Why Making the Atlanta Public School Teachers Felons Won’t Make a Difference

Good teachers don’t worry about being measured and evaluated. But I have to clarify, we don’t worry about valid, worthy testing, testing that actually measures what it says it will, and measures knowledge that is relevant. Right now those sorts of measurements don’t exist

The teachers from the Atlanta Public Schools system deserve what is coming their way. . .To a degree. Did they know at the time they were committing something immoral and unethical? Did they know they could lose their jobs and careers? Yes. They had to. Did they know they were committing a racketeering felony? Probably not.

Elementary school teachers are not famous for being overly educated. Yes, I know plenty who are sharp and brilliant. But too many of them graduate from local paper mills with low entry and exit standards,; they earn what many college students know is the least intellectually challenging degree offered (if not the most tedious):a Bachelor of Education. (Face it: a course called The Theory of Education is never going to be as challenging as Thermodynamic Chemistry, nor Math for Children as deep as Legal Statistics.) So more than likely, those fraudulent APS teachers didn’t think clearly enough to wonder if they could be arrested.

What law did they think they were breaking? None. I’d bet they believed fraud laws were all about money and theft. Silly them. But then when they were arrested, they didn’t believe they’d go to jail, be convicted. 21 of 36 defendants admitted they were guilty before trial. Of the eleven remaining, only one of the accused took the D.A.’s bait to plea bargain down his sentence. The other defendants took their chances and went to trial. AND then, after being convicted and called Felons, when offered a chance to bargain again for their punishments, no one took that offer either. They believed perhaps they could go win an appeal? On what grounds?

I understand that sometimes when one feels righteous, one doesn’t want to knuckle under. I also get that sometimes the plea bargainer affects the outcome of those who choose to go to trial. But ultimately, these folks did commit fraud. They did racketeer. And they did so for financial gain (their incomes.)

And my bet is that they did this with impunity because this sort of illegal manipulation is overly common. It’s the “everyone is doing it” defense.

Here is my beef:

The judge thinks he is helping the children of our future with his severe reaction of long jail times. Perhaps. But the system of testing, and performance-for-pay is so broken, has so many flaws and loop holes, that his ruling barely makes a ripple in improving the structure. Yes, it might stop a group of teachers and administration from sitting around a table and openly defying the rules in the future. But that doesn’t mean the testing currently in place is now going to help the children at all anyway.

Five Serious Reasons why:

  1. There are still plenty of ways to cheat.
  2. Many Tests do not Measure What they Should
  3. The tests dumb down the system, in general.
  4. The children rarely fail anyway nor get remediation even if they fail the test.
  5. The tests can be manipulated to fire or secure workers who don’t deserve it (see number 1)

Teachers know this, so it is hard for them to feel supportive, patriotic, even ethical when it comes to testing. It’s like being asked to take the gossip on FB or Nightline as serious.

Let me break this down in a series of Four separate posts, if you care. This knowledge is important for anyone who can affect the political machine called education.

Reason 1/5: There are still plenty of ways to cheat.

These Atlanta folks got caught because an AJC reporter who was paying attention began to wonder what this one elementary school, a school that had for several years in a row gained in their scores by leaps and bounds over its comparable sister schools; if the gains were real, why wasn’t APS requiring the sister schools to do whatever it was that the “successful school” was doing, the reporter asked. But there was no difference in anything they did. And from there the story began.

Someone at these sister schools blabbed. See, teachers shift schools, though they are still employees of the same system. They develop allegiances and conflicts with former bosses. Someone who used to be in the law-breaking circle ratted them out. But even if the tattler hadn’t come clean, there is an independent group that can take the scantrons from the tests and do a comparative match. Too many erasures in the same places? Too many kids getting number 36 right, when number 36 is predicted to be the question that only half the kids will know? Hmmm.

So cheat method one is to literally change the answers. APS did this as a group. But there can be one principal who does this him/herself in the wee hours of the night. Who would know if no one is auditing the scantrons?

