Even Our Schools Are Cheating 731.3

Most Americans condemn cheating in sports, business, and marriage, yet our culture is pervaded by cheating. Premier athletes use performance-enhancing drugs, cheating in business ravages our economy, and the media regularly exposes infidelity by prominent personalities and politicians.

But it gets worse. Atlanta’s public school system, which won national recognition and millions of dollars of awards for apparent improvements in student test performance, is embroiled in the largest school cheating scandal ever: 44 of 56 schools and 178 teachers and principals allegedly were involved in altering student tests; eighty-two have confessed.

Even our schools cheat?

As Lily Tomlin said, “No matter how cynical I get, I just can’t keep up.”

Yet this is only the tip of the iceberg. There’s substantial evidence of teacher cheating in at least half a dozen other states – and altering the answer sheets is just the most blatant form of cheating. It’s likely that thousands of teachers are pumping up test scores by giving students advance exposure to test questions.

When widespread cheating occurs, lots of people blame the system or the test for subjecting individuals to seductive temptations or putting heavy pressure on them to earn bonuses or keep their jobs. Many argue that it’s human nature to put self-interest above honor.

This is a dangerous rationalization.

People of character don’t surrender their integrity to greed, self-indulgence, or fear; they do the right thing even when it costs more than they want to pay. We should expect nothing less, especially from those entrusted with the intellectual and moral development of our children.

This is Michael Josephson reminding you that character counts.

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The Georgia report called test-tampering “an open secret.” In one school, a group of teachers brought students’ answer sheets to a teacher’s home and held a “changing party.”

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, said the teachers union complained about cheating in Atlanta in 2005, but it was ignored. Though the union has been critical of the testing and extreme consequences associated with test scores under No Child Left Behind, to her credit Ms. Weingarten said cheating “under any circumstances is unacceptable.”

Interim Superintendent Errol Davis replaced four superintendents, and trustees of the DeSoto Independent School District near Dallas placed Kathy Augustine on leave as they re-examine her previous post. Augustine denied any knowledge of test cheating as Atlanta’s deputy superintendent.

A report by Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal said Atlanta school administrators emphasized test results “to the exclusion of integrity and ethics.” A third-grade teacher told investigators that “there are ways that APS (Atlanta Public Schools) can get back at you” if teachers don’t go along. “APS is run like the mob,” the teacher said.

The Atlanta investigation found a “culture of fear, intimidation, and retaliation” that spread district-wide over the last decade.

Recently evidence was published strongly suggesting that similar cheating occurred at Baltimore and Washington, DC schools and evidence of test-tampering has been uncovered in California, Florida, Ohio, and Michigan.

In 2007, The Dallas Morning News found more than 50,000 cases of student cheating on high-stakes state tests, with 90% of students, in some cases, showing suspicious answer patterns.

At least 10 states require that student scores be the main criterion in teacher evaluations. In some areas, teachers may earn a large bonus if scores climb.

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This is text taken directly from the official report of the Governor’s Special Investigators. The level of detail leaves no doubt at all that this was a thorough, ongoing, planned fraud orchestrated from the highest level, and that hundreds of teachers and principals complied. The corruption was, however, ultimately exposed by a courageous whistleblower. The report is chilling and the conclusions scathing. Here are the first few paragraphs of the overview:

Thousands of school children were harmed by widespread cheating in the Atlanta Public School System (APS). ln 30 schools, educators confessed to cheating. We found cheating on the 2009 Criterion-Referenced Competency Test (CRCT) in 44 of the 56 schools we examined, and uncovered organized and systemic misconduct within the district as far back as 2001. Superintendent Beverly Hall and senior staff knew, or should have known, that cheating and other offenses were occurring. Many of the accolades, and much of the praise, received by APS over the last decade were ill-gotten.

We identified 178 educators as being involved in cheating. Of these, 82 confessed. Thirty-eight of the 178 were principals, from two-thirds of the schools we examined. The 2009 erasure analysis suggests that there were far more educators involved in cheating, and other improper conduct, than we were able to establish sufficiently to identify by name in this report.

A culture of fear and a conspiracy of silence infected this school system, and kept many teachers from speaking freely about misconduct. From the onset of this investigation, we Were confronted by a pattern of interference by top APS leadership in our attempt to gather evidence. These actions delayed the completion of this inquiry and hindered the truth-seeking process.

The APS General Counsel told us that one of her main duties was to provide Superintendent Hall with “deniability.” Her aim was to insulate Dr. Hall from the burden of responsibility for making difficult decisions. This veil of deniability at the school level was aptly illustrated by long-time Gideons Elementary principal Armstead Salters, who told his teachers: “lf anyone asks you anything about this, just tell them you don’t know . . . just stick to the story and it will go away.”

