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Stunned?

July 7, 2011

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan is reportedly “stunned” by stories confirming cheating on test scores in Atlanta Public Schools.  Why is he stunned that school district cultures are heading in this direction?  Is he unaware of the laws that mandate closing of schools that are consistently low-performing on state tests?  When asked in the interview linked above, Duncan says he thinks such cheating is actually “very isolated” and he blames a systemic problem.  Does he not follow the news in education?

I guess our Secretary of Education missed that story about erase marks in DC Public Schools that came out in May or this one in June that mentioned examples of suspected cheating  across the country.  Meanwhile, educators and parents from districts across the country have long been expressing concerns about the emphasis on standardized tests and its flawed use as an accountability measure.  Among the related concerns, people who have been paying attention cite diluted curriculum, drain on school budgets, closures of  neighborhood schools, increase in charter schools, higher levels of educational inequity in impoverished areas, and scapegoating of teachers and corresponding weakening of teachers unions.

I recommend a look at Paul Tough’s New York Times story, in which he discusses the excuses used to defend the emphasis on the test rather than addressing some of the underlying challenges to achievement which are being conveniently swept under the rug in the rhetoric of so-called “reformers”.

Ten years later, you might think that reformers would be feeling triumphant. Spurred in part by the Obama administration’s Race to the Top initiative, many states have passed laws reformers have long advocated: allowing for more charter schools, weakening teachers’ tenure protections, compensating teachers in part based on their students’ performance. But in fact, the mood in the reform camp seems increasingly anxious and defensive.

Tough’s story mentions the Secretary of Education’s huffy response to Diane Ravitch’s inquiries about the reality of “miracle schools“, which we have discussed here, acknowledging that factors of poverty in achievement should be more thoughtfully addressed if we really want to improve student achievement.

It’s time for Duncan to examine the real systemic problem and acknowledge that we have not made significant gains for our children over the past decade through our lopsided insistence on accountability through testing. Our Secretary of Education may be stunned and surprised that there was cheating in Atlanta but many educators find this a predictable outcome to very problematic policy.

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12 Comments leave one →
  1. July 7, 2011 9:29 am

    As testing continues to be our (misguided) central focus to education reform, and schools with the highest API scores are starting to be caught by the Program Improvement net, we will continue to generate desperation. What is truly stunning is that there are those who still do not see the tremendous toll poverty and lack of opportunity place on our children. An awakening is long-past due . . . how long will it take?

    • mariasallee permalink*
      July 7, 2011 9:33 am

      How long will it take? That is the $$$$ question. Pearson, McGraw Hill, are you listening?

  2. July 7, 2011 9:36 am

    I’m really tired of the shock and dismay that the educrats experience when their business-oriented solutions fail. Worst of all is their assumption that the solutions fail because those sneaky educators won’t get with the program and go corporate!

    When have pay-for-performance and punitive measures ever led to corporate success? How many profitable companies have profited under ongoing austerity regimes? Yet somehow, it’s supposed to work in schools.

    Sometimes it’s hard to assume best intentions – that the Secretary is a bumbling but ultimately well-meaning person. It all feels a little calculated somedays!

  3. July 7, 2011 9:39 am

    There’s a nice related op-ed from a paper in Mass below:

    http://www.telegram.com/article/20110706/NEWS/107069888/1020#

  4. akismet-457375c2686d2ce6aa9740f00ee2f8f4 permalink
    July 7, 2011 10:24 am

    Arne Duncan would be surprised if you told him water was wet. I’m sure he’s “surprised” at the NEA complaints about his incompetence. I’m sure he’s”surprised” at the many defenses of Diane Ravitch against his inane comments about her. The man has as much business being US Sec. of Education as I have of being the US envoy to China.

  5. July 7, 2011 12:21 pm

    I’m “stunned” that Secretary Duncan is either unaware of or chooses to disregard Campbell’s Law:

    “The more any quantitative social 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.”

    I can understand how his academic training and his Superintendency could have omitted it, but since becoming Secretary of Education, such authorities as the National Academy of Sciences and other scholars have tried to communicate the matter to him in some detail.

    The corruption is not limited to changing answers. There are many more subtle ways to cheat, and these are endemic.

  6. mariasallee permalink*
    July 7, 2011 3:37 pm

    Thanks to all for the comments. Like E. Rat I have to wonder how Duncan can *really* be that surprised, given that we aren’t…

  7. Mike Reno permalink
    July 8, 2011 12:56 am

    So those who participate in the cheating are not unprofessional cheaters, but are instead victims?

  8. CarolineSF permalink
    July 8, 2011 1:20 am

    Well, Mike Reno, those who participate in the cheating are given extreme motivation to cheat by the dire consequences of not raising test scores. Calling them “victims” is complicated.

    A hypothetical: If you were told that you and your family would be executed if you didn’t raise your students’ test scores — and it was apparent to you that there were so many factors beyond your control that you had no guaranteed way to legitimately raise your students’ test scores, and that there were ways to cheat — would you cheat? Of course you would. Now start dropping the stakes notch by notch. At some point, there’s a level of stakes that would no longer give you extreme motivation to cheat — but going back up, at some point, there’s a level that would. And that’s the point that those who blame the harsh practices of NCLB are making.

    • mariasallee permalink*
      July 8, 2011 7:06 am

      I’m not sure how you interpret what I wrote here into a teacher-as-victim narrative, Mike Reno. But to reply to both you and Caroline SF, there are many people working in schools across the country who have found themselves faced with conflicts between retaining personal/professional integrity or their jobs. I am not condoning cheating, nor would I participate in it, but have found myself between a rock and a hard place. On the low end of the spectrum, teachers are being asked to do things that they do not consider best practice, whereas on the other end we see instances of cheating or gaming the system. At the same time, teachers’ unions and voices are being actively squelched. Oh yes, and there’s a recession so there aren’t a lot of jobs readily available. So what choice does a person make? Speak up and risk unemployment or do what the boss says? This type of dilemma is occurring more frequently, in large part because leaders (and some teachers) have lost sight of the deeper purposes of learning and instead focus primarily on kids as numbers that, yes, can make or break a school’s future.

  9. July 8, 2011 7:20 am

    Why is he stunned? Isn’t he one of the top dogs that approved the consequences if a school “fails”? I in no way condone cheating, but how many times have students, (or an adult), paid someone else to take a test for them or write a paper? How many times has a kid stolen a sideways glance at another kid’s paper?Well, I guess these schools chose the same path, in order to get the results they wanted, they cheated!

  10. July 8, 2011 7:50 am

    “Covert Educational Disobedience” in the broader tradition of “Civil Disobedience” is a more apt way of characterizing the situation than “cheating.” That the tests are “secret” is counter-cheating by the testing industry. That the tests involve marking bubbles where “foils” are deliberately constructed to seduce the naive students is cruel and inhumane, if not immoral. To restrict the tests to “Reading” and “Math”–as defined by the tests is not in the best interests of anyone other than interests that are profiting financially from the practice.

    If the “scandal” focuses only on the “cheaters” we will lose an important opportunity for true educational reform and go deeper into the hole of wishful reform.

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