In 2013, twelve Atlanta teachers were convicted of “racketeering”. Their crime was a highly organized campaign to falsify their test scores, thus improving their school’s rating. They were given jail time and hefty financial penalties, in addition to having their mug shots in every major media outlet.
Racketeering conjures images of Al Capone, and the wild stories of 1920’s era bootlegging. These teachers should be so lucky. They won’t get a movie, no one will forever remember them in song and film. They will most likely be derelict ex-cons, remembered only be other educators as a cautionary tale.
At the time of the scandal, I had two thoughts. First, it was wild: All the intrigue of a spy novel mixed with all the mendacity of a regular school day. Second, I was overwhelmed with radical apathy. Yes, cheating is wrong, and the scheme these educators concocted was sophisticated and malicious. Even as someone with little regard for High Stakes Testing, I get the cardinal sin of misrepresenting kids’ achievement for one’s’ personal gain.
And yet, I couldn’t bring myself to give a hoot. Something seemed off, out of place, almost surreal. There was an obtuse outrage about the policies of No Child Left Behind driving this sort of action, but that seemed petty (plenty of teachers do crazy stuff to earn test scores, but they don’t erase answer sheets). Then there was the racial aspect, in which the white policy makers get reelected and the people of color who are actually helping kids are sent to prison. Valid? Yes.
But cheating is wrong. Cheaters are wrong. We can should look at the larger system, but this is wrong and must be punished. I couldn’t quite get there. I couldn’t shake the nagging voice in my head, but neither could I make out what it was saying. There was a wrong here that was greater than these Atlanta teachers, and I couldn’t put my finger on it.
This week: Eureka
ProPublica released a doozy that rivals the Atlanta tale, mitigating a lack of intrigue with an incredible bevy of “ARE YOU KIDDING ME?”. Here’s the skinny: To boost their state scores, public schools teamed up with “alternative” charter schools in order to dump their lowest achieving students. From the piece:
In Orlando, both traditional and alternative charter schools manipulate the accountability system. The charters exploit a loophole in state regulations: By coding hundreds of students who leave as withdrawing to enter adult education, such as GED classes, Sunshine claims virtually no dropouts. State rules don’t label withdrawals for that reason as dropping out. But ALS officials cannot say where Sunshine students actually went — or if they even took GED classes at all.
But a broad swath of the schools short-change their students, ProPublica’s analysis of federal data shows. Nationwide, nearly a third of the alternative-school population attends a school that spends at least $500 less per pupil than regular schools do in the same district. Forty percent of school districts with alternative schools provide counseling services only in regular schools. Charter alternative schools — both virtual and bricks-and-mortar — in Ohio, Georgia and Florida have been accused of collecting public money for students who weren’t in classes.
Yes, alternative charters work for some kids. But kids aren’t sent to Sunshine for their own welfare. They are exiled because their scores – or their family situation, or their immigration status, or their undiagnosed learning disability – may hurt the chances of the principal getting a performance bonus.
This is not an inherent flaw with charters or choice. Disciplinary schools have long and storied histories in US public schools, as do teachers complaining that only the kids “who want to learn” should attend.1
But those teachers will probably keep those kids, and will have to deal with an angry parent or administrator if they cross the line. And the teachers in Atlanta went to jail. The people who bullied children into enrolling in dropout factories will be rewarded for their end-of-year graduation rate, the people who wrote the policy can pat themselves on the back for improved proficiency rates, and the people behind the scenes will receive a cut of taxpayer money that really should go to tutoring.
Cheating is easy. Cheating is wrong. Don’t look at the other student’s test, don’t plagiarize, don’t write the answers on the inside of your water bottle label2. “Gaming a system in a way that hurts kids but maybe helps others and aren’t those kids failing anyway” is messy, and difficult. Like, you know, a child.
Pay attention, vote, remember that most people making decisions on schools know nothing about them. But, first and foremost, remember that the difference between racketeering and education reforms is a lucrative management fee, and the difference between a great school and one on the chopping block may rest on how many kids their are willing to dump in a strip mall.