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What’s the stupidest thing the NYC Department of Education and Columbia University Teachers College did in the past decade?

Ummm, how bout this:

The principal of a popular elementary school in Harlem acknowledged that she forged answers on students’ state English exams in April because the students had not finished the tests . . . As a result of the cheating, the city invalidated several dozen English test results for the school’s third grade.

The school is a new public school—it opened in 2011—that is run jointly by the New York City Department of Education and Columbia University Teachers College.

So far, it just seems like an unfortunate error. According to the news article, “Nancy Streim, associate vice president for school and community partnerships at Teachers College, said Ms. Worrell-Breeden had created a ‘culture of academic excellence'” at the previous school where she was principal. Maybe Worrell-Breeden just cared too much and was under too much pressure to succeed, she cracked and helped the students cheat.

But then I kept reading:

In 2009 and 2010, while Ms. Worrell-Breeden was at P.S. 18, she was the subject of two investigations by the special commissioner of investigation. The first found that she had participated in exercise classes while she was collecting what is known as “per session” pay, or overtime, to supervise an after-school program. The inquiry also found that she had failed to offer the overtime opportunity to others in the school, as required, before claiming it for herself.

The second investigation found that she had inappropriately requested and obtained notarized statements from two employees at the school in which she asked them to lie and say that she had offered them the overtime opportunity.

After those findings, we learn, “She moved to P.S. 30, another school in the Bronx, where she was principal briefly before being chosen by Teachers College to run its new school.”

So, let’s get this straight: She was found to be a liar, a cheat, and a thief, and then, with that all known, she was hired to two jobs as school principal??

The news article quotes Nancy Streim of Teachers College as saying, “We felt that on balance, her recommendations were so glowing from everyone we talked to in the D.O.E. that it was something that we just were able to live with.”

On balance, huh? Whatever else you can say about Worrell-Breeden, she seems to have had the talent of conning powerful people. Or maybe just one or two powerful people in the Department of Education who had the power to get her these jobs.

This is really bad. Is it so hard to find a school principal that you have no choice but to hire someone who lies, cheats, and steals?

It just seems weird to me. I accept that all of us have character flaws, but this is ridiculous. Principal is a supervisory position. What kind of toxic environment will you have in a school where the principal is in the habit of forging documents and instructing employees to lie? How could this possibly be considered a good idea?

Here’s the blurb on the relevant Teachers College official:

Nancy Streim joined Teachers College in August 2007 in the newly created position of Associate Vice President for School and Community Partnership. . . . Dr. Streim comes to Teachers College after nineteen years at the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education where she most recently served as Associate Dean for Educational Practice. . . . She recently completed a year long project for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in which she documented principles underlying successful university-assisted public schools across the U.S. She has served as principal investigator for five major grant-funded projects that address the teaching and learning of math and science in elementary and middle grades.

It’s not clear to me whether Streim actually thought Worrell-Breeden was the best person for the job. Reading between the lines, maybe what happened is that Worrell-Breeden was plugged into the power structure at the Department of Education and someone at the D.O.E. lined up the job for her.

In a talk I found online, Streim says something about “patient negotiations” with school officials. Maybe a few years ago someone in power told her: Yes, we’ll give you a community school to run, but you have to take Worrell-Breeden as principal. I don’t know, but it’s possible.

I guess I’d prefer to think that Teachers College made a dirty but necessary deal. That’s more palatable to me than the idea that the people at the Department of Education and Teachers College thought it was a good idea to hire a liar/cheat/thief as a school principal.

Or maybe I’m missing the point? Perhaps integrity is not so important. The world is full of people with integrity but no competence, and we wouldn’t want that either.

25 Comments

  1. BenK says:

    The problem with your final statement is that accepting a general lack of integrity makes all further measures of competence impossible.

    • Andrew says:

      Ben:

      Oh, I don’t agree with that final statement either. I just inserted it as a rhetorical trick to put me in the position of the moderate middle, so that my readers could feel free to take the stance against lying, cheating, and stealing, without feeling they’re just echoing me. When I come down hard, people sometimes have the reaction to defend my target. When I give an air of moderation, readers can themselves fill in the final steps.

