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“The Deadly Policies Of Red States”: Lots Of Students Are Being Left Behind

Last week, 35 former Atlanta educators were forced to take a perp walk, reporting to law enforcement authorities for arrest in connection with the nation’s biggest (so far) academic scandal. It was a disturbing spectacle. Once among the pillars of metro Atlanta’s middle class, they’ve been reduced to pleading that they don’t belong in jail.

And that may be true. The charges of a widespread conspiracy to cheat may represent the ambitions of a local prosecutor rather than any top-down plot carried out by a confederacy of criminals. But I don’t waste sympathy on the defendants: They deserve the ignominy of association with thugs.

I’m reserving my pity for the students in Atlanta’s public schools. They’re the victims of this massive fraud, the helpless pawns of adults who callously overlooked the needs of their charges and focused on preserving their careers.

Unfortunately, that’s been a recurrent theme in 40 years of school-reform efforts across the country. Whether represented by unions or organized as a powerful voting bloc or both, public school educators have put their paychecks front and center, discounting the needs of their students. Even good teachers — dedicated, hard-working and inspiring ones — have rallied to protect their peers, some of whom don’t deserve their support.

Atlanta’s scandal has reinforced long-standing criticisms of widespread testing in schools, a strategy that was exalted by George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act. The critics are right: The overdependence on standardized tests has calcified instruction, failed students and encouraged fraud. Educators in poor neighborhoods, where students are more likely to score poorly, are singled out for official reproach.

Conversely, teachers, principals and superintendents who show miraculous results — turning failing students into suddenly brilliant ones — are showered with praise, promotions and, frequently, money. It’s no wonder, then, that some Atlanta teachers had after-school “parties” where they erased students’ answers and replaced them with the correct ones.

While Atlanta may have the best-documented case of test-related fraud, it’s by no means the only one. In an exhaustive investigation published last year, USA Today found evidence of fraudulent test scores in six states and Washington, DC. Even the vaunted Michelle Rhee, who led a reform effort in Washington, has been implicated, accused of turning a blind eye to suspicious test results.

But for all the problems associated with No Child Left Behind, Bush deserves credit for this much: He recognized the failures of public schools that are not doing very much to educate children from less-affluent homes. He described a culture freighted with “the soft bigotry of low expectations,” a phrase that still rings true.

For years, too many teachers in low-achieving schools have blamed their failures on children and parents, describing homes in which discipline is poor, mediocrity is lauded and failure is acceptable. If those teachers believe there is nothing to be done to improve the academic standing of those children, why teach? If the children are too “dumb” or too deprived to profit from their instruction, why do they stay?

Reams of research bear out the complaints of educators who say teaching poor kids is challenging: Children from less-affluent homes are more likely to read below grade-level, to need special help, to score poorly on standardized tests. But that hardly means they can’t learn.

They need teachers who believe in them. Those who believe they’re being unfairly tarnished by unworthy students don’t fit the bill. As psychologists point out, kids pick up those signals easily enough and behave as the teachers expect them to. In other words, they learn little or nothing.

In addition to dedicated teachers, those children need a community that’s also committed to them. That includes the politicians, activists and church groups who spend an inordinate amount of time defending educators rather than demanding good schools for the kids.

As Atlanta’s disgraced educators surrendered last week, a group of activist preachers — Concerned Black Clergy — assembled to suggest that racism was involved. “Look at the pictures of those 35,” said the Rev. Timothy McDonald. “Show me a white face.”

Would that McDonald and his allies were as concerned about Atlanta’s public school students, 80 percent of whom are also black.

 

By: Cynthia Tucker, The National Memo, April 6, 2013

April 6, 2013 Posted by | Education Reform, Educators | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“The Racket With Standardized Test Scores”: Treating Test Scores The Way A Corporation Might Treat Sales Targets Is Wrong

It is time to acknowledge that the fashionable theory of school reform — requiring that pay and job security for teachers, principals and administrators depend on their students’ standardized test scores — is at best a well-intentioned mistake, and at worst nothing but a racket.

I mean that literally. Beverly Hall, the former superintendent of the Atlanta public schools, was indicted on racketeering charges Friday for an alleged cheating scheme that won her more than $500,000 in performance bonuses. Hall, who retired two years ago, is also accused of theft, conspiracy and making false statements. She has denied any wrongdoing.

Also facing criminal charges are 34 teachers and principals who allegedly participated in the cheating, which involved simply erasing students’ wrong answers on test papers and filling in the correct answers.

In 2009, the American Association of School Administrators named Hall “National Superintendent of the Year” for improvement in student achievement that seemed, in retrospect, much too good to be true. On Georgia’s standardized competency test, students in some of Atlanta’s troubled neighborhoods appeared to vault past their counterparts in the wealthy suburbs.

For educators who worked for Hall, bonuses and promotions were based on test scores. “Principals and teachers were frequently told by Beverly Hall and her subordinates that excuses for not meeting targets would not be tolerated,” according to the indictment.

But there was a sure-fire way to meet those targets: After a day of testing, teachers allegedly were told to gather the students’ test sheets and change the answers. Suddenly a failing school would become a model of education reform. The principal and teachers would get bonuses. Hall would get accolades, plus a much bigger bonus. And students — duped into thinking they had mastered material that they hadn’t even begun to grasp — would get the shaft.

State education officials became suspicious. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution wrote probing stories. There seemed to be no way to legitimately explain the dramatic improvement in test scores at some schools in such a short time, or the statistically improbable number of wrong-to-right erasures on answer sheets. But there was no proof.

Sonny Perdue was Georgia’s governor at the time, and in August 2010 he ordered a blue-ribbon investigation. Hall resigned shortly before the release of the investigators’ report, which alleged that 178 teachers and principals cheated over nearly a decade — and that Hall either knew or should have known. Those findings laid the foundation for Friday’s grand jury indictment.

My Post colleague Valerie Strauss, a veteran education reporter and columnist, wrote Friday that while there have been “dozens” of alleged cheating episodes around the country, only Atlanta’s has been aggressively and thoroughly investigated. “We don’t really know” how extensive the problem is, Strauss wrote, but “what we do know is that these cheating scandals have been a result of test-obsessed school reform.”

In the District of Columbia, for example, there are unanswered questions about an anomalous pattern of wrong-to-right erasures on answer sheets during the reign of famed schools reformer Michelle Rhee, who starred in the documentary “Waiting for ‘Superman’ ” and graced the cover of Time magazine.

Our schools desperately need to be fixed. But creating a situation in which teachers are more likely than students to cheat cannot be the right path.

Standardized achievement tests are a vital tool, but treating test scores the way a corporation might treat sales targets is wrong. Students are not widgets. I totally reject the idea that students from underprivileged neighborhoods cannot learn. Of course they can. But how does it help these students to have their performance on a one-size-fits-all standardized test determine their teachers’ compensation and job security? The clear incentive is for the teacher to focus on test scores rather than actual teaching.

Not every school system will become so mired in an alleged pattern of wrongdoing that officials can be charged under a racketeering statute of the kind usually used to prosecute mobsters. But even absent cheating, the blind obsession with test scores implies that teachers are interchangeable implements of information transfer, rather than caring professionals who know their students as individuals. It reduces students to the leavings of a No. 2 pencil.

School reform cannot be something that ostensibly smart, ostentatiously tough “superstar” superintendents do to a school system and the people who depend on it. Reform has to be something that is done with a community of teachers, students and parents — with honesty and, yes, a bit of old-fashioned humility.

 

By: Eugene Robinson, Opinion Writer, The Washington Post, April 1, 2013

April 3, 2013 Posted by | Education Reform, Educators | , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

   

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