Atlanta Pubic School Scandal: We are all guilty!

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The APS cheating scandal, and it seems that people are picking sides, or trying to carefully land somewhere in the middle of two very bad positions. But as a concerned educator I really feel that we should all be sent to jail. And this is not necessarily for this particular incident; but rather, for how we allow the public schools in many places in this nation to destroy the creativity talents, gifts and smartness of millions of children of color, on a daily basis. The Atlanta Public School System (APSS) scandal is unfortunately only a symptom of a disease that permeates our national landscape; and putting 9, 15 or 25 people in jail won’t cure it. The core affliction here is: low expectations, a cross cultural permeating cultural belief (with or without standardized testing) that Black students just “can’t cut it”. It can be loud as this ugly APSS event, or as subtle as the call to “modify” admissions exams and standards for the sake of equity (i.e. the annual exercise to change NYC’s specialized H.S. entrance exam process). These liberal expressions of concern sound good, but end up not doing any good, because they never force us to truly solve the problem of students receiving a poor and inadequate education that does not prepare them to be competitive.

This APSS scandal, and the follow-up unreality show trial (“We will show citizens that we care about the Black children in Atlanta!”) is an all-sides” tragedy; meaning, there are no winners; and there can be no celebrations. In all of the adult characters, there are no absolute villains and no absolute hero’s; it is only left for the children to play the part of absolute victims. The well-meant argument on the part of some who are sympathetic to the inappropriate sentences the shameless “educators” received; should be aware that in this particular area the Judge’s comments are correct; “this is not a victimless crime”. As educators we know that we work with opportunity windows for learning; and if that window is missed or closed; it is very difficult to give a student a rewind on a lost learning experience. Education is built on a sequential-prerequisite system (what you learn today determines what you can, and will learn the next day, next week year, etc.); if a student is improperly moved forward to new work, without having acquired the necessary concepts and skills to do that work; they will continue to “fail forward” (fall further behind as they move up in grade). In layman’s terms: if you don’t master the fundamental algorithms (processes-procedures) of arithmetic, you will be unable to master the algorithms (processes-procedures) of algebra; if you don’t learn how to read in elementary school; you will be unable to analyze, deconstruct and converse with literature in middle and high school. This is the cause of a type of “anger” high school educators will often see displayed, as students come into a full recognition and understanding, that they have received an inferior K-8 education; and that many of their peers, unlike them, are much more prepared to do high school work.

Now people want to lay the blame for this tragedy at the feet of “standardized testing”; but that is an exercise in political opportunism; meaning you could have, legitimate or not so legitimate disagreement with the use (really the misuse, but that is another essay) of Standardized exams. Thus the APSS scandal provides you with a convenient case study as to why these exams should be dramatically reduced or abolished. The truth is that millions of students take exams all over this nation; and I would hypothesize that the educators who are responsible for these students don’t cheat for them. I am not a theologian but: “The temptation made me sin”, or in this case: “the test made me do it”; does not seem to be an affirmation that would lead one to the road of redemption and truth.
The discussion about the amount, applicability, usefulness of standardized exams is a very reasonable and necessary debate, unfortunately it is presently being conducted and led by those who know very little about the science of testing (psychometrics), or how a standardized assessment is, and should be a tool to obtain diagnostic information about student learning; and a method to inform and transform instructional practice. To those who have just arrived on the: “We are not using standardized exams properly in public education” bandwagon, welcome. But you only needed to ask any principal, who could have told you that doing something like comparing the exam scores of two fourth grade cohorts from different years was a piece of useless information; that the exam scores on high school exams are useful only when a focused deconstructed analysis (not news headlines) is used; For example seeing a trend in a history exam where students know the content but are not explaining it well on the essay. In this type of situation the school must design a strong: “nailing the essay” writing strategy for the upcoming cohort planning to take the exam; or to prepare the tested students for their next history exam. Most educators know that the way standardized exams are used by the public/politicians/news media is silly. In truth, a “school’s scores” (a not so interesting, and not very useful bit of information) could go up, or down based on factors that have nothing to do with what the school is, or is not doing; and more importantly how students are (individually or as a group) performing in that particular school. Determining if students are making progress requires a much more complex analysis; that includes standardized test scores as one of many variables. Then it is also true that when applying the designation of “effective” and “less than effective” to schools, it requires an even more robust system of analysis to be useful to both educators and the public. Students that are presently being defined as “high performing”; may in fact be underperforming; and schools that are presently designated as “effective”; may in fact be less than effective. The “year to year” comparison of different cohorts of students, was in fact a political, and not educational metric. It is a form of intellectual laziness that no effective classroom teacher would tolerate. The objective here was to make a political case for the “corporatization” of public education; to move money and jobs (in a slumping economy) from the public, to the private sector; thus the need for the failing public schools narrative; which has led to the de-professionalization of the profession; with disastrous outcomes, in particular for our most vulnerable students; who are the primary targets for the badly conceived, and misnamed “reform movement”. Further, this faux accountability system gave birth to the faux “achievement gap” narrative (which is really a school resources, quality teacher-administrator, parent attitude, information and parent access to resources, gap); which of course generated its own industry of equipment, materials, books, and of course: “expert consultants”. The “Why Black kids can’t learn” business is an ever-expanding financial opportunity; as school systems create the very problems that they must then spend huge amounts of money to fix. The tragic costly trick that public education has played on the public is that we know (we have enough information) how to educate Black children, and have simply chosen not to do so.

