten children’s safety or health, when a school budget and programs are mismanaged to the detriment of services for children.
It is no secret that many have complained about the lack of information and transparency at the Department of Education. Former Speaker Gifford Miller’s CFE Commission suggested an independent institute for research and accountability to evaluate the educational reform initiatives and track the use of CFE funding, and others, including Diane Ravitch and me, have suggested other changes. With such a lack of open communication to parents, to the press, and to education watchdogs, it’s often left to classroom educators to tell people what is going on in the schools. Yet more and more these days, my members are reluctant to speak out. They are afraid of reprisals, and given that many of them are new (more than half have been in the system five years or less), that’s not surprising.
The proposed legislation builds on the city’s 2003 whistleblower law, which protects city employees from retaliation for reporting corruption, criminal activity and conflicts of interest.
It would enhance protection for educators, given their unique circumstances and responsibilities, in the following way:
*The scope of whistle-blowing would be expanded to cover city educators who report a school policy or practice that, while not illegal, nevertheless hurts the health, safety, general welfare, or educational welfare of students.
*School employees who believe they have suffered an “adverse personnel action” in retaliation for making a complaint can inform the school system’s Special Commissioner of Investigation.
*The commissioner has three months (six if necessary) to complete an investigation and produce a written report of his findings.
*If the commissioner substantiates the complaint, the chancellor would have three months (six if necessary) to take remedial action. If the chancellor doesn’t act, the commissioner must relay the matter to the mayor.
*A school employee can file a civil lawsuit to seek redress if either the commissioner dismisses the complaint or the chancellor refuses to act on the commissioner’s finding.
In this hearing, you will hear from a number of courageous educators who became targets of retaliation and retribution because they refused to be silent about practices that harmed their students and schools.
They are representative of the dozens more who came forward wanting to tell their stories, and there are hundreds throughout the school system with their own stories of the repercussions that they faced for speaking out on behalf of their kids.
Let me tell you just a few of the many distressing personal stories that my members have told me.
In January 2004, Philip Nobile, a former journalist who taught political law at the Cobble Hill School of American Studies, sent a memo to his principal alerting him to a pattern of grade tampering. Specifically, he said there was evidence of a pattern of raising failing grades to a passing level in Regents exams in global and American history, subjects that fell under the purview of Theresa Capra, the school’s assistant principal for humanities.
Two weeks later, Capra dropped into one of Nobile’s classes for a while and then gave him an “unsatisfactory” rating for the lesson. Over the next few months, Nobile sent Principal Lennel George a series of memos contending that Capra “systemically directed the changing of Regents grades.” In return, he says, he was bombarded with U ratings. Nobile complained to state officials, who ordered the Department of Education to investigate. An ensuing probe found that Capra tampered with Regents exams and George covered it up. Several teachers who were given immunity told investigators they had “scrubbed” some grades – meaning they moved up grades which were just below the passing mark of 65. Others said they raised some grades from the low 50s to passing. Capra resigned during the probe and George was removed as principal last July.
Nobile says he was the target of continuing harassment, even after Capra left. At one point, Nobile told the New York Times, George reassigned him out of his specialty because “your passing rates on the Regents aren’t high.”
Robyn Harland, a veteran special education teacher in Queens, discovered that teachers and children were being put in harm’s way by the failure of the Department of Education to provide protective equipment, training and vaccinations to educators at risk of exposure to life-threatening pathogens in blood and other bodily fluid.
So when a special ed paraprofessional in her school contracted Hepatitis C, she filed a complaint with the state’s health and safety bureau about the lack of protection, not just for staffers but also for children. Remember, these are the most severely ill and mentally challenged children. Some bite and scratch. Staff change diapers, wipe noses, clean scrapes, sometimes without a chance to wash their hands before turning to another child. Since her filing, the state has issued 13 citations against the DOE and levied fines totaling more than $100,000, and yet the DOE continues to turn its back on the problem. Wouldn’t this money be better spent on children rather than on fines?
And what did the DOE do when confronted with such a whistle-blower? They removed her from her school.
Then there is the story of Frances Strutt and Susan Werner, senior-class guidance counselors at John F. Kennedy HS who discovered that several students who tried to enroll in September for courses they needed to meet graduation requirements had unbeknownst to them actually graduated. Those anomalies impelled the pair to undertake a review of all the students on the August graduation list. They found that up to a third of them on the list had been fraudulently certified for graduation. Someone had tampered with the student transcripts, including adding passing grades for classes that the students never took.