There was a failure of leadership throughout APS with regard to the ethical administration of the 2009 CRCT. There are two main reasons for this failure. Dr. Hall’s insular style and her isolation from the rank-and-file was a major factor. ln addition, Dr. Hall and her top managers refused to accept responsibility for anything other than success. As Dr. Hall’s Chief of Staff, Sharron Pitts, explained to us, “nobody ever wants to take responsibility for anything” in APS.

Deputy Superintendent Kathy Augustine oversaw daily classroom instruction, and operated as the de facto second-in-command. She told us that she should not be held responsible for cheating that took place in APS classrooms under her authority. While this may be an appropriate defense to criminal charges, it is an absurd leadership concept. Dr. Hall and her senior cabinet accepted accolades when those below them performed well, but they wanted none of the burdens of failure.

Comments 7

  1. Why should anyone be surprised. The emphasis being put on these test scores throughout our country leads to principals,teachers,children,schools,neighborhoods and probably even the corner deli being judged only by these test scores.Thus jobs depend on these tests. Nobody cares if children are really learning anything as long as they pass the dumb teats. teachers are being laid off,class size is going up,but cities are spending money on practice tests and increasing the number of tests given during the school year.

  2. This is a sad comment on the teaching profession, when teachers are more concerned about the money they make than the integrity of their craft. It is also sad that administrators feel the need to intimidate their “front-line” soldiers into wrong-doing. Teachers need to teach not test. Or at least test to see what needs to be taught. I appreciate the need to monitor what is going on in the classroom but surely there’s a better way than standardized testing. When are people going to wake up and realize that schools are not factories producing a product that can be equally evaluated? Let the teachers teach!

  3. It is a sad day in education when a school system spends it’s time and energy cheating, rather than on delivering quality education to the children.
    Either Atlanta Public Schools personnel didn’t really believe that their students could learn or they decided it would be easier to cheat than do the work necessary and put in the time to be an effective teacher.
    Shame on you Atlanta Public Schools’ superintendents, administrators and teachers. And shame on President Obama who is encouraging a nationwide program (Race to the Top), where this behavior is much more likely to be repeated.

  4. This reminds me about what author Daniel Pink highlights in his book “Drive” regarding extrinsic versus intrinsic motivation. Learning for love of learning is what we need to get back to.

  5. Sadly this cheating is a direct application of Campbell’s law, which is an adage developed by Donald T. Campbell: “The more any quantitative social indicator is used for social decision-making, the more subject it will be to corruption pressures and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it is intended to monitor.”
    When the choice for teachers boils down to feeding their family or cheating, sadly, but not surprisingly, the choice will be as we see in Atlanta, to cheat. As a teacher, I can attest that the structure currently in place to which teachers are beholden to follow consisting of State Standards, textbook created curriculum, and NCLB mandated high stakes testing is misaligned resulting in significant skill gaps in student understanding that statistically increases as the income of the parents declines. The test scores, on which many states now evaluate teacher effectiveness, are low not because teachers are bad or unwilling to do what they are told to do, but because the system fails to present a structure, scope and sequence of lessons that will result in student success. Teachers know this and the greatest tragedy is that the only remedy to insulate themselves from skewed evaluations is to sacrifice integrity and personal character by erasures. The Atlanta scandal is 1) a symptom of the problem, not the root problem, and 2) a canary in the cage event.

  6. You might find it some great surprise that I would link this commentary on cheating back to the stance you took on gay marriage. In response to that editorial, I commented that a problem with homosexual marriage, among other things, was that it furthered the cause to blur truth, that nothing was absolute any longer, that as a society we change meaning and value to the point where everything is relative. Is it any wonder that this society finds it acceptable at the highest levels of authority to compromise, even cheat? We continue down this road of poorly defined values and obscure meaning wherein each person’s “truth” is accepted. The end result is a confused state of existence, where nothing has meaning and people do whatever they want. The cost is scandal like this found in our educational institutions and pervasive throughout society.

  7. Responding to Principal P:
    Many of the arguments against gay marriage are permitted by a blurring of historical and anthropological data or truth. On a common conversation level some of this is understandable; we assume that which we and our grandparents have grown up with is universally so and has always been so. However at the level of the sort of discussion to which we are invited on this website, such assumptions are out of place and we owe it to ourselves and our readers to if possible do some research not provided by those with whom we already agree.
    Be Well,
    Bob Griffin

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