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Atlanta cheating scandal: A tragedy of teaching and learning

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Atlanta cheating scandal: A tragedy of teaching and learning

August 11, 2014

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At the request of the AJC Sunday Atlanta Forward page, University of Georgia professor Peter Smagorinsky took up the issue of testing as the Atlanta cheating trial gets under way this week in a Fulton County courtroom.

By Peter Smagorinsky

I started my career as an educator as a hall monitor and substitute teacher in Trenton, N.J. As an aspiring teacher, I spoke with many teachers about their work.

A history teacher told me something that had a great impact on how I thought about teaching. As his colleagues scurried to create multiple choice exams that would keep the Scantron machine humming, he seemed remarkably at ease. He said his sense of calm came from how he assessed his students: “I make exams,” he said, “that kids can’t cheat on.”

While his colleagues were continually on the prowl to prevent kids from copying correct answers, passing them from class to class, and doing all manner of preparation except studying, he asked very different kinds of questions of his kids. These questions were open-ended and required personal reflection, such that copying not only was not feasible, it denied his students the opportunity to invest their historical studies with their own perspective.

This approach gave his classes a very different environment, especially in the discipline of history, in which inquiry and thoughtfulness are too often sacrificed, replaced by temporary memorization of the picayune: the dates, names, battles, and other information that led me as a youth to think that history was boring — an attitude I’ve abandoned as an adult who has immersed himself in reading the engrossing histories produced by writers who make distant eras come alive in my imagination.

I make this point because the Atlanta cheating scandal is back in the headlines, now embarrassing APS at a new level as additional details come out in courts and as new coverage comes from a news media that loves a good disaster story. Instead of teachers concerned that kids will cheat on the standardized tests that claim to measure the impact of teachers and administrators on kids’ learning, it’s the adults in the building whose cheating has come into focus.

I don’t know any teachers who got into teaching in order to participate in what the AJC has called the “massive APS racketeering case” that “may be too big for a courthouse” to accommodate. Rather, teachers consistently state they wanted to teach to make a difference in kids’ lives. Some, like the history teachers I mentioned at the beginning, interpret this mission as requiring them to learn the facts of their discipline. But at least their exams are aligned with the curriculum they have taught.

The culture of accountability that Superintendent Beverly Hall imposed on the system, however, pressured school personnel to engage in blatantly unethical practices to create the appearance of learning. This appearance was necessary because her brutal testing regime used standardized test scores as a proxy for learning, and forced teachers who might have taught in more open-ended ways to conform to rote teaching to these tests, lest the teacher assessment system identify them as incompetent.

The APS cheating scandal, then, is more than an ethical disgrace. It is a tragedy of teaching and learning, as those teachers who challenge kids to inquire into complex questions must knowingly make a mockery of their life’s work in order to meet a false standard of effectiveness. For that, we should all feel ashamed.