Sunday, April 7, 2013

Atlanta: Failing the Test

As you may have heard, there is a standardized test cheating scandal going on in Atlanta. It appears that many teachers and administrators collaborated to change wrong student answers to correct student answers, thereby improving their schools' reputations and reaping many personal benefits including sizable bonuses. Both the New York Times and Bill Ayers have written cogent commentaries on this, and I thought I would add this educator's voice to the mix.

First of all, cheating is wrong. It nullifies whatever good can come from standardized tests (i.e. exposing weaknesses in the curriculum that need to be addressed), it masks actual deficiencies that should be addressed, and it serves to prop up a system that is inherently worthless. The teachers involved were wrong to participate in the cheating, and the administrators were even more wrong to encourage and/or coerce that participation. If cheating goes undetected, it reinforces the whole system of testing and provides fake successes for the pro-testing and "reform" movement.

The heroic way to resist the testing regime is the way of the Garfield High School faculty, who refused to administer a test they felt did not measure student learning and took time away from useful classroom instruction. They are an inspiration to all teachers who know that high-stakes testing is not the key to student success.

But not all of us can be heroes. This cheating may be a kind of desperate sabotage of untenable work conditions, where your whole value as a human being is boiled down to a number that you ultimately don't have much control over. Many teachers (sometimes me included, but not today) feel helpless in front a system madated at the state and federal level. We know that those tests are of no value to the students involved, and it's hard to help our kids take ownership of testing that has no impact on them but lots of impact on their schools.

Here's the thing: no students were harmed by teachers erasing their answers on a standardized test. In fact, they helped bring money into the district by gaming a corrupt system to get ahead. It's still wrong, and people who participate should face professional punishments--losing their job, perhaps; losing their bonuses, certainly. And some other cheating scandals, where students were actually injured (like this one in El Paso) certainly merit some harsh punishment WHILE AT THE SAME TIME inviting reflection on systems that would lead professionals to think such horrific actions were a good idea.

But the criminal prosecutions being pursued are preposterous. Yes, the testing officials made a difficult work situation (albeit one mandated by Arne Duncan and the feds) by forcing teachers to do something they knew was wrong. But the superintendant is facing up to 45 years in prison, and bail has been set for several teachers and administrators in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. They are being punished for resisting in the non-heroic mode, for doing what human beings do under extreme pressure. And guess what? Nearly all of the accused are African American.

This reminds me of other large scandals, like when the bank HSBC funded Mexican drug cartels that kill lots of people, both funding and killing in violation of lots of laws and ethics, and none of their officials went to jail or had to pay a single fine. Bizarre. I bet, though, that their officials weren't middle-income African American people. They had to make a profit! That's how the system works!

So, when people of color working in social welfare organizations screw up and cheat the system out of a few thousand dollars, they deserve massive fines and long jail sentences. When people, primarily rich white people, in large banks screw up and cheat people out of their lives and livelihoods and take their houses and fund killers and launder billions of dollars, the people involved are just too important to prosecute and cannot possiblly be held responsible.

This is an outrage. Both systems are wrong (testing to determine school funding, and banking to fund truly criminal enterprise), and both deserve some punishment--but people who did not hurt children deserve much less punishment than people who help murderers and steal peoples' homes out from under them. We should not jail people for their non-heroic resistance; we should jail the people that made them feel cheating was necessary for the survival of a good institution (public schools). Conversely, maybe we could focus prosecuting power on drug cartel enablers and actual child abusers, and then we could focus other energy on creating excellent educational opportunities for every young person.


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