Educators in Atlanta were convicted of cheating on standardized tests yesterday. They allegedly gave students answers or changed the answers themselves. It was a sad end to the legacy of Superintendent Beverly Hall, who was previously celebrated for her achievements in turning the school district around–she had been named Superintendent of the Year and was hosted at the White House for her role in dramatically raising Atlanta’s test scores, all while collecting performance bonuses of $500,000. Hall died last month and was not present to see the verdict, nor did she have to stand trial (she had been granted a later trial because of health concerns). 11 of 12 educators were convicted of racketeering, a charge that is usually used against organized crime syndicates or similar offenders. Some of these teachers could spend up to 20 years in prison.
I think this is an extremely complicated case. People are already angry over school testing, and there is reason to be angry. 20 years in the slammer seems extraordinarily high–teachers accused of cheating who testified against the others only got probation–but then again, as the judge reminded everyone yesterday, those who decided to go to trial cost taxpayers millions of dollars. Beverly Hall got rich off the alleged cheating, but I don’t know if that money found its way down to the rest of the teachers. It definitely didn’t find its way down to the schools themselves. In fact, some of these schools lost federal aid because their test scores were too high to qualify. Ethical decisions are often complicated. See more at the New Yorker:
But he worried that his students would struggle with questions that were delivered in paragraph form. Some of his seventh-grade students were still reading by sounding out the letters. It seemed unfair that the concepts were “buried in words.” Lewis felt that he had pushed them to work harder than they ever had in their lives. “I’m not going to let the state slap them in the face and say they’re failures,” he told me. “I’m going to do everything I can to prevent the why-try spirit.”
It’s actually a very good point, even if this teacher clearly broke the law and crossed an ethical boundary that he had no right to cross. Oftentimes teachers in these poorer schools are very good teachers; it’s just that it’s difficult to teach within the culture of these schools and the broken families in which their students live. The “why-try spirit” is a very real problem. If you read about Lewis’s background, it’s clear that he had reasons to do what he did. It’s seems clear that he was trying to do what he thought was best for his students.
Others focus on the other side. There’s an opinion piece at the Chicago Tribune:
Recall that in announcing the indictments in 2013, Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard highlighted the case of a third-grader who failed a benchmark exam. The girl was held back but soon passed another assessment test.
The girl’s mother “knew something was wrong (with the second result) but was told by school officials that the child simply was a good test-taker,” The Associated Press reported. The girl advanced, but when she reached ninth grade, she was reading at a fifth-grade level.
There’s no undoing the damage inflicted on untold numbers of children here. Those students can’t be reimbursed for their lost opportunities to learn.