  2. Dustin says:

    On a pessimistic side, maybe they were okay with hiring her so long as the school’s test results would improve. And if it were ever found out that it was because of cheating, they could put all blame on her and feign ignorance?

  3. Bea says:

    There is, in fact, a principal shortage, just as there is a teacher shortage. At the high school where I taught, the principal had failed the administrator’s exam three times and had recently been jailed for assaulting the principal of the middle school. So unqualified AND violent. And so poor-performing that the federal government put the school in receivership. So why was he principal? Because there was no else in the entire town willing to do it.

    • Andrew says:

      Bea:

      Wow, that’s scary! Maybe better in such a setting not to have any principal at all. Teachers are necessary; it’s not clear that principals are necessary. If there’s no one qualified to do the job, why not take the $ that would’ve gone to principal’s salary and instead split it among a committee of teachers who can do the job?

  4. Mark Palko says:

    “What’s the stupidest thing the NYC Department of Education … did in the past decade?”

    Both the city and the state aggressively promoted Eureka Math, so stupidest is a competitive field.

  5. numeric says:

    The world is full of people with integrity but no competence, and we wouldn’t want that either.

    “I divide officers into four classes — the clever, the lazy, the stupid and the industrious. Each officer possesses at least two of these qualities. Those who are clever and industrious are fitted for the high staff appointments. Use can be made of those who are stupid and lazy. The man who is clever and lazy is fit for the very highest commands. He has the temperament and the requisite nerves to deal with all situations. But whoever is stupid and industrious must be removed immediately.”

    Since we’re dividing people into classes (there are two types of people, those who divide people into two classes and those who don’t), and since Andrew is certainly industrious, we now need to decide whether he should be a high staff appointment or whether he should be removed. I’ll vote for the high staff appointment but UCB went the other way.

  6. mpledger says:

    I wonder how these grade 3 children interpret the incident.

    I wonder what level of stress they feel about these tests given their principal killed herself over them.

    I wonder if they feel some degree of blame for the death of their principal because they didn’t do well enough in the tests which “forced” their principal to cheat and then kill herself.

  7. Chris G says:

    > This is really bad. Is it so hard to find a school principal that you have no choice but to hire someone who lies, cheats, and steals?

    Could be. I’ve known a number of teachers who’ve commented to the effect of “There’s no way in hell I’d take that job.” They enjoy teaching but being an administrator doesn’t appeal to them. That shrinks the candidate pool. Also, in many communities public school teachers and administrators don’t get much respect, the schools aren’t exactly resource-rich, parents aren’t engaged, etc. I’ll go out on a limb and say that not a lot of people want to manage an organization which operates in a difficult environment when there’s little hope of that environment improving even if you do your job really well.

    • Clark says:

      Agreed. As a now-long-ex teacher, I and most of the teachers I’d worked with had little interest in becoming a principal for the reasons stated. Heck, it could be challenging finding someone to volunteer as department chair, even with the tiny bump in salary that came with it (perhaps 1-3K annually, at the time). Teachers with a masters or Ph.D received bonuses of 1K – 2K, so not a lot of motivation in that direction, either. Per the actively teaching teachers that I know, little has changed beyond some inflation and a lot more stress over standardized testing.

      One thing I observed in college, while learning to be a teacher, was that the academic skills of those in the education program tended to be on the low side (on average) compared to other programs. It is perhaps politically incorrect to say it, but rather a large proportion of teachers choose the profession because as parents it gave them time off when their kids were off, and they usually had a spouse with a much higher income so they weren’t too bothered by the low pay.

      The usual rules of extremes of a bell curve apply, so there were very competent people who became teachers, as well as many at the opposite extreme. I worked at a predominantly minority school (95%), which had a policy of preferentially hiring teachers of the dominant minority — the idea being to provide good role models. You can do the math in your head as to how this panned-out in practice in terms of proportion of good teachers and administrators.

