☐ Teachers who change student answers
☐ Administrators who set “no-excuses” goals
☐ “Experts” who think that setting goals can make up for inadequate preparation

(Choose all that apply)

pencil erasing answer sheetWhat could the Veterans Affairs scandal and the Atlanta public school test cheating scandal have in common? Quite a bit, actually.

Both involve public employees whose jobs committed them to help vulnerable people, could not fulfill those commitments, and tried to cover it up.

In my last Connecting the Dots post, Want to Get to the Root of the VA Scandal? Follow the Money, I suggested that responsibility in the VA debacle belonged not only to the VA functionaries who jiggered appointment records to make it look like veterans were receiving timely attention, but should be shared by those who took the country to war without budgeting adequately “to care for him who shall have borne the battle” (in the words of Lincoln that form the VA’s motto) and those who thought that management systems, goals and incentives could compensate for actual funding for veterans’ health care..

As a recent and riveting New Yorker article, “Wrong Answer,” recounts, the events that led to the Atlanta testing scandal followed a similar pattern, a pattern of cheating that arose from an effort to meet unrealistic goals, driven by a combination of dedication and the desire to keep jobs and earn bonuses.

The scandal has been heavily covered in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and national media: Public school teachers and administrators previewed sealed tests and changed wrong answers to correct ones. 109 school system employees implicated, including 38 principals and administrators. And a former superintendent, mortally ill with cancer, and her associates await trial as the masterminds of the enterprise.

The New Yorker story is told from the point of view not of the investigators who uncovered the cheating but from the point of view of the teachers and administrators who were faced with what they saw as an impossible task: eliciting high performances on standardized tests from woefully under-prepared middle-schoolers, some of them, according to teacher Damany Lewis “were still reading by sounding out the letters…. A veteran teacher told Lewis that only twenty per cent of his students would grasp what he was teaching.”

The story is well worth reading in its entirety, but a few excerpts convey the way it unfolded as testing-time approached:

Lewis felt that he had pushed [his students] to work harder than they ever had in their lives. “I’m not going to let the state slap them in the face and say they’re failures,” he told me. “I’m going to do everything I can to prevent the why-try spirit.”…

At the end of the testing week, Lewis went back to the testing office with Crystal Draper, a language-arts teacher. For about an hour, they erased wrong answers and bubbled in the right ones…. Many students were on the cusp of passing, and he gave them a little nudge, so that they would pass by one or two points…

A month later, when the scores came back,… a teacher announced, “You did it! You finally made it!” For the first time since the passage of No Child Left Behind, Parks [Middle School] had met its annual goals: “We had heard what everyone was saying: Y’all aren’t good enough [a student told New Yorker writer Rachel Aviv]. “Now we could finally go to school with our heads held high.”

[After a year,] the cheating process began to take the form of a routine…[The school’s reading coordinator] paged up to six teachers and told them to report to the room. While their students were at recess, the teachers erased wrong answers and filled in the right ones. Lewis took photographs of the office with his cell phone so that he could make sure he left every object, even the pencils on Kiel’s desk, exactly as he’d found them…. cheating had become a “well-oiled machine”.

The Atlanta scandal raises a far more complicated set of issues than the VA scandal, many of whose problems could be solved with the money needed to hire more doctors and other staff needed to treat sick and injured vets. Unlike VA employees, who gamed the system to keep their jobs and earn bonuses, the Atlanta teachers in “Wrong Answer” did what they did in what they thought were the best interests of their students as well as themselves. Many children, predominantly from low-income families, are at levels of education far below grade level and need to catch up. Setting goals is a useful way to set expectations and determine whether they’ve been met. Even “stretch” or aspirational goals have their place: mediocre or worse sports teams begin each season and game believing that they can win, even in the face of rosters that suggest that victory is unlikely.

But just as the trouble at the VA started when treating patients was replaced as an objective by meeting—or appearing to meet–time-to-appointment goals, so the trouble in Atlanta started when education was replaced as a goal by meeting test-score targets. “’Data’ and ‘accountability’ had become almost magic words,” Aviv writes: “If administrators repeated them enough, it seemed they believed that scores should rise, even if there hadn’t been significant enhancements in instruction.

It’s not an uncommon phenomenon, Aviv was told by John Ewing, the former executive director of the American Mathematical Society. Ewing is perplexed by educators’ ”infatuation with data,” Aviv writes, “their faith that it is more authoritative than using their own judgment. He explains the problem in terms of Campbell’s law, a principle that describes the risks of using a single indicator to measure complex social phenomena: the greater the value placed on a quantitative measure, like test scores, the more likely it is that the people using it and the process it measures will be corrupted.

Like the VA malefactors, the Atlanta teachers who leaked test questions and changed answers (a small fraction of all Atlanta teachers) had choices. They made the wrong ones and will suffer the consequences.

But they weren’t the ones that set unrealistically high expectations–67 percent of its students had to score satisfactorily in language arts and 58 percent in math or the school could be closed–for children who were still sounding out words in seventh grade. And they weren’t the ones who, by labeling their policy “no excuses,” implied that references to the burden of under-education that students brought with them were “excuses” made by lazy or incompetent teachers.

Under-educated students can be brought up to grade level. The KIPP charter schools have had some success doing it: not by establishing unrealistic ‘no-excuses” goals, but with significantly longer school days, weeks and years and with teachers who give their students their cell-phone numbers for evening and weekend consultation; and not in a year, but over several years.

It is also worth saying, though, that this regimen of benign-Stakhanovism takes its toll on those who are charged with carrying it out. Steven Brill, in his generally pro-education-reform book Class Warfare, follows the school year of a driven young KIPP assistant principal–only to report in his closing chapter that she resigned at the end of the year. “I know I can’t do this forever. And if I know had a child I couldn’t do it. As it is, it is screwing up my marriage,” she told Brill. “This wasn’t a sustainable life.”

The point is that bringing under-educated students to grade-level and beyond takes years of smart and hard—perhaps unsustainably hard—work. It will not be accomplished by setting goals and blaming teachers if their students fall short. And if—when—administrators nevertheless set such goals and sanction teachers and schools when the goals are not met, those who set the goals should join the teachers in taking the fall.

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