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Soft bigotry of low expectations

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Esther Cepeda
July 21, 2011
— In a recently released report by Georgia authorities, the ridiculous lengths to which some Atlanta public schools went to raise test scores were exposed in what’s being called the nation’s largest-ever cheating scandal.

The details are jaw-dropping and result in a story that, unfortunately, reads like a list of top concerns about what’s wrong both with our country’s education system and with the current movement to reform it.


For instance, investigators found that some teachers corrected test answers, sometimes doing so in groups during “changing parties” organized in teachers’ homes. Desks were arranged in classrooms so lower performing students could copy off higher performing ones, or students were allowed to use reference materials to find answers. In at least one instance, the report charges, tests were filled out by teachers so it appeared a student had taken an exam when he or she hadn’t.


The teachers in this case made wrong choices, but those who make it their business to bash standardized testing will tell you it is high-stakes testing, and not flawed human natures, that is to blame. For them, this is yet another example of why we should return to the golden days before the No Child Left Behind Act required not merely that students be taught but that schools prove they have actually learned.


“What’s happening here is that people and organizations opposed to reform are reacting to this incident by wanting to get rid of any form of standardized test in favor of subjective measures of teaching such as how hard people work or how much they care,” Kyle Olson, founder and CEO of the Michigan-based Education Action Group Foundation, a nonpartisan, nonprofit education reform organization, told me.


“We need to really watch and track as these assessments are implemented, we really need to make sure there’s honesty in the system—the alternative is schools still turning out kids who can’t read or are unprepared for life. But what ultimately needs to happen is whoever was involved needs to be held accountable because what’s so outlandish about this case is that almost 200 people—both teachers and administrators—were involved.”


That brings us to the next anti-education reform rallying cry this case has bolstered: Teachers can’t be assessed fairly by their administrators because they’re corrupt, biased or otherwise unfair.


There are bad managers in almost all workplaces, but in the Atlanta public schools they were every teacher’s nightmare. Investigators described a widespread culture of “fear, intimidation and retaliation” where principals threatened, punished, publicly humiliated teachers in front of peers or simply fired them depending on how ably they cheated to get the desired test results. Teachers were made to understand that schools did whatever it took—even if it meant “breaking the rules.”


That’s tragic, but we shouldn’t let this egregious example of unethical, irresponsible management stand in the way of teacher evaluation measures. Instead, this incident should serve as a point of reference in a rigorous dialogue about what best practices should be used when evaluating teachers—and whether administrators should be required to participate in the “being evaluated” trend.


There isn’t enough space in this column to address several other lamentable but not pervasive issues this scandal has highlighted, such as the effects of competitive programs including Race to the Top and the perils of corporate donor partnerships with schools. So I’ll address the absolute worst incorrect belief this mess has reinforced: that poor and minority children cannot be educated.


Though low-income and minority children rarely have access to the expertise or resources that help them succeed in learning, there is no question that they are just as cognitively able to take advantage of an excellent education as any other child. America just hasn’t set its mind to making poor kids a priority.


The heartbreaking bottom line here is that because of a sad confluence of challenging environments, shady personalities and painful budgetary adversities, the Atlanta schools that committed these educational atrocities sent the nation a clear message: “We cannot educate these children, so instead we must lie and cheat.”


Whether these so-called educators didn’t have the necessary resources, or worse, didn’t believe in their students’ academic abilities or in their own abilities to teach them, their devastating actions should be interpreted as a desperate cry for help. It is a cry we must be quick to answer—not just for Atlanta’s children but for all the others whose voices have not yet been heard.


Esther Cepeda is a columnist for the Washington Post Writers Group. Her email address is estherjcepeda@washpost.com.

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