What do school exams and phone hacking have in common?

Chris Husbands

Last summer the news headlines in Atlanta, Georgia were dominated by the story. Once it had broken, the ramifications were huge. The “Atlanta testing scandal” sent waves through the entire American education system. By the end of June last year, 178 teachers and head teachers in 44 schools faced disciplinary proceedings over systematic cheating in state test results. Press reports talked of a widespread “culture of cheating”, and “a climate of performance at all costs”. The CNN report was headlined “Quit or be fired”.

The Atlanta testing scandal has been barely reported in England, but the stories are jaw-droppingly dreadful. Atlanta schools looked like a good news story. Between 2001 and 2009, Beverley Hall, the schools superintendent, oversaw a remarkable rise in test performance in Atlanta as the federal “No Child Left Behind” policy extended testing and accountability for test results in schools across the United States. But in 2009, analysis of odd patterns of test results made it clear that the Atlanta performance was based on a fraud.  A dreadful pattern of behaviour was exposed. Testing in 2010, conducted under strict supervision, saw scores fall dramatically. The 800 page report on the scandal published on July 5, 2011 makes riveting, if damning reading. Teachers systematically altered test answers to improve performance, in some cases holding “cheating parties” to revise  entire  class sets of test answers. Teachers who raised concerns about cheating or other misconduct to their principal were themselves disciplined where they were not ignored. As the newly appointed schools superintendant Eroll B Davis commented, “People felt that it was easier to cheat than to miss their goals and objectives.”

The scandal has produced a vigorous debate about why it all happened and here it all connects with phone hacking. For some, Atlanta and the phone hacking scandals are “rotten apple problems”. In Atlanta, Beverly Hall ran a success at all costs regime which brooked no opposition, and bad teachers – teachers without a moral compass – did bad things. Not all Atlanta schools, and certainly not all Atlanta teachers, behaved badly. For others it’s the system: the problem is high stakes culture, where the rewards for getting what you want by breaking rules so far outweigh the risks of being caught that bad behaviour becomes endemic. 

Rewards for raising test scores in Atlanta just compounded the problem. Some of the commentaries on the Atlanta scandal therefore go to extremes. There are those who see the solution as tightening further the surveillance on teachers, to identify cheats. Other commentators saw that the systemic problem was testing. Yong Zhao, from the University of Oregon, went so far as to argue that the Atlanta scandal made the case for ditching testing. But there are more subtle and thoughtful responses about the relationship between incentives and rewards, between performance management and testing. One of the most insightful comments is from Diane Ravitch: Ravitch was assistant secretary for education under the first President Bush, and in that guise was not soft on either standards or poor performance. But Ravitch is uneasy about the system which has produced the Atlanta scandal. Other commentaries are clear:  there are good people and bad people, and good systems and bad systems, but bad systems can make good people do bad things. Under some circumstances, organisational misbehaviour happens. In fact – get the structures and the incentives lined up wrongly, and you can probably almost certainly guarantee bad behaviour.

We live and operate in a high stakes world. We all (rightly) want to do well in this high stakes world. Some teachers are so committed to their pupils that they will do almost anything for them. The problem in Atlanta was that that’s precisely that they did, with catastrophic results. It’s a reminder that in education – as in the media – reward systems which operate without a moral compass will end in catastrophe. In Atlanta, teacher continuing professional development (CPD) now includes compulsory ethics training. Perhaps there might be opportunities for the trainers in other fields too.

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Posted in Chris Husbands, International comparisons, Teaching, learning, curriculum & assessment

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