The day after our union rep asked the principal to account for these irregularities, Strutt and Werner were suddenly excessed out of the building. But the story gets worse. Each counselor had over 20 years on the job, so to comply with the contract’s seniority rules, the principal excessed two more counselors with less experience as well. A total of 1,200 students were deprived of counseling services. One of the excessed counselors worked with special ed students, and the remaining special ed counselor was reassigned to take the caseload of one of the excessed general ed counselors, leaving 135 special education students without any guidance counselor. Two students were hospitalized for threatening suicide during that time. All this to punish two educators who were simply trying to uphold the academic standards of the school and report suspected wrongdoing.
School-based educators should not have to choose between saving their careers and acting in the best interests of their kids and schools.
We rely on school-based educators to be the eyes and ears of parents and the public who don’t have full access to schools. These educators need to know that they can advocate on behalf of children and families without putting their careers at risk. Parents need to know that they can count on teachers to protect their children and fight for what their children need and deserve. And most of all, children need to know that they can trust their teachers not to let anything bad happen to them.
This education committee cannot undo the damage done to the brave teachers testifying before you today. But by passing this legislation, you can help the next Philip Nobile or Frances Strutt when they step forward to blow the whistle on behalf of their students.
Carey department chair resigns
Leaves to fight allegations of inflating Regents exam scores at old school
By Brian Zanzonico July 14, 2005
After being investigated by the New York City Department of Education for orchestrating Regents exam grade-tampering while working at a Brooklyn school, the chairwoman of the H. Frank Carey High School social studies department resigned Monday at a meeting with Sewanhaka Central High School District officials.
The DOE investigation, which concluded in May, found that as assistant principal of the Cobble Hill School for American Studies, Theresa Capra elevated grades on Global History Regents exams in 2002 and 2003, and instructed teachers to do the same.
"She indicated she intends to devote herself full time to defending herself against those allegations, which she vehemently denies," said Sewanhaka Superintendent Dr. John Williams.
Capra was hired by the Sewanhaka schools last summer, during the DOE investigation. Williams said the district was unaware of the investigation during the hiring process, which DOE spokeswoman Kelly Devers said happened because it was still ongoing. "We're disappointed we didn't know about the incident before we hired her," Williams said.
Williams said he helped form a committee comprising social studies experts, current department chairs and retired chairs last week to comb through social studies Regents tests taken this year by Carey students, and found no abnormalities in the grading.
Capra did not return several phone calls.
Former Assistant Superintendent of Personnel Dr. Gerard Connors said that Capra "came with the best of references," and her New York State fingerprint check came back clean. Connors, now retired, was one of the officials in charge of hiring her. "I'm flabbergasted," he said of the news about her. "Shocked."
Capra was slated to meet with Sewanhaka officials last Thursday, but Williams said she had hired a lawyer who requested time to review the facts. Because she was a probationary employee and did not have tenure, Sewanhaka district officials had a multitude of options, including dismissal.
Williams said that district officials began interviewing candidates this week for the vacant assistant principal post at Elmont Memorial High School. Once that position is filled, he explained, attention will be turned to finding a replacement for Capra, which will most likely come from Sewanhaka.
Until the investigation came to light, Capra was considered a rising star in the district, rated "very good" in her one year at Carey by principal Douglas Monaghan, Williams said. "We wish her well," Williams added. "She was a good employee for us."
According to the 30-plus-page DOE investigator's report, obtained last week by the Herald, Capra was accused by Cobble Hill social studies teacher Vincent Leardi of changing failing grades on the 2003 Global Studies Regents to passing marks, and that at least one exam was changed from the 50th percentile to the 70th percentile. Leardi also said he personally changed grades below 65 to passing. As a result of his cooperation with investigators, Leardi avoided disciplinary action stemming from the investigation.
Cobble Hill social studies teacher and United Federation of Teachers chapter leader Phillip Nobile said in the report that he was told by Capra in May of 2002 that students could get essay points for "old garbage" they wrote. Two other teachers said they were asked by Capra to "scrub," or inflate the scores of that fall's exams that fell just below the passing grade of 65.
Several Cobble Hill teachers interviewed in the investigator's report, however, said they never saw or heard Capra bumping up grades or instructing teachers to do so. Capra declined to be interviewed for the report, but in published reports has denied wrongdoing.
The investigator's report also said that in a letter from a State Education Department official to a superior, the official wrote that data obtained from the Office of Information and Reporting Services concluded that "the aggregation of scores assigned in the 65-69 range as compared to the 60-64 range for students of the Cobble Hill High School on both Regents examinations goes beyond any dispersion, magnitude or directionality that is likely attributed to chance."
