Pop quiz: What do the teachers in the Atlanta cheating scandal have in common with Lance Armstrong, Barry Bonds, and Tonya Harding?
Answer: They all wanted results.
As an educator, I have a unique perspective on the mess unfolding in Atlanta. While I don’t condone their attempts to cheat, I am intimately familiar with the system that led them to do so. Our public schools these days are putting too much emphasis on standardized testing and bogus metrics. When we do so, we invite cheating. More importantly, we fail our kids.
In the 12 years since No Child Left Behind made results on tests the preeminent marker of a public school’s success, this country has seen cheating scandals in several major, urban districts. Why? Is it because those districts are filled with nefarious teachers who are hell-bent on breaking ethical codes?
Of course not. In reality, these scandals typically occur in districts where students find it difficult to reach basic proficiency levels on high-stakes tests. These same districts, along with many others across the country, have told teachers that their job security and pay relies on the results of those same high-stakes tests.
Yet the push for more metrics and more testing doesn’t seem likely to stop. Newer, costlier, more difficult tests are on the horizon. Performance evaluations are on the way, too. More and more, teachers’ livelihoods are dependent on the ability of their students to fill in the right bubble.
Many teachers respond by shifting their curriculum from what they know is important to what they know will boost pass rates. A few push the envelope even further. With so much at stake, is it really a surprise?
In his article on the prevalence of cheating in our society, clinical psychologist Ben Michaelis suggests that “by shifting our emphasis away from results and toward process,” we can curb cheating. As he points out, “It’s not that results don’t matter; they do, it’s just that results are not all that matters.”
The more we push competition among schools and educators, and the more value we place on achieving test results, the more incentives we create for cheating. Even President Obama and Michelle Rhee inherently understand this: they send their kids to private schools that don’t subject their students or teachers to the excessive high-stakes testing found in public schools. Rather, they focus on “education for the whole child.”
This progression towards more testing at higher stakes is not inevitable. By emphasizing and valuing collaboration, planning, and executing lessons – the behaviors we know that lead to student achievement – we can discourage cheating and hold teachers accountable for doing great work. We can foster an environment where the amount of time devoted to teacher development and training outweighs the amount of time devoted to test prep.
A few years back, at the all-staff orientation of a nationally renowned charter school network, I listened as the head of the organization gave a sobering speech. The schools in our network received ratings based almost entirely on a state-administered test. At several schools, those ratings had dropped.
At the end of his speech, he issued a charge to this effect: “I don’t want excuses. I want results.”
It’s easy to preach this “no excuses, just results” motto. It’s also dangerous. When results are all that matter, we shouldn’t be surprised when the process to get those results is unethically tainted. Just ask Barry, Lance, or those 35 teachers.