The 5 Causes of Test Cheating Scandals: From Atlanta to Washington D.C

This week, Lawyers for former Atlanta schools superintendent Beverly Hall proclaimed her innocence of charges leveled against her by the Fulton County District Attorney. This proclamation came after details of test cheating scandals in Atlanta, Georgia and accusations of teaching scandals by former schools chancellor of Washington DC, Michelle Rhee in recent weeks.

In the Atlanta case, Beverly Hall and other accused employees are being charged under a statute resembling the RICO Act (Racketeering Influences and Corrupt Organizations), typically used to bring down mobsters, drug dealers, and businesses like Enron. In recent news articles, the actions of the accused educators has been peddled to the public as an elaborate criminal enterprise, replete with a no nonsense criminal mastermind boss, underlings who served as her enforcers, and salacious tales of a quest for national recognition, fame and political power.

Interestingly, the Atlanta case has been presented in isolation from the other cheating scandals that have recently surfaced, including the one in Washington DC. I argue that the same letter of the law be applied to other school districts across the country, but also to the institutions in the United States that either create or support the contexts that create mass cheating. Crimes like extortion, bribery and racketeering occur everyday in urban school districts when communities are robbed of school buildings in the interest of private corporations (as is present in New York, Chicago, and New Orleans). It occurs when urban school districts are bribed by corporate organizations to employ underprepared teachers in urban schools. This type of cheating is disguised, but is simply socially and politically sanctioned racketeering.

As both Beverly Hall and Michelle Rhee claim their innocence, it is important that we do not get too caught up in the minutiae of each case. Their salacious details distract the public from far more egregious violations of ethics that run rampant within the school systems across the country. The reality is, that many urban school districts and their "leaders" are touted as model examples merely because of government sanctioned cheating, manipulation of numbers, and inconclusive data that is used to support largely ineffective initiatives. Of these, the "miracles" in Washington D.C by Michelle Rhee during her tenure are problematic given her rise to national visibility based almost solely on increasing test scores in schools that now appear to have cheated on exams.

Testing scandals will continue to persist if the structure of the present school system doesn't change. Here are the 5 main problems that help nurture this culture of cheaters.

1. The Misuse of the "Business Model" in Education.

The basic premise that guides the effectiveness of a business is its ability to turn a profit. This requires ensuring the productivity of the workforce, keeping expenses low, and ensuring that the product the business generates will provide a high return on investment. Because this model works quite well for businesses, many believe that the model can be expanded to include what happens in classrooms. While this model does apply to certain aspects of schools, such as ordering materials or providing services not directly related to learning, it also leads to creation of classrooms where students are seen as products, whose single value is determined by whether or not they can pass a test. When used in education, this business model approach condones school cheating and ignores the fact that measuring success is much more complex. It creates a tension filled environment that promotes a "pass the test by any means" mentality, which will of course, lead to cheating.

2. The Loss of True Innovation.

In the current race to make education measurable on a set of single assessments, and the consequent effort for every school to "make it to the top" as quickly as possible, the opportunity for educators to develop innovative practices that can truly impact education are lost. When everyone is scrambling to increase test scores and teachers are being given strict scripts to follow in order to be on the path towards "progress", students are drilled on test questions daily and there is no opportunity for educators to be creative. This creation of non-innovative spaces makes students and teachers overwhelmed, causes students to underperform, and creates a context that supports cheating.

3. Hero Worship Syndrome.

In urban education, the history of achievement gaps, low graduation rates and ineffective teachers has been spun to create a persistent narrative about the dysfunction in schools. This has created everything from news specials to movies about the sad state of schools, and opened up the space for superintendents and school principals across the country to gain fame and fortune for "transforming" schools. In the current era, as long as a person can manipulate numbers and speak loud enough, they become an "education superhero". In a nation that focuses less on creative approaches to improving schools, and more on celebrities and hero worship, people who lack the care, tact, desire or passion, can fabricate or skew numbers all the way to the cover of a magazine. The celebrity culture of education creates a context that encourages cheating and then rewards them for it.

4. Low Teacher Wages

In a system that operates on a model that pushes to monetize success on exams (either directly through exam raises or by keeping teacher salaries low in challenging urban districts), which thrives on degrading teachers and their profession, and consistently cuts financial support for educators, making ends meet and job security are in many cases, tied solely to a single exam. When passing a test is tied to maintaining a teacher's livelihood, a context is created that allows cheating to thrive.

5. Fear of the World Beyond the Classroom.

As long as the power wielders in the field of education continue to ignore the fact that youth come from different socioeconomic backgrounds, cultures, relationships with institutions, and equipped with different means of communication, the non-creative, stifling, and rigid assessments will continue. People who feel like they have no options will continue to cheat. We should not continue to ignore the fact that different types of assessments can measure the same knowledge in multiple ways.

Finally, I am not saying that educators and school officials who cheat on tests or conspire to cover up cheating should not be reprimanded. I am arguing that much of what the public and media is focusing on does little to address the underlying causes of these pervasive scandals. To change education for the better, we are much better served looking at the causes and implications of cheating (including its effects on children and teacher recruitment) than reading about the sensational details of cheating scandals. This only distracts us from the larger problems we have to face.