When I have had to proctor high stakes tests, here is how it has often worked. I go collect my testing materials. I sign them out. I get a box with a particular number of scantrons, pencils, test directions, test booklets. I sign something that says I won’t even look at the test. I administer the test. And at the end of the testing period, sometimes at the end of the day, I return all materials.

BUT imagine Student Bobby is the first to realize there is an odd typo in test question 32. Then Suzy. I’m not supposed to look at it. Do I go ahead and try and help them decipher the question? George shouts out the answer anyway. I have to report this “aberration in the testing environment.” Glancing at the questions to see if it is ethical to help overcome the typo, I realize George is wrong. He might be shouting out the wrong answer on purpose because he is a brat. Who knows? Do I help? I don’t know. But either way, I could easily tell everyone the answers.

I’m supposed to proctor everyone else’s students, not my own, in order to “maintain the integrity of the testing environment.” In otherwords no favorites. But I’ve been around the school and community for a long time. The kids all know me. I’ve taught some before. I taught their siblings. I hate this test. I go ahead and answer their question when they get stuck and try to get them to “figure it out” with hints. They are so stressed out. . .am I less or more ethical than the convicts from APS? This method of cheating could show up on an audit, but probably won’t because it is one class set of tests.

I return my boxed set to the administrative helpers (teachers who are not supposed to be teaching any of the test takers currently, so they won’t be tempted to cheat.) They pass it along to the testing administrative secretary, who supposedly locks it up for lunch until the testing administrator comes back, and they count all the booklets triple times, sign a bunch of documents, and lock them up for the night; someone from the county delivers them to a central location later when absentee kids get a chance to take their test.. At this point, three separate people besides me at the least have touched my tests, and each has had the chance to change answers without me knowing. (Did this happen to any of the APS crew?) An audit might be able to catch this one too, though it cannot tell anyone who was responsible.

Or kids themselves, knowing the proctor doesn’t know who they are can send in another kid to take their tests. One kid takes the math tests, the other the LA tests. We don’t check IDs and you’d be surprised how few students will rat on each other.

Plus, every now and then, we get to proctor our own kids, especially if the tests are given online. These labs get used over and over for tests through the day, and kids will literally write the answers on the desks for the next incoming group. Kids have pens with cameras in them now, too, and can sometimes pass along whole test pages. I’ve heard of teachers who will write certain answers on the board without drawing attention just to see if the kids will notice. And some do. “Hey, look. . .24. A.” Of course, these accusations can never be proven after the fact except through an audit, or a confession, which a school system never asks for.

But here’s another way many teachers can cheat. At my school, teachers are assessed by the jump from a pretest score to a post test score of a set of kids. The system decides what this group of kids should be able to score once they have learned. The closer I can get them to that score, the better. BUT it is even more rewarding for me as a teacher to have a huge jump. So if my illiterate kids score a 12 on the pretest and a 70 on the post test, this is better for me than my gifted kids who score a 91 on the pretest and then a 98 on the post test. And guess what, since the pretest is not “secure” I get to give it to my own students.

I’ve known of teachers who literally tell their kids to “Christmas tree” the pretest. It takes two days to give. I’ve also known of teachers who give it one day, and if the kids don’t finish, oh well. SO those cheating teachers look like they are masters when the post test comes around, because obviously, the kids will do better on the post test which gets averaged into their grades than the pretest they were told to Christmas tree. And guess what? Noone wants to dig into my accusations of this unethical behavior, though auditing pretest scores , might easily show what I am describing.. I cannot prove it after the fact myself if the accused won’t confess.

Again, the “everyone is doing it” defense makes it hard for teachers to put any serious belief behind testing. The judge’s harsh punishment of these teachers, though warranted, as affected this beliefminimally.

Next up: ”Reason 2/5 Why Making the Atlanta Public School Teachers Felons Won’t Make a Difference: Many Tests do not Measure What they Should.’”

