The most disturbing aspect of a public school cheating scandal in Atlanta that has led to the indictments of 35 educators and administrators is that it is not an isolated case.
Cheating scandals involving teachers are popping up nationwide. The National Center for Fair & Open Testing reports that cheating on standardized tests has been reported in 37 states. This includes allegations of such practices as administrators showing tests to teachers ahead of time and encouraging them to coach students. It involves making sure those students likely to do poorly on tests are not able to enroll in school or are reported as absent on the day of the test. It sometimes involves hand signals from teachers to students, indicating whether an answer is correct. On its most blatant level, teachers go through completed tests with an eraser and simply change answers.
The victims of this unconscionable dishonesty are mainly low-income students who already face huge disadvantages in the education system. They are too poor to afford private schools, and the public schools in their neighborhoods tend to be of much lower quality than those in better neighborhoods.
In California, testing irregularities have been noted in schools from Los Angeles to Oakland. In Texas, several El Paso-area school districts are accused of similar problems.
In El Paso, the president of the Ysleta Independent School District Teacher's Association told local TV station KFOX14 that standardized tests and the pressure to show improvement are to blame. "You've got superintendents who feel the pressure from their board members to make sure that they come up with really good scores, and it's like a trickle-down effect," she said. People are afraid of losing their jobs.
She's wrong. Yes, it may indeed be true that the pressure to provide results exists, but that is not to blame for teachers and administrators cheating. Plain and simple, blame rests on a moral deficiency. People of integrity do not cheat, and they especially do not do so at the expense of needy children — the very people their profession exists to help prepare for meaningful and productive lives. Rules and expectations may be unfair, but there are few things more unfair to a young student than a school system that teaches them dishonesty and cynicism.
The Atlanta scandal has only begun to unfold. A grand jury last week handed up indictments against 35 former public school educators, who have been told to surrender voluntarily or face arrest. One of these is Beverly Hall, the former Atlanta school superintendent widely praised for her work in improving scores. She was given a $78,000 bonus one year for this and was named National Superintendent of the Year by the American Association of School Administrators.
If these educators are found guilty, the work of restoring credibility to Atlanta's schools will be a difficult chore, but not as difficult as finding ways to repay legions of students for the harm done to them.
The good news is that cheating schemes are coming to light and being investigated. But that is scant compensation for the damage done.