On Friday this blog examined the Atlanta test-cheating scandal and the convictions last Wednesday in an Atlanta courtroom of eleven educators under a RICO (Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations) law designed to try those engaged in racketeering and criminal conspiracy. It is easy for us to jump to judgement and assign blame in cases that appear sensational, but when their superiors demanded that they cheat, many of those involved struggled with the values that caused them to become teachers, with their professional commitment to the subjects they were expected to teach, and with their commitment to the children in their schools. And their dilemmas were not ethically clear cut.
This blog declared last Friday: “As a society we haven’t spoken forcefully enough to stop the process when we’ve been told that educators can, in a year or two, magically turn around the school achievement of all children in a class or a grade level or even a whole school or school district. Atlanta’s school superintendent, Dr. Beverly Hall promised she could do that and then set out to prove it. ‘Turnaround’ is the code word for what we have been demanding of public schools for over a decade now… And by a federal law in 2002 we demanded that all schools raise all students’ test scores to the level of proficiency by 2014. This is, of course, a matter of ‘just pretend’… Statistically there are always means and medians and modes; people range in their abilities and each one has special talents and weaknesses. But school policy in America has been blindly denying reality.”
Today’s post is a follow up on the subject of the Atlanta cheating scandal—to recommend two additional articles that examine what happened in the schools in Atlanta from different points of view. The first is an in-depth profile of Atlanta educators trapped under pressure to change students’ answers on standardized test answer sheets. In Wrong Answer, that appeared in the New Yorker magazine last summer, Rachel Aviv explains, “After more than two thousand interviews, the investigators concluded that forty-four schools had cheated and that a ‘culture of fear, intimidation and retaliation has infested the district, allowing cheating—at all levels—to go unchecked for years.’ They wrote that data had been ‘used as an abusive and cruel weapon to embarrass and punish.’ Several teachers had been told that they had a choice: either make targets or be placed on a Performance Development Plan, which was often a precursor to termination. At one elementary school, during a faculty meeting, a principal forced a teacher whose students had tested poorly to crawl under the table.” Aviv tells the stories of several teachers and school principals who found themselves caught what felt like an impossible moral dilemma in which they felt pressured to cheat to protect the students in their classes, to protect stability in their school (they and their colleagues risked being fired if scores remained low) and to keep the school itself open.
Richard Rothstein of the Economic Policy Institute (EPI) also examines the ethical dilemma faced by teachers who were expected to meet impossible demands. In Taking the Fall in Atlanta, a piece published last Friday on EPI’s website, Rothstein examines the impossibly utopian assumptions imposed by the distant policy makers who created No Child Left Behind’s sanctions-based accountability system: “Certainly educators can refuse to cheat, and take the fall for unavoidable failure in other ways: they can see their schools closed, their colleagues fired, their students’ confidence and love of learning destroyed. That would have been the legal thing to do, but not necessarily the ethical thing to do. As one indicted teacher told the judge before the trial, ‘I truly believed that I was helping these children stay in school just one more year,’ something from which they would have benefited far more more than being drilled incessantly on test-taking strategies so they could pass tests legally.”
Rothstein concludes: “Eleven Atlanta educators, convicted and imprisoned, have taken the fall for systematic cheating on standardized tests in American education. Such cheating is widespread, as is similar corruption in any institution—whether health care, criminal justice, the Veterans Administration, or others—where top policymakers try to manage their institutions with simple quantitative measures that distort the institution’s goals. This corruption is especially inevitable when out-of-touch policymakers set impossible-to-achieve goals and expect that success will nonetheless follow if only underlings are held accountable for measurable results… Holding educators accountable for student test results makes sense if the tests are reasonable reflections of teacher performance. But if they are not, and if educators are being held accountable for meeting standards that are impossible to achieve, then the only way to meet fanciful goals imposed from above—according to federal law, that all children will make adequate yearly progress towards full proficiency in 2014—is to cheat, using illegal or barely legal devices. It is not surprising that educators do just that.”
Please do read Aviv’s and Rothstein’s fine articles and Friday’s blog post at this site. In a piece published yesterday on the opinion pages of the Atlanta Journal Constitution (a piece behind a paywall and available for subscribers only) Bob Schaeffer of the National Center & Open Testing provides a bit of additional context for what happened in Atlanta: “Nearly four decades ago, acclaimed social scientist Donald Campbell forecast today’s scandals. He wrote, ‘When test scores become the goal of the teaching process, they both lose their value as indicators of educational status and distort the educational process in undesirable ways.'”
Something has gone haywire in our nation’s education policy. What happened in Atlanta last week should cause us all to stop and pay attention.