Five Things You Hate about Teachers and What You Can Do About Them. . ..

5. We Have Summers Off.

(And Christmas, and Easter, and Thanksgiving. . . ) so many breaks, you’d expect EVERYone would try to become teachers. I can’t count how many times people work this issue into the conversation once they discover I am a career teacher. Currently, close to two-thirds of newly minted teachers quit the profession within three years of gaining a full-time teaching position, never to return. Maybe they were women with a “Mrs. Degree” who were just waiting for Mister Right to marry them, so they could work at home raising their own kids and not yours. Maybe they landed a rewarding spot on American Idol. But whatever it is, the summer breaks were just not long enough to keep that two-thirds in education for a career.

Just the other day, a man I had just met, literally, said to me, out of the blue, upon discovering I am a teacher, “You know, I hear these complaints about them teacher salaries (I had not been complaining about a thing.). . .Y’all got three months off in the summer, go get a job in the summer if you all want more money instead of sitting on your rear ends.” He said it with a pleasant smile like it is completely socially acceptable to insult someone you just met about their profession as so many people do to teachers.

I just sighed and did not correct his grammar, nor his incorrect count of how much time I have off in the summers. I didn’t even try to discuss how many hours we work in a year stuffed into ten months. . .or how many redundant classes I have to take each Summer.. . .or explore the salary scale/experience/pay-per-hour-worked ratio compared to other careers. I learned to stop doing that a long time ago. I simply smile now and say, “Oh, I agree. Why don’t you go into teaching, so you can enjoy summers off?” and walk away.

4. We can’t be fired.

I know. That dirty thing called tenure. First, be honest: every job has due process, every single one. If you have not enjoyed due process when you were let go, then either you were screwed and you need a lawyer, or you were laid off. Teachers get cut when there are not enough jobs, and we sometimes meet the nasty end of due process. I have known teachers who have lost their jobs for being drunk, stoned, or just bad. I have known drunk docs and immoral lawyers who are still practicing, protected by members of their profession. All it takes in any case is a boss who is willing to do the paper work, willing to go through due process, yet often they are too busy, or too political, or even too lazy to do so.

To fire a teacher brings public scrutiny that doesn’t happen in most jobs. (How often do most jobs and their failings get accounted for in the media? Education is always in the media. In fact, I recently heard yet another dig at tenure on Tim Allen’s latest comedy.)

But imagine you have a principal willing to do the due process and bring on the public scrutiny: to prove someone is a weak teacher is difficult since the standard for quality varies and seems subjective Sure, you’d think that the public would all agree about who is good, but people really don’t. For instance, the guy who curses in class, yells at your kids till they cry, has a high failure rate, but gets great results on Nationally Normed Tests. . .or the teacher who is positive, supportive, motivates quality projects from children, coaches everything, has a high pass rate, but a somewhat questionable result on national tests. . .which educator is best? Not everyone values nationally normed tests as the only indicator of talent in a teacher. Many principals face these conflicts: teachers who have strengths and weaknesses. It is rare to hire perfection, which is what we want in our teachers. And the principal also knows the old adage: the devil you know is sometimes better than the devil you don’t know.

Due process takes any boss precious time to document; when a principal finally succeeds at letting the weak teacher go, and then hunts for someone better, he or she takes months sometimes to find a strong applicant. You’d think in this economy, there would be talent climbing out of our pores. But, no, not so. And trying to hire qualified replacements in classically “tough” schools with higher crime, higher failure, is nearly impossible; few apply. So stop thinking that we can’t be fired. We can, just as easily as you. The difference is that when people lose a job in most industries, the boss just makes their colleagues pick up the slack. Principals cannot do that.

3. We were often “C” level students in college or high school.

The most embarrassing statistics prove this true. While that doesn’t describe me or many of my fellow teachers, it is generally correct. What’s worse, teacher’s education programs are notoriously tedious in work load, but lacking in intellectual demands, so we are talking about “C” students in non-rigorous degrees. What are you willing to do about it? You demand excellence from medical students and law students and even engineers, why not education majors? (Well, I personally think there should be no such thing as education majors; I am as appalled as you when I discover one of my children’s teachers is a numbskull).

