Tuesday, April 9, 2013

The Atlanta Cheating Scandal - Enough Blame to Go Around

I'm usually loathe to refer to any transgression as 'unpardonable'. But on that short list, one 'unpardonable' sin, if you will, is compromising the prospects of children. This is why, if true, I have little to no sympathy for the 35 Atlanta, Georgia teachers, principals and administrators accused of falsifying test results.

I say 'little' because I have to take into account that there is a national culpability in allowing an atmosphere in which education and test taking have become so conflated, that they are nearly indistinguishable from one another. The straw argument that 'we have to have some standard of accountability', suggests that we cannot know whether or not teachers are teaching, students are achieving, schools are effective academic institutions, without a standardized test. What we are producing are some adults, who, in order to keep their jobs will teach students to pass those tests, even if it kills them (the students)...or sends them (the teachers) to jail.

"A Fulton County grand jury last week indicted 35 educators from the district, including principals, teachers and testing coordinators. They were ordered to turn themselves in by Tuesday, District Attorney Paul Howard said."

"By 10:00 p.m., 27 of 35 educators had turned themselves in at the Fulton County Jail to face charges including racketeering, theft by taking and making false statements about their roles in an alleged plot to falsify students' standardized tests. Eight of them had been released on bond late Tuesday, the Fulton County Sheriff's office said."

"In 2009, Hall was named the National Superintendent of the Year by the Schools Superintendents Association, which at the time said her "leadership has turned Atlanta into a model of urban school reform.""

The scandal did not start with a, or even a few, renegade principals or teachers seeking to guarantee themselves bonuses. It started at the top...

"Among those indicted by a Fulton County, Georgia, grand jury was Beverly Hall, the former schools superintendent who gained national recognition in 2009 for turning around Atlanta's school system."

""She was a full participant in that conspiracy," Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard told reporters during a news conference announcing the charges."

""Without her, this conspiracy could not have taken place, particularly in the degree in which it took place.""

"The indictment follows a state investigation that was launched after a series of reports by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution newspaper found large, unexplained gains in test scores in some Atlanta schools."

"A state review determined that some cheating had occurred in more than half of the district's elementary and middle schools. About 180 teachers were initially implicated in the scandal."

What is happening in Atlanta is a warning to the rest of the nation when it comes to public education. Standardized tests are neither new or undesirable tools for measuring progress or assessing accountability. But we have perverted their purpose. Public education, particularly in Texas, has divorced academic achievement from culture and enrichment. Experiential and project based learning is being sacrificed. Imagination and creativity is being ignored and education as means through which children learn disciplines associated with social responsibility and interaction, self-discipline and critical thinking is being given short shrift. 

Politicians and the standardized test industry, have placed such downward pressure on those responsible for education in our state and across the country, that test outcomes are touted as the sumum bonum of academic achievement - without regard to whether or not 'achieving students' can read, write, work a math problem, know science or history, or are prepared for college, work or the military. 

Standardized tests now determine what is or isn't a desirable neighborhood. They determine whether or not businesses will relocate or even stay in a particular area. They now determine not only present but future patterns of neighborhood interaction with the criminal justice system. 

These Atlanta teachers, allegedly not only succumb to that pressure, they capitulated to the system. They, if guilty, surrendered the lofty aims of their profession in order to protect themselves at the expense of the children they were charged to educate. We cannot know what that will cost these children - or the rest of us. 

In the words of a friend of mine, teachers and principals who insist on finding ways to educate their students, along with students and their family who persist in being educated in this climate, are incredibly heroic, particularly those in poor neighborhoods. 

Public schools are democratic institutions. We should protect them from the chicanery foisted upon them by our politicians and the testing industry. The abyss they will drive us into will be a deep and dark one. If we continue to let it happen, we will all be guilty. 

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