By Joshua Benton
On May 12, 2005, Texas education commissioner Shirley Neeley stood in the Wilmer-Hutchins school board chambers and announced the results of her agency’s investigation into cheating on the TAKS test.
“Twenty-two WHISD teachers were found guilty of cheating,” she said. “The investigation found inexcusable, illegal, unprofessional and unacceptable behavior on the part of these 22 individuals.”
Shortly after, the Wilmer-Hutchins schools were all shut down. But the careers of the teachers lived on.
At least 10 of the 22 Wilmer-Hutchins educators are now working in other North Texas public schools, a Dallas Morning News investigation found. None has faced official sanction, more than 2 1/2 years after the cheating took place.
Most were able to find new jobs weeks after Dr. Neeley’s statements.
They were able to do so in part because the body responsible for disciplinary actions against teachers, the State Board for Educator Certification, has been slow to act on the cases. The agency has a notorious backlog and a reputation for letting cases lie dormant, sometimes for more than two years.
In addition, state officials chose not to use their normal method to inform school districts of the findings of their investigation. Several of the school districts that now employ the teachers said they were unaware of the findings until informed by The News.
“I am absolutely dumbfounded,” said Lou Blanchard, director of the Treetops School International, a charter school in Euless. When her school hired a teacher named Betty Houston, Dr. Blanchard had no idea she was one of the teachers state investigators implicated in Wilmer-Hutchins.
Dr. Blanchard said Ms. Houston has been a good teacher, but she wishes she had known about the state’s findings.
“I am at a loss for words, and that’s rare for me,” Dr. Blanchard said.
Eight of the 10 teachers could not be reached for comment; one declined to comment, and one denied the allegations. An attorney representing six of the 10, including Ms. Houston, said his clients are innocent.
State officials defend their decisions today. They say that informing schools about the investigation’s findings would have likely dissuaded those schools from hiring the implicated teachers. Cheating, they say, is not a serious enough offense to risk that.
“Educators have told us that being flagged has a chilling effect on their ability to find employment,” said Chris Jones, general counsel for the State Board for Educator Certification. “There needs to be a special justification for us to do that.”
The Wilmer-Hutchins case raises questions about how the state deals with teachers who have been accused of wrongdoing – and how high a priority it puts on cheating.
Rumors of cheating
In Wilmer-Hutchins, cheating had been rumored for years. The district’s test scores in grades three through five were generally respectable and often quite good – a sharp contrast to performance in later grades, which generally ranked dead last out of the state’s 1,000-plus school districts.
In November 2004, The News reported evidence of cheating on that spring’s TAKS tests in the district’s elementary schools, including statistically unlikely leaps in scores and a former teacher who said some of her high-scoring students were actually illiterate.
The Texas Education Agency began an investigation, examining test booklets and interviewing more than 80 students and district employees.
Investigators concluded that 22 district employees, whose names were released by the TEA in 2005, “were involved in testing irregularities” and that “a pervasive lack of oversight” had rendered those good test scores invalid. Among the problems they found:
*Students who finished the TAKS early were instructed to correct answers on other students’ answer sheets.
*Teachers walked around their classrooms, looking over students’ work and correcting wrong answers.
*Classes sometimes answered reading-comprehension questions as a group.
There were also an unusually high number of erasures on student answer sheets, investigators found. In one fourth-grade classroom, answer sheets had 125 times the state’s average number of erasures.
Concerned about further cheating, state officials sent in monitors to oversee TAKS testing in 2005. The result: Scores plummeted. At one school, the percentage of fifth-graders passing the TAKS dropped from 72 percent to 3 percent.
Dr. Neeley considered the findings strong enough to lower the state ratings of three elementary schools and throw out the district’s school board. Later, she used the cheating as legal justification for dissolving the school district entirely.
Addressing Wilmer-Hutchins leaders in May 2005, she said the teachers would be held accountable for their misdeeds. While TEA had performed the investigation, teacher discipline would be meted out by another body, the State Board for Educator Certification.
“The review process has been completed for these teachers,” Dr. Neeley told the assembled crowd. “They will all be referred to the State Board for Educator Certification for possible sanctioning of their teaching certificate.”
Not so quickly
That, as it turns out, is not a quick process.
Almost since the agency’s birth in 1995, school officials have tagged SBEC for inefficiency and slow work – particularly in disciplinary proceedings.
“They’re underfunded, they’re understaffed, they’ve had bad management – they’re the whipping boy of everybody in the state,” said Jed Reed, president of the Texas Association of School Personnel Administrators and Lewisville’s director of staffing.
That perception has gotten worse over time, particularly as the agency’s budget has gotten tighter. In 2001, SBEC’s annual budget stood at $19 million. In the current fiscal year, that’s been reduced to $18.4 million.
During that time, the number of teachers in Texas public schools has increased more than 20 percent, and inflation has totaled roughly 15 percent.
The result: Disciplinary proceedings have often moved slowly. SBEC’s current outgoing voicemail message outlines how far behind its staff is on dealing with “code of ethics” violations – the label given to less serious complaints about educators.
“As of Aug. 1, 2006, the agency is working on complaints filed June 22, 2005,” the message says.
A 2004 state analysis found that the average turnaround for a complaint was about six months – but that includes many complaints dismissed quickly.
SBEC does have a mechanism in place for warning schools about problem teachers while its slow process proceeds. SBEC can “flag” a teacher’s certificate – that is, put a notation in the teacher’s file that indicates he or she is under investigation.
When a Texas public school is considering hiring a teacher, campus officials check SBEC’s Web site to confirm the applicant has the appropriate credentials. If a teacher has been flagged, the Web site will tell the school official that the teacher is currently under investigation.
