Harsh penalties for Atlanta educators convicted of cheating

The world is filled with injustices. But today my sense of outrage is reserved for the prison sentences handed down for Atlanta educators convicted of altering student test scores.

Fulton County Superior Court Judge Jerry Baxter ordered 20-year sentences Tuesday for three of them, with the expectation that they will spend seven years in prison. Five others were sentenced to shorter prison terms and two got probation or home detention.

That’s right, 20-year sentences, with seven to serve. It’s what you might have gotten for killing someone in a slightly gentler and more forgiving era.

The teachers were found guilty of racketeering, an offense normally associated with organized crime. Baxter pronounced the maximum sentence even though the defendants had clean records and are clearly not a threat to cause violence to anyone.

Yes, cheating is wrong, even criminal. Atlanta parents deserve accurate information about whether their children are learning what they should. And it’s true that some educators may have benefited financially and by reputation – especially former Superintendent Beverly Hall, who was charged but died from cancer before she went to trial.

But as a New Yorker article last summer made heartbreakingly clear, teachers weren’t motivated solely by greed. They worried about losing their jobs if test scores were too low. And they worried most about their students, who faced the prospect of having their neighborhood schools shut down. Continue reading

Thoughts on the Flanner House cheating allegations

If cheating at Indianapolis Flanner House Elementary School was as bad as reports suggest, the question you have to ask is: Why? Why would a teacher, or teachers, bend the rules to boost their students ISTEP+ scores when they were likely to get caught?

Were they under that much pressure to raise test scores? Were they worried the school might be shut down? Did they think their students were at an unfair disadvantage in a rigged testing game?

We don’t know for sure what happened at Flanner House. Reports by the Indiana Department of Education and Indianapolis Mayor Greg Ballard’s charter-school office suggest there was cheating in 2013 and 2014. But officials at the school pushed back against the allegations.

“I don’t believe there was massive cheating for Grades 3 to 6 here,” school board president Patricia Roe told parents last week, according to the Indianapolis Star.

Flanner House is a charter school where over 90 percent of students qualify for free school lunches and nearly all are African-American. It shocked school-watchers in spring 2013 by recording some of the highest ISTEP+ passing rates in the state, after a fairly mediocre performance in previous years.

That apparently sparked an investigation, and the state education department reported last week that students’ test sheets included an unusually high number of wrong-to-right answer changes, suggesting someone was guiding them. Some test booklets, the state said, had answers in more than one handwriting, including sections that appeared to be written by an adult. Continue reading

Heartbreak in Atlanta

Rachel Aviv’s account of the Atlanta Public Schools cheating scandal in a recent New Yorker is one of the most heartrending stories about education you’re likely to read.

Yes, teachers cheated. They gained access to test questions. They even changed students’ answers. At least 178 educators at 58 schools were caught up in the behavior.

But in Aviv’s telling, teachers weren’t motivated by greed, nor were they especially dishonest. In a culture where test scores were everything, they feared losing their jobs. And they worried about their students: the impact of being judged failures, and what would happen if their schools were closed.

The article centers on Damany Lewis, a math teacher at Parks Middle School with a strong sense of compassion for his students. Lewis says he initially resisted principal Christopher Waller’s suggestion that the school cheat to meet district-imposed test score targets. But he eventually joined a group of teachers who changed students’ answers on standardized tests from wrong to right.

If the close-knit school didn’t succeed, the principal said, it would be shut down and students sent to schools outside their neighborhood. Lewis says that “it was my sole obligation to never let that happen.” Continue reading