Once Upon a Time in Atlanta

On running a school district like a criminal enterprise.

Bail hearings have begun at the Fulton County Courthouse in Atlanta, Georgia, where 35 educators, administrators, and one Superintendent are charged with everything from theft, racketeering, and violating the Corrupt Organizations Act, to making false statements and influencing witnesses (read: leaning on whistleblowers). While some parents sought to stop these teachers and principals from altering tests so they could collect bonuses for improved scores, it fortunately doesn’t appear that too many other parents were involved.

Atlanta Public Schools_Where Excuses Go to Die

It’s no Scorsese plot: squealers weren’t chased through parking lots with a pair of pliers, a baseball bat, or a 12-gauge. But your shrewdest criminal operations don’t need to resort to hostile messages. And not only had this particular operation been going on for a while, it’s part of the larger and more entrenched standardized testing debate itself. In other words, it’s part of the system itself.

STUDENT SCORES ARE WORTH BIG MONEY!In 2011, the Georgia Professional Standards Commission was informed of cheating by close to 180 educators in 44 of 56 Atlanta schools investigated. Students were either provided directly with the correct answers, or teachers changed incorrect answers on tests after they’d been turned in. Anyone who tried to shed light on the fraud reportedly lived in fear of retaliation.

But as those teachers surrendered to authorities this week, union leaders Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, and Verdaillia Turner, president of the Georgia Federation of Teachers, issued a joint press release that blamed the biggest standardized test cheating scandal in U.S. history on a “testing fixation,” as if to imply that cheating is a reasonable response to the pressure created by policies teachers don’t agree with.

I call that an unacceptable excuse.

Is the use of standardized tests improving education in America?“We do not condone cheating under any circumstances,” the statement begins. All too soon, though, its ethical high ground is eroded by a plea for public understanding, citing the difficulties of a “test-based culture” that dominates “everything” and rarely correlates to “what students need to know to succeed.” (Apparently, these are people who think they do need to know how to cheat.)

Weingarten’s press statement also touts her teachers’ union as “the first whistle-blower to expose Atlanta testing irregularities,” a boast is as factually untrue as it is hypocritical. In 2008, the Atlanta Journal Constitution published statistical anomalies in state competency tests that showed suspicious numbers of teacher corrections in 58 Atlanta schools. It was the publication of this analysis that shed light on “schools with improbable gains” and kicked off the 2009 Fulton County investigation. So the real whistleblowers were the research nerds (that Weingarten probably refused to date when she was in school).

ANSWERS EQUAL SANCTIONED PAYDAYSAside from being erroneous and a big fat excuse, Weingarten’s statement gives a bit too much away with its “outrage” over the fact that, at some Atlanta schools, teachers are “spending up to 100 days a year doing test-prep or actual testing.” In fact, education researchers like Richard P. Phelps, founder of the Nonpartisan Education Review, call excessive preparation itself cheating, because “teaching to the test” can result in teachers knowing more than they should about what exactly will be on it, then drilling on those points.

Atlanta Cheating Scandal_Where Excuses Go to DieRandi Weingarten’s problem with teachers who’ve turned their classrooms into test farms doesn’t acknowledge this at all: her contentions center on the injustice of government mandates and regulations (never mind that Weingarten herself is occasionally in favor of interference: she recently Tweeted a report linking gun violence to weak state regulations). Maybe Weingarten is prioritizing. I guess it would make sense to first target teachers too lazy to even bother with drilling and repetition: the wrong-to-right answer changers now facing charges in Fulton County.

The reality is, there are valid arguments for and against standardized testing, and plenty of useful evidence to suggest that the increase in testing mandated by the No Child Left Behind Act can have a negative impact on student learning. Other people believe NCLB has been effective in holding teachers to appropriate evaluation benchmarks.

I wonder what the parents of children fraudulently raised to undeserved levels in school think. When Little Joey is refused entry to another school because of his illiteracy, what questions will his folks have?

What excuses will they be given?