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The Good News in the Atlanta and D.C. School Cheating Scandals

With the possible exception of tot-murdering moms and professional basketball players who jilt their fans on live television, there is no more reviled figure in American life than Bernie Madoff. Portrayed on the cover of New York magazine in Heath-Ledger-as-Joker makeup, he has been variously described as a sociopath, a financial serial killer, and the devil incarnate. What nobody has said, however, is that Madoff was the victim of a profession that puts relentless pressure on money managers to publicly report their success in the market. And, while plenty of deserved scorn has been heaped on the auxiliary financial institutions and hapless federal regulators who allowed his fraud to unfold for decades, nobody has suggested that those lapses in any way mitigate Madoff’s culpability in his crimes. Society has taken away all of Madoff’s money and freedom, but it has left him with one thing: the dignity inherent in possessing moral responsibility for doing wrong.

It has been less respectful, unfortunately, to educators in our public schools. Recent weeks have seen reports of a terrible cheating scandal in Atlanta; a Georgia state investigation implicated scores of teachers and principals of systematically falsifying student test scores. Earlier this year, USA Today revealed evidence of test score manipulation in the District of Columbia. Similar scandals have erupted over the years in Houston, Oakland, Dallas, Chicago, and elsewhere, all tied to the pressure educators feel to show evidence of student learning on standardized tests.

And, every time news of cheating breaks, opponents of standardized testing and accountability in public education have been quick to deflect blame from morally challenged educators and aim it toward the tests themselves. When asked about Atlanta, noted school reform apostate Diane Ravitch pointed the finger at the federal No Child Left Behind law, saying that, when high-stakes incentives are attached to test scores, we are “virtually inviting” teachers to cheat. At the Daily Kos, readers were told that “the tests, and the stakes attached to them, are the issue. No rational person can look at cheating this widespread and decide its existence is about the individuals, however blameworthy their behavior may be.” One Atlanta-area teacher put it this way: “Anybody whose job is tied to performance, it is a setup.”

In search of a theory to back up these assertions, testing opponents often invoke “Campbell’s Law,” an adage put forth in the 1970s by social scientist Donald Campbell. It holds that “[t]he more any quantitative social indicator [e.g. standardized testing] is used for social decision-making, the more subject it will be to corruption pressures.” As a way of understanding education policy, or anything else, Campbell’s Law is both inaccurate and banal. In reality, most people are quite adept at resisting corruption pressure, which is why the vast majority of teachers whose students take standardized tests do not cheat. And, while some do, the fallibility of humankind has been known for a long time. So I hereby coin Carey’s Law, which holds that trite observations are more likely to be regarded as sacred principles if someone happens to describe them as laws.

TO BE SURE, people (and teachers) will succumb to dishonesty. They cheat on their taxes, spouses, and golf partners. Cheating corrodes trust in all things, especially education. Students whose test scores are manipulated upward don’t the get the extra attention they need. And, since teachers are increasingly being evaluated by how much their students’ test scores improve, a teacher who inflates scores could potentially cost her colleagues in the next grade of their job performance.

But cheating also means that public schools finally care enough about student performance that some ethically challenged educators have chosen to cheat. This is far better than the alternative, where learning is so incidental and non-transparent that people of low character can’t be bothered to lie about it. Blaming cheating on the test amounts to infantilizing teachers, moving teaching 180 degrees away from the kind of professionalization that teacher advocates often profess to support.

Instead of doing away with the pressures of a performance-based system, the best way to combat cheating is by building institutions that have systems and organizational cultures that minimize the amount of corruption and abuse that occurs. This is harder to do in some places than in others. The District of Columbia, for example, is not exactly a bastion of civic virtue. Half the members of our city council currently stand accused of some form of misconduct, including council president Kwame Brown, who is being investigated by the U.S. Attorney for matters regarding the use of hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign funds. Nobody, by the way, is blaming the corruption pressures inherent to our vote-intensive election system for Brown’s alleged misdeeds.

Indeed, it’s not a coincidence that cheating scandals tend to erupt in municipalities whose public institutions suffer from corruption. But, when the Atlanta police department was rocked by accusations that officers falsified warrants, planted evidence, and gunned down a 92-year old woman in a botched drug raid, national commentators didn’t pin the blame on a system that holds police departments accountable for solving crimes.

Corruption, educational or otherwise, should be fought with strong law enforcement, the election of public officials with integrity, and the vigilance of citizen’s groups and a watchful press. The Securities and Exchange Commission exists because lawmakers correctly assume that the pressures and temptations of making money are so great that companies and financial actors can’t be trusted. Other than lunatic objectivists and Wall Street water-carriers, nobody reacted to Madoff, Enron, or WorldCom by calling for less enforcement and public reporting of information. Instead, they rightly called for more.

Finally, we should never forget that cheating in public education long predates the advent of standardized testing and accountability. Back then, it happened in the form of students who were ill-taught and passed along through grades until they were handed a diploma despite their inability to read, write, work with numbers, or otherwise perform any of the skills and tasks necessary to make a decent life in the modern world. Often, their children were sent back into the very same dysfunctional systems to begin the cycle anew. The only difference was, that kind of cheating didn’t result in state investigations, newspapers headlines, and calls for the responsible parties to be thrown in jail. The new way we structure testing and reward and punish people for their actions with regard to that testing is better for students—and even teachers—in the long run.

Kevin Carey is the policy director of Education Sector, a think tank in Washington, D.C.