But the Wilmer-Hutchins educators were never flagged.
SBEC’s policies don’t require flagging for suspected cheating. The agency was merged into TEA last fall and has experienced major staff turnover. But SBEC’s current policy is that the only teachers who are flagged are those suspected of being a threat to the safety of students – for instance, someone suspected of a sex crime or violence.
Under that standard, cheating isn’t a serious enough violation.
“It’s not the same type of danger,” said Mr. Jones, who took over as SBEC’s chief attorney with the TEA takeover last fall. “Having these teachers in a classroom isn’t the same sort of risk as a child molester.”
At least one of the Wilmer-Hutchins teachers had already left the district by the time the TEA investigation was concluded. The ones who remained all lost their jobs in summer 2005, when Wilmer-Hutchins laid off all teachers, shut down its schools and shipped its students to neighboring Dallas campuses.
When the teachers applied for jobs in other area districts, officials had no way of knowing the educators had been implicated in the cheating scandal.
The result is that at least 10 of the 22 implicated educators were able to start the 2005-06 school year working in other North Texas districts, including Dallas, Lancaster, Duncanville, Irving, Fort Worth and Arlington. All 10 are still working in classrooms today.
It’s possible that the number working is actually larger, since state records reviewed by The News do not track all individuals who work in non-teaching positions, such as reading aides and tutors. Others may be working in area private schools.
Several school officials said they had had no concerns about the teachers they had hired. “There has not been a blemish on her record, and she’s been an excellent teacher here for two years,” Dr. Blanchard said of Betty Houston. As a Wilmer-Hutchins teacher, according to investigators, Ms. Houston worked out TAKS test problems for students, pointed out their incorrect answers and left students unattended for a few minutes twice on test day.
Several school officials said they wished they had known about their teachers’ pasts before deciding to hire them.
“I knew nothing of this last year,” said Keith McGill, principal of Dallas’ Birdie Alexander Elementary. He hired Lisa McMillian, who state investigators said walked by her Wilmer-Hutchins students’ desks during testing and pointed out wrong answers.
“I think that’s only fair that you let someone know about something like that,” Mr. McGill said. “If I came to work where you work, you’d probably want to know if I’d just robbed a bank.”
The irony is that SBEC currently faces criticism for flagging teachers too often – not too rarely.
In January, the Texas State Teachers Association sued the agency, saying SBEC flags educators too readily and leaves the flags in place far too long.
“They don’t do it based on a reasonable analysis,” said Michael Shirk, a TSTA attorney. “There’s a real arrogance in the way they’ve operated.”
Among the named plaintiffs in the suit is Gilbert Gomez. His teaching certificate has been flagged for nearly three years without resolution. Mr. Shirk declined to discuss the specifics of the charges against Mr. Gomez, who did not return a phone call.
“Either SBEC has got information that indicates he is a risk to children or they don’t,” Mr. Shirk said of Mr. Gomez. “If they’ve got a case, let’s go have a hearing. If they don’t have the evidence, then take the flag off.”
The core of TSTA’s argument is due process. Flagged teachers are still in the middle of a disciplinary process, but they are radioactive to potential employers.
Attorney Dan Ortiz represents six of the 10 Wilmer-Hutchins educators, including Ms. Houston and Ms. McMillian. He said that flagging his clients would have punished them while they are still presumed innocent.
“My clients anxiously await their opportunity to defend themselves against the spurious charges and to hopefully vindicate their good names,” he said. “Just because they were in Wilmer-Hutchins does not mean they’re guilty.”
“Once you’re found guilty, then Katy bar the door – you should be punished,” said Linda Bridges, president of another teacher group, the Texas Federation of Teachers. “But the problem is that when you flag someone just because of an accusation, and that accusation isn’t true, you’ve still ruined someone’s career.”
That sets up two sides of a debate. On one side sit teacher groups who argue their members are innocent until proven guilty. On the other are many school administrators, who want as much information as possible about the people they consider putting in their classrooms.
“A district that is hiring teachers would want to have access to as much information as possible about their applicants,” said Johnny Veselka, executive director of the Texas Association of School Administrators.
The TSTA lawsuit asks the court to eliminate the State Board for Educator Certification’s right to flag altogether. Barring that, Mr. Shirk seeks a declaration that the agency cannot flag a teacher without being ready to bring the case to a hearing within 30 days.
Mr. Shirk said SBEC is doing better now under new leadership, including Mr. Jones.
“I think he understands the nature of the problem and is struggling to change the course that the agency is on,” Mr. Shirk said. “He’s got courage, and he’s put in the long hours. But we’re dealing with a huge amount of inertia.”
Mr. Jones said he has worked to clarify the agency’s procedures around flagging. Staffing is also up; the number of attorneys working on disciplinary cases has increased from one to four.
When he took over last year, Mr. Jones faced a substantial backlog of cases, some of which had been sitting for over a year. He said he decided to start with the most serious offenses, including sex crimes and violent acts. He is just now reaching the end of that portion of the backlog, he said.
That means his staff now has time to get to lower-priority offenses, such as cheating.
About a month ago – 17 months after TEA’s investigation concluded – SBEC officials sent letters to the first batch of Wilmer-Hutchins educators, alerting them that the agency would soon pursue disciplinary action against them.
“I regard these as serious offenses, and I would think that, if someone actively cheated, that they should be out of the classroom,” Mr. Jones said. For some that could mean suspending or revoking their teaching certificates.
The educators could choose to accept a negotiated penalty. If they want to fight the charges, their cases would head to an administrative court hearing in Austin.
If they go that route, it will likely be 2007 before their cases are resolved – three years after the TAKS tests in question.
“The wheels creep along very slowly at SBEC and TEA,” Mr. Reed said.