Friday, April 3, 2015

The Atlanta Cheaters

As most know by now, the verdict was handed down in the Atlanta cheating trial and eleven former educators (it seems safe to say that they'll never work in education again) were hauled off instantly and none-too-gently to a bizarrely extreme sentence of jail.

You can get a pretty full picture of the story from these two articles-- the New Yorker in depth piece from 2014 and the Atlantic article that accompanied the verdict.

Much of the ground has been covered. The teachers did a Very Bad Thing and their punishment is earned. The teachers' crime is also an indictment of the system we're currently operating under. There are just a few more thoughts that occur to me.

First, I'm stuck by how hard the teachers at Parks Middle School were trying. This was not teachers trying to game the test scores so that they could back to napping in the lounge and showing videos all day. This was a school where, by all accounts, they were trying everything they could think of in the face of serious challenges, and they were moving forward and creating success-- just not enough of the right kind of success.

In a world without No Child Left Behind, Parks Middle School would have been called a success, a school that was slowly turning around not just its students, but its neighborhood. The cheaters were not trying to save their cushy paychecks or no-stress sinecures-- they were trying to defend the little success that they had managed to create.

Nothing I've read really addresses this, but I would bet that nobody at Parks thought they would have to manage the charade for years. Remember-- from 2007 on we all lived in hope that Congress would rewrite ESEA any day now and the ridiculous imperatives for unattainable test scores would go away. When a new administration was chosen in 2008, that hope became even stronger. In my school, as in many schools, the mantra became, "Let's just figure out how to get through this year, and maybe by next year things will be different." I get a sinking hollow in my gut just imagining the growing horror at Parks as each passing year dug them deeper into the growing pit of lies they were digging for themselves.

I can't condone a thing they did. But it would be cheap of me to condemn them for failing a test I've never had to take. That's why I particularly value the insights of someone like Adell Cothorne, a whistleblower who used to work in DC in the heart of the big Cheating Scandal That Never Happened and who wrote a full response to the convictions for Mercedes Schneider in which she said this:

Do I condone what they did in reference to manipulating students’ tests? No I do not – in any way, shape, or form.

Do I understand why they participated in these egregious acts? I do!

By 2010, it was clear to anybody who was paying attention that there were increasingly only two types of schools in America-- schools that were failing and schools that were cheating.

The fate of the Atlanta cheaters stands in stark contrast to the fate of teachers and administrators cheating across the US. Can I pull up a list and name them? No, nor would I. But I don't doubt for a fraction of a second that hundreds upon hundreds of schools in this country survived the insanely unattainable politically-set requirements of federal reform by cheating in ways big and small. This can't be a surprise-- school reform's first big exemplar was the Texas Miracle, which turned out to be nothing more than creative accounting and magic tracking. The federal government literally paraded a big fat lie in front of schools as if it were a model and then said, "Okay, now YOU do that, too!"

We've heard whisperings of cheating from across the country since then, with reports of questionable test erasures to results that just raise your eyebrows right off your face. The biggest marquee Cheating Scandal That Never Was didn't occur in DC under the watchful eye of She Who Will Not Be Named, but as with the Texas miracle of Rod Paige, too many important people had bet too heavily on the success of She to allow any such scandal to gain traction.

But somehow, in a whole nation of cheats, the folks in Atlanta were the ones who were caught and slapped, an entire library thrown at them.

There's a whole conversation to be had about the ethics of following bad, damaging destructive laws. If you are in Nazi Germany, is it okay to lie about the Jewish family hiding in your attic? If a gunman asks if there are a bunch of five year olds in the classroom behind you, is it okay to lie? If somebody wants to destroy a school that you have built into a haven of peace and positive growth for the community, is it okay to lie to hold them off?

These can be hard questions, but here's one other thing I know-- when a system pressures people to lie in order to survive, bad things happen when they don't lie, and worse things happen when they do.

If you want a stunning example of a lie-fueled reporting system in action, take a look at the Great Chinese Famine of the fifties and sixties, a story all the more remarkable because it's still not widely known outside of China or widely acknowledged within it.

