Most of the readers of this blog are educators. Most don’t like high-stakes testing and the idea of punishments and rewards based on test scores. Many are ready to throw them both out as an assault on teacher professionalism. Many admire Finland, for example, where standardized testing is a non-issue and American-style accountability is unknown.
I thought it was important for everyone to read what Mike Petrilli has to say about Atlanta and what the cheating scandal means for the future of testing and accountability. Mike is a strong advocate of both. He is the #2 at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, which advocates for testing, accountability, charters, and vouchers. I was on the board of TBF for many years. I left a few years ago when I realized that I no longer shared its agenda. In fact, I have dedicated all my energies to opposing its agenda, which I once supported.
Of the entire corporate reform world, at least of those I know, Mike is probably the most reasonable. I hold out hope that one day he may follow my lead and realize he is on the wrong side. At least, he wrestles with the issues, and that’s a hopeful sign.
He reminds me that in my last appearance in the corporate reformers’ academic journal, Ednext, I debated John Chubb on the subject of the future of NCLB.
His view: Mend it, don’t end it.
My view: End it, don’t mend it.
My view today: NCLB is a disaster; Race to the Top is a worse disaster. There is no way to mend a disaster. We need a new vision that begins not with data, but with a knowledge of child development combined with a passion for learning and for real education, not spreadsheet data.
This article by Daniel Denvir is the best article I have read to date on the Atlanta cheating scandal.
The “no excuses” mantra is at the root of policies that incentivized cheating. Atlanta is only the tip of the iceberg. There will be more, and most will go undetected.
What distinguished Atlanta was the thoroughness of the investigation.
Of course, adults should not cheat, and those who cheat should be punished.
But it is important to change the context that demands impossible results and punishes adults who don’t produce them.
It is especially pleasing to see this article in The New Republic, which is an influential political journal.
The Daily Howler notes that most of the mainstream media completely ignored the Atlanta events or barely mentioned them.
Only Chris Hayes had a panel on the subject, and two of the three panelists were a waste of air time.
One was a clueless parent, and the other was a paid mouthpiece for the hedge fund billionaires of New Jersey.
Parents mobilized to defeat the so-called “parent trigger” in three states.
They referred to it as the “corporate empowerment” bill.
It could also be called the Corporate Enrichment bill.
A reader writes:
“Yes, a lawyer is the acting interim Superintendent, Joe. His name is Dorsey Hopson. Before coming to Memphis, he was general counsel for the Atlanta Public School system (during the same time as the cheating scandal).”
Yes, it is true
Will he be called to testify about the organized cheating and the inflated s ores and the unwarranted bonuses that occurred when he was general counsel to the Atlanta Public Schools.
Accountability begins at the top, as it should.
This smart blogger read all the investigators’ reports from the Atlanta cheating scandal.
He or she realized that Atlanta was doing everything that reformers say is important.
The educators there were focusing on test scores above all else.
The teachers who got higher scores got bonuses and those who did not, got humiliated.
Incentivizing the workforce, yes?
The teachers had no tenure, so whistleblowers had no job protection and were easily fired.
The blogger writes: “So what rank-and-yank, cash incentives, all that leadership, and high expectations got Atlanta public school children was test scores so gamed that the schools lost Title One program improvement money, and children who needed special education services were disqualified from them because of their remarkable testing prowess.”
Atlanta is a textbook case of the corporate reform approach to education. What makes it different from other districts following the corporate reform textbook is that the governor sent in professional investigators.
Veteran journalist Sol Stern looks at the Atlanta cheating scandal from a different angle.
Pay for performance plans send big bucks to certain adults, he points out.
And those plans lead some people to cheat.
It is up to the people in charge to investigate.
He shows how in one egregious example in New York City, where the scores zoomed up, then collapsed, the city didn’t even bother to investigate the principal in charge of the school. She retired with a tidy boost to her pension. The city investigators said they couldn’t interview her because they couldn’t find her. Case closed.
A reporter did find her, however, at her listed address.
When the people in charge don’t want to know, they don’t find any smoke or fire or smoking guns.
Arthur Camins has written numerous thoughtful essays about the current ruinous trends in American education.
Here he reflects on some important lessons from the Atlanta cheating scandal.
“I’m waiting for the national editorials, leading policy makers and major foundations to speak out honestly about the lessons learned from the Atlanta cheating scandal. I’m waiting for them to change course. But, I am not holding my breath.
“From Enron to Arthur Anderson to the sub-prime lending debacle we have unambiguous evidence of a lethal combination. Unquestioned hierarchy, the arrogance of power and a singular focus on short-term metrics yield no integrity and subsequent cheating. When fear and financial rewards are combined honesty is lost.
“Cheating, especially of the erasure kind, is not new and was certainly known to Beverly Hall. Back in the 1990’s, when she was rising through the ranks, I worked as a District Science Coordinator in New York City. One day during the annual spring testing period we were summoned to the District Office and sent out to proctor testing in the classrooms of teachers who had been identified by the Central Board’s testing division as having an unusually high percentage of erasure marks on previous tests. The pressure was high then even without the threat of job loss or the promise of bonuses. Even then, there was no “speaking truth to power.”
“I was struck in the reporting this morning that Beverly Hall’s reign in Atlanta was characterized by fear. In the end, it is the absence of democracy, the primacy of bureaucracies over learning organizations that allows and encourages cheating. To paraphrase Isaac Asimov from one of his Foundation Trilogy novels, “Despotism is the last refuge of the incompetent.” I think some people rise to power for many reasons and at a certain point realize they really don’t have answers, but do not have the courage to admit it either to themselves or others. That’s when the cover up and self-righteousness take over.”
Count on G.F. Brandenburg to read the fine print, have a long memory, and share what he has learned with his readers.
The excerpts from the Atlanta indictments may remind you of the PBS Frontline special about Michelle Rhee. Remember how she interviewed each principal and asked, “How many points will your scores go up?” “What can you promise?”
Maybe it is time to look at that episode again.
Here is a link to the episode, the PBS ombudsman comments, and the controversy that followed.
According to the story in the New York Times, the schools in Atlanta where the scores soared lost federal aid for struggling learners. One school where cheating is alleged lost $750,000 that could have been used for reduced class size and to provide enrichment classes and tutoring. And that was only one school among many.
The rise in scores gained Beverly Hall a bonus of $500,000.
That must be one of the strategies that the Atlanta school board learned when they received training by the Broad Foundation about reaching targets and using incentives to succeed.
Remember the stories about the “New York City miracle”? That’s when the passing rates went up so fast and so high that very few children were eligible for extra tutoring. When the state revealed in 2010 that the state scoring was defective, the “miracle” disappeared. But the children never got the extra help that they needed as officials crowed about “their” accomplishments. NYC even won the Broad prize in 2007 for its vastly inflated test scores. The prize was announced just a few weeks before NAEP reported that NYC had made no gains at all.