In Exposing a Grading Scandal, Harsh Lessons Are Learned
The New York Times, July 20, 2005
by Samuel Freedman
Late on the morning of Feb. 10, 2004, Philip Nobile convened his class in political law at the Cobble Hill School of American Studies and started a lesson on the Constitution's system of checks and balances. In addition to the 24 students in the room, Mr. Nobile had another listener, the school's assistant principal of humanities, Theresa Capra.
During Mr. Nobile's two and a half years at the high school in Brooklyn, his relationship with the supervisor had gone from praise for his creativity and vigor to formal reprimand about his refusal to tailor lessons and test questions to her recommendations. Now that he was the chapter chair of the teachers' union, they had clashed in grievance hearings as well.
But this visit by Ms. Capra, ostensibly part of a normal process of observation and evaluation, represented a turning point. Two weeks earlier, Mr. Nobile had written a detailed memorandum to the principal, Lennel George, alerting him to a ''highly anomalous'' pattern of failing scores on Regents tests being raised to a passing level. The specific tests he mentioned, in global and American history, fell under Ms. Capra's oversight.
After the class that February day and a meeting the following day, Ms. Capra rated the lesson ''unsatisfactory.'' Over the next few months, Mr. Nobile sent four more memos to the principal reiterating and amplifying his concerns that Ms. Capra had ''systemically directed the changing of Regents grades.'' Simultaneously, he received a flurry of unsatisfactory evaluations -- three from Ms. Capra and one apiece by Mr. George and Jill Bloomberg, an official in the regional Department of Education office. The groundwork, it seemed, was being laid for firing the whistle-blower.
Well, things did not turn out quite that way. Late last month, the Education Department released a 30-page, single-spaced report by a special investigator chronicling the events and concluding that Ms. Capra tampered with the Regents exams in June 2002 and June 2003, and that Mr. George ''engaged in a cover-up of Mr. Nobile's allegations.'' Those allegations, said the report by Louis N. Scarcella, an investigator for the city school system, ''have been proven correct in every detail.''
(Mr. George declined to speak for this article. Ms. Capra's lawyer, Richard Guay, issued a blanket rebuttal, denying that she had harassed and unfairly evaluated Mr. Nobile, or that she had cheated or told teachers to cheat on the Regents grading.)
Ms. Capra resigned last year, during the investigation. Mr. George was recently removed as principal. Mr. Nobile, meanwhile, received a satisfactory rating for his teaching this year, and has also earned tenure. Nobody should mistake this for a happy ending. The exposure of the Cobble Hill scandal qualifies more as a cautionary tale, because Mr. Nobile's experience offers disturbing proof of the pressures that administrators can use to isolate, marginalize and oust internal critics. Moreover, Mr. Nobile's personal crusade against cheating serves as a reminder that in the current system of Regents testing, there is little self-interest in rigorous grading, if rigor means revealing widespread failure.
''I call it 'affirmative cheating,''' Mr. Nobile said of the grading on test scores. ''It turns teachers into liars and hypocrites. They feel a natural sympathy with students and want to help them. And there's a desire of administrators to pump up scores to look good. And most of the teachers -- especially the young, untenured, easily intimidated -- simply won't come forward to complain without protection.''
Indeed, the Cobble Hill scandal might well have gone undetected had Mr. Nobile not arrived at the school in September 2001 as a 59-year-old teacher with an unusual resume. A seminarian in his youth, he had left religious life to become a journalist, writing for such publications as New Times, Esquire and The Village Voice. His muckraking efforts included reports on sexual abuse by the Rev. Bruce Ritter of Covenant House in 1990, and plagiarism charges against the ''Roots'' author Alex Haley in 1993. He moved into teaching -- the profession of his daughter and former wife -- only after falling out with the co-author of a book about Abraham Lincoln's private life.
One might think the city's public schools would cherish such a teacher. Initially, Cobble Hill did. In five evaluations during Mr. Nobile's first year, all rating him satisfactory, supervisors including Ms. Capra extolled his lessons as ''well-prepared and very organized'' and his classroom as a ''serious learning environment.''
All that started to change with Regents tests in June 2002. Even before students took the exams, Ms. Capra wrote an e-mail message to Mr. Nobile, saying of the grading procedure, ''In a pinch they can get points from writing any old garbage down.'' She was referring to the essay portion of the exam.
In practice, as the Education Department's investigation has stated, Mr. Capra assigned teachers to reread and regrade -- ''scrub,'' in school slang -- any exams that fell slightly below the passing mark of 65. Several dozen Cobble Hill pupils wound up with grades between 65 and 69 on the global and American history tests, while a handful scored between 60 and 64.
''The whole thing is a sham,'' a fellow teacher, Elliot Cohen, wrote to Mr. Nobile in an e-mail message. ''The essays were terrible all around and received points when they should have gotten zero.'' Mr. Cohen also wrote that the ' 'crimes'' he and others ''committed were obscene.''
Early in 2003, Mr. Nobile said, he first brought up the problem with Mr. George, who responded, ''I don't want to hear that.'' When the same pressures and the same pattern recurred in Regents tests of June 2003, Mr. Nobile took concerns to representatives of the United Federation of Teachers, who urged him to put the complaints in writing to the principal in the hope the problems could be solved internally. As late as December 2003, Mr. George rated Mr. Nobile satisfactory as a teacher.
WHICH brings this story back to Mr. Nobile's memo to the principal in January 2004, and Mr. Capra's negative evaluation of Mr. Nobile two weeks later. The succession of unsatisfactory reports that followed were only part of the administration's apparent campaign against the whistle-blower. In March 2004, Mr. George conducted brief interviews with a number of teachers -- omitting two who had shared Mr. Nobile's criticism -- and all of them denied any cheating had occurred. They issued the same denials early in May, when Mr. Scarcella, the investigator, questioned them.
One effect of their denials was to make Mr. Nobile look like a crank, to separate him not only from administrators but also from his faculty colleagues. Only when Mr. Scarcella conducted a second round of interrogations in June 2004, granting teachers immunity from disciplinary action, did several admit that they had cheated at Ms. Capra's behest.
Even in the fall of 2004, with Ms. Capra gone and Mr. Nobile back in satisfactory status, the apparent harassment persisted. Mr. George took Mr. Nobile out of classes in 20th-century American history, his specialty, and reassigned him to global and American survey courses for freshmen.
When Mr. Nobile asked the reason for the reassignment, he recalled the other day, Mr. George told him, ''Your passing rates on the Regents aren't high.''