Cobble Hill Principal Lennel George was removed last week by Region 8 Superintendent Dr. Marcia Lyles, but his fate will not ultimately be decided until further investigation by the DOE, Devers said. She also said that Kathy Pelles, a superintendent in Brooklyn responsible for supervising the school, received a letter of reprimand but will not be terminated.
According to Cobble Hill's mission statement on the DOE Web site, it "provides a full college preparatory program with a special focus on American History. We believe that high teacher expectations, an emphasis on student effort and a supportive learning environment will help students achieve academic success."
Comments about this story? Bzanzonico@liherald.com or (516) 569-4000 ext. 240.
©Herald Community 2006
July 1, 2005
Principal Hid Fraud on Tests in Brooklyn, Officials Say
By DAVID M. HERSZENHORN, NY TIMES
A Brooklyn high school principal covered up a widespread effort to inflate grades on the Regents exams in social studies in 2002 and 2003, education officials said yesterday, and he will face termination.
The principal, Lennel George of the Cobble Hill School of American Studies, was removed this week after a 14-month investigation involving state and city officials.
The authorities also said yesterday that Kathy Pelles, a local superintendent in Brooklyn responsible for supervising the school, would be formally reprimanded for failing to properly supervise the investigation into cheating allegations and for failing to promptly report the allegations.
Officials said an assistant principal had directed teachers to change failing grades to passing on dozens of exam papers.
The finding is the latest blow to the state's Regents testing system, which has been plagued by cheating and other problems. And it called into doubt the state's longstanding practice of letting schools grade their own test papers.
Earlier this week, an official in the Jericho school district on Long Island was charged with official misconduct, accused of providing his son, a student at John Glenn High School in the Elwood district, with answers to the Regents exam in global history.
Last week, state officials lowered the score needed to pass the Math B Regents exam after they said they had erred in scaling the test results and that too many students would probably fail. In recent years, there were similar problems with the Math A and physics tests.
In the Brooklyn case, an investigator for the city school system, Louis N. Scarcella, determined that the assistant principal for humanities, Theresa Capra, had directed staff members to tamper with the results for the Regents exams in global history and in American history, by raising grades on the essay portions of the exam.
In his report, Mr. Scarcella said that three teachers had admitted changing grades by engaging in a process called "scrubbing," in which grades just below the 65 passing mark are bumped up.
In some cases, teachers said that papers with grades in the low 50's with no chance of passing had also been lifted above 65. A statistical analysis by the State Education Department in April 2004 found that "the aggregation of scores assigned in the 65-69 range as compared to the 60-64 range for students of the Cobble Hill High School ... goes beyond any dispersion, magnitude or directionality that is likely attributed to chance."
According to Mr. Scarcella's report, Ms. Capra denied the allegations but refused to be interviewed during the investigation. She resigned in May 2004.
Darren Dopp, a spokesman for State Attorney General Eliot Spitzer, confirmed yesterday that the case had been referred to his office and that officials were considering criminal charges against Ms. Capra. The removed principal, Mr. George, said he was fighting his dismissal but declined further comment. Efforts to reach Ms. Capra and Ms. Pelles last night were unsuccessful.
The Cobble Hill case left city and state education officials struggling to explain why the investigation took so long.
Because of the delay, at least 50 students at Cobble Hill were apparently permitted to graduate even though their Regents scores were fraudulent.
Alan Ray, a State Education Department spokesman, said the agency did not require scores to be changed unless errors were found within one year. While the department had initial statistical evidence of irregularities at Cobble Hill, the city's investigation was not concluded until last month.
At the heart of the case was Philip Nobile, a social studies teacher and the union chapter leader at the Cobble Hill School, who pressed allegations of misconduct by Ms. Capra in repeated complaints to the principal, Mr. George, and later in formal complaints to officials in both the City and State Education Departments.
Mr. Nobile passed along an e-mail exchange with Ms. Capra that took place prior to the June 2002 Regents exams in which he expressed concern that many students would fail.
Ms. Capra replied: "Let's try to focus on getting these kids a 65. Teach them to do the essays first before the multiple choice. In a pinch they can get points from writing any old garbage down."
That sentiment, while starkly put in the e-mail message, reflects an understanding among educators that they have more latitude in grading essay portions on Regents exams.
Mr. Ray said state officials routinely audited about 10 percent of Regents test papers. "We are certain that this kind of cheating is not widespread," he said.