Much of my explanation about tenure and summer breaks applies here. The trouble is. . .whenever any state does raise standards, folks stop going into the profession (or worse, fewer folks qualify), and then there is a teacher shortage. With that, we are forced to hand out provisional teaching certificates to people with no training at all just to fill the seats. Does this problem exist because academically sound graduates have plenty of work options. . .? School systems are victimized by supply and demand (Not enough high level graduates going into education), by their funds (richer counties hire the better candidates), by even the colleges and what they are doing with their students (some colleges are paper mills).

2. We are with your kids more than you are.

Admit it. When you first sent your babies off to school, aside from the secret joy you felt that you had more free time, or that your day care bill was going down, you were uncomfortable with someone else being so central in your child’s life. Studies in child development show that children shift their hero-identity focus from parent to teacher around first grade. So instead of a child believing your word is like God’s, now it’s “Mrs. Belachik says this. Mrs. Belachik says that. ..” ad nauseum. This does not sit right. In fact this sits so poorly that I have watched my friends and neighbors tear apart teachers behind the closed doors of Bunko Games, Book Clubs, and Scrap booking meets, discussing their children’s teacher’s clothes, their personal lives, wedding faux pas, pregnancies, husbands, as if we teachers are cast members of Housewives of Education County, not the professionals who love their kids. Jealousy is an ugly beast to feed.

Add in that we are around your kids for 8 hours a day in elementary school while you are with them, once they finish their bus rides, perhaps 6 waking hours- some of which they spend away from you with buddies, computers, television. . .You should be a little jealous. Even in high school, teachers seem to spend more time with your kids than you do, since as teens mature, they spend even less time with their parents; today’s families rarely eat, ride in cars, or watch television together.

1. We are the government (who once controlled you.)

I know you try to overcome this truth by acting like you are the boss who pays my salary. Never mind that you pay the salaries of anyone who provides you a good or service. . .what makes you so irritable is that this salary you pay us just pops right out of your paycheck and moves into a system that the media loves to tell you is failing.

Think of how we feel. Imagine when you have been shaped to question any form of government, its intentions, its policies, its spending, its system of “checks and balances”, its buddy politics. . .and then you go to work for that very government. It is your boss.

Most people I know who stand around at cocktail parties complaining about the governor, the president, the Republicans, the Democrats, etc.. are the same ones who complain about education. Ironically, they don’t seem to know that any education system is one of the most political machines out there. Who sets the education budget? The government of that state. Who defines standards? The government of that state (along with people who moved out of the classroom usually within seven years of their teaching career to become politicians/lobbyists on some governor’s panel.) Who runs your local system? A board that campaigns for office. Who puts principles into power over your teachers? That very board. How does one get notice to earn a position of power from the board? Play into that board’s belief system. Who earns leadership roles under those same principals? The ones who say, “Yes!” to his/her every whim, no matter how ridiculous it seems. The system is designed to eliminate individual insight and creativity, and endorse sycophantic behavior. I imagine this is true in the business world too, or comic strips like Dilbert wouldn’t be so popular.

Teachers are at the mercy of any politician who is staging a campaign to his constituents. If you voters make it sound like you want higher standards, he says he will attach pay to performance. He doesn’t care what it does to your kids in the long run; he doesn’t even care if it’s a valid performance evaluation system. (Before you get all up in arms over student testing linked to teachers; I am all for it, once it is fair, infallible, irrefutable, and valid.) If you demand more discipline, then he creates a zero tolerance law. Or the opposite, if you are tired of zero tolerance rules, suddenly there are no rules. . .

