It comes as no surprise. Legislators, who know little about education, and asked for the advice of only a few, created policy that is putting inordinate pressure on the system. Everyone is feeling it but those in the lowest performing systems are having difficulty breathing. Anything can happen. Under these conditions, weak links blow apart. This may be an unintended consequence, but maybe not. The testing being used to assess student progress and evaluate teachers and principals is pulling up the best of us and crushing others. Some it breaks.
According to Reuters, 35 former Atlanta public school educators were indicted and “face charges including racketeering and making false statements for allegedly conspiring to alter and improve standardized test scores to obtain cash bonuses, according to prosecutors.” What makes people cheat?
Courts will decide the guilt or innocence of Beverly Hall, the former Superintendent of the Atlanta Schools who surrendered to authorities. Hall was the 2009 National Superintendent of the Year, an honor bestowed by the American Association of School Superintendents. The award was given for the way she turned around student performance in the Atlanta schools. Two years ago she was an exemplar of excellence; today she is yet an exemplar of another kind. Today, though out on bail, she must be suffering. If found guilty, she will be added to the list of those who lose themselves in the mix of power, pressure and ego and who take others with them into the dark side of bad moral choice.
As educators we enter the profession, most of us, with excitement and passion about working in an environment that gives us the opportunity to engage young minds and teach them how to learn. We get to be with students who need us. Our jobs are difficult and worthwhile. Some of us choose to take on leadership roles in which we will have the opportunity to help shape the environment in which teachers teach and students learn. The few of us who step up to the superintendency, take on the responsibility of leading an entire system. No leader can lack integrity. Every time we act, we must ask ourselves, “Is this the right thing to do?” If the charges are true, the hypocrisy of accepting national recognition while leading others into illegal and unethical reporting illustrates the degree of the problem.
The Reuters article continues, “The American Federation of Teachers and the Georgia Federation of Teachers said on Tuesday in a joint statement on the Atlanta scandal, “We have to re-order our priorities and move our schools from a test-based culture to one that is deeply rooted in instruction and learning.” That may be the case but the more urgent statement needs to be “We have to re-order our priorities and move away from immoral choices and live and lead with deeply rooted values to do the right thing for children, for our entire organization.” We should stand back and reframe the questions we are asking. Let’s not seek excuses by hastily blaming the tests. Teachers and leaders made the decisions for which they are now being held accountable. Wasn’t that the goal of the policy in the first place? Now, it is not about the test results. It is about the actions of adults, the models they set for the Atlanta children and for all of us. Why do people cheat?
Psychologist Ben Michaelis reported in his Huffington Post Blog, " We are a society of cheaters. Of course we are. As a nation, we worship one thing even more than God and country. We revere winners.” That may be true and may very well be at the root of why Atlanta’s school system has been rocked by these allegations. We contend that fear is another reason for cheating. And, we know that there is fear aplenty in our schools now. The objective was an increase in student test scores. The data reported that it happened. Honors and rewards followed. They were winners. But, there are rules to the game...honesty, integrity, responsibility for public funds. It was a very short sighted win.
The website of the American Association of School Superintendents declares “Although no one has been convicted, the indictments alone are ruinous to the reputations of those involved and will raise questions regarding the legitimacy of the performance of other school systems that have experienced significant student achievement gains.” This is the sad truth. For among us are those leaders whose schools and students have made legitimate gains. We need those models to receive recognition in contrast to Atlanta. We need to have confidence that among us are truth tellers and successful change leaders.
Moral courage “can be defined as the quality of mind and spirit that enables one to face up to ethical challenges firmly and confidently, without flinching or retreating” (Kidder, p.72). There are times when it is difficult to stand on that higher ground. Often, it means standing apart from the many. It is a lonely place. It is the place where leaders need to be and we cannot let them be alone there.
Kidder, Rushworth M. (2006). Moral Courage. New York: Harper Collins.
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