Monica Yant Kinney: Whistle-blowing principal reflects on what happens when schools cheat

Joe Carruth spoke out about pressure to fudge his school's test scores. He says he's been professionally blacklisted.
Joe Carruth spoke out about pressure to fudge his school's test scores. He says he's been professionally blacklisted. (APRIL SAUL / Staff Photographer)
Posted: May 04, 2011

I had flashbacks over the weekend reading about the mysterious, miraculous test-score gains at Theodore Roosevelt Middle School in East Germantown.

As reported by my colleagues Kristen Graham and Dylan Purcell, Roosevelt - a persistently dangerous school where nearly nine in 10 students dwell in poverty and a fourth receive special-ed services - jumped an astonishing 52 points in math and 51 points in reading on the critically important statewide assessments known as the PSSAs.

The stunning two-year turnaround bested all comparable Philadelphia public schools and earned Roosevelt's principal gold stars from Superintendent Arlene Ackerman and then-Gov. Ed Rendell. If only the success story didn't read like such a fantasy to Roosevelt teachers claiming the triumph is the result of cheating.

In interviews, the teachers described an anything-goes culture when it came to the state tests. They said they were encouraged to drill specific concepts known to be on the exams, a no-no. On test day, they saw answers scrawled on blackboards and watched an administrator return completed booklets to students to fix mistakes.

One teacher recalled an alarming scene in the school library: Roosevelt's principal sitting and chatting with students as they took the test.

Three paragraphs into the story, I felt like I'd been transported to Camden, circa 2006, at the dawn of the cheating scandal that stained a similarly struggling school district.

In both cases, educators seemingly lost their minds in the quest to meet lofty achievement goals. But this time, the whistle-blowers came forward anonymously. They knew better. Call it the Joe Carruth effect.

The price for doing right

Surely you remember Carruth, the rookie principal at Brimm Medical Arts High who revealed that he'd been pressured to cook test books in 2005 at the magnet school filled with Camden's best and brightest.

Carruth refused the order, but Brimm's scores still jumped a curious 21 percent that year.

Three months after Carruth went public, he was fired over loud protest from grateful students and stunned supporters.

As predicted, Brimm's subsequent scores tumbled, lending more credence to Carruth's charges. An investigation concluded that a high-ranking district official tampered with the 2005 tests after Carruth balked. But, inexplicably, that guilty man was allowed to remain on the payroll.

Since then, cheating scandals have erupted from coast to coast, with chagrined school officials blaming what they see as unrealistic demands of the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

A white hat, blacklisted

"You're asking me if I regret it, right?" Carruth clarifies when I call him this week at home in Delaware.

"Professionally?" He pauses. "Unfortunately, yes," he declares with a sigh, explaining how doing the right thing cost him everything.

"If I was those Philly teachers, I probably wouldn't go public."

A year after he was fired, Carruth landed a job as a vice principal at a Philadelphia charter school. But that, too, was short-lived. The former math teacher has a master's degree in administration, has nearly finished his doctorate, and is certified in two states, but hasn't worked in three years.

Carruth believes he's been blacklisted for wearing the white hat. He's applied for "400 or 500 jobs," but suspects that districts cutting corners see him as a snitch, a security risk not even worth an interview.

Well, there was one confused Philadelphia principal who thought Carruth might be just the man for an impossibly tall task.

"She was really worried about losing her job and said 'If we keep failing, they're going to close us down.' " he recalls. "She misunderstood my story and thought I had cheated. Because she said, 'I'm tempted to bring you on and let you get our scores up!' "

Carruth, now 43, laughs faintly at his peculiar predicament. He long-ago exhausted unemployment and supports his wife and two daughters with help from family and friends. He spends time each day reading the Bible wondering "Who or what does God want me to be?"

If he's ever going to work in a school again, Carruth needs to win his whistle-blower lawsuit awaiting trial in Camden. But, he notes, reinstatement could come with a new set of politically imposed ethical dilemmas.

"Now they're talking about linking teacher pay to student performance," Carruth frets. "Don't people see that's a recipe for disaster?"


Reach me at myant@phillynews.com or 215-854-4670. Read me at philly.com/blinq. Connect on Facebook and Twitter at philly.com/kinney.

 

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