The Devil's Due

The devil went down to Georgia; he was looking for a soul to steal.
He was in a bind 'cause he was way behind and he was willin' to make a deal.
-- Charlie Daniels, "The Devil Went Down to Georgia"

Three dozen administrators indicted for cheating. Million dollar bails. All because of the desperate desire to no longer fail (and to make a little money).

I have caught my students cheating many times. Tired of failing test after test, tired of not measuring up, some will cheat, copy-and-paste and glance furtively at their neighbor. I have ripped up papers to "make an example." But inwardly, I knew that the culprit cheated out of sheer desperation. So I couldn't help but sympathize a little with former Atlanta Public Schools superintendent Beverly Hall. The pressure to improve in the district where I work, a district under state receivership, is very real. But instead of focusing on the crimes in Atlanta, we have decided to focus on the test. We should really be focusing on the billionaires who left us this mess to clean up.

Let's review the immediate reaction. Randi Weingarten, head of the American Federation of Teachers, was as dependably combative as your least-favorite uncle at Thanksgiving. She furiously attacked our "test-crazed" education policies. Meanwhile, Bill Gates, the data-driven philanthropist, is doing a slow, awkward backpedal from his test-based incentives. He concludes his Washington Post piece with, "Let's be thoughtful about our approach so that one day we can say this was the moment we joined together to drive the long-term improvement our schools need."

You can say a lot of things about Bill Gates, but most people would not accuse him of being thoughtless. The current education reform movement in our urban areas is extremely thoughtful. It has been bandied about in our highest schools of education, lauded and lambasted in low-income areas, and fiercely contested by teachers' unions. So why did Beverly Hall make a deal with the devil?

People are cheating for the reason they always cheat -- to gain profit. And our educational system has become a money-making machine for private corporations and a playing ground for billionaire philanthropists. I'm not accusing Gates of any malicious intent, but his policies, backed by millions of dollars in grants to school districts with many strings attached, have effectively implemented a market-based approach to education. Learning has become commoditized because we have let the richest among us set the rules. Not surprisingly, they have replicated the same business-world conditions that created their own financial success.

Yet what so few policymakers seem to understand today is that education is not a commodity. It should not be bought nor sold. It should be a right, a democratic cornerstone of our civil society. Instead, we are selling it off like automobiles. The well-off purchase their luxury education at elite private schools and go on to the Ivies, while the poor take the bus to the unemployment line. And these conditions replicate, generation after generation, as we cut proven anti-poverty programs.

Education reformers have turned temples of learning into markets of competition, with each school grappling for the "best" idea. It seemed a noble experiment, one which I have embraced at times, simply to try something in chronically-underperforming schools.

But as we have seen in Atlanta, teachers in low-income districts don't succeed because of administrators. They succeed in spite of them. I didn't have a year when my students' standardized test scores didn't improve, but I also didn't have a principal for more than 10 months.

It's time to let teachers start driving our education policy and to stop allowing businessmen to privatize our future. As a society, we have stopped trusting teachers and decided to treat them as factory workers. Politicians have stripped them off power and destabilized the teaching profession in the process, all in the name of installing CEOs in charter schools without any teaching experience of their own.

Cheating occurs when we only care about the end result, not the example we are setting along the way. In her quest for numbers-based achievement, Beverly Hall forgot to be a leader, a shepherd for her teachers -- and a collaborator with them. We have to start measuring our success in the happiness of our children, not in the height of our data plots, if we are to avoid more misguided leadership and foolhardy fads. Not everything can be condensed into mere numbers; the life of a child is not quantifiable.

I hope for a broader lesson from Atlanta. The standardized test is not the real devil; measurements have their place. Rather, it's a market-based worldview that is pervasive, widely-accepted and deeply destructive to the integrity of our schools and their mission of public service.

It's a shame that Beverly Hall made a deal with the devil because she was "way behind." But it's a bigger shame that we're still playing by the devil's rules.