I got an interesting phone call from my mom the other day. Like most of America, she has been swept up in the stories of the cheating scandal in the Atlanta Public Schools. “How could teachers do that kind of thing?” she asked. “It’s shameful.”
The answer to her question is actually pretty simple: Teachers cheat on standardized tests because the stakes are ridiculously high. Failure is literally not an option.
You see, educational policymakers at the state and national level have spent the better part of the past decade trying to “improve education” by tying teacher evaluation and compensation decisions directly to the scores that students earn on end of grade exams even though the multiple-choice tests that we currently give to our students — and that we use as cudgels to shame practitioners — measure little more than the ability to recall basic facts and information.
Need proof that our assessments are largely irrelevant?
Then consider that 60% of the state legislators, scientists and business leaders who recently took Rhode Island’s high-stakes graduation exam would have been retained. Isn’t that evidence enough that testing does nothing to identify students with the skills necessary to succeed in — or the teachers with the unique ability to prepare our children for — tomorrow’s world?
But testing remains cemented in our nation’s educational policy decisions and we continue marching toward a future where there will be a high-stakes exam in every class. Doing so, elected officials argue, is the only way to identify, reward and celebrate the work of talented teachers — and identifying, rewarding and celebrating the work of talented teachers is our only hope for saving our schools.
Even supposedly progressive politicians have bought into the notion that testing matters. In the blueprint document describing Race to the Top — their signature education initiative — President Barack Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan justify this high-stakes culture by arguing that improvement in American education depends on our ability to “retain and promote effective teachers and principals,” even as evidence mounts that preparing students who can pass end of grade exams is actually a poor indicator of accomplished teaching.
So teachers are forced to walk moral tightropes.
They know the difference between right and wrong — but they also know the difference between staying employed and losing our jobs; they know the difference between “earning” pay raises and struggling to feed their families; and they know the difference between working hard to improve and being publicly outed as “incompetent” by newspapers looking for sensational stories.
Long story short: Our under-informed attempts to reform education have resulted in a system where the consequences of “failure” are so severe that struggling teachers — or teachers working with struggling students living in struggling communities — can often feel backed into a corner and make the choice to cheat.
Why is this so difficult to understand?
Were the actions of the teachers and school leaders in Atlanta shameful?
Absolutely. Teachers who cheat denigrate our profession and serve as poor role models for their students and their communities. Worse yet, teachers who cheat make it impossible for parents to get a real sense for just what their students know and can do. Improvement is impossible when everything that you think you know about your child is a lie.
But the actions of the practitioners in places like Atlanta are no more shameful than the actions of the educational policymakers who created — and continue to champion — the increasingly high-stakes, test-driven environments that our teachers and students are forced to work and learn in.
Like many accomplished educators, Bill Ferriter (@plugusin) wears a ton of professional hats. He’s a Solution Tree author and presenter, an accomplished blogger and a senior fellow in the Teacher Leaders Network. He checks all of those titles at the door each morning, though, when he walks into his sixth-grade classroom.