Richard Rothstein to Bank Street College Graduates: Make Your Ethical Dilemmas Public

In a mid-May commencement address at the Bank Street Graduate School of Education, Richard Rothstein reflected with the graduates about the ethical choices they will face as school teachers and principals.  Ethical choices for educators are something many of us have continued to consider since the tragic Atlanta trial that concluded early in April.  For the Atlanta  judge the ethics were so clear: the teachers and principals were cheaters who deserved to be sentenced to years in jail for changing their students’ answers on standardized tests.  But many of us following that trial also realized that the teachers and principals whose careers were at stake had been asked by society and their school superintendent, Beverly Hall, to accomplish the impossible: turn around the trajectory of their students’ aggregate test scores in just a few months.  Hall had promised she could turn around the whole district, and she threatened to fire educators who couldn’t immediately make their students’ test scores jump. (Here are this blog’s posts tagged Atlanta cheating scandal.)

Rothstein reminded  Bank Street College’s graduates about the teacher who told the Atlanta judge she had cheated to keep her students in school instead of dropping out: “The Atlanta judge, expressing moral outrage, claimed that his harsh sentences—including years of jail time—were justified because the victims of cheating were students, denied remediation because test erasures disguised their failures.  But we all know that in practice, their failures would not likely have resulted in special help; holding them back would make them more likely to drop out, not less so.  One teacher told the judge that she believed that changing a young man’s score to passing would make his staying in school, and graduating, more likely, and would enable him to participate more fully in American society.  Was she right?  If so, does it justify engaging in criminal activity?  Perhaps you think this is an easy question to answer (although I’m not sure what the answer is), but many of the ethical dilemmas you will face are more complicated.”

In his address Rothstein enumerated just a few of the moral conflicts teachers face in these times of “legal corruption that inevitably results from using tests not to guide instruction, but to punish educators… encouraged in the name of ‘reform’ by financial elites and by political leaders at the highest levels of government—that is driving the breakdown of our education system.”  Rothstein described the narrowing of the curriculum as one form of corruption: “It results when teachers, even entire school systems, reallocate instructional time to subjects that are tested, because there are no consequences for diminishing attention to civics, science, history, cooperative learning, critical thinking of all kinds, literature, the arts, physical fitness, or even mathematical reasoning.”  Another kind of corruption takes place annually, “At the beginning of the school year, (when) principals nationwide gather teachers to review prior year scores, so that students just below the passing point can be identified for special attention.  Because classroom time is limited, this widely-employed strategy necessarily robs attention from students who are far below or far above passing.”   Then there is this: “Today, teachers learn to study prior tests, or the textbooks published by test-making companies, so they can prepare students for questions that are more likely to be asked, questions unrepresentative of the full curriculum.  Coaching that focuses on trivial aspects of test-taking technique, or guessing strategies is now called good teaching by unintimidated school administrators….”  In every one of these instances, Rothstein reminded the Bank Street graduates, “It is unethical, it’s corrupt, but it’s legal. How will you, individually and collectively, respond?”

Rothstein concluded his remarks by asking Bank Street’s newest school teachers to examine a reality that is far more complicated than the thinking of the judge in Atlanta: “Ethical choices do not consist either of civil disobedience that refuses to participate in an unjust system, or of obsequious compliance with corrupt orders. Ethical lives are comprised of compromises, of considering where to take stands and where not to make waves.  Throughout the careers on which you are about to embark, you will frequently have to decide when to resist, in both tiny and big ways, when to compromise, in both tiny and big ways, and when to capitulate in both tiny and big ways.  You will often have to decide whether you can do more good by going along, or more good by taking a risk, perhaps just a small one, sometimes a large one, with your security and career… If I can… make any recommendation to you, it is to consider how you can make your anguish more public.”

I urge you to read Rothstein’s stunning Bank Street commencement address.

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Stacey Patton’s “Dear White People” Article Sums Up This Week’s Reality

Well, it has not been a quiet week in school “reform.”  Here is just some of what has happened:

