School Cheating Scandals and Privatization

“Any time you’ve got cheating going on by adults, that’s egregious.” Michael A. Davis, general counsel to the Philadelphia school district. (New York Times)

Recently, Philadelphia school officials discovered a testing scandal in which and administrators at some schools were caught doctoring answer books and even re-writing the answers of their students. The school community was shocked. Parents were outraged. But, when it comes down to it, what’s the big deal?

In my opinion, the cheating that has become increasingly commonplace in our nation’s schools is no longer an abnormality but rather the new standard that reflects a distinct shift in values. This shift shouldn’t come as a shock to anyone who has read a headline about the recent financial crises that favored big corporations over individual citizens. Nor should it come as a surprise to anyone who has paid the least bit of attention to how frenetic the pace of school reform has become in the last decade. From charter schools, to scripted curriculums, to standardized tests, it seems that when it comes to improving our schools, there is a new flavor of the week, every week. And yet we find ourselves still asking how we will improve our schools, and why isn’t [insert current reform buzzword here] working?

The above quote by Michael Davis typifies an attitude that most of us would express over such a scandal. Schools, after all, are meant to be the conduit through which we reproduce societal values. Our democratic (American!) society values fairness and hard work, and it rewards individuals accordingly for their effort (ostensibly). As such, our schools have been set up to mold young citizens into this pattern. But if we take a closer look at the policy changes that have been heralded through schools in the last decades, we actually see that schools as meritocratic organizations have long been a thing of the past. Why is that?

Accountability. Everyone likes to know if something is working. And how do we know that schools are working? We look at test scores. These scores, as measured by various tests (MATs, PSSAs, CATs, etc.) aren’t a new concept. Performance indicators, such as these have been used for years for a variety of purposes. I remember looking at my test scores in elementary school and learning where I fell on a national scale. But standardized tests don’t just give students a window into their individual competitiveness anymore. Since the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) was passed, they have been used as the go-to tool used to make decisions on what is now a grand and frightening scale.

Test scores now determine which students pass and which students fail. They also determine what passing and failing means. Test makers, not teachers, are now in charge of determining what the most important parts of the curriculum are, how much each topic should be emphasized, and how well students should know it. “Really?” you ask. Really. What used to be used as a comparative tool is now the machine used to steer national and state school agenda. Regardless of what the curriculum states or what might be in the textbook, teachers must ensure that their students have mastered the items that “could” be measured on a standardized exam. If students don’t grasp it, everyone faces dire consequences. Students will be retained in the same grade level or sorted into an educational track that perpetuates their current performance level through decreased curriculum depth and increased test preparation and basic skills instruction. Teachers in many districts can ultimately be dismissed for being “ineffective,” and “ineffective” is a label that is increasingly based largely on this sole measurement. Remember when someone asked you who your favorite teacher was? Doesn’t matter anymore. Your favorite teacher is now the one who gets you to pass the test. In fact, it no longer truly matters if teachers help students appreciate knowledge or learn to develop self-efficacy, because students are sorted, labeled, tracked, placed, and packed up for their future life based on the score they get on the MAT’s in third grade.

Wait a second, you say, this seems a bit unfair. Why do we rely on one test score to determine a student’s worth? In the next series of blogs on this topic, we’ll actually explore some compelling analyses of why the nation has turned to scores. But to wrap up this particular piece on the Philadelphia cheating scandal, I ask you to draw the line yourself. If we increase the importance we place on singular standardized tests, and these tests now determine the trajectory of a student’s career, and at the same time we remove the authority from teachers/schools/communities to define what is important to learn, then what do we expect to happen? Whose values are we reproducing in our students?

The pressure has been raised to a fever pitch – students, teachers, and schools are in a sink-or-swim game of survival. Meanwhile, we are relying on an incredibly small population to tell our schools (and us) what to think and what matters. And while our democratic (American!) values used to include hard work and individual effort, it now values something else. Efficiency. And what could be more efficient than teachers and principals taking matters into their own hands to pre-determine the next class of winners?

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