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.”

Cheating is not a big deal

The Atlanta cheating indictments — from the former superintendent down to principals and teachers — have brought calls to eliminate test-based accountability measures. If there’s no incentive to cheat, there’ll be no cheating, the argument goes.  Minimizing cheating shouldn’t be the top priority, argues Jonathan Chait in New York Magazine.

Incentivizing any field increases the impetus to cheat.

. . . If Major League Baseball instituted tenure, and maybe used tee-ball rules where you can’t keep score and everybody gets a chance to hit, it could stamp out steroid use.

Students have been cheating on tests forever — massive, systematic cheating, you could say. Why? Because they have an incentive to do well. Give teachers and administrators an incentive for their students to do well, and more of them will cheat.

Standardized test scores “account for no more than half of the criteria” for evaluating teachers in any state, Chait writes. Classroom evaluations and other factors count for the rest.

 States use complex models to measure how much a class increased its performance from the beginning to the end of the school year, accounting for socioeconomic conditions and other factors.

“There’s a useful debate to be had over how to design the criteria for measuring effective teachers,” he writes, but minimizing cheating is not the top priority. “The top priority should be teaching students better.”

The Atlanta scandal wasn’t about teachers cheating to look better. It was about administrators pressuring teachers to make low-performing schools look better. That’s true in Philadelphia’s cheating scandal too.

If reform fails . . .

If education reform fails, what will happen? Two Washington Post op-eds preview the future, writes Eduwonk.

Michael Gerson lauds the spread of choice and increasing chances that it could happen at scale.  On the same page Eugene Robinson announces that Atlanta shows the folly of incentives linked to testing.

Both show what’s likely if reform efforts collapse, writes Eduwonk.  ”

It’s not a return to the old days of benign neglect where the money flowed pretty freely and consequences were scarce.”

 Instead, he predicts more choice, less accountability and limited funding.

Choice without accountability is not

the “formula for widespread improvement,” he writes.

Ex-superintendent indicted for Atlanta cheating

Former Atlanta Superintendent Beverly Hall and 34 others were indicted Friday on charges they conspired to cheat on standardized tests from at least 2005 to 2010, reports the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, which conducted the investigation that revealed widespread cheating.

Further, the grand jury charged, Hall, several top aides, principals and teachers engaged in the scheme for their own financial gain. And with investigators closing in, the jury said, Hall and others lied to cover up their crimes.

. . . Pressuring subordinates to produce targeted scores, the indictment said, “created an environment where achieving the desired end result was more important than the students’ education.”

“This is nothing but pervasive and rank thuggery,” said Richard Hyde, one of the special investigators.

The indictment served as a resounding refutation of Hall’s assertions that Atlanta had found the secret formula that had long eluded educators elsewhere: how to get strong performances from poor, mostly minority students in decaying urban schools. For her efforts, Hall was named the national superintendent of the year in 2009.

Hall collected more than $225,000 in bonuses in 2007 to 2009 by certifying test scores “which she knew were false,” the grand jury found. Her base salary exceeded $300,000 by 2009.

Armed guard disarms school shooter

An Atlanta middle-school student shot a classmate yesterday in the school courtyard. An armed security guard — an off-duty police officer — took the gun away. The 14-year-old victim has been discharged from the hospital.

Ida Price MIddle School students must walk through a metal detector to enter the school. It’s not clear how the shooter got the gun into the school.

An armed police officer and an unarmed guard will be stationed at every elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut, if the school board can persuade the local police to provide the manpower.

After the Dec. 14 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School, some parents who attended the school board meeting asked for  two armed guards at each school. “The only thing that stopped that guy that day was when the two Newtown police burst in the building,” said parent Donna Lorenz.

Why cheat? Kids were ‘dumb as hell’

Atlanta math teacher Shayla Smith gave students test answers because they were “dumb as hell,” according to a former colleague who testified at her hearing. The former fifth-grade teacher denied cheating, but the tribunal recommended her firing, reports the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

The teacher, Schajuan Jones, taught 4th grade across the hall from Smith, and said she overheared Smith talking in the hallway with a teacher whose students she had overseen during testing.

“The words were, ‘I had to give your kids, or your students, the answers because they’re dumb as hell,'” Jones said.

The tribunal was considering testimony of cheating in 2010. The year before a state analysis found what was described as a practically impossible frequency of changes from wrong to right in tests proctored by Smith.

A student also testified Smith had pointed to the right answers.

