I promised in my last entry that I would blog a bit about the Atlanta Teacher scandal. How little did I know how closely this thing would hit home for me, personally. But you’ll have to hang on for a minute.
As I wrote my last entry, I began looking deeper and deeper into that situation, watching and reading hours of testimony given by witnesses. There were initially over 170 educators from 40 different schools named in the investigation. As time went on, educators came forward, confessed and cooperated and in return they were given a sort of leniency. But it was all predicated on an admission of guilt. They had to confess that they had some role in falsifying or corrupting the testing process. One by one they came forward and made deals. Until there were only 12 defendants left who went the distance and went to trial and all the way to sentencing.
Actually, that isn’t quite true. There was at least one who could not be prosecuted because she died before she could have her day in court.
As I poured over the history of this unfortunate incident my heart went out to each and every person involved. Everyone. Of course the children who were fooled into thinking they were somehow gifted or doing better than they really were and subsequently failed to receive earlier intervention that might have come if the tests were serving the purpose they are purported to serve. But in truth, these tests have never served that purpose. George W. Bush made No Child Left Behind the crown jewel of his legacy. Barack Obama took NCLB and “improved” it by taking the most onerous parts of it and incentivized it during a recession that gripped the nation through “Race to the Top.” Beverly Hall won her accolades as Superintendent of The Year in 2009– on his watch.
The teachers involved lived in a culture of fear, intimidation and retaliation. Their jobs were on the line. They needed the benefits for taking care of their own children and to put food on their own tables. Even if they didn’t cheat, they knew it was happening. Erasing student scores was wrong. We all know this. But I often ask myself, “what would I have done?” Then I ask myself “What am I going to do?” Because you see, things have changed but maybe not that much. Notice that these teachers were sentenced on April 1st– a mere 3 weeks before the state of Georgia goes into its testing season. Fear, intimidation, retaliation. Those sentences and this whole story casts a long, long shadow over every single teacher in this state and even across our entire nation. NONE of us are immune from the fear, intimidation and the fear of retaliation caused by the spectre of the long arm of the law reaching and grasping us with its cold and loveless fingers.
I felt for the judge. He really pleaded and did almost everything he could do to keep from having to hand down sentences to these educators. He delayed his sentencing by a day, in order to give them all a chance to make a deal with the district attorney. It reminded me of the story of Pontius Pilate who did not want to administer a certain other sentence, trying the flogging first and then appealing to the crowds. I’m convinced he took no pleasure in this. Everything about this trial was painful to watch. I know the educators did wrong and deserved some form of punishment. But are they that much of a threat to society that they need to be taken off the streets and incarcerated with rapists and murderers? They’ve lost their credentials that they spent a good portion of their lives acquiring and will never be able to practice their profession again. They are jobless and in some cases indigent, unable to afford to pay for their own appeals. They are broke and broken.
As I watched the videos of the sentencing and the efforts of the attorneys to appeal for some mercy, I was genuinely moved by the entire thing. I felt a sense of hopelessness for every single person in that courtroom. I would have taken the deal. Any deal. Whatever it took to wash my hands of this dirty, filthy mess.
And that is what this entire testing culture is. It’s not about the children. It’s not even about accountability and it certainly is not about teaching and learning. It’s pure filth. And as educators, we all have to swim in this hot, steaming vat of it. I’m beginning to wonder if there is any pension, insurance benefit or salary that can possibly wash the stink of it off of any of us. We’re in it for the kids. But it’s not about them anymore. It’s all about the data.
In my last entry, I described our testing season. We are now a mere 3 days into a 10 day ordeal. I am working with a team of 6 other extremely dedicated educators who like our kids and enjoy teaching them. And 3 days in, each and every single one of us have had to write at least one incident report, reporting some sort of “testing irregularity” that will put us on the radar of the Department Of Education and subsequent investigations that might just put an end to that. Most of these things are out of our control. The new computerized testing administration is full of glitches and problems which are still being hashed out and has caused most of these “irregularities.” In some cases, entire tests will be invalidated because of these problems. Some students didn’t get their accommodations and we scrambled to make the best of things. Only time will tell if we did enough to satisfy all of the oversight.
Parents all around the state and country are starting to push back for a variety of reasons. But one thing they realize is that our education system is hopelessly broken and every effort by our government to “fix” it has made it even more broken. One of the reasons schools push so hard for students to take these tests is because there is money tied not only to the pass rates, but simply for having at least 95% of the students take the test on test day. Fear, intimidation and retaliation. While those Atlanta teachers who cheated didn’t do the rest of the dedicated teachers in the country any favors, the system has not gotten any kinder. It continues to cultivate the exact same culture that incubated the scandal in the first place. And it has made teaching a much more difficult and less rewarding profession than at any other time in our history. And its starting to show. I would have a really hard time recommending this profession to any student given the present climate. Back when I got my undergrad degree in agriculture education, only about 2 of us out of 10 who graduated the program that December had any intention of returning to the classroom, with the rest opting to go into agribusiness. I’ve always liked teaching, and still do. But so much of the job involves so many other things besides teaching students, and almost all of it revolves around “accountability.” Covering your bum. It’s increasingly difficult to survive and thrive in that sort of climate for students and the teachers who teach them. We’re sowing seeds that will reap a bitter harvest for this country unless we can regain some control over a testing culture that has gotten out of control.
Just remember that whenever you hear the word “Accountability” when applied to education, it is shorthand for fear, intimidation and retaliation.
5/4/2015 Edit: Thank you John Oliver!