—A physician who murders. —A policeman who commits a crime. These are especially heinous because we expect doctors to save lives and police to prevent crime.
So when 35 educators in Atlanta, including their district superintendent, are charged with criminal conspiracy in cheating, this is particularly egregious. We expect educators to be models of honesty for our students. Their role is to nurture the best of behavior in students. The alleged massive cheating by teachers in schools in Atlanta and Long Island, New York, and other districts across the United States deserves the condemnation and loathing it is receiving.
There are no excuses. But there are reasons. This dramatic upturn in cheating coincided with the No Child Left Behind high stakes testing. And there are other parties who are culpable.
Consider a hypothetical hospital with competent doctors and nurses and a normal range of patients. However, the governing board decides to interfere with their professional responsibilities and demands that all patients will survive. "Outcome-based" criteria narrow to one test: "happiness" as the patients leave the hospital. Failure to "be accountable" will mean de-funding the hospital and firing the physicians and nurses. The staff knows the critical value of their hospital to the community. They must work to preserve it. They try to preserve the range of care and medication and surgeries they conduct. But dosing patients with Valium to score high on "happiness" when they leave becomes Job One.
For public schools across America, this is not hypothetical. Last month’s statewide testing has caused schoolteachers to distort their whole year’s curriculum. School administrators contrive every possible mechanism for extorting student cooperation to raise scores. Harsh testing regimes have been put in place to ensure that teachers do not hover over a student or frown at a wrong answer or raise eyebrows as a clue. Letters sent to parents threaten ostracism of their child if the parents do not sign and return a promise to coerce their student to make maximum effort on the test.
Some affluent school districts have privileged students and can meet test standards without prostituting their curriculum.
Other rural school principals tell their teachers to teach as professionals and let the test scores fall where they may (but at the principal’s and school’s own risk).
But high-stakes testing corrupts our educational system. Kansas has not made headline news about teachers gathering in locked classrooms at night to change test scores. But an atmosphere of academic tyranny sets the tone in many Kansas schools with large numbers of disadvantaged students—schools still branded as "failing schools."
So how is a teacher—who wants to preserve some small fragment of academic integrity, who wants to teach the whole child about more than test-taking, who wants to remain a professional—able to survive in this "Fourth Reich"?
The heroes are the teachers in Seattle, Washington. These freedom fighters confronted the pressure to raise scores on high stakes tests as professionals. They refused to administer a test they know is wrong. Despite threats, they formed "The Resistance."
If teachers who change test scores are the villains, then these teachers are the heroes.
For those who quietly "go along" with the destructive high stakes testing, there may never be a "Nuremberg Trial."
But remember. "I was just following orders from above"—will be no excuse.