By now you’ve heard about the 11 educators in Atlanta who were convicted last week on racketeering charges. The schoolteachers, administrators, and testing coordinators allegedly changed the wrong answers on standardized tests to fraudulently raise student test scores.
To try to understand how such flagrant cheating could have occurred and how it can be avoided in the future, Blackenterprise.com spoke with Kevin Chavous, executive counsel with the American Federation for Children, a nonprofit that seeks to improve K-12 education by promoting school choice and public policy that empowers families. A former Washington, D.C., councilman, Chavous writes extensively about meeting the educational needs of low-income children.
BLACK ENTERPRISE: What is your opinion about why the teachers in Atlanta didn’t invest time in the children instead of investing time and energy on cheating?
Kevin Chavous: Generally, the renewed focus on accountability has brought out the best and the worst in the teaching profession. Our very best teachers view testing as an opportunity to gauge their effectiveness in the classroom. Testing helps them to see where their students are in their academic development. Evidence suggests that the Atlanta teachers and others like them are fearful of such direct accountability and find it easier to cut corners. Our most challenged populations, kids in underserved communities, need more classroom time in order to reach basic proficiency—something that the typical 9-3 school day model just doesn’t allow. Plus, some teachers are resistant to change the way they have been doing things for so many years without any meaningful peer reviews or consequences for their students not learning. Today, however, with a new laser focus on accountability, most teachers are under increasing pressure to make sure their kids are learning. Obviously, the Atlanta teachers could not handle that pressure and took the easy way out.
BE: Is cheating happening on a smaller scale in other districts?
Chavous: I believe that the type of cheating we have seen in Atlanta is rare, but from what I hear—and I’ve been traveling to schools across the country for the past 10 or 15 years—it is increasing all over. Keep in mind that while states and school districts are increasing accountability standards, professional development for most rank and file teachers is basically the same as it has always been. Thus, teachers are expected to do more and get more from their students without more support—a clear recipe for disaster.
BE: Why is it that the teachers couldn’t have problem-solved their way out of low test scores?
Chavous: Students need to spend more time on task. It is the only way that kids from challenged backgrounds and historically bad schools can catch up. They need more time, something that most local school districts and teacher’s union rules don’t allow. The most successful private and charter schools in underserved neighborhoods work well because their respective school days may go until 5 pm; they may offer Saturday academies and sometimes year-round classes. In some school districts that are handicapped by time constraints, innovative principals and teachers find creative ways to give their kids more time on task by combining class periods, reducing free periods, starting earlier in the day, and utilizing other methods of squeezing more out of the school day.
BE: Is cheating a bigger problem than we think?
Chavous: The vast majority of teachers abhor this kind and all other forms of cheating, but let’s face it, the opportunity exists for it to occur. Better self-policing and quality control standards would help immensely. Organized cheating on standardized tests will be a growing problem until local school districts commit to more professional development for teachers and longer school days for students.
BE: After No Child Left Behind was signed into law by President George W. Bush, entire states lowered their standards to “raise” student test scores.
Chavous: States lowered their standards while other countries were raising theirs. This is all part of the dumbing down of American education. We have allowed mediocrity to rule—states are getting waivers for not holding our children to higher standards.
BE: What is the solution?
Chavous: The real solution lies in professionalizing our teaching core as was recommended 30 years ago in the report A Nation at Risk. By “professionalizing” I mean requiring teachers to maintain their certification by taking certain professional development coursework every few years, the way accountants, doctors, or lawyers do. If we did that, we could pay teachers more in exchange for their instituting their own brand of self-policing and upgraded professional development. Professionalizing teachers would allow them to establish peer review panels to evaluate teachers, as with lawyers and doctors, fire the bad ones more easily, and reward more fully those who stand out. All of this would curtail cheating in a big way.