  8. jrkrideau says:

    The woman does not seem to be a paragon of virtue but as as Bea points out there seems to be a principal shortage as well as a teacher shortage. It also may be that she was cheating to save some of her teachers as well as herself.

    As far as I have been able to figure out, there has been an attack on public education across the USA and the level of irrationality in education reform’ is worthy of the Tea Party on magic mushrooms. Mind you, this is just from causal blog reading — I don’t live in the USA so it’s not really my concern.

    I may be wrong but I think that the school is being rated by VAM which can have devastating effects on a teacher’s career and presumably on their principal’s career as well. A low enough score on VAM gets you fired.

    It does not seem to matter that the VAM premise seems very doubtful, well read that as idiotic, and the reliability of VAM measurement is roughly zero. Validity co-efficient probably range from -0.5 to .001 on a good day.

    A retired teacher points to an interesting review of VAM and its reliability and validity. As you can see from his opening words he is is less than a fervent admirer of recent US educational reforms:

    “As you probably know, a handful of agricultural researchers and economists have come up with extremely complicated “Value-Added” Measurement (VAM) systems that purport to be able to grade teachers’ output exactly.”

    https://gfbrandenburg.wordpress.com/2015/07/15/important-article-shows-that-value-added-measurements-are-neither-valid-nor-reliable/

    The amazing thing seems to be that there are “any” teachers or principals left.

  9. gdanning says:

    I taught high school for many years in Calif, and yes, it is very, very difficult to find principals. The last time we had a vacancy, I was on the hiring committee, and all five high schools interviewed the applicants on the same day. I don’t recall exactly — there were either 4 vacancies and 5 applicants, or 5 vacancies and 4 vacancies. Then, the applicant we selected ended up being disqualified, supposedly because she did not disclose an old DUI. Being a principal is an awful job, frankly, so I am not surprised that the school was willing to overlook certain, shall we say, character flaws.

    PS: Why did you fail to mention that the principal later committed suicide? That puts her in a somewhat more sympathetic light, no?

    • Andrew says:

      Gdanning:

      The principal’s suicide is sad, but it seems irrelevant to the decision of Teachers College to hire her, 5 years ago. The focus of my post was on the decision making at Teachers College so I thought a discussion of the principal’s death would be a distraction.

      • gdanning says:

        Andrew:

        I agree that it is off the main point. I would not have commented, had you not included the principal’s name in the post (albeit in a quote by others). In fact, I double-checked that her name was mentioned in the post before I included that addendum to my comment.

        PS: On the other hand, the suicide does undermine your argument that the Dept of Ed’s error was in hiring dishonest principals, since it implies that the Dept’s error might lie in putting so much stress on test scores as a measure of school / principal quality.

        • Andrew says:

          Gdanning:

          I don’t see how the principal’s suicide undermines the point that Teachers College and the Department of Education should not be hiring a principal who has a record of lying, cheating, and stealing.

      • Elin says:

        The part of this article https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2015/08/10/u-illinois-releases-inappropriately-withheld-emails-controversies-over-salaita-and (at the end) that discusses the James Kilgore case made me think about this post. The woman did something wrong 5 years previously, was investigated and punished, and then seemingly had 5 years without a problem. I really question the idea that we should live in a world where it is impossible to move on once you do something wrong and accepted the punishment for it.

        • Andrew says:

          Elin:

          I agree completely. But the present case is a bit different. I’m not saying that Worrell-Breeden should’ve been punished now for something she did in 2009. I’m saying that it’s scandalous that the Dept of Education and Teachers College hired her as principal in 2010 and 2011 given her record of lying, cheating, and stealing.

          Suppose they’d said (sensibly, in my opinion) that they would not trust the administration of the new school to someone with a record of falsifying documents, cheating her colleagues, and manipulating her employees. Not hiring someone as a school principal is not a punishment! It’s fine to let her move on, I just don’t think that “moving on” requires that she be a hired as a public school principal, which seems like a stunningly inappropriate job given what she’d done previously. That just seems like asking for trouble.

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