The verdict is in and the punishments have been meted out for the teachers and administrators at the heart of the Atlanta cheating scandal. The scandal rocked the education community with its depth and severity.
In all, 35 Atlanta educators (including the district’s superintendent, who died before the trial began) were charged under Georgia’s Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations law, a statute originally intended to prosecute mobsters and drug cartels. The educators were accused of erasing student answers on state exams, providing students with test answers during the test and a number of other nefarious actions. Evidence of cheating was found in 44 schools. Of the 11 educators who were convicted on April 1, eight have been sentenced to prison time, with harshest punishment — seven years in prison — reserved for three senior administrators. While appeals are in motion, the verdict is unequivocal.
I consider myself an educator and both my parents spent their professional lives doing this work, so my reaction might be more severe than most, but when this story broke I had a revulsive reaction that mixed feelings of shock, anger, sadness, frustration and embarrassment.
This cheating scandal was so wrong and disappointing on so many levels that it is difficult to even begin, but let’s start with the individuals and work our way up to the larger and more systemic concerns.
Clearly and without condition, the actions of those involved in the Atlanta cheating scandal are despicable. During the trial, they made arguments around things like the pressures they were under to improve test results (as well as the incentives they would receive for doing so) and the struggles their students faced.
No doubt, all of these pressures, incentives and student challenges were real. Ultimately, however, each of these individuals made a conscious decision to take part in this testing scam and this is an inexcusable professional affront. These individuals besmirch the reputation of the millions of professional educators in our country who make the future of our nation’s children their daily concern. Beyond just the criminal consequences to their actions, there will also be professional consequences — the education profession will reject these individuals like a virus, and it is extremely unlikely they will ever work in a school setting again.
But while the actions of these individuals are reprehensible and they deserve the punishments they are getting (at least in my opinion), we do not fully understand this situation unless we have the courage and honesty to go further and ask the systemic questions.
There is a sociological concept known as Campbell’s law which states, “The more any quantitative social indicator (or even some qualitative indicator) is used for social decision-making, the more subject it will be to corruption pressures and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it is intended to monitor.”
More directly, the more consequences you hitch to any measure, the more likely that measure is to become corrupted and less useful.
At a systemic level, the Atlanta cheating scandal is Campbell’s law in motion. Donald T. Campbell, the sociologist for whom this effect is named, spoke directly to its implications for student testing: “Achievement tests may well be valuable indicators of general school achievement under conditions of normal teaching aimed at general competence. But when test scores become the goal of the teaching process, they both lose their value as indicators of educational status and distort the educational process in undesirable ways.”
We are fooling ourselves if we believe, as a nation, that this incident is isolated to Atlanta. Again, while the actions of the individuals in this case are deplorable, we must also acknowledge that this is a case of reaping what we have sown.
The knee-jerk reaction is to punish the individuals involved and then work to create a more omniscient test monitoring system so that we can identify other instances of testing fraud and then punish those individuals as well.
But we must also ask the bigger and uncomfortable question — are not we, as a nation, at least in part culpable for building this system of tests and their related accountability measures, which has led us to this untenable outcome?
* A version of this piece ran in the Vail Daily on 4.22.15.