As news that 11 educators from Atlanta Public Schools were convicted of racketeering charges made national headlines last week, cheers of “justice served” quickly rang out.
That is far from the truth of the matter.
Let me be clear, 11 employees of APS were found guilty of the terrible act of cheating, but they are not the ones who should be behind bars. Who should be there? The people who have stolen our children’s education since the early 2000s with a brand of high-stakes testing that breeds competition rather than collaboration and offers achievement gap mania rather than offering assistance to schools and students with the greatest needs. These thieves of public education are the bigger problem than 11 educators in Atlanta.
The cheating scandal out of Atlanta is not unique, but the prosecution of the case as a crime of racketeering is. In recent years, we’ve learned of approximately 40 states with cheating scandals—that’s right, four-zero. The Atlanta case simply rose to prominence because of the style of criminal prosecution of the educators and administrators. Cheating on standardized test is a problem that is far bigger than Atlanta or Georgia. Simply put, we have a national problem, but the national problem is not cheating—it’s high stakes testing.
Since the introduction of the No Child Left Behind Act in 2001, states, districts and local schools have been working overtime to make “adequate yearly progress” in order to “close the achievement gap” while “being held accountable.” The aforementioned catch phrases are just that, phrases. They hold little meaning when it comes to creating change in educational opportunity. Instead they are at the center of driving policies that ignore the voices of educators and treat schooling like a business that should succeed or be shuttered. When NCLB was introduced by President George W. Bush, there was widespread concern that it asked too much of schools and teachers and gave too little from federal coffers. Sadly, 14 years later, high-stakes testing has not been repealed; instead it’s been strengthened by the Obama administration’s inaction around uprooting high-stakes testing and increasing threats of school closures. Systematic cheating on standardized tests hasn’t emerged because educators decided to not practice what they preach to children, it has emerged because the consequences of failure are sharper than the rewards of success.
When NCLB was introduced, its goal was to close the achievement gap between races and economic classes by 2014. That’s right, NCLB was supposed to produce equality by last year. Recent data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) found that in 2012 there was a 23 point gap between the average 13 year old Black and White students’ test scores. This is only a six point drop from the era before No Child Left Behind 1999. A similar tale of small decreases in the Black-White test score gap over the past 13 years of No Child Left Behind exists in mathematics at all age levels tested. Despite admonishments of teachers and schools as failing and celebration of select schools, we have made very little progress on closing the gap and NCLB has done little to help and possibly a great deal to harm.
The gap that remains will not be closed with more pressure on educators and fewer resources. The gap in educational experiences will not be compensated for with better test takers. Closing more schools and blaming teachers will not eliminate the educational inequality that our children live with. None of these things can stop the gap; the only thing that can stop our current educational climate is a radical change in how we approach education and assessment of education.
The high-stakes testing regime has managed to find significant support on both sides of the political aisle while doing little for the children in the most need. Teachers are invaluable and teaching children is hard work, but our current policies do little to support teachers. No Child Left Behind and its policy offspring (the Common Core Standards, Race to the Top, and value added measurements of teachers) continue to drive the direction our nation’s schools. These top-down policies are bigger on competition than assistance, which in turn makes educating children from all backgrounds a monumental task, rather than simply hard work.
The majority of progress on reducing the Black-White test score gap in recent history didn’t come from obsession over test scores and school closures, it came from progressive policies that narrowed the socioeconomic gap between Black and White families and careful attention to raising the scores of the schools and students who performed the worst. As citizens, we’ve been the ones have been cheated by politicians who have gotten tougher on teachers and students, but given fewer investments to resource deprived communities and schools who need more. It’s easy to point a finger of blame at wrong-doers in Atlanta, but for many, it’s harder to hold accountable those in Washington who set the policies that become breeding grounds for dishonesty.
High-stakes testing advocates are the true opportunity thieves and they remain at large and in charge of an education. My only question now is, “Where are their handcuffs?”
Dr. R. L'Heureux Lewis-McCoy is an Associate Professor of Sociology and Black Studies in the Colin Powell School of Civic and Global Leadership at the City College of New York. He is the author of Inequality in the Promised Land: Race, Resources, and Suburban Schooling. You can follow him on Twitter @DumiLM or visit his website.