Monday, November 28, 2011

Actions Speak Loudest (From the Cleveland Post July 14, 2011)

Have you heard about the cheating scandal in the Atlanta Public Schools?

It wasn't the students. In 44 schools, going back as many as 10 years, principals and teachers have changed answers on high stakes standardized tests to improve their schools' performance numbers. Of 178 principals and teachers identified as having participated in 2009, 82 have confessed.

The report was released July 5 and is available through the Atlanta Journal-Constitution at Outrageous only begins to describe it.

The report opens with the obvious, "Thousands of school children were harmed..." The discussion of the harm seems to have been limited to those quantifiable pedagogical and regulatory items: deprived of access to additional help for academic weaknesses that likely would have been revealed by untainted results; deprived of effective teaching because it wasn't necessary to achieve the necessary scores; the cumulative damage of experiencing these deprivations over successive years.

Those things point to the curriculum and what the children didn't learn. But to my mind, the greater damage comes from what they did learn.

School is the first official place embryonic citizens are sent to learn about our society. Through the instruction of the teachers and the management of the principal, they are supposed to learn the things they need to succeed in life.

The best traditions of our civilization have determined that these start with reading, writing, arithmetic, and science. These are the tools of thinking, problem solving, exploration, and discovery. They are activated by personal curiosity and motivation, and lead to the kind of competence, confidence, self-reliance and ingenuity that set the United States apart early on. Education is something the student participates in and contributes to, not something that is done to him.

Competent, confident, self-reliant people can find jobs and feed their families. At the bare minimum, they're good for the economy.

Maybe the teachers and principals in Atlanta believe this in theory, or did believe it at one time. It is possible they never believed it, never bought into it because they never had anyone model it for them. And there is evidence that they had to choose between cheat or get fired.

However they came to participate in this betrayal, they have taught their students something quite different. Worse, they have gone a long way towards keeping them from every learning it.

I can imagine the thoughts of a perceptive Atlanta elementary student, particularly given the contemporary emphasis on self-esteem: "My teachers and principal lied to me. They told me I was smart and could do the work. They told me to be honest. They told me they loved me. But behind my back they changed my test answers. They don't think I'm smart. They don't believe I can do the work. And they're teachers, so they must be right."

I imagine that the thoughts of even the most well-behaved middle school students would require some editing for a family newspaper. Their cynical suspicions have been confirmed: "They say success is about education but its not. Its all about money and not what you know but who you know, and whose butt you kiss. Its all a crock."

If I believed that, I'd want to tax the daylights out of rich people, too.

Why does this story matter to us, to anybody outside of Atlanta? There are actually a number of wonky public policy and statistical reasons, including the fact that school systems compare themselves to each other to get a better handle on performance or efficacy of various teaching methods.

And there's the fact that there are discussions in our state about tying teacher pay to performance. Here is evidence that such a relationship creates an incentive to cheat.

But ultimately, I think this mess serves as a cautionary reminder of the role school plays in our society. Schools convey the values of the communities that establish them and the people who run them. Children hear the actions of those adults far more clearly than they do their words. The older they get, the better they get at detecting the discrepancies, and the less tolerant of them they become.

It makes me wonder: if today's students detect lots of discrepancies, how supportive of the public school system will they be when it comes time to educate their children?

And could it be that those uninvolved parents educators worry about so much just learned the wrong lesson when they were in school?

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