And here’s a dirty secret. Many politicians use studies to prove whatever their whims are. Now those same studies were typically performed by students in education programs. . .education programs that are not rigorous. . .education programs that don’t care that the study sample was too small, or even “made up.” Education programs that never truly require validity testing in their published studies. Yes. True. Scary. (Did you not see my answer to number 3?) And if the studies are performed by a group that is not in an education degree track, then the group is trying to make money for their products, or a political lobbying group. The evidential studies the politicians lean on are not standardized studies like the sciences perform. They are filled with flaws, and distortions.

What can you do about a;; of this?

So then here we teachers are, hated for our free summers, hated because we are par-educated, hated because we get to see your kids more than you, hated because we are “the man” and toss in that, even though we suffer from the very government you do, we whimsically were at once in charge of you when you were a student. We gave you tests someone else told us to give, we demanded that you read things that some board approved, and sometimes we were rude to you because we were too busy with the other 37 kids in class. Probably. No wonder you hate us.

Resentment doesn’t bring change. Don’t just vote your people into office; examine the promises they make against reality. (You Floridians once actually believed your governor when he promised to cut the sizes of English classes in half. Californians at one point believed that every kid would get a state provided laptop. HELL, a whole load of people believed The Clintons and then The Bushes that everyone could be above average by this century. Really? Do the math.) Examine who moves into power and why in your entire education system. And definitely pay attention to how the money is spent.

Help come up with a clear cut picture of a good vs. a bad teacher. Discuss this seriously with your friends and coworkers. Principals and parents now have their personal opinions that vary vastly. I have known bad teachers-ones that seem illiterate-whom parents will defend to the end. I have known great teachers whom parents want to lynch simply because they weren’t passing out “A’s” like candy. So collectively, as a country we have to agree with what defines good teaching. As it is now, many of you don’t even agree about norm testing. And if you know of teachers who are truly bad, like grading arbitrarily, sleeping at their desk, drinking from their cupboards, writing illiterately in their email. . .document it, take it to the board, force the principal into due process. Don’t just criticize it.

Require improvement in the talent pool. I personally believe teachers should have to have Bachelor’s degrees in a tough core subject, then complete a rigorous Masters degree in Education before being credentialed. Getting into these graduate programs should require stellar GRE scores, not the current, lower than national average scores. Then, prior to being certified, teachers should pass boards that are as strict as those for other important professionals.

Ask yourself why this profession doesn’t draw/keep its intellectual talent. What can we do to make it more, say, palatable to smarter people? You know the answer to this is very difficult to find, which is why you probably are not a teacher with your summers free. It’s a tough, sometimes completely unrewarding job; as a taxation-based field, it can never offer financial rewards on par with other intellectually demanding careers. My own scores and records could have led me to med school or law school. But I wanted to be a teacher. I didn’t care about the money. I hate blood and I hate legalese. My career rewards are my students’ success. But this isn’t enough to draw everyone to teaching.

Since the certification methods are unlikely to change, you must press your administrators to hire folks from the toughest colleges, with the highest scores on whatever test is most current for certification. Make it public. Make it embarrassing if you have to. Right now, pretty much all level colleges, from the “we take anyone with a pulse” community colleges to the private Ivy League offer teaching degrees. Only three in my state now offer law or medical degrees. You want “smarter” teachers, you have to change THAT-selectivity in education programs.

About your jealousy…It doesn’t matter how normal it is for your kids to transfer hero worship to us; even I, as a parent, want to clock a teacher now and then when I think she thinks she knows more about my kid than I do. I completely understand your discomfort. Once I became a mom, I learned how to communicate with parents of my students, for I suddenly related to what they fear. Build a relationship with your child’s teachers. I can tell you as a teacher, for parents who talk to me as a partner, not a servant, not an enemy, not a rival, somehow, I am psychologically unable to neglect their child. I try hard to see my children’s teachers as part of my team and make sure they know it.

There is much you can do to improve education. Do something. Don’t just walk up to a teacher you have just met and unload your personal bitterness. We are not the enemy, no matter how much you hated your 11th grade calculus teacher.