Adell Cothorne Speaks!

Whistleblower Adell Cothorne reflects on Rhee, Ravitch and why she’s in the fight to save public education

DC principal, whistleblower and cupcake baker Adell Cothorne.

Now some of you may know my story. For those of you who don’t, allow me to introduce myself. My name is Adell Cothorne.  I am a former District of Columbia Public School (DCPS) principal.  If my name sounds vaguely familiar, it’s because I garnered some national attention when I filed a whistleblower’s lawsuit against DCPS in regards to alleged test tampering by members of my school staff. But enough about me (for now). I recently had the opportunity to hear the views of two women who currently have a significant impact on education and I’d like to tell you about it.

Who were the two women, you ask?  None other than Michelle Rhee and Diane Ravitch. The fact that these two women were speaking in the city of Philadelphia within 24 hours of each other was significant. Two women with completely different views on America’s current education system speaking in a city experiencing educational dysfunction – on steroids. The movie script practically writes itself.

Strange bedfellows

Michelle Rhee’s Teacher Town Hall was a free event held at the Temple University Student Faculty Center Auditorium. Joining Rhee were Dr. Steve Perry and Mr. George Parker. Dr. Perry is currently principal of Capital Preparatory Magnet School, a charter-like high school in Hartford, CT. He touts himself as America’s Most Trusted Educator. Parker was the president of the Washington Teachers Union when Rhee was Chancellor of DCPS.Strange bedfellows indeed…

When I arrived at the venue, there was a group of Philadelphia educators and community members protesting Ms. Rhee’s appearance. News cameras were on hand and protesters were handing out copies of a Time magazine cover which had been edited to show the former Chancellor holding a pencil atop a large pink eraser. Once inside, we were asked to sign in and handed a question card. We were instructed to write any question on the card in order to ensure that every question would get answered, either at the event or via an email response. Somehow I doubted that Ms. Rhee would be addressing the questions to which I most wanted answers:

“Uh yes, Ms. Rhee could you explain how you had no knowledge of the Dr. Sanford memo, warning that the high rate of erasures on tests in at least 70 schools was a more serious problem than school officials were admitting.”

Or how about:

“Excuse me, Ms. Rhee. I was just wondering if you could speak to the systemic and strategic research-based professional development provided to teachers and administrators to ensure your legacy as an instructional leader. Uh what’s that? You fired teachers and administrators who didn’t pass IMPACT? Perhaps you misunderstood the question. Shall I ask it again?”

I could go on and on, but I’ll cut to the chase. The evening was a very controlled event in which Ms. Rhee and her counterparts – Dr. Perry and Mr. Parker – were able to pontificate about their reform agenda and not truly delve into strategies to help public schools, urban public schools in particular, improve.

No sidekicks needed
Now let’s fast forward to the next evening when Diane Ravitch’s lecture was held at the Philadelphia Public Library. The evening began with no protestors picketing her appearance (I know that was a little snarky but I had to throw it in.) Dr. Ravitch, who was introduced by Randi Weingarten president of the American Federation of Teachers, took to the podium and for approximately 75 minutes spoke to such issues as:

  • Misleading data points touted by education reformers
  • Why Teach for America participants should work as teacher assistants
    Universal pre-school
  • The impact of race and socio-economic status on teaching and learning
  • The detrimental impact of virtual charter schools

After 75 minutes Dr. Ravitch took her notes and exited stage left. That was it. No sidekicks. No bells and whistles to distract from the real message. Just a woman and her mic speaking her truth to the audience.

Adell Cothorne talks about the cheating scandal in the Washington DC public schools on Frontline.

Now it’s my turn
Now you may ask yourself, why write this piece, Adell? You’ve basically told us what others “tweeted” days ago. Here’s my answer to you. This is not the last you will hear from me. This is my first (well really second) venture into the public forum of those fighting against education reformers. Not that I think our current system is spectacular. I just know it needs help in ways other than firing educators, funneling large sums of money to charter schools and testing students every 23 minutes in the name of accountability (well maybe not every 23 minutes but it sure does seem like it).

