The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has published its findings after a years-long investigation of “suspicious scores” in Atlanta schools. The Journal-Constitution found that over 170 educators – including over three dozen principals – had falsified student answers in 44 of the 56 schools scrutinized in the probe. In a PBS News Hour interview, Heather Vogell, a reporter for The Journal-Constitution, ascribed the cheating to these root causes:
- The district set higher benchmarks than either the state or federal government did.
- The district created a culture that punished the adults who did not cheat.
- The superintendent and her staff encouraged adults to put the division ahead of test integrity.
First, the educators who did this chose to break the rules. Maybe they wanted to protect their jobs and themselves from bad scores or systemic retaliation. Maybe they wanted to protect their students’ chances of academic and social promotion. Maybe they wanted both. I wish they had chosen otherwise in breaking the rules. I wish they had decided to run democratic, inquiry-driven classrooms instead of cheating on tests. I wish they had rejected out-of-hand their school system’s assumptions about teaching, learning, and children. I wish the system they found themselves in had been a healthier one – one that put people before scores.
Second, I was struck and saddened by this quote from the News Hour interview about the cheating:
…there was a culture of retaliation and intimidation that really flourished within the hallways of the schools. Anybody who questioned the means or methods that schools were using to achieve certain gains was shunned if they were lucky, fired if they weren’t lucky.
I can visualize scenes of such retaliation from the student culture in which I participated throughout my own education. What would have happened to the kid who blew the whistle on our cheating? On teen drinking in our town? In our school? What price did the counter-culture kids pay? The bullies’ victims?
Why cheating is a “Schoolhouse Shock” (as PBS puts it), or why a culture of intimidation is so unexpected in an American public school system is, sadly, beyond me.
I am a big fan of schools and systems working to unlock public education for students and their learning. However, it’s also evident that as a nation we use our schools to protect an obsolete, industrial model of control and cultural assimilation that privileges cheating to make the norm over “playing fair” and falling out of it.
Our school system, our media, and our government can’t quite escape the Hollywood luster of a Manichaean cosmology. They can’t even identify which side is good or bad. They certainly can’t yet inhabit the middle space of struggling to do what is right, rather than what is expedient – of struggling to rescue kids rather than repair the adult system.
And that sucks.
Which brings me to us – the big us – the We, the People, us.
There is more than cheating, not cheating.
There is more than good teacher, bad teacher.
There is more than pass, fail.
There are people and they are learning. You don’t have to pick a side and deny yourself, your students, or your children a deeper experience of learning and being at school.
It’s not fuzzy math or faulty logic or mumbo-jumbo to imagine and enact a school system in which teachers and students learn about the world be interacting with it, by making art, by improving their communities, by creating joyful learning spaces, and by escaping their desks and classrooms more often than not.
It is not hard to falsify test scores. It is hard to be punished.
It’s also hard to transform public education.
If we’re going to get caught, let’s get caught doing something so unabashedly right that the system has to confront us over the obvious joy and learning of our students, our schools, and their grateful families and communities.
Our school system sanctions and countenances cultural and disciplinary practices that are much more harmful than falsified test scores are. Let’s confront those damaging demands school places on us and our students. Why it’s acceptable to defund the arts and keep “struggling” students from ever exploring ways to learn apart from reading and writing as prescribed by vendors is beyond me. Why it’s acceptable to exclude the kids who vex us the most from our schools while we blame them and their families for their lack of progress is beyond me.
Are we instruments, or are we agents? Or do we insist that we are blameless?
Are we inside a system, or do we embody it?
Let learning be community, democracy, freedom, and inquiry. Let kids and learning be.