The two most important people in Georgia education played good cop, bad cop last week.
The evidence, circumstantial but worrying, indicates that many of the standardized tests measuring student achievement in the state’s schools have been doctored. Nearly 70 percent of the elementary and middle schools in the city of Atlanta — and the adults who run them — have passed under a cloud.
“To misinterpret this, to accuse people of cheating, that’s not going on here,” said state schools Superintendent Kathy Cox. “In these particular schools, we want to go in and take a closer look.”
Gov. Sonny Perdue, on the other hand, was ready to wield his terrible swift sword. “It’s shameful. I’m disheartened,” he said. “We’re sending the signal that … we will tolerate no less than absolute fairness, absolute honesty and absolute transparency.”
Perdue himself briefed reporters on the findings of the investigation conducted by his Office of Student Achievement. Cox was not in the room.
No one has argued that cheaters should prosper, or even keep their jobs. But it is worth noting that Cox and Perdue have entirely different agendas when it comes to a scandal that’s certain to reach into the race for governor.
Cox is seeking a third term as school superintendent — a contest that could well be determined by whether teachers think she’s too quick to pass judgment on them.
Perdue, of course, won’t be on the ballot. But for the past several months, the governor has been pursuing a one-time $400 million federal stimulus grant — dubbed “Race to the Top” by the Obama administration. Forty-one states are competing for a total of $4 billion.
Lord knows we could use the money.
Points are awarded for innovation and reform in education, including efforts to link student performance to teacher pay.
This year’s education initiatives from Perdue are built around winning the “Race to the Top.” Last month, the governor proposed a shift away from teacher pay scales based on seniority or advanced degrees.
Tests will be a crucial measure — if they are reliable. Which could explain Perdue’s eagerness for Georgia to be seen as an aggressive self-enforcer in the testing scandal.
One of the governor’s House floor leaders has already introduced a pair of bills that would criminalize cheating by school officials on standardized tests. Offending teachers or administrators currently face civil sanction by the Georgia Professional Standards Commission.
HB 1111 and HB 1121 would add the label of criminal misdemeanor. Punishment would include a $1,000 fine or 30 days in jail — plus the loss of pension. Perdue has expressed his support.
“He’s going to be the sheriff, I guess,” said Tim Callahan, a spokesman for the 80,000-member Professional Association of Georgia Educators.
Callahan, too, said he has no sympathy for cheaters. He called some of the allegations “jaw-dropping.”
“No. 1, let’s wait till we have all the facts. I certainly agree that it doesn’t look very good, but let’s look at all the facts,” he said.
But the PAGE leader also wondered out loud whether Georgia — and for that matter, much of the rest of the nation — has created its own moral basket case.
“The careers of administrators, the scarlet letter for schools, whether a child will move forward or not, whether a teacher will get a good evaluation — or perhaps, soon, a pay raise — to put all that weight on the rather slim reed of a single test on a single day makes no sense,” Callahan said.
The governor has said that classroom teachers have his back when it comes to his reforms. But Callahan says the educators he talks to exhibit a growing sense of paranoia — that could play out at the polls.
Cox may be right to worry about a teacher backlash from the testing scandal. But the real impact could come in the Democratic contest for governor, where teachers and their family of voters have a history of making a difference.
Former Gov. Roy Barnes lost his 2002 re-election bid in part because he tampered with teacher dismissal rules. Perdue accused him of blaming teachers for the state’s education woes.
Barnes has spent much of the past year trying to win back educators. He has declared himself still a big fan of performance bonuses for teachers — and accountability.
But the former governor drew a line at criminal charges, which he termed “grandstanding.”
“As far as dealing with any alleged wrongdoing by educators, we should all obey the law — and there are already plenty of tools to deal with those issues,” Barnes said.
The man trying the hardest to sour any rapprochement between Barnes and teachers is DuBose Porter of Dublin, the House minority leader and one of four other Democratic candidates for governor.
He, too, said he opposes any effort to make criminals of educators who fudge test scores — drumming them out of schools is punishment enough. Porter used a phrase from 2002 that Perdue would find very familiar.
“This is again blaming the teachers for the problems,” he said.
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