If a student cheats on a test, he or she gets a zero and perhaps a suspension. If a teacher cheats, he or she goes to jail. That punishment should be enough to discourage any teacher from cheating. The real possibility of prison should be enough for any teacher to call the authorities if an administrator pressures her to cheat. But we all know that the current ‘real world’ system requires teachers either to follow orders or to face charges of insubordination and subsequent loss of employment. Given the way hierarchies of school administration work, the Atlanta cheating story may be more complex and more worrisome than it appears at first reading.
First, let’s remember that the vast majority of teachers are good people. They dedicate themselves to children. They teach children right from wrong. So what would make a group of Atlanta teachers agree to sit in a room together, erase wrong answers, and put in right ones? Were they doing it so their students would appear smarter? Were they doing it for the money? Or is it possible they were doing it because they felt it was a direct or indirect order from their administrators? I lean toward the latter reason. And I know for sure that until we empower teachers to say NO, we are vulnerable to more instances of cheating and possibly other scandals.
How much longer do we need to tell politicians, policymakers, and so-called reformers that the high stakes they advocate for standardized tests are poisoning the system? The unintended consequences of our testing mania are more hurtful to our students than helpful. Paying administrators and teachers for high test scores is demeaning to the teaching profession, at best, and immoral, at worst. Evaluating teachers and administrators on their students’ test scores rather than on their instructional practice motivates bad behavior. Because the student tests weren’t designed or intended for teacher evaluation, they are also invalid for that purpose. Ultimately, these high stakes could destroy the teaching profession and possibly our public schools.
If there were ever a time for Georgia teachers to have a strong union, collective bargaining, and the strongest whistleblower policies, it is now. The teachers who participated in the cheating scandal had, for whatever reason, lost their personal moral compasses and needed guidance to get back on the path of ethical and professional behavior. They didn’t have that guidance. A union and a strong contract provide balance in every school system but are especially critical when teachers feel pressured to stray from ethical guidelines. Administrators could not have gotten away with this pressure on teachers if teachers had felt they had power. There are documented instances of Atlanta teachers providing a warning about the cheating, but weak voices are ignored by the powerful. It is frightening to stand alone; it is empowering to stand together and speak with a collective voice.
I look forward to seeing NEA and AFT step forward with strong policies and direct action to assure that we never experience this type of scandal again. Together, the members of the two unions are strong enough to say NO to bad public policies and to do whatever it takes to stop the high-stakes testing madness. Together, they are strong enough to assure the most protective whistleblower language in contracts and school board policies. Together, they can create a hotline for any teacher or school employee to report instances of threats or pressure to cheat, and together they can provide teachers the best legal services to protect their jobs when the teachers say no to administrators who are pushing for better test scores by changing answers.
Let’s remember the old ditty we learned in elementary school: Cheaters never win and winners never cheat. It is time to focus on making our children and teachers winners in this system of public education and stop the practices that create losers.
The opinions expressed in John Wilson Unleashed 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.