Here is an op-ed that runs Monday in the AJC by Robert Maranto, the 21st Chair in Leadership in the Department of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas. He has two children in public school.
A few years back a friend who teaches at a large public university accused a student of cheating.
This particular university has an honor system run by students. My friend dutifully filled out extensive paperwork to report the incident, but at the hearing many weeks later was dismayed that the student honor committee members seemed to want to let their peer off the hook.
Finally, perhaps out of guilt, the accused young woman blurted out: “Don’t you understand I had to cheat — the professor was such a bitch.”
Oddly enough, most of my friend’s students passed without cheating. In the end even the student committee dismissed this defense, convicting the student.
I thought about that comic episode during the current school cheating scandals. In many Atlanta public schools, and at least a few public schools in other cities, evidence suggests that teachers and administrators changed student answers on standardized tests to make their schools look good.
It is unremarkable that in any human endeavor some people, even educators, will be tempted to cheat.
What is remarkable is how other educators react to cheating. Groups like FairTest have embraced the “We-had-to-cheat-because-the-standards-were-a-bitch” defense.
While admitting that cheating is wrong, FairTest’s Robert Schaeffer nonetheless insisted in a recent column on these pages that, “When test scores become the sole or primary tool for evaluating students, classrooms and schools, educators feel they must get the scores they need by hook or by crook.
With ever-escalating pressure, it’s not surprising that more educators are pushed across the ethical line.”
Respected educators like Deborah Meier go even farther, insisting that we can only expect teachers to be honest when cheating ends on Wall Street and in corporate boardrooms, and presumably when the messiah arrives and the voice of the turtle is heard across the land.
Only when the entire world becomes just will educators to join in. Leaving ethics aside —if one can do that — perhaps it is difficult to blame cheaters when policy-makers demand that they do the impossible.
So is academic achievement impossible in disadvantaged communities? Many educators argue, at least in private, that very few low-income children and children of color are capable of reading and doing math at grade level.
Are they right?
I’ve spent much of the past two years doing fieldwork in high poverty/high achievement schools, public charter schools like Dove Science Academy in Oklahoma City, but also traditional public schools like Grace Hill Elementary in Rogers, Arkansas.
My observations dovetail with a decade of work by scholars and journalists like Abigail and Stephan Thernstrom, Karin Chenoweth and Jay Mathews. Like them, I’ve found that even in the poorest communities, most kids can learn.
That does not mean that high-poverty/high-achievement schools work exactly the same as low- poverty/high-achievement schools.
Effective principals in high-poverty schools spend time building a disciplined culture and making their schools islands of predictability in unsafe communities.
These schools frequently measure student achievement and push students and faculty to make steady improvement. The principals encourage less successful teachers to copy their more successful peers, and give extra work to help students in danger of falling behind.
What these schools do is difficult, but it is not impossible. So why don’t others copy them?
I think the main culprit is the ideology that poverty is destiny. As University of Chicago professor Charles Payne shows in his 2008 book, “So Much Reform, So Little Change,” many educators believe that disadvantaged children cannot learn.
Similarly, a principal in a KIPP charter school in Houston told me that he works well with other educators who shared his view that most poor children can learn.
He explained: “Once that assumption is shared with people you are talking to, then it is all about problem solving.
The problem is if the people you are talking to don’t believe that kids can learn, then it is a not useful conversation because it becomes a rabbit hole of but, but, but, but, but.”
Until we get beyond the “buts” and copy success rather than enabling those who fake it, educators will never be all they can be, and ultimately poor kids will suffer.
–From Maureen Downey, for the AJC Get Schooled blog