This is one of the saddest articles I’ve ever read.
It describes the genesis of the cheating behavior that was exposed in 2010 in a scandal in the Atlanta public school system, where administrators and teachers in predominantly black schools in poor neighborhoods had practiced a systematic, organized, and institutionalized form of cheating for many years, with the goal of raising test scores to conform with laws such as No Child Left Behind, and to received other incentives (such as awards and honors) too.
You may think the morality of this is cut and dried, and in fact it is. What they did was wrong, and there are neither ifs nor ands nor buts nor excuses. But it’s a fascinating story of how the motivations and rationalizations worked, and how it was that teachers told themselves it was necessary to go along with the deception. The few who spoke out against it either were ignored (some of the higher-ups to whom they complained were in cahoots with the cheating as well) or transferred to the school equivalent of an even-colder Siberia.
After two years of improvement, teachers began taking attendance later in the day so that students had more time to get to school. Eventually, [a teacher named] Lewis recalled, the teachers ceased marking absences altogether. In a letter of complaint, the school secretary, who refused to delete absences from the records, informed the district’s central office that her attendance duties had been taken away and “given to someone whom my principal calls a team player.” “I am lying low because I feel my job is on the line,” she wrote. “I am so overwhelmed by what I’m seeing.”
Without offering it as an excuse, rigid outcome-based laws such as No Child Left Behind do not take into account the deep and broad handicaps faced by teachers in inner-city schools. Yes, great things can be accomplished by isolated schools here and there. But the teachers, even the best ones, are swimming upstream against a strong tide of cultural/societal/familial/social currents that impede their progress.
The cheating process as described in the article reminds me very strongly of what recently happened at the VA hospitals, as well. Do you need to generate statistics that support a certain outcome? Are you frustrated at being unable to produce that outcome? Then lie about the statistics, and the world smiles on you—for a while, anyway.
One of the most dreadful parts of this already very sad article is when the teachers at Parks Middle School (the institution described in-depth by the author) find themselves lauded for the seemingly-remarkable progress they’ve made with difficult students, and have to explain to what they owe their astounding success. They are equal to the task:
[Parks School Principal] Waller was lauded by the district, and became a minor celebrity of the reform movement. [Atlanta School Superintendent Beverly] Hall invited him to attend the Harvard Leadership Conference with her, and she arranged a “Tour of Georgia” bus ride for civic leaders which made a stop at Parks, where Hall gave a speech. Once, at a meeting, when the principal of a middle school said that the targets were out of his students’ reach, Hall responded, “You have to make your targets,” and then pointed to a chart with data from Parks, explaining, “Parks did it.” Waller thought it would have been “evident even to a blind man that the scores were not legitimate.”
Parks attracted so many visitors who were eager to understand the school’s turnaround that teachers had to come up with ways to explain it. At Waller’s direction, they began maintaining what they called “standard-based mastery folders,” an index of all the objectives that each student needed to grasp in order to comprehend a given lesson. Lewis [a math teacher at Parks], who was taking night classes at the School of Education at Clark Atlanta University, wrote his master’s thesis on the technique. “It was a wonderful system,” he said. “But we only put it in place to hide the fact that we were cheating.”
Lewis took pride in the attention that Parks was receiving, and he liked the fact that his students had developed egos about their education. A few tattooed the number of the school zone on their arms. The only time an accolade made him uncomfortable was when Parks won a 2009 Dispelling the Myth Award. He and other teachers were sent to Arlington, Virginia, for a ceremony in the ballroom of a Marriott hotel. Arne Duncan, the Secretary of Education, gave the keynote speech. “I swear to God, I need to write that man, Duncan, a letter of apology,” Lewis told me. “I stood in his court and acted like I was doing something I wasn’t. He held us at the tip-top of education.”
How sad is it that these children were duped by the teachers and principals and superintendents to be proud of accomplishments they didn’t actually achieve? This isn’t just the self-esteem movement run amok, though. The goal was not just to make the students feel good. Nor was it just to receive honors; money was another prize awarded for the fake statistics:
On September 8, 2009, the Atlanta city council declared that the date should be known as Dr. Beverly L. Hall Day. Hall had just been named Superintendent of the Year by the American Association of School Administrators, and the city held a ceremony to honor her for making the district one of the highest-performing urban school systems in the nation. Under her leadership, the district had received more than forty million dollars from the G. E. Foundation and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. When she began as superintendent, fewer than fifty per cent of eighth graders met the state’s standards in language arts. By 2009, ninety per cent of eighth graders had passed the exam.
Too good to be true, but also too good to be challenged. Ultimately it was a newspaper, the Atlanta Journal Constitution, that finally led to the corrupt system’s downfall by questioning the results at Park and some other schools as improbable, leading to a state probe that uncovered rampant abuse:
…[O]ne in five schools exhibited an abnormal pattern of erasure marks, in which a wrong answer had been corrected. At Parks and at one of its feeder schools, there were suspicious erasure marks on tests from more than seventy-five per cent of the classrooms.
An Atlanta investigation was a coverup, and a special prosecutor was appointed by the governor. Atlanta and Georgia were not the only places where there was evidence of this sort of behavior, but it may have been one where it was most widespread, and it certainly was one where the investigation was deepest.
Even to some of the perpetrators, the revelations of wrongdoing were experienced as relief. You may think that the following is self-serving, but to me it has the ring of truth:
As soon as Lewis learned of the investigation, he was ready to confess. Occasionally, in the middle of teaching a lesson, he had to step outside the classroom and lean silently against the wall, closing his eyes. He and his wife had separated—they shared custody of a young daughter—and he found himself lying in bed, startled awake by nightmares. In one, he heard a knock at his door, and when he opened it one of his former students shot him.
His first meeting with investigators was in Waller’s office. He wondered if Waller was clever enough to bug the room and told the agents, “I’d feel a lot more comfortable at your office.” A few weeks later, he and several other teachers met at the downtown law office of Balch & Bingham, which was assisting with the investigation. The agents told the teachers that anyone who coöperated would be granted immunity from criminal prosecution. A social-studies teacher asked, “Can we all huddle for a minute?” When the agents left the room, Lewis told everyone, “The jig is up. I’m not letting this shit drive me crazy.” He urged his colleagues to blame the cheating on him, but they refused.
They all decided to tell the truth.
Well, immunity will do that for you.
Most of the teachers who cheated made it clear that they did not think there were any victims, because they disagreed with the premise of the tests. That tells us something about what’s happened to morality these days: hey, let’s break the rules because we don’t agree with them. Of course, civil disobedience is supposed to be open and above-board and this most definitely was not. How could the teachers not have had a conscience about what they were doing to these children? They rationalized that they were helping them by keeping the school from being closed, by encouraging them to think they could achieve, and by actually teaching them, albeit not at the fast pace dictated by the law.
Institutions these days—whether they be school systems or the VA or some other bureaucracy—which are evaluated by statistics are going to face this sort of temptation among workers and administrators to fudge those statistics. The problem has become much bigger than Altanta or the school systems or race or the VA hospitals, it is one that has come to encompass much of our entire culture and our morality or lack thereof.