(Guest post by Greg Forster)
Matt draws our attention to some of the broader issues raised by the APS scandal. Cheating is not just about cheating.
Here’s another one of those broader issues I think we should take note of. To call this “cheating” is really inadequate. This was a whole institutional culture in which cheating had become not just acceptable, but normal. This was way beyond teachers subtly indicating the correct answers (such as through tone of voice) or deliberately seating bad students next to good ones (so they could copy). Those things happened, but much more happened.
Teachers had “cheating parties” in which they sat around erasing and remarking student answer sheets. There was one guy whose job was to open test booklets, copy the contents, reseal them (using a lighter to melt the plastic back into place) and then distribute the contents to everybody. This was a huge, pervasive, known-to-everybody cheating system.
And cheating was not just normal but mandatory. Hark ye, my bretheren, unto the Atlanta Journal-Constitution:
For teachers, a culture of fear ensured the deception would continue.
“APS is run like the mob,” one teacher told investigators, saying she cheated because she feared retaliation if she didn’t.
Cheat – or else!
What’s going on here? This is not just the undifferentiated “corruption of human nature.” This is a very specific dynamic of institutional culture. This is a system whose organizational culture responded to NCLB by systematically embracing cheating at all levels, even to the extent of viewing non-cheaters (i.e. honest teachers) as threats to the integrity of the system.
We should think carefully about how that kind of thing happens. There is one hypothesis that sticks out to me as clearly plausible: This happened because the testing requirements of NCLB were percieved as evil, tyrannical and a threat to the integrity of education. Personnel at all levels actually viewed cheating as morally virtuous because it was necessary to protect an essential good (education) from being undermined by vicious oppressors with evil agendas. And given widespread teacher cynicism about the value of standardized tests as a metric of learning, in their perception nothing valuable was lost in the process.
This is about more than cheating. This is a wakeup call to our thinking about how reform works.
I have always been in favor of the aspect of NCLB that uses tests to create transparency. Remember, before NCLB you didn’t even have all states participating in NAEP. Anyone want to go back to that? No? Well, then, let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater.
However, it is now pretty clear that NCLB does not work as an accountability tool. Might the systemic, institutional extent of the cheating in APS help explain why? Teachers and administrators don’t percieve the tests as legitimate – they see them as inaccurate metrics being imposed by evil oppressors as tools of exploitation – and thus don’t respond to them in positive ways. (On net, that is. Bad responses cancel out good ones.)
Contrast that with the use of testing for accountability in two other contexts. Jeb Bush’s A+ accountabiliy testing system in Florida did produce positive results. Could that be because Florida had spent years at the bottom of the national listings for education and was sick of it, and had spent years trying to improve through the tried and true ideas of the unions and was sick of failing, and was thus more open to new directions? In the context of this openness, Jeb Bush’s leadership, and his partnership with the right stakeholders, framed the reforms in a way that caused them to be experienced as legitimate at the school level.
Even more impressive, consider the use of testing in innovative charter schools like KIPP. Remember that David Brooks column blasting Ravitch? Brooks identifies what he calls “a core tension,” namely: “Teaching is humane. Testing is mechanistic.”
However, in schools where the entire institutional culture has been reinvented from the ground up around personal relationships between teacher and student that are centered around leadership, mentorship and accountability, testing isn’t experienced as mechanistic at all. Where the students really see the teachers caring about them, and vice versa, standardized testing is accepted as a tool that empowers this relationship:
The schools that best represent the reform movement, like the KIPP academies or the Harlem Success schools, put tremendous emphasis on testing. But these schools are also the places where students are most likely to participate in chess and dance. They are the places where they are mostlikely to read Shakespeare and argue about philosophy and physics. In these places, tests are not the end. They are a lever to begin the process of change…
Ravitch thinks the solution is to get rid of the tests. But that way just leads to lethargy and perpetual mediocrity. The real answer is to keep the tests and the accountability but make sure every school has a clear sense of mission, an outstanding principal and an invigorating moral culture that hits you when you walk in the door.
I think this means it’s essential that the use of tests for accountability purposes must be implemented only in contexts of institutional culture where they will be experienced as legitimate – and the degree to which the tests are used must be controlled by the degree to which the institutional culture permits this experiential legitimacy.
In some cases (as with Jeb in Florida) that could be accomplished statewide. In others it can’t. Sometimes it will have to be districts, or a network of charter schools. In many contexts it won’t work at any level. It certainly won’t work nationally, since the institutional context of the federal role in education could never permit this kind of thing to develop in a way that would be seen as legitimate.
How, then, do we drive accountability? Choice and competition, obviously. And guess what? Once schools face the disruptive threat of choice, they will be more likely to start using tests for accountability voluntarily – because they want to survive and they’ll be ready to reconsider their options.
You know, it strikes me that this principle might have application to other issues besides accountability testing. In general, the higher you go up the ladder of power – from school to district, from district to state, and from state to national – the less likely you will really be implementing your reform, and the more likely you will just be playing power games, and be seen to be playing power games, and thus cause those below you on the ladder to respond by playing power games of their own. As in Atlanta.