The nation has been rocked by yet another cheating scandal. Former Atlanta superintendent of schools Beverly Hall, along with 35 teachers, principals and others, were recently indicted for racketeering. The indictment alleges that these teachers, principals and test administrators, either under Hall’s explicit direction, or thanks to a climate that endorsed such behavior, altered the results of hundreds, if not thousands of standardized tests given to Atlanta’s public school children.
Particularly troubling is the profession of the accused. When cheating scandals appear in the world of sports we barely blink, almost expecting such behavior from our athletes. The fact that Barry Bonds or Lance Armstrong broke the rules in order to excel surprised few. After all, we reason, these are ‘just jocks’, who are rarely held to high moral standards. The line goes, “Just win, baby”; in our culture victory trumps virtue. But teachers? Principals? School superintendents? Educators?
What hope do we have for our students if their teachers are cheaters? What could possibly be more hypocritical than a teacher who constantly stresses the virtues of truth telling and the merit of just rewards, but then changes the scores of the students’ tests hoping to reap unjust rewards? We stand aghast at the incredibly poor judgment allegedly displayed by Hall and her fellow defendants. In short, “What were they thinking?”
Obviously there are lessons here to be learned. We will have ample time to learn those lessons, which might include the lure of temptation and the simple truth of human frailty. However, being one who is not without sin, I do not want to throw that stone just yet.
Perhaps, there is another stone to be considered. Before we ‘hang’ the Atlanta 36 we should ask what it is that would lead people of seemingly strong character to make such gross errors of moral judgment. While we cannot condone cheating or lying, we have to try and understand its cause and expose possible factors which might have influenced the negative behavior. If such factors do exist, they do not necessarily absolve the accused but rather force all who contributed to those factors to share the burden of blame as well.
Virtue should not be the casualty of victory, but survival strains its limits. Bruce Dixon, managing editor of Black Agenda Report writes (http://bit.ly/XdAmHF):
Since scores on standardized tests, of course, track to income levels, and in the US, where residential segregation along racial and economic lines is the rule, majority black and Latino schools consistently get the lowest scores, are most often labeled as “failing” and the most frequently closed and replaced by favored charter operations. In this climate of fear cheating has become a national epidemic, with reports of industrial scale test manipulation in Los Angeles, Houston, Washington DC and elsewhere.
The thrust of Dixon’s article is not to exonerate Hall. He is severely critical of her behavior. Rather, he wants to make sure that the required introspection takes place not only in Georgia, but in Washington as well. Has our rush to standards and the resulting assessments of students, teachers, schools and administrators, created an atmosphere in which good educators are left fighting for their lives? Do too many feel that a system has been created in which the deck is stacked against them in ways that only ‘cheating back’ will give them a fair shot in the game?
These are hard questions that must be asked and must be answered. As a community of educators we must realize that if one of ours falls we all become somewhat diminished. Our willingness to correct our personal flaws, and those of the systems we create, is in itself a virtue of immense value and a lesson worth teaching our students.