Sunday, April 19, 2015

Why The Atlanta Educators Cheating Case Bothers Me

I have more than a passing interest in Education. As a parent I always want to ensure that I can provide the best education for my children in conjunction with anything I do at home. Professionally I consult for charter schools. I have a Masters in Educational Administration and Policy Studies, and I've worked in school districts in an administrative capacity, primarily as a consultant, so I'm familiar with the ins and outs of school administration. Lastly, I am acutely familiar with cheating in school districts, as at one point I had to speak out on this issue.

Briefly, this article summarizes the main points but it was an investigative reporter for the Atlanta Journal Constitution - Heather Vogell who first uncovered the irregularities in the testing data. Vogell noted, several schools statewide had changed in status between the spring 2008 administration of the test and the summer retest in 2008, going from not meeting AYP (Adequate Yearly Progress) rates, a calculation set by federal legislation that determines the fates of individual schools, to meeting the measure. A lot more schools had met AYP than was expected - it was a larger shift. Upon further investigation she found a handful of schools had increased their performance so much more than they had been expected to that it raised questions over whether educators had intervened in the testing process. She published her first story in December 2008, highlighting schools where the gains seemed astronomical. See full article here. Making AYP matters more if you are receiving Title 1 funds.

This case has a lot of underlying implications, the chief one being that children in high need school districts or schools with low SES (socio-economic status),  can not do well on standardized tests without assistance. If they do, the scores need to be examined closer. High need usually equates to low academic performance, but this is not always the case.

This case abdicates parents of all responsibility in their child's education and places the entire blame on the teachers, principals, administrators and the school district.  How is it possible that you did not know your child could not read until you are moved to another school district and they are held back? Besides the state tests, were they no other indicators that a child was not progressing as he/she should? Why is the state test ranked as the holy grail of all tests, when the reality is it isn't?

There's the underlying theme of race - any article that I've ever read on this case always mentions the race of the defendants and SES of the schools involved. From the LA Times when referring to the defendants, "all African Americans who worked in low-income neighborhoods." All of the educators were black, the prosecutor and his staff were primarily black, the affected schools and students were primarily black, the judge was white and the primary defense attorney was white.

This case was handled in the manner it was because of money - for the defendants and the schools. One of the prosecutor's points was that if cheating had not occurred more federal funds for remediation could have been funneled to the school district. I'm not sure exactly what this statement means because if a school makes AYP, it receives Title 1 Funding. He may have been referring to other monetary sources. Be that as it may, the real question is: do these funds change the student's performance or is a poor district just a cash cow? Per pupil spending in high need school districts rivals those in high SES school districts, yet their performance is better.

It's not just about the money but this was grounds for this case.  Significant money is spent every year on education in this country.
  • The United States spent $553 billion on public elementary and secondary Education in 2006-2007,[4] which is 4.2 percent of gross domestic product.[5]
  • In 2007, the federal government spent $71.7 billion on elementary and secondary Education programs. These funds were spent by 13 federal departments and multiple agencies. The Department of Education spent $39.2 billion on K-12 education. The largest programs in the Department of Education's elementary and secondary budget were "Education for the disadvantaged" ($14.8 billion) and "Special Education" ($11.5 billion).[9]
One of the warped messages from this case is: failure equals more money; let the children fail; let's maintain the status quo.

In Georgia - PPS (per pupil spending) for 2012 is ~9300. More recent data provides a better breakdown of what actually goes in PPS, and this article provides a breakdown on where the money goes and how it is spent.

It's about the children. Supposedly because of the educators' role, these children are damaged for life.
It was always about the children but their lives aren't damaged because of the outcome of one annual state standardized test. Children don't learn in a vacuum - learning is a process, a life long one, with multiple assessments along the way to assess if you are processing the information. Even if they didn't learn the first time around, they are multiple opportunities available to them for learning and achieving. Again, why is a state test the only assessment that matters? When did a standardized state test become the arbiter for learning?

There is a culture of cheating and high stakes testing. It is acknowledged that there is a culture of cheating in schools that has increased with the onset of State Standardized Testing. This case highlighted what many educators say is the mounting pressure to meet testing targets in the data-driven era of No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top. In Atlanta as in many other school districts, performance was tied to how well students scored on standardized tests. They were bonuses if goals were met and penalties if they were not.  In addition, this is not an environment the Superintendent created in Atlanta, but one that she too had to abide by. The Superintendent in the Atlanta case died and it's not clear if racketeering was ever proved. Under the racketeering law, because this all happened under her watch, if she were tried and found guilty, she could have been sentenced to 45 years in jail.

Cheating is wrong. When children cheat in school they are consequences but none so severe that they can not resume their lives for twenty years. When adults cheat on behalf of the children, there should also be consequences but none so severe that they can not resume their lives for twenty years. When race, class and academic achievement intersect, it's a firestorm that our justice system can not handle.
The sad reality is that this is a no win situation.

Additional resources:
Did Atlanta Educators Get Equal Justice Before the Law?
The Atlanta Trial: The Ultimate in Test and Punish
Does spending more on education improve academic achievement?

1 comment:

  1. This troubles me as well. Very few people recognize or care that the investigation was triggered because Af-Am kids performed well. If our during well automatically means we cheat, that is evidence to prove the system was designed for us to fail.


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