The simple outline is this. Mao decided that he would remake the Chinese economy in the Great Leap Forward (1958) by simply dragging farmers off the farm, taking every scrap of metal that could be rounded up, and building an industrial economy in the cities. He would do this without hurting the food supply by setting quotas for the districts, requiring farmers to make their numbers, or else. The district's farms, stripped of resources and manpower, could not make their numbers, but in Mao's China, nobody wanted to face the "or else." Some tried to broach the subject, but were told that was defeatist thinking-- did they not believe in the mighty power of China's farms? And so everyone made their numbers by lying.

On paper, China in the sixties was doing just fine. In reality, the country was in the grip of man-made famine. The Chinese government now admits to a death toll of 20 million; some writers estimate as many as 36 million. Officials commandeered more grain in some district than existed. Peoples' deaths went unreported so that survivors could keep collecting food rations.

So much weight was put on the measure of food production that to this day, there's no accurate measure of the reality in existence.

When you create a machine that is so badly engineered that it can only work when heavily lubricated by lies, that machine will never do any of the work it was supposedly built for. It will just chew things up and make a destructive mess. What is the moral response to an immoral system?

I sometimes wonder what would have happened if nobody anywhere had lied about test results, if the feds had been forced to confront a nationwide epidemic of "failing" schools, more than could have been milked for profits by charter profiteers and corporate raiders. Would someone have said, "Well, that can't be right" or would we be looking at millions of unemployed educators and a public ed system completely gutted.

The Atlanta cheaters were wrong. What they did was wrong. So were the people who created the system that put those educators in a no-win situation. The Atlanta teachers were in trouble from the moment they were given numbers to make that could not be made; they were doomed to be either failures or cheats. There are no heroes in the Atlanta story, but when counting up the wrong-doers, it would be a grievous error to stop with the eleven people who just went to jail. 


  1. I'm sorry, I don't mean to be rude, but I'm rather tired of the obligatory acknowledgement that the cheaters did a "Very Bad Thing". You yourself acknowledge that you can't answer the question: "What is the moral response to an immoral system?" yet you feel okay about condemning the people who did have to answer that question? You your self admit that, at least for Park Middle, they did it to save the school and the little success they had achieved. How is that different than, "No, Herr Officer, I don't know where the Frank family is hiding."?

    If you're a moral absolutist, yes, you have to condemn all cheaters. But then, you also have to condemn all the citizens that hid the Jews during the Holocaust because they all lived a lie. But if you allow for moral relativism, the question becomes, who was harmed by what they did? Other then themselves, I can't answer that question.

    And do you really think they deserve their punishment? 10 years in jail, more than most rapists and woman beaters get?

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    3. Gah-- let me try again. The Very Bad Thing line was offered as a summation of what the coverage has said so far. I don't entirely disagree with it-- they falsified the records of students and provided lots of "success" press fodder for reformsters, thereby aiding the fiction that the system was working great. How many districts operated under even more weight because "Parks can do it-- what's wrong with you?" It's the kind of lying that prolongs the existence of a flawed system. So I think arguing that their was victimless is a tough job.

      That said, the sentence was over the top and bizarre in the extreme. That was just out of line and the "take them to jail now" business was just unnecessarily unkind.

    4. "It's the kind of lying that prolongs the existence of a flawed system. So I think arguing that their was victimless is a tough job."

      Fair enough and good point. But I think we're in agreement that the BS Tests are, well, BS, so I guess I can't get that riled up when the scores are gamed, especially by teachers trying to preserve their jobs and, perhaps, their schools, even more especially when politicians and other powers that be game the scores all the time and it's perfectly legal for them.

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  3. Peter - this offers brilliant insights. Your suggestion is appropriately provocative that they appear, after all, to have done this this from dedication to survive for their communities and to try to make sure the work they were doing didn't stop.

    That's the risk in ALL metrics based endeavors - whether private sector or public: When the stakes of missing the metrics become too high, people start to game the system and cheat.

    In corporations we see it EVERYWHERE. And, in addition to the thousands of brilliant corporate managers, there are thousands upon thousands who maintain their jobs simply by making sure they hit metrics - not by doing the thing that returns great profit for their companies.

    Ed Deming (quality control statistics expert) observed that companies shouldn't be managed by metrics - because that turned companies into perfect metric machines that go bankrupt. Because metrics are only an indicator - they don't tell the whole story.