Teachers have taken a by any means necessary approach to closing the achievement gap even at the expense of student learning. Georgia’s Fulton County District Court indicted 35 educators, including former Superintendent Beverly Hall, for a cheating scheme that ultimately produced the wrong kind of results. Dozens of Atlanta public schools teachers, leaders and other personnel are turning themselves in to authorities.
However, are teachers completely at fault? An accountability system predicated on achievement test growth may be a co-conspirator.
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. Yet these social and political functions are embedded in the policies that districts promote. The Atlanta case is an extreme example of what is colloquially referred to as teaching to the test, hiring to the test, and getting paid to the test.
The rhetoric of reform has seduced the public into believing that unreasonable levels of growth are not only possible — they’re expected. Red flags should go up when anyone claims two or three years of growth in a year. Just as when the 40 homerun per year hitter starts hitting 60, we should look for steroids in grossly unpredicted results.
Of course when students have never been challenged in school and a rigorous curriculum is introduced, educators should see startling gains. However, once a baseline is established, then you’ll see the iterative, individualized learning pace of a student. Superintendent Hall may not have had a direct hand in the cheating, but she should have scrutinized statistically improbable gains.
Even the federal government acknowledged more time was required to remedy decades of educational malpractice as well as poverty. In 2011, U.S. Department of Education Sec. Arne Duncan started instituting waivers for the feds 2014 deadline of universal proficiency. Accountability systems should ensure quality not rush it.
The irony is that those who consider themselves professional educators are most susceptible to cheating. 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. Good teachers have a sense of urgency, but they won’t cheat or rush. New Orleans’ teacher Tonysha Johnson said it best, “I love my profession, so I quit.” Fortunately, authentic and effective teachers will always have job options.
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 on trial.
Andre Perry, Ph.D. (Twitter: @andreperrynola) is the author of The Garden Path: The Miseducation of a City.