Only in Georgia? The Atlanta teacher scandal

Why isn’t there more outrage about this? Yes, teachers are human, so we make mistakes. Mistakes in math are excusable, as long as they aren’t too frequent or too egregious. But mistakes in ethics and law are inexcusable. Teachers who cheat when grading their students’ tests cannot be excused — and I can’t imagine that anyone would condone their behavior. So why does it happen?

So…what am I talking about? First, read an article that appeared in the New Yorker a couple of months ago. Here are some excerpts about a math teacher at Parks Middle School in Atlanta:

He photocopied the math, reading, and language-arts sections—the subjects that would determine, under the No Child Left Behind guidelines, whether Parks would be classified as a “school in need of improvement” for the sixth year in a row. Unless fifty-eight per cent of students passed the math portion of the test and sixty-seven per cent passed in language arts, the state could shut down the school. Lewis put on gloves, to prevent oil from his hands from leaving a residue on the plastic, and then used his lighter to melt the edges of the cellophane together, so that it appeared as if the package had never been opened. He gave the reading and language-arts sections to two teachers he trusted and took the math section home.

In Rachel Aviv’s inimitable style, this reads like a thriller. You know what’s going to happen, but you can’t quite believe it. Read the whole piece; it’s a fascinating and deeply disturbing account of corruption, human frailty, and the deleterious effect of high-stakes standardized testing. And it’s not just Atlanta, not just Georgia:

There have been accounts of widespread cheating in dozens of cities, including Philadelphia, Toledo, El Paso, Baltimore, Cincinnati, Houston, and St. Louis. According to a 2013 report by the Government Accountability Office, forty states detected instances of cheating by educators in the previous two years.

We can’t do much about human frailty, but we can do something about high-stakes testing — high stakes not only for the students but also for the schools and especially for the teachers.

Second, there was a follow-up piece in today’s New York TimesOnce again, some excerpts:

 The criminal trial of a dozen public school educators opened here [Atlanta] Monday with prosecutors alleging that the teachers and administrators had engaged in a “widespread, cleverly disguised” conspiracy to cheat on standardized test scores in an effort to protect their jobs and win favor and bonuses from administrators.

The urban school district has already suffered one of the most devastating standardized-testing scandals of recent years. A state investigation in 2011 found that 178 principals and teachers in the city school district were involved in cheating on standardized tests. Dozens of former employees of the school district have either been fired or have resigned, and 21 educators have pleaded guilty to crimes like obstruction and making false statements.

Whether prosecutors will be able to convince a jury that a group of teachers engaged in racketeering — a charge often associated in the public imagination with mobsters and gang members — has been a topic of intense discussion within Atlanta legal circles.

Let’s see what happens. We’re waiting with bated breath. Maybe this is the death-knell of excessive use of high-stakes testing.




Categories: Life, Teaching & Learning