Bitter Lessons

The first hints of something wrong at Potomac Elementary came from the kids. Whispering to one another in the hallways and on the playground, then telling their parents after school, a few fifth graders began describing the peculiar behavior of their principal, Karen Karch, as she supervised the state assessment tests in mid-May. Some children who had already finished the test were reportedly summoned by the principal and told to "review" their answers. "You might want to look at this one again," Karch would say, according to the children. Other students were given an extra 20 to 45 minutes to complete the test. At one point during the social-studies section of the test, Karch was said to have held up a map and pointed to the country the students were being quizzed about.

The kids were bothered and confused. "Some kids were saying to each other, 'I don't think she's allowed to do that'," one fifth grader told NEWSWEEK. The student, a 10-year-old boy, recounted that he was given extra time on the math test. "There was another part, on the language-arts section," he continued, "where Dr. Karch helped me get the right answer. On that part I definitely thought she was cheating, but I thought if I said anything I would get in trouble or something." The parent of another Potomac student told The Washington Post that her child came home and said, "Mom, I kind of thought it was cheating, but why would Dr. Karch do that?"

On one level, the scandal that erupted in upscale Potomac, Md., a bedroom community heavily populated by Washington lobbyists and lawyers, was yet another outbreak in the national epidemic of cheating. The incident raised the usual questions about whether the pressures on public schools for performance and teacher accountability have gone too far. But on a deeper level, the Potomac scandal is a morality play with a disturbing twist: the heroes were the children who had the courage to question the ethics of the very people who were supposed to be teaching them the values of honesty and integrity.

In the front lobby of Potomac Elementary School, across from the principal's office, is a display known as the Character Counts Board. In rainbow-colored letters are posted the virtues character, education, respect, responsibility, perseverance, sympathy, honesty, self-discipline. Potomac students don't need to be told that money also counts. They are steeped in affluence and routinely measured for success. The conflict between the ideals espoused by the school and the apparent willingness of some teachers to cheat has been deeply upsetting to the students, several of whom have been seen crying in their classrooms. Parents were outraged. "I mean, what does this say about role models?" said one angry fifth-grade parent. "First the president, now the principal. Where does that leave us?" Like most parents, this one did not want to be quoted by name, for fear that her child would be criticized by the school.

In their public pronouncements, school-district administrators seemed more embarrassed by the negative publicity than ashamed of the cheating. The school appeared to approach the incident more as an exercise in damage control than as an opportunity to teach right from wrong. Most parents and students first learned of the scandal not from the school but by reading The Washington Post, which broke the story on June 1. At a community meeting on June 6, Joseph (Jay) Headman, the superintendent of a cluster of schools that includes Potomac Elementary, gave a 45-minute presentation that was long on spin control and bureaucratic jargon and short on answers. He never mentioned the word "cheating," referring instead at one point to "alleged allegations." One of the parents stood up and remarked that, on the day after the story broke, the school was adorned with balloons and posters proclaiming we love our school and thank you teachers. There were no signs, the parent noted, applauding the children for telling the truth about the teachers' cheating. Her child came home, she said, and said, "Mom, I guess we're the guilty ones."

Students at Potomac Elementary are clear on one thing: they are supposed to win. The school is next to Avenal Country Club, a world-class golf course surrounded by million-dollar mansions. Local real-estate prices are affected by the school's performance on standardized tests. The school's graduates go on to Montgomery County high schools, which have the highest SAT scores of any of the nation's 20 largest counties. In her introduction to the Potomac Elementary 2000 Yearbook, principal Karch wrote that her students were "well prepared to go into the new millennium at the head of the class." In 1999, when Potomac scored better than any other of Montgomery County's 124 elementary schools on the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program (MSPAP), students were handed stickers boasting we're number 1.

They weren't always on top. In 1998 Potomac finished a mere seventh in the county on the MSPAP. In the fall of 1999 Montgomery's new school superintendent, Jerry Weast, prepared a "productivity map" showing how each of the county's schools scored. He told newspaper reporters that the map would help him identify and weed out principals whose schools were performing poorly. Potomac Elementary was rated "less productive" because its scores had leveled off in recent years. A few months later, when the 1999 MSPAP results came out, Potomac had vault-ed to No. 1. Now investigators from the superintendent's office wonder if Potomac kids were getting some coaching on the 1999 tests, as well as the tests administered last month. The investigation has broadened to look at allegations from earlier years and other grades. One parent who has a third grader told NEWSWEEK that a teacher tapped her pencil on the child's desk to call attention to wrong answers.

Such carefully orchestrated cheating, involving potentially hundreds of students, would seem reckless in the extreme. Surely, some parents say, Karch must have seen the risk that she would get caught. "Why would she be so overt and so brazen?" asked Meg Robinson, mother of four, including a third grader. Some parents wondered if Karch began subtly crossing the line years ago and became more aggressive about coaching students without quite realizing it. These parents also questioned how the state of Maryland could allow a school administrator to proctor an exam that could directly affect her career. Karch, who resigned on May 31, has refused to speak to reporters, but she issued a press release stating, "I have concluded that I exercised poor judgment in some of my decisions." She insisted that "my resignation is not an admission of guilt." She wrote that the "recent death and serious illness of close family members in May" have left her "ill equipped emotionally to defend myself against the allegations." A formal, well-dressed woman who wishes to be addressed as "doctor" (she has a doctorate in education), Karch has drawn mixed reviews. She has been described as "sweet and down to earth" by some and "controlling and dominating" by parents who have crossed her.

A much-beloved fifth-grade teacher, Zorina Mohammed, was also implicated in the scandal. "Ms. Mohammed didn't give anybody any answers," one of the fifth graders told NEWSWEEK. "She just asked people to come up front to fix or finish stuff. But I think it was Dr. Karch who told her to do that." Placed on leave with pay, Mohammed was absent from her classroom the day the story broke. When her students asked why their teacher was absent, the substitute abruptly shut them down. Anyone who mentioned Ms. Mohammed's name, they were warned, faced detention. ("Her comment was certainly not sanctioned by the school," says assistant principal Cornelia Pierre. "As soon as we heard about it, we got another sub in that class.")

Some teachers calmed their upset students with soothing nostrums that verged on psychobabble. As one third grader described it to his mother, his teacher explained, "Sometimes we do something, and we know it's wrong, but we don't listen to that part that's inside of you, that knows it's wrong. We may at one level know what we're doing is wrong, and we do it anyway --has anyone ever done that?" Said the mother, Meg Robinson: "Of course, they all had..." One child who wrote a speech for a school assembly was told to take out a reference to the importance of honesty and standing up for your beliefs. According to her mother, her teachers insisted that she had to "thank Dr. Karch." The teachers told the child that they wanted the changes because they didn't want any "negativity" in her speech. "They're more concerned with the reputation of the school than supporting the kids who did the right thing," this parent told NEWSWEEK. The parent did add, however, that when she complained about the clumsy censorship of her child's speech, the acting principal "sided with us."

The clearest explanation of what happened at Potomac Elementary may have come from a fifth grader who was allowed to speak to NEWSWEEK by his parents. "I think Dr. Karch just wanted to get first place," said the 10-year-old boy. The child also offered a succinct explanation of what the principal should have done: "I think she should have let us try our hardest and see if we could get first place on our own." If only the grown-ups had been so straightforward and honest.