It’s easy to say that we all know the difference between right and wrong, but do we? Think of the school cheating scandal in Atlanta. When I first heard of it, I shook my head and thought, “Wrong. These people were wrong to cheat.”
And then, six months ago, I read an article in New Yorker magazine that I have not been able to get out of my mind. It’s very long, but it’s an interesting, thoughtful, and shocking piece. I highly recommend that you take the time to read it. It's called "Wrong Answer," by Rachel Aviv.
I’ll give a very brief summary. The article focuses on Damany Lewis, a former math teacher, and the school where he taught, Parks Middle School, which is located in a rundown Atlanta neighborhood. When Lewis first went to work there, armed robberies and rapes in the area were common, along with drugs, and most kids lived near or below the poverty line. The school was a mess. The building was run down, filled with litter, and things were so out of control that kids urinated in trash cans.
In 2001 a new principal was hired, and he focused “nearly as much on building a sense of community as he did on academics: he renovated the school, hired guidance counselors” and “provided computer classes to parents, who had been so removed from their children’s academic lives that it was a struggle to get them to sign progress reports.” With the help of a program called Project Grad, funded by donors to the district, the school set up after school programs and hired tutors. The school was featured in a 2004 documentary called “Expect the Best” and was described as “a model of what a good school can and should be.”
But then there were those absurd requirements of No Child Left Behind, requiring 100% of students to be proficient in math and reading by 2014. The school’s scores kept improving, but they were never high enough to make “adequate yearly progress.” Another new principal came on board, and the superintendent increased pressure, setting performance targets even more rigorous than those of NCLB. Teacher evaluations were linked to test scores, and principals warned that their schools had to meet targets within three years, or they would be fired. The superintendent “repeated the mantra ‘No exceptions and no excuses,’” and she made good on her threats. Eventually 90% of the principals lost their jobs.
“Data” began ruling everything. Step by step progress wasn’t good enough. More than half of the kids at Parks were performing below grade level, and there was no way they were going to meet the targets set for them. If they didn’t meet them, the school would be closed.
I’m jumping over a lot here, but I’ll get to the point. One year, Damany Lewis, by all accounts an outstanding and beloved teacher, broke into the testing room and erased a few incorrect answers, enough for the school to meet its goals.
And thus began the spiral. The next year the school “had to score even higher to surpass its falsely achieved scores from the previous year.” The superintendent required scores to rise by nearly 3% annually. More and more teachers became involved in correcting tests so that the school would meet the goals set for it.
Eventually, the gig was up. In early 2010, the Government Office of Student Achievement found one in five of the district schools showed evidence of cheating—forty-four schools in all.
When teachers were investigated, it was clear that “most teachers thought they were committing a victimless crime. They didn’t see value in the test, so they didn’t see they were devaluing the kids by cheating,” said one lawyer who sat in on the interviews. "Cheating was just a door they had to pass through in order to focus on issues that seemed more relevant to their students’ lives.” It was clear to teachers that test scores were not the way to solve the problems in these kids’ lives, yet they were told, “No excuse can or will be accepted.” As Damany Lewis said, “Cheating was just something we did in April, when the tests were in the building.”
Twelve teachers and administrators were eventually charged under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations statute, which is generally used against criminal organizations like the Mafia. In April of 2015, eleven of the educators were found guilty of racketeering charges. According to the Los Angeles Times, the judge “had urged the convicted educators to accept an offer from prosecutors that would have allowed them to avoid extensive time behind bars in exchange for taking responsibility, apologizing and waiving their right to appeal. Only two accepted.” The judge then sentenced the rest to prison, reserving his harshest punishment for the three highest ranking educators. They each received seven years in prison, 13 years of probation and a $25,000 fine—later reduced to three years in prison and seven years of probation, with a $10,000 fine and 2,000 hours of community service.
This story makes the “wrongness” of cheating a lot less clear to me. Is cheating any worse than setting impossible standards that no one can ever meet? Is cheating any worse than using data, only data, to determine everything about a school, its teachers, and its students?
When “rules” are violated by so many, as they were in Atlanta, you have to wonder if maybe it is the rules that are the problem, not the people. I look at news clips of those educators being sentenced to jail, and I am disgusted—not so much at their cheating as at a system that set them and their students up for failure.
Read the article.