You see, I have “a dog in this fight” (no offense to animal lovers). As a mother of a fourth grader with an IEP, it troubles me that my child is penalized because he is a slow processor. In order to give him more time, we needed to draw up a legal document that, thirty pages later, basically boils down to the fact that my son Alex needs a little extra time to process his thoughts. But we MUST have this documented, as it’s the only way he can get more time when testing time comes—again. Whatever happened to the process of natural learning?

As an education consultant, I struggle with being a cheerleader for the Common Core and the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness of College and Careers or PARCC. (Oh yes, the dreaded PARCC is coming soon to a school district near you). I work with educators in high-needs schools with students who have issues I couldn’t fathom grappling with as an adult: eviction, a 14-year-old-sister pregnant by an uncle, a cousin gunned down on the student’s doorstep. Yet I’m supposed to bounce in and sell the Common Core as a great instructional tool, even though it was never piloted. Who does that? Whatever happened to addressing a child’s social and emotional needs to ensure that they are ready to learn?

As an African American woman my heart bleeds for the thousands of students of color we lose every year (especially in urban school districts) because we’ve allowed them to check out intellectually, emotionally, mentally and/or physically. I am a product of Baltimore City Public school. And when I say product, I mean from Head Start to doctoral study. Yup—I experienced the FULL trajectory within the limits of Baltimore City. I am living proof of what a solid urban education can do for under-resourced students of color. Whatever happened to not letting your zip code dictate your destiny?

I don’t know what the future holds in regards to education. I just know I’m in this fight until the war is won!

Send your comments to Adell at Follow her on Twitter @adellcothorne


  1. So glad educators like Adell Cothorne are back in the fight! The young teachers especially need to hear her voice.

    I was talking to a young cashier at Whole Foods the other day who said she had been a teacher but quit when the reality (bs) of the “closing-the-achievement-gap” system was too discouraging. I told her not to give up – if she loved teaching and students, and she did, she should know that even “The smallest Worme will turne, being troden on.” (Henry V, pt 2) And the parents, students and teachers in public ed are dragons, NOT worms. I told her about Diane Ravitch and to read She had had no idea and was so excited she wrote the URL on her hand. Now, I will add Adell Cothorne to the list I have on little cards ( writing on your hand is not good for you!) with several links and a great graphic to help connect people to the growing movement.

    Watch out edu-prenuers. Reality based ed reform is coming and it is gonna bite you on your… *ahem*. Sorry. I mean to say…ATTENTION: All educational privateers: A movement is growing that will discomfort the area you sit upon and where you apparently do your best data-driven-decision making. Best cover it or move it out of the way.

  2. As an educator in an urban area, I have dealt with following since school began in September: homicide (a female drug dealer was shot to death–her nephews–were taken to the funeral and are in first and second grade), a second grader witnessed a revenge shooting of another child as they were outside playing jump rope, another child has no water and hasn’t had any for about 6 months, several children had at least one parent deported by ICE/the border patrol and another child reported he had been sexually abused for several years by the men his mother brings home, and most tragically, a third grader reported she was sleeping in the same room with her parents when her mother passed away. All of these children suffer from trauma, but they are expected to test, test, test. There are no excuses, but sometimes, there are very, very real reasons.

