The APS Scandal: Newsflash! Stop Blaming Teachers And Other Byproducts Of The System!

It took me about a week to draft this post because I was angry.  I was angry at the recent blog posts from Rick Hess, Education Policy Expert at the American Enterprise Institute.  And when I get angry, I have learned to pause and reflect before responding.   If any of you read Team of Rivals, there is a wonderful story about Abraham Lincoln,  the man who was arguably the greatest leader this country has ever had.  President Lincoln, whenever he felt he was responding in anger (via letters which was the means of communication at the time), would stop writing, put the letter in a drawer, and write again when he had the time to reflect and gain perspective.    After Lincoln’s untimely death, boxes of unmailed letters were found in his office.

Thus, I needed time to reflect.  Mr. Hess wrote two blog posts recently:   More Cheating to Come…..& Lessons Reformers Can Take from Atlanta, and Cheating Scandal Newsflash:  Teachers Aren’t Plaster Saints!.  In both of these “tirades,” Mr. Hess, who normally has a very logical, empirically based perspective to education reform, lashes out at teachers, business community leaders, and other scapegoats for allowing the cheating scandal to occur.  He tries to compare teachers to mortgage lenders, and to even Enron or Tyco executives!   The only salient point he made during his tirade was this quote:   “The whole point of incentives and accountability is that people will do what they are pressed to do.”  Hess correctly points out that NCLB has been an abominable failure, because the incentives were not designed appropriately.   As Hess states, “educators will respond to these pressures in undesirable ways.”   He is correct that NCLB has been the impetus for much of the destructible behavior taking place in schools that are struggling to meet the test-based accountability standards established by this flawed policy mandate.

But herein lies the flaw in Hess’s critique of scandals like in Atlanta Public Schools.  What is not being discussed here is the culture that has been established by policy.   These policies were implemented by superintendents who are more educator than CEO.   And I hate to state the obvious, but school administrators are also managing organizations, with teachers being the employees.   So lets dive into Mr. Hess’s blame game with the teachers who were implicated in the scandal.   A recent Huffington Post article, Atlanta Schools Created Culture of Cheating, Fear, Intimidation, offers the following story from one of teachers interviewed by state investigators:

In Georgia, teachers complained to investigators that some students arrived at middle school reading at a first-grade level. But, they said, principals insisted those students had to pass their standardized tests. Teachers were either ordered to cheat or pressured by administrators until they felt they had no choice, authorities said.

One principal forced a teacher to crawl under a desk during a faculty meeting because her test scores were low. Another principal told teachers that “Walmart is hiring” and “the door swings both ways,” the report said.

Another principal told a teacher on her first day that the school did whatever was necessary to meet testing benchmarks, even if that meant “breaking the rules.”

Mr. Hess, do you still feel that the teachers should be held accountable here?   Hess goes on to talk about former APS Superintendent Dr. Beverly Hall, only in that she was “propped up by the business community and given lavish bonuses.”  Dr. Hall was the CEO, and she should have understood that “the buck stops here.”  Dr. Hall should be treated the same way as the CEOs of Enron, Worldcom, and Tyco were treated.   But instead, APS is paying her legal bills!  I think Mr. Hess might wish to rethink his hypothesis.

One of the best assessments of the APS Scandal came in another EducationWeek commentary, this time by a former Atlanta social studies teacher: Dave Powell.   Titled, Finding Hope in Atlanta,  Powell gives a very unemotional, balanced assessment of the elements that were in place to allow such a culture to take place:

The story in Atlanta is about race, gender, poverty, social class, and, of course, power. It’s about fairness and integrity, about leadership and about failures of leadership, and it’s also about social responsibility and the abdication of that responsibility. Its principal characters all have engaged in behaviors both defensible and indefensible. There is Beverly Hall, the National Superintendent of the Year in 2009, who took home almost $600,000 in performance bonuses—some of which she earned almost certainly because of test-score gains that are now suspected of having been tainted by cheating. There are beleaguered teachers, humiliated in ways that should inspire genuine outrage (read the three-volume investigative reportRequires Adobe Acrobat Reader on the Criterion-Referenced Competency Tests for details), pushed, in defense of their students and their jobs, to do things that most of us say we would never do. And there are the investigators, agents of a state government that has failed time and again to meet its responsibility to provide a quality education to poor children, in Atlanta and throughout Georgia, who nevertheless had a genuine duty to get to the bottom of the scandal. The difference between right and wrong is not always so clear when incentives have been perverted, and each major player in this tragedy apparently felt justified pursuing courses of action that seem, in hindsight, to be unjustifiable.

 

Culture is so important to any organization.  Interestingly, a recent white paper authored by Carrie Leana for the Stanford Social Innovation Review was titled “The Missing Link in School Reform.”  In this report, researchers from the University of Pittsburgh have concluded that enhancing teacher “human capital” should not be the sole or even primary focus of school reform.  Instead, if students are to show measurable and sustained improvement, schools must also foster what sociologists label “social capital” – the patterns of interaction among teachers.”  So its not just about a teacher’s cumulative abilities, knowledge, and skills developed through formal education and on-the-job experience.   Social Capital, as Leana puts it, is not a characteristic of the individual teacher but instead resides in the relationships among teachers.  So its not just “what the teacher knows,” but “where she gets that knowledge.”

Does the example above depicting the conditions in Atlanta Public Schools indicate a nurturing, healthy culture, where teachers learn from one another and translate that into a favorable learning environment for children?   Obviously not.  Culture plays perhaps the most critical role in this entire ecosystem, and it was  a failure in leadership that allowed a flawed federal policy to be  turned into corruption and law breaking.   A lax test security system is merely the byproduct of this culture of fear, hostility and intimidation.

I must admit that I am coming down pretty hard on Mr. Hess. This is not a personal attack, but a spirited debate on public policy and criminal behavior in public schools, which tends to forget about the biggest loser in this scandal:  the student.   Students in Atlanta, Philadelphia, Washington DC and other cities being impacted by cheating scandals are only learning two things:  i) they didn’t know what they think they knew, and ii) there is zero tolerance for cheating, even if there were unusual circumstances.  If you were a teacher, without tenure, who was forced to change the test scores, what would you do?

We should all step back and be sure we really understand the entire situation.  I have been very critical at the response from the State, the city, the APS school board, the new superintendent, and business leaders surrounding the APS cheating scandal.   I think what we are seeing in Atlanta, and in other cities, is unfortunately the legacy of the flawed NCLB policy.  As Powell states:

The real legacy of No Child Left Behind may ultimately be found in districts spread across the country, where the law’s “no excuses” approach to accountability has permitted, and even encouraged, an autocratic approach to assessment and school leadership that is as damaging to the teaching profession as it is harmful to learning. Who knows what scars it will leave on the generation of teachers and students browbeaten into accepting a testing regimen that promised results it could never deliver? No Child Left Behind was designed to combat the “soft bigotry of low expectations” perceived as the ultimate plague of our public schools, but the law’s promise is meaningless if the testing it authorizes cannot be honestly administered. Ironically, NCLB has only lowered our expectations further, reinforcing the dangerous and culturally decadent idea that “dysfunctional” is a synonym for “public.” If it’s true that pride comes before a fall, this fall is likely to be precipitous.

 

So stop blaming teachers and other extraneous factors, and instead look at this as a complete and total systemic failure in test-based accountability.

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