Demands on Educators Lead to Cheating, In Atlanta and Beyond

On Wednesday afternoon eleven convictions were handed down in the Atlanta schools test-cheating scandal. On the one hand, this is a local issue—merely one city’s tragedy with the local response to the federal testing law, No Child Left Behind, and all the law’s demands for something radical to happen right now. But this one local consequence is emblematic of the way things can go when laws pressure real people to implement policies that have nothing whatever to do with reality.

The problem is much larger than Atlanta. The Guardian reports “documented cheating in at least 40 states, since the APS cheating scandal came to light.” In March of 2011, USA Today uncovered what seems to have been an obvious cheating scandal in Washington, D.C. Michelle Rhee, the Washington, D.C. superintendent at that time, somehow managed to be sure the allegations were never investigated, despite efforts by that newspaper and an effort of several years by PBS journalist John Merrow to uncover e-mails that would have exposed Rhee’s and the district’s wrongdoing.

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 a school around, 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.

I cannot speak to what should have been the court’s judgment on the eleven former Atlanta school employees convicted of erasing wrong answers and changing what students had filled in on their test answer sheets. According to the New York Times, five were teachers, one was a principal, and five were the administrators under Superintendent Beverly Hall who launched and implemented what the court said was a criminal conspiracy.  Corey Mitchell for Education Week describes the charges:

“Because bonuses and raises were awarded to the educators based on the test scores, prosecutors charged the educators with violating the state’s RICO (Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations) Act by engaging in a massive criminal conspiracy.  It’s a criminal statute that law enforcement typically uses to prosecute those with ties to organized crime.”

Superintendent Beverly Hall pressured the district’s administrators and teachers with incentives, punishments, and shame. Hall was charged in the indictment, but she was never tried due to a diagnosis and treatment for breast cancer. She died last month.  Valerie Strauss in the Washington Post quotes from the indictment:

“While Superintendent of APS (Atlanta Public Schools), Beverly Hall set annual performance objectives for APS and the individual schools within it, commonly referred to as ‘targets.’ If a school achieved 70 percent or more of its targets, all employees of the school received a bonus. Additionally, if certain system-wide targets were achieved, Beverly Hall herself received a substantial bonus. . .  APS principals and teachers were frequently told by Beverly Hall and her subordinates that excuses for not meeting targets would not be tolerated. When principals and teachers could not reach their targets, their performance was criticized, their jobs were threatened and some were terminated. Over time, the unreasonable pressure to meet annual APS targets led some employees to cheat. . . The refusal of Beverly Hall and her top administrators to accept anything other than satisfying targets created an environment where achieving the desired end result was more important than the students’ education.”

Jay Bookman, a columnist for the Atlanta Journal Constitution describes Beverly Hall and the school climate she created in which widespread cheating emerged:

“Personally, I still have a hard time shaking the memory of one-on-one conversations with Hall in which she obstinately, repeatedly refused to concede that anything had gone awry with the system’s testing system. As I wrote back then, her denials were downright stunning and in hindsight even Nixonian. By sheer force of will, she had created a world in which her distorted version of events was the only one that mattered, and all who lived and worked within that world were forced to abide by its strange rules.”

According to the New York Times,  in Atlanta, “Nearly 180 employees, including 38 principals, were accused of wrongdoing as part of an effort to inflate test scores and misrepresent the achievement of Atlanta’s students and schools.” Many of these people reached plea agreements and were granted probation and community service.  In addition to Dr. Hall, another of those charged died in the years since the scandal was exposed in 2011. Twelve stood trial. One teacher was acquitted on Wednesday.

Were the people involved in Atlanta’s cheating scandal just morally weak?  Were they trying to avoid being shamed? Were they desperate to protect their jobs and the income that fed their children? I am sure different people cheated for different reasons, and we can agree that teachers and school leaders shouldn’t cheat. A larger concern, however, is that a federal education policy based on test-and-punish asks teachers to accomplish the impossible and then shames and punishes and even fires them when they can’t do it.  Bob Scheaffer, writing for the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, explains that we ought to be blaming a system that demands what human beings cannot possibly accomplish: “Across the U.S., strategies that boost scores without improving learning—including outright cheating, narrow teaching to the test and pushing out low-scoring students—are widespread.  These corrupt practices are inevitable consequences of the politically mandated overuse and misuse of high-stakes exams.”

Something has gone haywire in our nation’s education policy. What happened in Atlanta this week should cause us all to stop and pay attention.


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