The big edu-news of the week has to be the ever-evolving cheating scandal down in Atlanta. The allegations had already brought down a superintendent of the year, one who was once rumored to be on the short list for U.S. Secretary of Education. The report released by the Georgia governor notes cheating in 80 percent of the schools reviewed, with 178 teachers and 38 principals named in the scheme. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has the full story here.
Critics are quick to use this scandal to condemn testing and accountability in general, stating that our high-stakes, AYP era made these educators act the way they did. They had no choice. With high expectations, they had to use any means necessary to demonstrate student proficiency. If that meant erasing a number of bubbles in the name of APS’ reputation, then so be it.
And it isn’t like this is the only incident of district-wide cheating we’ve heard of in recent years. There is the current investigation in Baltimore. And who can forget the huge expose that USA Today did on potential cheating in Washington, DC.
There is a difference, though, beyond the scale of the allegations. In DC and Baltimore, folks were quick to condemn the leadership for taking shortcuts. And we were quick to remind people that those districts were headed by upstart “reformers” looking to change the way we teach. So in their quest to demonstrate their model works, of course they would do whatever it took to post student gains, right?
But Atlanta paints a very different picture. Superintendent Hall is the very model of a status quo superintendent. Her tenure in Atlanta surpasses just about any current urban superintendent. She’s part of the old guard, and was regularly put forward as an example that one doesn’t have to blow up the central office and preach reform to generate the sort of student achievement numbers most urban districts only dream about. So if there is some malfeasance, it must be the devil’s work. It must be the doing of that dear ol’ mephistopheles known as NCLB/AYP.
There is never a good reason why a school or district should engage in systematic cheating on assessments. Even with the best of intentions, such actions only serve to destroy the lives of educators and embarrass the students. Such actions only undo the good changes and improvements that may be happening in a district. And such actions only throw more fuel on the fire regarding public perceptions of failing schools and incapable educators. Instead of everyone winning by some short-term student gains, everyone — particularly the students — loses when details and stories such as these go public.
Yes, we feel better when it is one isolated teacher or school that engages in such behavior, versus an entire district that uses rubber gloves to eliminate fingerprints and allegedly handed out cheat sheet transparencies to make changing answers that much easier. We don’t want to believe that such actions can be systemic. Now Atlanta has shown us otherwise.
What comes next? We are already hearing of potential criminal charges and calls for the denial of pensions and benefits down in Atlanta. But such does little to help those students who were positioned as part of the Atlanta “miracle” only to find they aren’t quite as proficient as they once believed. The students are the real victims here, and punishing individual teachers does little to make them whole or to fix the underlying issue. In what will clearly be “I was just following orders” defense, a few administrators will take the fall, with the rest left to pick up the pieces.
But it begs an important question — what if all of that time and effort was put into actually teaching the students? What if instead of the “changing parties” educators used the time for additional tutoring or instruction for the students?
Then again, Atlanta could have always done what so many other states and districts did during the NCLB era — just lower its standards. It is much easier to just lower the bar, year after year, rather than look for way to enhance performance through answer-changing methods. I guess lowering the bar is just so 2005.