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Accountability Opinion

More Cheating To Come ... & Lessons Reformers Can Take from Atlanta

By Rick Hess — August 18, 2011 4 min read
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Bulletin: a large urban school district is dealing with a brewing cheating scandal. This time, it’s the School District of Philadelphia (the nation’s 10th largest district). Again, the situation has been marked by foot-dragging and half-hearted revelations. After being directed by the state to examine 28 schools for possible cheating on the 2009 Pennsylvania state exam, Philly officials now find that 13 schools “bear further investigation” due to suspicious jumps and dubious erasure patterns. This new scandal in Philly comes in the wake of last month’s revelations, after a year-long investigation, of widespread cheating by 178 teachers and principals in 44 schools in the Atlanta Public School district.

I am and have long been an unapologetic booster of achievement-based accountability, including back in the pre-NCLB days before it was cool. For me, the question is not whether to embrace incentives and accountability but how to do it. And, as with much else, I think would-be reformers have been irresponsible, reflexive, and remarkably negligent on this score. I find it astonishing that all these people who have waxed enthusiastic about incentives and test-based accountability have seemingly overlooked the likelihood that educators will respond to these pressures in undesirable ways. Their protestations of “that’s not what we meant” and their moral outrage would be quaint if it didn’t suggest a massive blindspot regarding human nature and how incentives actually work.

Those hoping to brush off the aftershocks of the Philly or Atlanta cheating scandals as an anomaly are, at best, I think, naïve. The whole point of incentives and accountability is that people will do what they are pressed to do. When pressed to raise test scores, many will do so by the most efficacious route available. When tests are left in teachers’ possession, monitoring of assessments is lax, teachers are asked to raise performance to meet ambitious or unrealistic goals, or the consequences for poor performance are severe, anyone who takes the premise of incentives and accountability seriously would expect to see nontrivial amounts of chicanery.

And for anybody who lived in the U.S. during the past decade, witnessing the manipulation of corporate data at Enron, WorldCom, or Tyco, or baseball’s steroids era, or the bizarre machinations around collateralized debt instruments, the only real question is the extent of the cheating. As for me, I’m willing to wager that close scrutiny is going to show it to be much broader and deeper than anyone has yet been willing to contemplate.

Anyway, presuming there’s much more of this to come, there are a few key lessons to take from the Atlanta experience. The tough truth is that Atlanta’s civic leaders, reform advocates, and business community erred in allowing themselves to wind up working for, rather than with, the school district leadership.

As my colleague Whitney Downs and I have noted, too often, would-be reformers fall into this trap. But being an effective partner doesn’t mean carrying the district’s water. It means asking tough questions and maintaining a practiced, healthy skepticism.

In Atlanta, the business community in particular was a little too eager to do Superintendent Beverly Hall’s bidding. Impressed by her corporate background and jargon-laden paeans to “data-driven decision-making,” execs lined up to pledge their support. They backed Hall when some criticized her lavish bonus in 2006, and again when articles in local newspapers raised questions about the sudden, sharp test gains. Ultimately, some of those caught in the investigation blamed the district leadership, namely Beverly Hall, who was the 2009 National Superintendent of the Year, for creating a “culture of fear, intimidation and retaliation,” which led them to cheat or manipulate test scores.

One key lesson from Atlanta is that civic leaders and the business community threw their influence behind Superintendent Hall because, as one local paper reported, she was “fluent in the language of corporate America.” In doing so, they compromised their effectiveness and sacrificed their ability to constructively challenge the school system.

A second lesson that Atlanta highlights is the problem with presuming that school systems are being scrupulous with their data or open about their processes and problems. Especially in a high-stakes era, there’s reason to expect that some educators will lie, cheat, or manipulate--just as we’ve seen in fields like baseball, mortgage lending, and corporate management--when the stakes are high and the opportunities are readily available. Local leaders supporting local school systems would be wise to follow President Reagan’s famous Cold War era advice to “trust, but verify.” For too many years, communities have accepted test results at face value. It’s crucial to ensure that the test mechanisms are reliable, secure, and trustworthy, especially as educational leaders have strong incentives to look the other way so long as the news is good.

Finally, Atlanta reminds us that too many would-be reformers treat school improvement as a hobby, relying on homilies, good intentions, and trust--ironically, even while calling for incentives and accountability systems that may push many to cheat or to cut corners. Equipped with expertise and a dab of skepticism, civic and business leaders can minimize the chance they’ll be sold a false bill of goods by educational leaders--even by those who know exactly the words they all want to hear.

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.