I don’t think “Bad Teacher,” the movie currently playing in theaters, is going to do damage to the reputation of teachers or education in general across the United States. It may be gross, dumb, tasteless, and a lot of other things, but it’s a movie. People can grasp that it’s not a documentary.
But the current test-score cheating scandal in Atlanta is a different matter. It is pretty much the most disturbing and shocking single episode in American education that I can think of in the last decade. This is a case of teachers and administrators being shown in real life to have engaged in vividly discrediting educational practices.
I heard or read often in recent years about the successes of the Atlanta public schools. Test scores had risen, the elected school board was a model case for those who opposed mayoral control of schools, and Superintendent Beverly Hall was one of the most honored and respected school leaders in the country. I remember then-MPS Superintendent William Andrekopoulos telling me several years ago what a great person Hall was, and that view was definitely in the mainstream of educators.
All of that makes the scandal that has been unfolding in Atlanta for months all the more stunning. The Atlanta Journal Constitution deserves a lot of credit for pushing hard to bring to light a sweeping culture among teachers and their superiors, right up to Hall, in which doctoring students’ test scores sheets was done routinely, almost openly, and with indifference to both the rules and to children’s actual education needs. A culture of cheating, with a partner culture of intimidation of those who might resist it, pervaded Atlanta’s school system. Hall has resigned and is now considered highly discredited, the school district has fallen into turmoil, and criminal charges may lie ahead.
The Journal Constitution’s story about a special investigative report released by the governor’s officeTuesday, summarizes the scandal in revolting detail.
Critics have long argued that standardized testing is a bad way to judge kids and, among other problems, leads to cheating by educators who have strong incentives to show good results for their students. My guess is even few of the critics thought there was a scandal of the dimension now unfolding in Atlanta. From now on, the word “Atlanta” is going to be to debate about high stakes testing what the word “Columbine” is to discussions of student violence.
Will the Atlanta situation change the course of the movement that has made standardized testing a key part of accountability around the US? My guess is that overall, it won’t. But it certainly should cause everyone to think deeply about how to make testing a constructive step. That includes more work on improving test security, creating climates of ethical practices around testing, and monitoring the pressures being put on educators to come up with good results.
Results on state standardized tests for Milwaukee school children may be discouraging, but at least they are, to the best of my knowledge, generally honest. I’m only aware of one real cheating scandal in Milwaukee Public Schools in the last decade or so. It involved one school a few years ago, and, while MPS succeeded in keeping most of the details from public view (it was labeled an employee discipline matter), best as I could tell, the district dealt with it reasonably well. (By the way, speak up if you know differently, not only with MPS but any school or district.)
I used to think it would be nice if Milwaukee had Atlanta’s record when it came to rest results. Obviously, it is time to think the reverse, especially when it comes to integrity.