The Atlanta school cheating convictions are unhelpful to education reform.
This from Robert Podesto in US News and World Report:
This is how it starts. You work with these kids all year. You teach them how to do fractions or find the main idea. They struggle; they make mistakes. They get it. They forget it. You keep at it. Some days you go home with tire tracks on your back, but you come back the next day. They’re your kids, even the ones who push your buttons. Especially them.
Former assistant principal is led to a holding cell
On test day, you look over their shoulders while proctoring. You cringe. A careless mistake. Another one. You know they know this stuff. You’ve been over it enough. The one kid, he’s bright enough but unfocused. Always rushing; always has to be done first. Use the remaining time to check your answers, you suggest. “I did,” he says.
Your finger comes to rest on his answer sheet. "Check this one."
This is how it ends. In an Atlanta courtroom, with 11 educators convicted of criminal charges in a cheating scandal dating back to 2001. Forty-four schools, 180 educators, 35 indictments. The ones convicted Wednesday face up to 20 years in prison. They were all found guilty under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act. Charges usually brought against mobsters and organized crime bosses were brought against elementary school teachers.
It’s hard to look at what’s happened in Atlanta without alarm and a bit of revulsion. How could this happen? What signal, spoken or unspoken, leads elementary school teachers to engage in “organized and systemic misconduct” bad enough to warrant a conviction on racketeering charges? No one wakes up one morning with a fully formed plot in their head to change hundreds of test scores in dozens of schools. Who bears the responsibility for creating " a culture of fear, intimidation and retaliation" that leads to “cheating at all levels” in a major American school system that goes “unchecked for years”?
The teachers and administrators convicted Wednesday cannot be forgiven. But they deserve some small degree of sympathy. “They got a signal from somebody, whether it’s their principal or superintendent, that we need to see rising test scores at all costs,” observes Peter Cunningham, a former assistant secretary in the U.S. Department of Education, who now runs Education Post, a non-profit ed-reform organization.
Maybe that signal came from the winner of the 2009 National Superintendent Of The Year. The American Association of School Administrators gave that honor to Atlanta’s Beverly Hall in recognition of the city’s rising test scores and graduation rates. Atlanta, it said, is “a model of urban school reform.” The indictments say otherwise. Hall died of breast cancer last month before she could answer criminal charges, including racketeering, making false statements, theft, influencing witnesses and conspiracy. Maybe the signal came from even further up the food chain. If teachers felt that it was virtually impossible to meet the “ adequate yearly progress” benchmarks they were expected to hit, that they’d been set up to fail, they were probably right.
The correct objects of sympathy here are Atlanta’s children. They were lied to at best, robbed at worst, and led to believe they were where they needed to be academically when they were not. They were denied the education they deserved for expediency’s sake.
The moral case for education reform has not changed. But the Atlanta verdicts complicate the narrative. “It’s just one more talking point for those who think that testing is the wrong way to hold ourselves accountable,” Cunningham says. “They see someone cheating or pressured and they say it’s not their fault and we don’t need to do this.”
Accountability means refusing to accept that demographics is destiny. It means a good teacher in every classroom, not just in Greenwich, Bethesda or Sunnyvale. It means no longer lying to ourselves that a kid in the South Bronx or Detroit is getting a good education, when his test scores say he’s not.
Accountability means having difficult conversations with people. Sometimes that means telling adults they need to consider a different line of work. I doubt anyone ever envisioned starting one of those difficult conversations with, “You have the right to remain silent.” Accountability should also mean attainability. If you say bad things will happen if you don’t get kids to a certain level, but you ignore where they’re starting from, you create a sense of hopelessness.
Education reform runs on moral justice, political will and test scores. Testing is, by far, the weakest leg of the stool. It’s the most reliable means we have of evaluating performance, but it is deeply unpopular. The popular means – observations, portfolios, and “authentic” performance tasks – are imprecise, squishy and easily manipulated. The Atlanta verdicts can only muddy our already complicated relationship with testing. Accountability may start in classrooms. But it could easily end in courtrooms.
Accountability is supposed to mean long-overdue attention to those our education system has historically neglected. Now it also means elementary school teachers perp walked, led from a courtroom in handcuffs. Maybe it’s justice. But it’s a sad day nonetheless.