Mr. Nobile said he saw exam grades being changed in June 2002 but did not complain to the principal until April 2003 out of concern for the teachers involved.
Mr. Nobile said that Ms. Capra retaliated against him, by giving him unsatisfactory reviews. In March 2004, he complained to state officials, who ordered the city to investigate. Around the same time, another teacher hand-delivered his own complaint to officials in Region 8 in Brooklyn, which was led at the time by Carmen Fariña, now the city's highest ranking instructional official.
Jerry Russo, a spokesman for Schools Chancellor Joel I. Klein, said, "While an isolated incident, this behavior is entirely unacceptable."
Mr. Nobile said city officials should do more to protect teachers who report corruption.
"The system is stacked against a whistle-blowing teacher who can be subjected to retaliation," he said.
Uth TV on Philip Nobile
Fall 2005 Web Exclusive Story
Errors and Cheating Allegations Proliferate
Across the nation, allegations of cheating and errors in exam construction, administration and scoring continue to proliferate, undermining confidence in the reliability of high stakes testing.
In September, Pearson Educational Measurement Inc. offered five Virginia high school seniors $5000 college scholarships after incorrect scoring cost them their dilomas. Errors were made in scoring 60 exams given this summer. Pearson recently took over the development, administration and scoring of Virginia's Standards of Learning test. Previously the contract was held by Harcourt. Under Harcourt, the state's tests had a history of scoring errors. Pearson also has a long history of errors in other states, including incorrectly flunking 8,000 Minnesota students in 2000, resulting in a $7 million settlement, and incorrectly scoring 410,000 exams in Washington state in 1999.
For the third time in four years, North Carolina officials have scrapped or recalculated results of their ABC school-testing system. A problem with the formulas used to measure student progress resulted in improbably low scores on the 2005 sixth grade reading test. A new formula is in place for next year and the Governor is calling for an outside audit.
Illinois threw out all of the answers on one of three reading passages on the 2005 fifth-grade reading test. One hundred teachers watching the scoring of 2004 tests had inadvertently seen materials for the still-unadministered 2005 test. The passage was one that inner-city and low-income students could relate to better than the other passages according to Barbara Radner of DePaul University. In Chicago, the only scores not to improve were on the fifth grade reading test. An analysis is under way to see if the omitted answers would have made a difference in the students scores.
Other testing and grading errors around the country included two Lee County Florida Schools possibly losing $350,000 in bonuses after FCAT exams taken by students were mailed to the wrong scoring company in the wrong state. Had the scores been properly delivered the pair of schools could have met the criteria for an AA rating rather the AB they received from the state that caused them to miss out on the bonuses. New York officials released a new, more lenient scoring chart for the state's Math B exam after it was discovered that the test was more difficult than it should have been. This is the third time such an error has occurred on the same test. In Mississippi, 3,600 students will have the chance to retake the English 2 portion of the state's computer-administered exit exam after widespread problems during its administration. Computers locked up, potential answers were not properly displayed and students were suddenly switched from one test section to another.
In New York, Isben Jeundy, a Long Island Assistant Superintendent, was charged with official misconduct by police after his son, a sophomore in another district, was caught with crib notes matching answer sheets for which his father was responsible. Also in New York, the State Education Department recently concluded that Theresa Capra, an assistant principal, had for several years been altering Regents Exam grades and tampering with the tests; and that Lennel George, the school's principal engaged in a cover-up. The principal has been removed and Ms. Capra has resigned.
Richmond Virginia Superintendent Deborah Jewell-Sherman is seeking to dismiss employees at the Oak Grove Elementary School following a state report on problems with the administration of the states Standards of Learning tests. The principal allegedly instructed proctors to grant all students accommodations that are meant only for those with certain learning disabilities. The report also found instances of markings in test booklets not made by the students and cases of faculty members Apointing to items students had answered incorrectly in the test booklets and pointing to correct answers. The state plans to closely monitor SOL administration at the school for the coming year.
In Massachusetts officials are concerned about the rising number of students caught cheating on the MCAS exam after reported incidents nearly doubled in 2005. Students were caught exchanging answers verbally, using cell phones and text messages, and referring to crib sheets. Parents and educators fear that as testing pressure increases under NCLB, instances of cheating will increase dramatically.
State officials in Texas have turned to a private company to investigate allegations of cheating after a newspaper investigation discovered evidence of educators assisting students on the state's TAKS exams (see Examiner, Spring 2005).
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