Why they cheated

Christopher Waller, the principal of Parks, was lauded in Atlanta, and became a minor celebrity of the school-reform movement.

A former math teacher at a high-poverty Atlanta middle school explains why the principal and teachers cheated in a sympathetic New Yorker profile.

Students who’d passed a competency test in fifth grade arrived at Parks Middle School with first-grade reading levels. The elementary schools were cheating, Principal Christopher Waller concluded. And his supervisors didn’t care.

Waller recruited Damany Lewis to lead a team of teachers willing to change wrong answers. He told them the school would close if it didn’t meet Superintendent Beverly Hall’s unreachable targets.

During testing week, after students had completed the day’s section, Waller distracted the testing coördinator, Alfred Kiel, by taking him out for leisurely lunches in downtown Atlanta. On their way, Waller called the reading coördinator to let her know that it was safe to enter Kiel’s office. She then 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.

As the school’s scores soared, it was lauded for its success, attributed to a “relentless focus on data.” Waller was lauded for his success.

In the spring of 2008, Parks’s scores were almost as high as those of a middle school in Inman Park, a gentrified neighborhood with yoga studios, bike paths, and million-dollar houses. Waller thought the results seemed obviously false, and he called his supervisor, Michael Pitts, to warn him.

Nothing happened. Year after year, improbable numbers were accepted as valid. Complaints were ignored.

Parks attracted so many visitors who were eager to understand the school’s turnaround that teachers had to come up with ways to explain it. At Waller’s direction, they began maintaining what they called “standard-based mastery folders,” an index of all the objectives that each student needed to grasp in order to comprehend a given lesson. Lewis, who was taking night classes at the School of Education at Clark Atlanta University, wrote his master’s thesis on the technique. “It was a wonderful system,” he said. “But we only put it in place to hide the fact that we were cheating.”

Believing the tests weren’t valid, teachers saw cheating as a “victimless crime.”

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  1. A remarkably sympathetic article. The educators seem unable to realize that flunking the test means that their students don’t know the things they were supposed to teach them. They make the test out to be some abstract, unimportant “single data point” floating out the sky that in no way reflects their students’ skills.

    They can protest that it “wasn’t about the money” (from the bonuses) all they want, but they cashed the checks. I actually believe them that the money wasn’t their real motivation. They seem to have been more motivated in making themselves and their school look good than in the fairly small amounts of money in play, but once you’ve taken the money, the criminal charges are valid.

    Pity they weren’t mostly motivated by student achievement, that might have helped.

    • Roger Sweeny says:

      In a way that outsiders may find weird, I think the teachers did care about student achievement. I suspect the (largely unconscious) reasoning went like this:

      “I’m a good teacher. How do I know? Because I do a lot of the things I learned in ed school, I cover what I’m supposed to cover, I get along reasonably well with my students. After a year with me, they must have learned a lot of important things. On the other hand, standardized tests aren’t valid measures of student achievement. How do I know? My ed school professors said so, my union says so, and lots of educational writers say so. The system of standardized tests will unfairly and unjustly hold my students back. So fairness and justice require me to game the system.”

      Most people don’t want to do what they think is wrong. But they also don’t want to go against the people they work with, and they don’t want to leave money on the table. One way out is to deceive yourself.

  2. The blame starts in Elementary School, where the teachers there passed the students along (so they could be someone else’s problem), but when they did that, they arrive at middle school without the necessary knowledge to succeed.

    Perhaps the students could have been tested when they got to sixth grade and when they tested at first grade levels, go back and confront the elementary school?

    Everyone loses in this one, esp. the students and by de facto, the teachers.


  3. Richard Aubrey says:

    It is difficult to imagine a system whose incentives cannot be perversified. That’s why we look for moral courage.
    Which, as Churchill said, is considerably less common than physical courage.
    Imagine being the teacher in that school who wasn’t going along with the program.
    I think the term is, “the only virgin in the sorority house.”

  4. What gets rewarded gets done. This is exactly why merit pay is such a bad idea. http://teaching-abc.blogspot.com/search/label/Compensation

    • Roger Sweeny says:

      Why? Because educators are inherently dishonest? In my experience, that is untrue.