As a twelve-year teacher, it doesn't shock me to hear story after story highlighting the same truth: high-stakes testing can lead to a culture of cheating by educators in a school district. The biggest one by far this year was in Atlanta, GA, where Beverly Hall (former superintendent for Atlanta Public Schools) and 34 other teachers and principals were indicted for racketeering, conspiracy, influencing witnesses, theft and lying. Hall herself faces up to 45 years in prison.
Hall was honored as Superintendent of the Year and was hosted at the White House for her achievements raising the test scores of minority students. However, the meteoric rise of scores raised more than just eyebrows: it raised suspicions too. When math proficiency rates in a school rise from 24% to 86% in only one year, people stop saying "Gift from God" and start thinking "Deal with the Devil".
Ultimately, 178 teachers and principals are suspected to be complicit in altering student tests. 82 confessed to doing so.
None of this surprises me. When higher test scores are linked to pay checks, classroom funding and even employment, cheating no longer indicates a loss of integrity: it becomes a calculated career move. What does surprise me are the comments I see from teachers and parents, dismissing this scandal as merely the result of a lot of bad eggs in one public school basket. "I would never consider encouraging cheating amongst my students, or altering the results", says one commenter. "Unfortunately, the Atlanta public school apple barrel is full of rotten apples", says another.
How do you find enough rotten apples to fill a school district? Simple: you make them. Follow me below the fold for more.
I was raised by a strong mother who taught me that women never deserved to be abused (stick with me, this is pertinent). When I left home for college, I was firm in my belief that no man would ever dare raise a hand to me, lest he find himself flat on his back, watching my feet as I marched out the door.
Then my sophomore year, I met Chris.
The story is no doubt familiar to many abused women. Hell, I'd heard it many times myself, but in my blind self-certainty I didn't realize what was happening until it was too late. He was charming and self-assured. His attentions flattered me, and when he started to separate me from my friends, I only saw that he wanted to spend all his time with me. When he started to get angry with me, I could certainly see why: I was still a naïve and sheltered young woman, while he was a man in the working world already. He was more mature than I.
In September, I was sure that I wasn't the type of woman who could ever be abused. By June (when my mother finally found me and brought me home), I was sure I had deserved every harsh word he used to destroy me. I'm still staggered by how quickly he tore me down.
No woman ever starts a relationship believing this man will be the one that abuses her. By that same token, teachers don't accept a job offer from a school district believing that someday, their principal will lock them in a classroom and require them to change test scores. They get to that point by degrees. The trap had closed on them months, possibly even years, before. They just didn't realize it.
High-stakes testing sets the trap. Standardized test scores should only be one piece of evidence among many that measure the effectiveness of a school: they're a snapshot of one day in a student's life. Imagine your boss picking one random work day (May 3rd, for example) and using your group's productivity on that day alone to determine your bonus or your future employment. Would the evaluation be fair, especially if two of your colleagues called in sick that day and one had lost his mother three days prior? Would you be tempted to "manipulate the results to make things more fair", especially if you knew there was no appeal process? (there's no mulligans in state testing)
Teachers are the most obvious target for this, but the principals were caught in the same trap: Superintendent Hall fired 90% of those who didn't reach her testing targets:
Dr. Hall was known to rule by fear. She gave principals three years to meet their testing goals. Few did; in her decade as superintendent, she replaced 90 percent of the principals.Teachers and principals who are fired from their jobs face a hard road. Future school districts always call your previous employers, even if you left of your own accord. Being fired from your position (even if 90% of your colleagues were also fired, indicating a problem with your district's expectations) is a big black mark against you. Not only that, but a teacher's pay is tied to years of experience in a district and education level. It's common practice that only 5 years of longevity can be transferred to a new district: if you leave any school district 5 years after you started teaching, you're going to be taking a significant pay cut.
Teachers and principals whose students had high test scores received tenure and thousands of dollars in performance bonuses. Otherwise, as one teacher explained, it was “low score out the door.”
Ms. Parks, a 17-year veteran, said a reason she had kept silent so long was that as a single mother, she could not afford to lose her job.
I'm not excusing the behavior of the teachers or principals. Regardless of whether or not they felt they had a choice, they did have one. But the choice was made harder because many of them didn't realize what was coming. You can only avoid the trap if you see it before it closes on you. Chewing your foot off afterwards is always more painful.
My school faces this same trap. As a Title I school (based on the percentage of low-income students in our population), our funding and our choices are tied to No Child Left Behind. Title I schools that are deemed failing schools for more than 3 years have their funding cut. Their administration is fired. Their teachers can be fired or involuntarily transferred. They can be turned into a charter school or closed entirely.
We've been a failing school for two years now, never mind that we have test scores 20 points higher than the state average and the highest test scores of any school in our district. The pressure to raise test scores is always there, and it's increasing. Some of the changes have been good (a comprehensive math intervention program, for example), but some are more troubling. We've temporarily suspended math lessons to implement standardized test preparation (testing is a month away). We'll be suspending science instruction for a double-dose of math after spring break. Whenever I express discomfort over having to drop science for math, or teaching test prep strategies instead of problem-solving strategies students will need later in all of their classes, I'm always met with a shrug and the response of, "We need to raise our test scores".
This is how good schools become corrupted. If you want to make apple cider, you don't look for rotten apples: you start with good apples and create the right environment to turn them. If you want a school willing to do whatever it takes to achieve the impossible, you start with good people and create an environment where they can't stay unless they turn too.