The massive cheating scandal wracking Atlanta Public Schools has reform advocates and testing opponents battling. Unfortunately, they are having it out with tired explanations that reiterate preconceived problems and solutions. Political leaders and educators need to take a step back, learn from Atlanta’s disgrace and apply the lessons to current reforms. Most important, we need to complement the focus on accountability with a commensurate emphasis on improving educational practices. Unless we do, the cheating problem will spread and get worse.
It’s important to understand that cheating in Atlanta was systemic and pervasive. Eighty-two of 178 educators implicated in the investigation admit cheating; misconduct was documented in 44 of the 56 schools examined (the entire district is 100 schools). One school organized an “erasure party” where teachers and administrators created a social occasion out of illegally and immorally faking their students’ test results. The chief of human resources resigned last month amid allegations that she destroyed evidence of wrongdoing — placing some of the most egregious behavior at the most senior executive level.
Worried that the scandal will undermine test-based accountability, reform advocates are diminishing its significance. Just a few bad apples, they argue, no reason to generalize the problem and impugn the integrity of all the hardworking teachers who play by the rules. But their critique fails to recognize that what went on in Atlanta most assuredly was not a case of individual bad actors. The problem is that the system encouraged and abetted the violations in ways that we do not yet fully understand. Good people — many of them — resorted to reprehensible behavior in Atlanta Public Schools.
If this can happen in Atlanta, it can happen anywhere — and it is likely to happen more if we do not pay attention. Before the scandal, when Atlanta was mentioned in national conversations on reform, it was likely to be critiqued for taking too tentative an approach and being unwilling to rely on tests for high-stakes accountability. As one example of the punitive environment and unreasonable pressure created by Atlanta schools’ leadership, the cheating investigation prominently cites the tradition of honoring schools that met performance targets with seats “on the floor” at the district’s annual Georgia Dome celebration. This incentive is downright quaint compared to the intense pressure to increase test scores under new teacher evaluation and accountability policies.
Abandoning reliance on testing is neither feasible nor advisable. Important considerations of equity, quality and scale make it essential to use tests in strategic, consequential ways. But we need to be honest about unintended consequences and more attuned to the line between healthy and unhealthy pressure.
The first response must be to denounce cheating from the highest levels and in the most certain terms, and to be zealous in rooting it out. Superintendents Andres Alonso in Baltimore and Kaya Henderson in the District recently reacted forcefully when confronted with cheating allegations. Alonso called a news conference with the state superintendent on June 23 and told cheaters that they would not merely be suspended or fired but that their licenses to teach anywhere would be revoked. Henderson voluntarily sought assistance from the U.S. Education Department’s Inspector General’s Office, requesting a thorough, impartial investigation.
Rooting out bad actors is necessary but not sufficient. Education systems need to focus on understanding how to increase effectiveness of schools and teachers, including the conditions necessary to help students achieve. This means finding a healthier balance between accountability at the level of individual teachers and focusing on building organizational capacity to develop teachers and support their continuous improvement. School systems that don’t have a coherent vision for how they expect schools to meet test-score targets have little basis for challenging whether good scores are coming from bad practice.
Ironically, the recent focus on more rigorous teacher evaluation should help on this issue. While there is some danger that increased pressure to improve test scores will push more teachers to cheat, the new policies are pushing school systems to build essential capacity. For the first time in most places, districts and states are explicitly describing the practices in which they expect teachers to engage. To support evaluations, states and districts are developing detailed rubrics that articulate how teachers should plan, engage with students and parents, instruct, and assess student learning. Observations against these rubrics create higher-quality, more actionable information about what’s going on in classrooms. Teachers finally can get meaningful feedback and guidance, and alarms can be raised when results are strong but instruction is weak.
Many reform leaders privately express deep concerns about the unintended consequences of recent policy and political developments, but they keep quiet publicly because they do not want to cede ground to anti-testing ideologues or to be ostracized by fellow reformers. Both sides of this debate need to rethink rigid orthodoxy.
The writer is executive director of the Aspen Institute’s Program on Education and Society.