What To Make of the Atlanta Cheating Scandal

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Spring is here and that means that standardized testing season has begun and it is a big deal. Administrators put pressure on teachers to guarantee their students know the material that will be covered on the test. Further instructional time is halted while students do practice exams and go over what they will be tested upon. Testing week itself is a nightmare as the school begs parents to make sure their children are well-rested and well fed on test days. For teachers, it is an enormous challenge and one that makes their jobs that much harder.

Testing was originally implemented to ensure that students had a basic grasp of specific material and to improve future performance. However, it has just grown ugly from there. Federal and state governments looked at our educational deficits and, rather than address the systemic problems in student’s lives, they decided that testing was the way to handle them. Without taking into account student poverty, learning disabilities, class sizes, school Photo by sarah-ji - https://flic.kr/p/ee3z6Sresources, student health, safety issues or family functioning – you know, factors that are essential to learning – tests now determine school ranking, funding, teacher performance and salaries. In some cases, the results of testing control whether teachers even have jobs. That seems both unfair and unwise and it leads to people gaming the system or, in bad cases, outright cheating.

Take the recent Atlanta cheating scandal, one of the largest of its kind to be prosecuted. Eleven educators (teachers, principals and administrators) were convicted of racketeering charges – charges usually reserved for cases against organized crime – for cheating on standardized tests. The convicted educators will be sentenced later this month and could face up to 20 years in prison. Huh. So, people who are guilty of what is an essentially victimless crime are treated in a manner similar to those who trade in drugs, guns, corruption, murder and prostitution. I think that’s weird.

Cheating on standardized tests is incredibly widespread, especially in schools in poverty-stricken areas. There have been stories of cheating in 40 different states. It is not uncommon and, when you know the situation, it’s kind of understandable. When you stack everything against people and the stakes are high, what do you expect them to do? Standardized testing has ruined lots of educator’s careers and has damaged many a student’s self-esteem but I have yet to hear about the gains stemming from this method of assessment. Instead of looking at the real problems faced by a broken educational system, we blame the people who work in it. So what should we do? If only we had another industry with a cheating scandal so we could see how those professionals were handled. Oh wait, we do.

I seem to recall reading something a few years back about the financial industry. Didn’t they also feed people the information they needed to pass tests, falsify data, and erase answers in order to look good for larger regulatory agencies (the same things the educators were convicted of doing)? However, there were differences. In that industry’s scandal, innocent people lost money, their homes and life savings; millions were irreparably damaged by what those in charge did simply because of greed. Careers were made, bonuses given and people at the top benefited hugely from this cheating. And what happened to them? Surely heads rolled, careers were ruined, people went to jail and the entire system was overhauled. After all, they selfishly hurt a lot of people and almost wrecked our economy.

Maybe a few people were fired, I think one person went to jail and the ones responsible for the mess? They got bailed out by the taxpayers and continued to receive huge bonuses the very next year. If only everyone’s work mistakes came with such huge financial compensation! As David Dayen pointed out, “We send messages to teachers; we send bailouts to bankers. You don’t have to consider the Atlanta teachers innocent to know something has gone terribly awry in the country when filling in bubbles on Scan-Tron sheets can get you 20 years, but stealing people’s homes and defrauding pension funds can’t get you indicted.”

There is a story in the New Yorker that does a great job of emphasizing how and why the cheating in Atlanta occurred. It also makes plain that, unlike the financial industry that cheated to enrich themselves at the expense of their customers, these education professionals cheated in order to keep their jobs and enrich the lives of their students. Most of them gained little on a personal level and many believed that they were doing things in the best interests of their communities, schools, and students. Yet they are the ones paying a severe price. What are we to make of this discrepancy?

I do not think we can ignore the fact that all of the defendants are people of color and most (all but two) are women. And although I don’t know their personal financial situations, I think it probable that none of them are wealthy or even people of means (they were educators; you do the math). It is much easier to throw the book at those who – by virtue of their race, class and gender – are the least able to defend themselves.

It also is no accident that they are going after educators, especially those who do not follow the ridiculous rules set down by the people on high. Public education is the favorite whipping boy of politicians these days. Private education can be bought and offered only to those considered worthy. But public education is for everyone and good education does more than provide you with basic facts; it teaches you critical thinking skills. It is these skills that enable people to understand the nature of economic and social policies, detect subtle forms of influence, question those in authority, and be able to speak and write about what they have learned. In short, public education is a bad politician’s nightmare. The educated masses might even start wondering about the wisdom of taxpayer funding of failed banks when the people who ran them into the ground didn’t get so much as a slap on the hand.

Focusing on the deficiencies in the public educational system (with some even calling for its dismantlement!) is just a sleight of hand by politicians. If you’re looking only at the problems in our educational system, then you’re not looking at other areas that directly impact what public schools are trying to do, issues like poverty and lack of social services, the desperation of families, major disparities in income and the myriad failures of politicians. If we weren’t so busy concentrating on the rabbit in the magician’s hat, we might even start asking hard questions about why teachers – the ones to whom we entrust our children’s futures – make significantly less than say, professional athletes who, after all, are merely playing games.

So, the disparity between how the financial industry and these educators were treated rests in the political realities of our culture. However, there is something else about education that leads some to insist upon standardized tests: people don’t know how to quantify something like education which cannot be reduced to numbers or answers on a test. Yes, there are basics that every student should master but the overall goal of education should be to have curious and creative students who know what they need to do in order to contribute to society. And good teachers are not ones who simply force students to learn certain facts; good teachers inspire. They have a love of and excitement for their subject, care for their students, passion for teaching, and a commitment to the school and the community. These are all qualities that cannot be measured by a test.

Standardized testing seems to be doing more harm than good yet the image of them being essential to education persists. You have to wonder if part of the reason for this is because the companies creating and grading the tests are incredibly profitable. Here in Texas, the budget for education was cut severely yet somehow the state has enough money to pay millions to the company that runs our state test. And you have to question if big business is behind it all. Did they go after the educators in Atlanta so harshly because their cheating threatened to harm the money-making enterprise of standardized testing?

If that is not the case, if the legal case was purely about the children, you’d think the lead prosecutor would know how it works. Yet District Attorney Paul Howard seemed ignorant of the process when he said, “If children were not provided with an adequate or quality education, we hope that a re-examination will take place and that that education that they missed because of what happened in this cheating scandal – we hope that that will be fulfilled.” But that’s not what happens when kids fail these exams. When kids fail, schools can close, teachers can be removed and the kids themselves can be shuffled off into a remedial class where they concentrate solely on the material needed to pass the test. Thus, students do not miss out on education because adults cheated; if anything, they miss out on education because they had to take a stupid test. Isn’t that the real crime?

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