  3. As a retired teacher I taught in a rural school district. Some of the more common problems I dealt with on a weekly basis were gangs, suicide, murders, a rapist posing as a cop, children falling down drunk (literally falling off their chair because they were drunk), drugs, pregnancy, rape, deaths on prom night in car wrecks, poverty, unemployment (45+), and assault of teachers. I had been told girls don’t need math and had some of my best students withdrawn to babysit younger siblings. Children were pulled out of school on a regular basis on payday Fridays to go shopping. The first graduating class to take the state standardized test AIMS, only 3 students passed the math portion out of 700 students. We were deemed a failing school. by the way < 1% white kids.( I hate judging kids by race. Just hate it. Brains are all grey, no matter what the color of a person's skin.)
    At this time I was appointed math department chair. Yee hah!
    Now for what works-this really works.
    Get the math department working as a team. Give teachers time for professional development. Align the curriculum to the state standards, re-arrange the teaching lesson plans to cover what is on the test before the test. Teach the fun stuff after the test. The standardized test was in the first week of April. If its not on the test do not waste valuable school time before the test. Have common math department lesson plans for each subject. i.e Algebra 1, Geometry, Algebra 2. Have math dept. common quizzes, tests, and assessments for each subject. Write your departmental tests so they have the look and feel of AIMS. Same font , same typestyle (I was a graphic artist before I graduated from college, math and art what a combo!). Give students practice on taking tests, and test taking tips. Introduce cultural and mathematical vocabulary every lesson.This is not teaching to the test , it is giving kids a fair chance to encounter unfamiliar words. Like elevator …no elevators in the desert, escalator…no escalators in fact no two story buildings, where we lived, yachts…right in a desert. Also no lakes anywhere near us. Maybe some ponds with good fishing. Write problems involving cultural nuances of living in a big city as opposed to a small country town. We had no street signs until a year before I retired.
    The AIMS test was over 80% reading. Stop assigning 50 or 60 odd problems for homework and assign 5 or 6 word complicated word problems. Make kids think. I firmly believe that anyone can learn math. Its around us every minute (see I'm right) of the day.
    Buy the kids notebooks, pencils, paper with your own money $400+ every year. Write grants for school supplies for the classroom. Math: protractors, rulers, graphing calculators, graph paper, whiteboards., computers. Get technology into your classroom. I scavenged laptops so my kids could go onto the NCTM website. Used A+ math on MACS a program for remediation whne kids were absent. I had one kid who was a senior, didn't play school well. Just didn't fit in. He finished 3 years of math in less than 3 months, and ended up being a math lab assistant at a local community college.
    Do real life math, field trips to the city to look at geodesic domes, architecture, trout fishery, forest service and real world math in action. Study maps, airports, highways, tsunamis, earthquakes, tornadoes, weather, and any real life uses of math. One of my teachers started a robotics club.
    We put all these drastic changes into place immediately. We had no time to waste. We had 100+ seniors graduate the next year, and they passed the AIMS test.
    But now in AZ we have too many kids passing AIMS, so this year all the kids have to pass a new test. Yee Hah! Back to square one. sigh!
    Recent development in AZ. Teacher pay is no longer based on professional development, but on student's test scores. Are you for real! You are an educator and being educated doesn't count. I'm glad I retired when I did. By the way I'm still teaching, because I love kids, and I love teaching math, but I'm tutoring. No meetings , no tests, no school board, no stress. The best part of teaching is teaching kids.

  4. Just another comment on what power you have as a teacher. You do not control any outside factors that affect your students such as poverty, crime, parents, school board, or politicians. You can control the environment of your classroom. Make sure your classroom, is safe, clean (even if you have to buy your own cleaning supplies and clean it yourself, and yes I have). Even toilet paper, paper towels, and hand sanitizer. Organize your classroom for the least amount of disruptions so no matter what the interruption, kids are still focused. Have a detailed lesson plan everyday. Have a game plan everyday. Tell students what they are expected to learn today. Teach them the excitement of learning something new. Write it down.Have posted expectations of behavior. No means no. Read the two best books ever written on teaching, Harry Wong’s “First days of school”, and Fred Jones on discipline (especially from day one). Love and respect your students, especially the naughty ones. They will try your soul. Be ready to give up your life for your students if needed to protect them ( I’ve also been there in lock down with terrified students).Hopefully when you meet your maker and when asked “what you did with your life?”, and you can say “I was a teacher”. and that will be enough.

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