  • The Smarter Balanced Consortium’s Common Core test had to be stopped in Nevada, Montana, and North Dakota because, according to the Las Vegas Sun, “a spike in students taking the Smarter Balanced Assessment… exceeded the data capacity of Measured Progress, a third party vendor contracted by the states to provide the test.”  And according to Education Week, “Following technical problems with its administration of the Smarter Balanced tests, the Montana education department has announced that Smarter Balanced testing will be optional for districts this spring.”
  • Colorado’s standardized tests had to be partially shut down for the same reason.  The Colorado Springs Gazette reported that “‘Technical difficulties’ caused computerized testing in Colorado to ‘not operate optimally’ for several hours Tuesday… The malfunction… was believed to be a server issue on the part of Pearson State Assessment Services, the for-profit test administrator for Colorado.”
  • In New York, partly motivated by Governor Andrew Cuomo’s new policy that 50 percent of a teacher’s evaluation will depend on the Common Core tests, thousands of parents protested by opting their children and adolescents out of testing—a number big enough in some schools and school districts to invalidate the tests. Juan Gonzalez reported for the New York Daily News: “The entire structure of high-stakes testing in New York crumbled Tuesday, as tens of thousands of fed-up public school parents rebelled against Albany’s fixation with standardized tests and refused to allow their children to take the annual English Language Arts state exam… ‘We’re very concerned about the impact a new testing proposal will have on our teachers,’ Smith-Thompson (a parent) said.  She was referring to Gov. Cuomo getting the Legislature to approve a new evaluation system that will base 50% of a teacher’s performance on student test scores.”
  • And in Atlanta, eight public school educators were sentenced to jail sentences and stiff fines for participating in a test-cheating scheme in which they had been threatened with termination if they had refused to help establish a “quick turnaround” reputation for their schools and the school district—at a time when federal policy demands impossible quick fixes by educators for problems most researchers have concluded are instead the result of concentrated poverty, segregation, and inequality.  This blog has covered the Atlanta convictions and sentences here, here, here, and here.
  • Meanwhile in Washington, D.C. this week, the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee has been considering a bipartisan proposal to reauthorize the federal testing law, No Child Left Behind, a proposal that somewhat softens the punitive arm of the federal government by reducing some sanctions but still leaves the edifice of federal testing requirements in place. The bill was passed out of the Senate HELP Committee yesterday, although it is unclear when it might be considered on the Senate floor.

How to weave together the threads to expose the pattern that runs through all this?  For there is a pattern running through it all.  I was struggling to figure out how to do it when I happened upon an extraordinary analysis by Stacey Patton,  a reporter for the Chronicle for Higher Education. Patton’s  piece on school reform appears at Dame Magazine, a feminist publication.  It is a very angry piece with language not typically included in my blog, but it is one of the most insightful analyses I’ve seen about what’s been happening to our public schools and our children.  Please read Dear White People, Your Kids Are Getting Screwed, Too!, and please force yourself to consider what I believe is the justified anger Patton explores.

Patton begins: “From Black teachers being imprisoned for forging answers on tests and Black parents being jailed for ‘stealing’ a better education for their kids, to White middle class parents organizing a nationwide revolt against standardized testing, we are seeing a repudiation of our failed educational policies.  Many might see these as totally separate issues, reflecting the power of race and class, but each represent varied responses to an immoral national strategy that had its major impact on inner-city communities more than a decade ago and has now targeted suburban schools.”

Patton turns her critique in all directions and condemns civil rights organizations for supporting testing: “So desperate to have some policies to promote equity when the country was turning conservative, civil rights leaders forgot their historic opposition to high stakes testing, with tragic results…  At the end of the day, the rhetoric of civil rights set the stage for the educational holocaust in communities of color and for the Atlanta scandal.”

“The testing industrial complex,” Patton writes, “is not improving outcomes for Black children, teachers, schools, neighborhoods, communities or our nation.  It is NOT making the U.S. more globally competitive.  And it definitely will NOT prepare tomorrow’s workforce to thrive, unless of course the point is to train students to become compliant low-wage workers.”  “As with so many policies, the rise of America’s testing regime has been felt, albeit differently, across different racial and classed communities.  To maintain the illusion of post-raciality and equity, the reach of No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top, and the grips of assessment and standards have crept into every community, from New Orleans to Manhattan, from Beverly Hills to the West Side of Chicago.”

For Patton, the Atlanta convictions and long jail sentences demonstrate one side of the testing madness: “The system has set up these teachers and students to fail, and then blames them when the results are not met.  From NCLB to Teach for America, from a racist testing culture to funding disparities, the history of American education has been one where Black and Latino kids have been cheated over and over again… These teachers in Atlanta are scapegoats for a punitive approach to education in poor neighborhoods and communities of color.  It all has to do with the stakes attached to testing.  What were they supposed to do?  The tests embody racial inequities and biases, yet don’t account for the disparities within the nation.  You can’t raise test scores with kids who are homeless and hungry, sleeping with three in a bed, the lights cut off, who fear going to and from school in unsafe neighborhoods.  Teachers and administrators are being told to raise these kids’ scores or else.”

Patton has not much sympathy with privileged parents in the suburbs who have done little to lift up the needs of the schools in the cities but now are angrily trying to opt their children out of testing: “Enraged White parents, who moved to the suburbs to avoid anything from the inner city, are now forced to confront these very policies… Part of me—most of me—has no sympathy.  Stop your crying.  Welcome to our world!… How does it feel to have your children stressed by testing, enslaved to damning statistics, and told that they’re not the natural-born geniuses the world has always assured them that they deserve to be?  How does it feel to see your kids being turned into commodities, monetized, and sacrificed to the corporate gods?”

Despite her anger, Patton is hopeful that, “the White Revolt against testing might actually change the entire landscape.  White outrage might contribute to de-emphasis of testing across the board, an abandonment of a culture of assessment, benchmarks, and standardization.”

It is unusual and, to me, refreshing to read an honest, racially framed analysis of a set of education policies that have rolled across America with racialized implications we don’t talk about because we are trying to be “nice.”  Let’s consider how all this feels from many points of view.  An honest conversation can help us understand one another.

