Atlanta Schools Created Culture of Cheating, Fear
By THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
Published: July 16, 2011 at 10:20 AM ET
ATLANTA (AP) — Teachers spent nights huddled in a back room, erasing wrong answers on students' test sheets and filling in the correct bubbles. At another school, struggling students were seated next to higher-performing classmates so they could copy answers.
Those and other confessions are contained in a new state report that reveals how far some Atlanta public schools went to raise test scores in the nation's largest-ever cheating scandal. Investigators concluded that nearly half the city's schools allowed the cheating to go unchecked for as long as a decade, beginning in 2001.
Administrators — pressured to maintain high scores under the federal No Child Left Behind law — punished or fired those who reported anything amiss and created a culture of "fear, intimidation and retaliation," according to the report released earlier this month, two years after officials noticed a suspicious spike in some scores.
The report names 178 teachers and principals, and 82 of those confessed. Tens of thousands of children at the 44 schools, most in the city's poorest neighborhoods, were allowed to advance to higher grades, even though they didn't know basic concepts.
One teacher told investigators the district was "run like the mob."
"Everybody was in fear," another teacher said in the report. "It is not that the teachers are bad people and want to do it. It is that they are scared."
For teachers and their bosses, the stakes were high: Schools that perform poorly and fail to meet certain benchmarks under the federal law can face sharp sanctions. They may be forced to offer extra tutoring, allow parents to transfer children to better schools, or fire teachers and administrators who don't pass muster.
(Read the full article.)
So...that. This is not a new story, by the way--it's been in the local papers for the past few months--but it's one that I've been following with more than a little interest. Because in a few weeks, we're going to be part of the Atlanta Public School system, when Cal starts first grade.
I would first like to point out that both Joe and I attended public schools up until we went to college, and Joe's dad is actually a retired public school principal. And of course, I'd also like to think that if reputation and historical data count for anything, the school Cal (and maybe Mack in a few years) will be attending is actually supposed to be excellent--that school is, in fact, the reason we moved into this particular neighborhood in the first place. But do these things make me feel better? I little, I guess. But not totally.
Ideologically, I think that every child should have the right to a good education, that we need to direct more resources to public schools, that the public school system in the United States should, by all rights, be one of the best in the world. I don't believe that getting a quality education should solely be the purview of those who can afford private school. The fact that an education is state-funded doesn't make it a bad one, just as much as paying a lot for an education doesn't make it a good one.
But at the same time, want to know my first, knee-jerk response? It was: If this doesn't work out, there is no amount of money that I wouldn't spend to make sure my kid gets a good education.
It isn't about the money. Or is it? How do you separate out resources from environment? Why is it that the best public schools are usually in the most affluent neighborhoods? And wherein do other, non-monetary resources come into play? There was an example in the article of a parent who talks about how she was just blindsided that her child, despite passing all standardized testing indicators, was actually performing way under grade level, and the first thing I thought was: how could you not have known that? How can you not know what your kid is doing? How would you be surprised to find out that your kid can't read? Can't do math? Isn't performing at grade level? I wouldn't think you'd be blindsided by that; I'd think you, as the parent, would be the first to know.
So in this case, as is the case with just about everything in the world, it is about money, but also...it isn't. It's about the rest of the picture. My kid spends seven hours a day at school, ten hours a night sleeping. It's what one does with the other seven hours that make the difference.
(And before people get upset, let's not equate emphasizing academic success with a joyless childhood. I have two little boys and I know kids have to unwind and have fun in order to grow up happy, so I'm by no means promoting seven straight hours of grim academic drills, cram school-style. I'm just saying is that as their parents, we have more perspective than anyone else the extent to which our kids can achieve, and also as their parents, it is our responsibility to help them get there.)
Anyway, Cal's starting first grade in a few weeks. And Joe and I are going to be right there. We'll see what kind of work he's doing, see what kind of homework he's bringing home, see what kind of progress he's making. We're going to work at home, and then we're going to work a little more. And I think that'll be just as important--probably more so--than what school he goes to or what teacher he has or whatever summer reading list they're sending home.
And make no mistake, I think all schools most certainly have a tremendous responsibility to their students. They should, and they must. But along with that, let's not let institutional reputation, test scores and a grades give any false reassurances, or absolve us as parents from the responsibility of picking up the slack.