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Atlanta Cheating Scandal Lesson: We Must Return to Real Teaching and Learning

Achievement tests were not designed for the purposes of promoting or grading students, evaluating teachers, or evaluating schools.

Are educators supposed to "close the gap" or educate children? The Atlanta Public Schools standardized test cheating scandal reflects how the two endeavors have become independent or even antithetical to each other. As the court attempts to determine who's responsible for the Atlanta cheating scandal, I hope they also indict policy that undermines authentic teaching and learning.

Last week, Fulton County District Court indicted 35 educators including former Superintendent Beverly L. Hall for a cheating scheme that included multiple schools, impacting potentially thousands of students. The state's report released by Governor Nathan Deal implicated 178 teachers and principals, 82 confessed to cheating. But who's to blame?

Federal policy will also be on trial in this case. Since the 2001 passage of No Child Left Behind, school districts set accountability and reward systems that will be tried as accomplices in the Atlanta case. NCLB mandates that all schools meet adequate yearly progress towards lofty 2014 goals. Policies that emerged from this accountability era will certainly be mentioned in the case. Derivative policies around student transfer, state takeover, school closure, charter schools, vouchers, pay-for-performance, and deregulation have a myopic focus on closing the gap. These systems lavishly reward successes as measured by test scores, or harshly punish teachers and leaders for not meeting prescribed goals. As a result, school improvement may be improperly framed by coercive system of sticks and carrots.

They are wrong headed if the Atlanta case shows that the reform methodologies were too focused on achieving outcomes as opposed encouraging authentic teaching and learning. The federal government acknowledged more time was required to remedy decades of educational malpractice and poverty. In 2011, U.S. Department of Education Secretary Arne Duncan started instituting waivers for 2014 deadline of universal proficiency. While many states applied and accepted waivers, their districts have maintained accountability systems, testing companies, teacher preparation programs, and curricula that they invested in and developed during the period. In addition, no one wants to sound soft on education.

Standardized tests are used well beyond what they were designed to do, which is measure a few areas of academic achievement. Achievement tests were not designed for the purposes of promoting or grading students, evaluating teachers, or evaluating schools. In fact, connecting these social and political functions to achievement test data corrupts what the tests are measuring. In statistics this is called Campbell's Law. In other words, what does a score measure after it has been connected to a teacher's pay or job status? What we are experiencing in education is colloquially called teaching to the test, hiring to the test, and getting paid to the test. Educators can expel, suspend, fire, and cheat their way to "success." There are simply too many nefarious ways to close the gap.

We need more quality educators to educate students over generations.

But we shouldn't be alarmed if the courts find that former Superintendent Beverly L. Hall did not directly manage the academic ruse. By setting unbelievable rewards or punishments for performance, Dr. Hall discounted authentic teaching and learning. You don't have to order cheating to produce it. All or nothing policies on school turnaround, school closure, year-to-year contracts, and exorbitant teacher and leader bonuses compel professionals to see cheating as a matter of survival.

The irony is that it will be those who consider themselves professional educators may be most susceptible to cheating. Instead of incentivizing quality teachers to stay in the profession, we are essentially bribing or coercing them to take shortcuts. Those who don't invest in a system may be less likely to cheat. Lifelong educators and those who've doubled down on accountability systems have everything to lose. I never bet against personal security. When one's livelihood is perceived to be at stake, people take a by any means necessary approach—except for those who have too much integrity to stay in the game.

A system that is too test-driven will also repel authentic teachers and learners. New Orleans' teacher Tonysha Johnson said it best, "I love my profession so I quit." Ms. Johnson's integrity kept her from participating in a system that she perceived as inauthentic, patriarchal, and myopic. If cheating is as widespread as in the Atlanta case, we are definitely losing good teachers like Ms. Johnson.

What is most worrisome about not rewarding quality teaching is that students internalize the system's values as well. Students begin to value limited measures of smartness over character. Consequently, districts are losing good children as well.

We know all students can learn. We also know that too many good aspects of teaching are not detected by achievement tests. Districts over-test because we've lost faith in both teachers and students. Unfortunately, we can't place a lack of faith in students and teachers on trial.

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Standardized quiz or test score sheet with multiple choice answers image via Shutterstock

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