Our approach to student assessment is surely in need of correction; but that would first require that the profession takes a professional ethical stand on doing no harm to children in our never-ending desire to make adults happy and financially secure; and as long as we don’t choose to make that decision; those outside of the profession have a legitimate, albeit misinformed, rational to insert themselves into a decision-making role as it relates to standardized assessment. The truth is that over the years, many (Lorraine Monroe, Jamie Escalante, etc.) have proved that (like standardized exams or not) students of color can not only pass standardized exams; but can excel on them. (See Science Skills Center: Assessing Accelerated Science for African-American and Hispanic Students in Elementary and Junior High School; Science Assessment in the Service of Reform; American Association for the Advancement of Science, 1991; Kulm, Gerald, Malcolm, Shirley M.) I have always taken pride and purpose in getting students who society would throw away; to make their way to academic achievement. I have and always will believe that there is nothing wrong, deficient, incapable or lacking in the brains of the children of color. All it takes is for the adults charged with educating those children to believe in their natural ability; and then to work hard taking on all of the barriers and pitfalls that these children face from birth. In my ongoing response to the question I am most asked by aspiring school based leaders: “What are the most important things you learned in your life as an educator?” Well here is one for which I am not proud. And I put it in the form of a question: In many localities in this nation, not just Atlanta; where there is a Black mayor; where the city council, school board, the superintendent’s office, the principalship and the teacher positions are made up of predominantly of African-Americans. With these African-Americans in positions of power, what is preventing the children from excelling academically, let alone just gaining a good basic learning? In many of these places there are not even enough White people to blame for Black student underperformance! If the educators of APSS felt so strongly about students passing exams, or better still actually learning; why did they not make a massive collective commitment to raise the academic achievement of the APS children by: “Any means necessary”? Why did the city not go all out in helping parents (who you don’t have to convince) to be more effective informal educators? Set up weekend school semester brakes-summer, learning academies that focused on: STEM, dance, drama, writing, painting, sculpture, etc.; programs designed to raise student achievement? As a superintendent In CSD 29 Queens NYC we created “Family Nights” at the Museum, and rented busses to take whole families to an informal learning experience. And even if the city did nothing, why didn’t the teachers and administrators of the district proclaim: that because of the importance of our mission; we will not be restricted by any labor contract that would get in the way of our teaching the children! I have seen it happen because I have been fortunate to work in two high schools (SSCHS &Phelps ACE); and in both cases I worked with a racially diverse faculty; and those schools were successful because we all (teachers, support staff and administrators) decided to go above and beyond the written call of duty. Instead of having after-school/weekend “cheating parties”; we held after school and weekend teaching-study parties; many teachers in both schools work with students during their lunch and prep periods; we made the daily school academic program rigorous; which made the standardized exams passable. The guidance–counseling team worked hard to solve the many social-economic-health challenges that students bring with them to school; and that are in danger of getting in the way of learning. The school’s administrators created a school environment where teaching and learning could actually take place. The mission in both schools was that we were going to be competitive, no matter what measuring tool was utilized. As educators we must start with a basic belief in the ability of our students to learn, and to excel in that learning. And that we educators have the power to make that happen.

I suspect that the APS convicted educators; did not believe in the children because of what the children look like; trust me, racism that is self-inflicted, feels no less painful, and can be more destructive because the parents wrongly believe that the “Black Leader”; has their back. The APS perpetrators did not believe that society has unfairly condemn these children from birth to a second class status; and therefore their educators must serve as an educationally empowering counterforce. The convicted APS educators did not understand that because of the children’s skin color; they would need to exercise an extreme commitment, compassion and concern for the educational well-being of these children; and it is for these same reasons that they falsely believed that an American judicial system was not going to mistreat, and over-punish them because of the color of their skin. The convicted educators should receive all of the sympathy they can gather. But one question I have is for those APSS teachers and administrators who did not cheat, or did not get convicted for cheating. Those at work in APSS today, what is it that you believe about the ability of the students to learn; and what are you willing to do about it?