The New Yorker Nails the Real Lesson of the Atlanta Testing Scandal

Rachel Aviv's excellent The New Yorker article, "Wrong Answer," hits the proper balance. Aviv rightfully focuses on the conspiracies and the outright cheating in the Atlanta Public Schools. She makes it clear, however, that the real lesson of the scandal is that test-driven accountability is the "Wrong Answer" to the question of how do we improve schools.

Aviv starts, and ends, with a teacher and a principal, who are both good people. They lost their moral bearings in an effort to help poor children of color during the time of No Child Left Behind. They committed what was, then, a mostly "victimless crime." They cheated on a relatively meaningless NCLB test at a time when the stakes for improving test scores were not nearly as high as they are today. Since the Obama administration put high-stakes testing on steroids, however, all educators are subject to test and punish and, nowadays, there are very few victimless tests.

As Aviv implies, outright cheating is just the tip of the iceberg. So, I will focus on the other abuses she recalls and disgusting behavior that dwarfs outright cheating in terms of polluting our educational environment.

Atlanta Superintendent Beverly Hall is the complex villain. Hall, like other "brass knuckle" reformers, apparently was sincere in wanting to help children. She drove the scandal with the typical mantra, "No exceptions and no excuses." She laughed when warning the new, idealistic, caring principal that "you will need your own team."

This and similar phrases, in Atlanta and elsewhere, is a de facto mandate to violate the rights of educators. Across the nation, such aphorisms are invitations to commit age discrimination, to stop the honest exchange of ideas and information, and to punish veteran teachers for refusing to compromise their morality and resisting teach-to-the-test malpractice.

The new principal was urged to "forge stronger relationships" with fellow principals; in other words, appropriate their techniques for jacking up test scores. In order to protect children from having their school closed, the principal conformed to the district culture and created an "us/them mentality" among the staff.

Some of the worst abuses perpetuated in Atlanta involved the shaming of adults. During the convocation ceremony, educators in schools that did not meet their performance targets were relegated to the bleachers. A teacher whose students had low test scores was forced to crawl under a desk.

As investigators subsequently concluded, a "culture of fear, intimidation, and retaliation has infested the district, allowing cheating -- at all levels -- to go unchecked for years." Regardless of the school system, such poison flows down onto children, reinforcing the message that one child expressed as "Y'all aren't good enough."

Aviv had time to only touch on one of the most destructive legacies of school reform, aligned and paced instruction enforced by under-the-gun administrators. The time it takes for a child to learn, and to learn how to love learning, is the time it takes to learn. But, across the nation, many or most urban teachers have to commit the instructional malpractice of teaching to a prescribed schedule.

Aviv also quotes Jennifer Jennings who describes other ways of "gaming the system." Starting but not ending in Texas, a "policy-feedback loop" has spread tricks for juking the stats, for exempting low-scoring students and for underreporting the dropout rates.

I would add that pushing low-performing students out of school and the misuse of "credit recovery" programs to fabricate graduation rates has done great harm to untold numbers of students.

I would also add that we ain't seen nothin yet. The stakes created by NCLB testing were trivial in comparison to the stakes created by reforms in the Obama administration. Now, teachers in Atlanta and other high-poverty districts can be fired with value-added models that are systematically biased against teachers in high-poverty schools. Teachers who value their peace of mind may have to transfer to schools where it is easier to meet those dubious test score growth targets.

The spokesperson for the Association of Georgia Educators explains that because of Obama's Race to the Top program, "the state is going down the same path as Atlanta." Teachers are demoralized and leaving the classroom, and "our teachers' best qualities -- their sense of humor, their love for the subject, their excitement, their interest in students being individuals -- are not being honored or valued, because those qualities aren't measurable."

And, that brings us back to the real importance of the Atlanta scandal, the insights it gives into the iceberg below the testing tip. Our children are being robbed of opportunities for real learning, and being socialized into the reward, punish, and silence work culture of the Atlanta schools and other systems dominated by fear and compliance.