Of nearly 180 Atlanta Public School educators accused of cheating in a state investigation, the district has reported outcomes for 164: 110 have resigned or retired, reports the newspaper. Seventeen were fired after going before the tribunal, 16 were reinstated and 21 tribunals are pending.

D.C. spends $29,409 per pupil

In 2009-10, Washington D.C. public schools spent $29,409 per student, according to the Census Bureau, points out Andrew Coulson at Cato @ Liberty. “This spending figure is about triple what the DC voucher program spends per pupil — and the voucher students have a much higher graduation rate and perform as well or better academically,” he writes.

D.C. spends much more per student than Cleveland and Atlanta, which enroll demographically similar students and earn similar NAEP scores, notes Michael McShane of AEI. (He divides revenues by students for an average of  $27,263 per student in D.C. In a comment, Coulson says D.C. spent more than its revenues, so his figure is correct.)

Per student, DC has the most teachers, the most instructional aides, the most instructional coordinators, the second most administrators, and the second most administrative support staff.

DC also pays their teachers more, with a starting salary for a first year teacher with a bachelor’s degree set at $51,539 a year and a teacher with a Master’s degree and 21 years of experience earning $100,839 per year. In Atlanta (according to the district’s website), it’s $44,312 and $69,856; in Cleveland (according to its union contract) it’s $36,322 and $70,916. Note: all of these figures are simply salary, these do not include benefits.

. . . Atlanta gets slightly better test scores with slightly poorer students at 60% of the cost of DCPS and Cleveland does about the same with slightly less poor students at 68% of the cost.

Despite DCPS’ reputation for bureaucratic bloat, Atlanta has many more administrators. Cleveland has relatively few.

Cheating: It’s not just Atlanta schools

Signs of cheating, such as test scores that go up sharply one year and crash the next, can be found in nearly 200 large school districts nationwide, according to an Atlanta Journal-Constitution analysis.

As Atlanta learned after cheating was uncovered in half its elementary and middle schools last year, falsified test results deny struggling students access to extra help to which they are entitled, and erode confidence in a vital public institution.

. . . In nine districts, scores careened so unpredictably that the odds of such dramatic shifts occurring without an intervention such as tampering were worse than one in 10 billion.In Houston, for instance, test results for entire grades of students jumped two, three or more times the amount expected in one year, the analysis shows. When children moved to a new grade the next year, their scores plummeted — a finding that suggests the gains were not due to learning.

In 33 districts, the odds the tests results were valid were worse than one in a million.

Here’s a map showing districts in which more than 10 percent of schools reported suspicious results.

 

Cheater prospers

I Used to Think … and Now I Think, reflections by education reformers, includes an essay by recently departed Atlanta Superintendent Beverly Hall, writes John Merrow.

In eight largely self-serving pages, Dr. Hall celebrates her accomplishments. She tells us that it took her three years to bring the school system under her direct control and “to institutionalize strong ethics requirements limiting the school board’s direct involvement with the day-to-day operations of the system.” . . .  Since the Georgia Bureau of Investigation report traces the cheating right to the superintendent’s desk, the sentence resonates with irony.

Hall received nearly $600,000 in bonuses during her time in Atlanta, Merrow notes. “How much of that was for raising test scores (fraudulently) is unclear, but the Board wants to ‘claw back’ those dollars.”

 

No pressure, no progress

Pressure to improve test scores is getting the blame for the cheating scandal in Atlanta (and Philadelphia, Baltimore, D.C. and elsewhere). But if there’s no pressure, there will be no progress, argues Jay Mathews in the Washington Post.

Pressure doesn’t have to come from a high-stakes test, he writes. Pressure can mean Mom’s raised eyebrow.  In some countries, it’s a report from the school inspector.  But it’s got to come from somewhere.

School administrators and teachers who changed answers did something worse than cheating. They lost faith in the ability of their students to learn.

. . .  teachers and students, like all of us, must learn how to deal with some forms of pressure. Reducing stress in the either/or dynamic of public schools can lead to eliminating it altogether, which is bad. If we don’t have a chance to fail, no one will know that we need help. We won’t be able to improve.

Then we will be back where we were before, patting some kids on the head, deciding they weren’t up to anything tough and passing them on to the next grade until they are fit for nothing better than the unemployment line.

Those pat-on-the-head diplomas are another form of cheating.

Update: Don’t throw out the baby with the bath water, adds Justin Baeder.