Atlanta Sentencing to Happen at 10 AM Tuesday

Sentences for ten of the eleven Atlanta educators who were convicted on April 2 of cheating by erasing students answers on standardized tests and filling in correct answers is scheduled Tuesday morning at 10 AM. One teacher who was convicted will face a later sentencing date, as she delivered a baby over the weekend.

Monday was the day the sentences were scheduled to be handed down in the Atlanta teacher test-cheating scandal, but after a morning when friends, families and defense attorneys called for compassion for the Atlanta educators, the judge announced that the prosecutor had been working with attorneys and their clients for post-trial plea deals, which would ensure that at least some of the defendants could avoid jail time. Emma Brown reported for the Washington Post that former Atlanta mayor Andrew Young testified, “I think these teachers got caught in a trap. We have messed up education so much. Tests and grades do not make you educated.”

Brown described the scene in the courthouse early Monday afternoon: “After defendants’ friends and family members pled for leniency during an emotional four-hour sentencing hearing Monday, Judge Jerry W. Baxter made an unusual move for the end of a trial.  He called on the former educators to accept responsibility for their actions and strike a plea deal with prosecutors.” Some reports indicated the plea deals being offered by the prosecutors would involve jail time for at least some of those convicted in the cheating scandal.

So how did it happen that Atlanta’s teachers got tried under Georgia’s Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO)?

Dana Goldstein reports for the Marshall Project: “The relative harshness of the potential Atlanta sentences stems from District Attorney Paul Howard’s decision to charge the educators not only with falsifying documents, but with racketeering, which carries a possible prison term of five to 20 years…  The statistical evidence, which was presented at trial, did not indicate who had done the erasing and correcting at each school, nor who knew about it or had ordered it.  Georgia’s Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO) dates to 1980, and is based on the similar federal law.  In applying RICO, ‘Prosecutors’ offices are going to look at unique situations that involve a pyramid structure,’ said Jeffrey Grell, an attorney and RICO expert based in Minnesota… In a RICO case, the prosecution can present hearsay evidence that the defendant was aware of or tacitly encouraged the wrongdoing; the defendant does not have to have committed the wrongdoing directly.  Typically, the goal of RICO is to hold higher-ups in a criminal enterprise accountable.”

One problem in Atlanta is that the higher-up thought to be most responsible was never tried due to illness.  Beverly Hall, the school superintendent, died just last month.  Goldstein continues: “In Atlanta, the district’s former superintendent, Beverly Hall, was alleged to have encouraged and covered up the cheating.  She was infamous—or celebrated, depending on one’s viewpoint—for establishing a ‘no excuses’ culture when it came to test scores.  According to the March 2013 grand jury indictment, she fired whistle blowers who reported cheating or questioned her emphasis on testing.”

The majority of those involved in erasing and changing test scores in Atlanta pled guilty to misdemeanor charges and agreed to probation and community service. They were also punished by losing their teaching certification. Those convicted and being sentenced Tuesday had declared their innocence; they had hoped to be exonerated.  More than half of them were not the higher-ups who pressured others to cheat; several seem to have felt trapped in a scheme they couldn’t figure out how to escape without losing their jobs.

Ten days ago, when the jury in Atlanta convicted the eleven Atlanta educators under RICO, this blog opined that the fault rests in our society’s denial about the urgently important and very difficult challenges of assisting children in poverty and supporting their learning at school: “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.  Turn around a school even if ‘turnaround’ is defined as firing all the teachers or just closing the school.  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.’  It’s never been done and can’t be done anywhere but Lake Woebegon, the fictional hamlet that uses the dialect dubbed “Minnesota Nice” to proclaim that all its children are above average.  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.”  We have pressured educators to produce a quick fix for poverty and inequality.  Why should we be surprised when somebody like Beverly Hall demands cheating to meet our expectations?

John Merrow of PBS agrees that the real culprit is a system that sets up teachers but fails to address the educational needs of the most vulnerable children: “To me, the biggest hypocrites are those who preach, ‘Poverty can never be offered as an excuse’ (for poor student performance) but then to nothing to alleviate poverty and its attendant conditions.  What they are saying, bottom line is, ‘It’s the teachers’ fault’ when kids in poverty-ridden school do poorly on tests or fail to graduate.  These preachers disguise their mendacity with words of praise for teachers, calling them ‘heroes whose brave work changes the lives of their fortunate students blah blah blah.’ Sounds great, but when it comes from those who discount all the other factors that affect outcomes, it’s hypocrisy.  They’re setting up teachers and students to be blamed.”

Richard Rothstein at the Economic Policy Institute responded to the Atlanta verdict by writing that school teachers were left to take the fall for our horrible test-and-punish system that led to a “culture of fear, intimidation, and retaliation” in the Atlanta schools.  Rothstein believes that educators who cheated may have understood their ethical choices very differently than did the jury: “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 than being drilled incessantly on test-taking strategies so they could pass tests legally.”

The Atlanta trial has not been merely about educators erasing and correcting students’ answers on tests. What happened in Atlanta exposes that something has gone haywire in our nation’s education policy.  It should cause us all to stop and pay attention.

Educators Convicted in Atlanta Test Cheating Scandal: Part II

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.