Let’s Put High-Stakes Accountability on Trial!

Dr. Paul Thomas of Furman University publishes one of the more thoughtful and well-written blogs I read on a regular basis. He accurately refers to his blog writings as a “Place for a Pedagogy of Kindness.”

I think we can all agree there is always enough room for a little more kindness in our world today.

That’s why I particularly appreciate his perspective on the recent conviction of eleven former Atlanta public school educators. In one of the more widely publicized cheating scandals of our time, these educators were found guilty on Wednesday of racketeering for their role in a scheme to inflate students’ scores on standardized exams. I will come back to Dr. Thomas’s take in a moment.

In case you haven’t followed this case, the defendants – including teachers, a principal and other administrators – were accused of falsifying test results to collect bonuses or keep their jobs in the 50,000-student Atlanta school system.

According to the Associated Press, the educators apparently fed answers to students or erased and changed the answers on tests after they were turned in to secure promotions or up to $5,000 each in bonuses.

However, the person accused of benefiting the most from the conspiracy, Superintendent Beverly Hall – who is thought to have received up to $500,000 in bonus payouts, passed away from cancer before the start of the her trial.

If you’re interested in reading the whole sordid story behind this egregious affair, the most detailed and comprehensive analysis I’ve read was in this July 2014 New Yorker article.

Upon the announcement of their guilty verdicts, these eleven hardcore criminals were handcuffed and escorted to the county lockup while they await sentencing on April 8th. Yes, they led these dangerous felons out of the courtroom in chains.

What crimes did they commit against humanity? They used the flip side of a Ticonderoga #2 pencil and changed student answers on standardized tests. And, as a result, they were led to prison as if they were convicted drug dealers, rapists, or murderers.

I am sure the people of Atlanta are happy they can finally sleep soundly knowing these criminals are locked up behind bars.

Just take a look at this scary guy, especially with that villainous-looking bow tie. That had to be humiliating. It is also a sight that will make other people think twice before committing similar crimes — it’s what real accountability looks like.


This picture represents an unmistakable message that everyone in the high stakes accountability movement will be hammering for years. This idea was clearly articulated by this comment by University of Georgia law professor Ron Carlson after the verdict was announced:

“This is a huge story and absolutely the biggest development in American education law since forever,” Carlson said. “It has to send a message to educators here and broadly across the nation. Playing with student test scores is very, very dangerous business.”

Let me be clear. What these people did was wrong. It was unethical. It was illegal. They deserve to lose their jobs, to be stripped of their certificates, to never be allowed to work in education ever again.

But I do not believe they deserve to be locked up in prison for up to twenty years.

If these people deserve to be locked up, what about former DC Chancellor, Michelle Rhee, who came out of that city’s testing scandal without a scratch? How about some of the Wall Street brokers who misled investors and nearly caused America to descend into an economic depression. Do you recall any of these wealthy bankers and venture capitalists being led out of court in handcuffs?

If we are going to indict these educators for their ethical and legal shortcomings, how about some of the people who created the system that put those educators in this no-win situation.

Given the impossible choice to meet ridiculous targets for student proficiency in their high poverty school, or face certain sanctions and possible closure, these Atlanta educators cheated.

They were on the road to disaster from the moment they were given numbers to make that could not be made; they were doomed to be either failures or cheats.

Can I condone what these individuals did in intentionally manipulating student tests to earn a higher score. Absolutely not.

Can I understand their motivation in making the choice they did. You bet I can.

There are no heroes in the Atlanta story, but when counting up the wrong-doers, it would be a miscarriage of justice to stop with the eleven people who just went to jail.

Let me bring you back to what Dr Thomas said in his blog yesterday:

“For those who think right/wrong is simple, consider that one day possessing marijuana was illegal in Colorado, for example, but the next day it wasn’t.


The solution to ending cheating among educators under the impossible weight of high-stakes accountability (just as the solution to stop student cheating in school) is to end the conditions creating it.


The Atlanta cheating scandal is not a major lesson about “bad” teachers, but it is yet another lesson about the bankrupt education reform movement, the one that made Michelle Rhee rich and famous and thus above the law (a situation that oddly seems to draw little fire from those dancing about teachers getting busted).


Particularly in high-poverty, majority-minority schools, students and teachers are living a dystopia not of fiction, but a daily experience.


“No excuses,” zero tolerance, high-stakes testing—these are the conditions that reduce good children and adults to behaviors that are unlike who they are.


High-stakes accountability must be put on trial, convicted, and sent away for life without parole.”

I agree with Dr. Thomas. The solution to ending cheating among educators is to end the high-stress conditions creating it.

The implementation of VAM and other evaluation tools tied to student test scores; the potential implementation of merit and incentive pay based on test scores; and the continued threats of government takeover of school (and replacement by corporate charters) will continue to place educators in enormous ethical and moral conundrums.

What would you be willing to do to keep your job and support your family? We all like to think we would do the right thing, make the ethical choice, and let bygones be bygones. But, until we are in that truly desperate situation with limited options, we just don’t know.

Certainly, the most notable victims of these test-based accountability practices are our children. I have to think there is a diminishing number of people who continue to believe that using our current testing regimen is the best approach to assessing proficiency—let alone 21st century college and career readiness. And, it’s increasingly clear that standardized testing creates incentives that can undermine genuine learning. And while many states have turned to more policing as a solution, it’s a band-aid approach that fails to attack the underlying flaws of over-testing.

The current regime of high-stakes accountability is GUILTY.

Guilty of stealing the joy of learning from a generation of American students.

Guilty of slandering millions of students, teachers, and schools with the label of FAILURE.

Guilty of extorting teachers and schools to move from authentic, meaningful teaching and learning in the hollow pursuit of higher test scores.

Guilty of kidnapping the dreams of children and their hopes for a brighter future.

Guilty of insider trading by swapping the long-term education success of our students for short-term corporate profits.

Guilty of prompting the closing of hundreds of long-standing neighborhood schools and forcing students into corporate-run charters schools that are no more successful that the schools they replaced.

Guilty of exacerbating the divide between the “haves” and the “have-nots” and enacting policies resulting in the re-segregation of many of our urban communities.

Guilty of lying to the American public about the current state of education in our nation.

Guilty of negligence in adequately addressing the crippling effects of generational poverty, broken homes, crime, childhood trauma, poor health care, lack of food and resources, and societal inequality.

Guilty of not caring more for the least advantaged children among us.

In the end, we have all learned a lesson here. Be a politician accepting payoffs and corporate campaign donations in exchange for your loyalty…and your vote. Be a charter school operator who bilks the state for thousands of dollars before closing up and leaving town in the dark of night. Be an executive in charge of a “not for profit” testing company that continually delivers an inferior product while pulling in a $250,000 salary. Be an out-of-state “dark money” investor who maliciously slanders a pro-education candidate to get a less-qualified “school choice” candidate elected. Be any of the thousands of public school hating, teacher-bashing, union-slamming, corporate-loving sycophants, ill-informed partisans who think they have all the right answers, yet really don’t even know the right questions should be.

Just don’t be someone who ever changes the answers on a standardized test.

Because THAT would be criminal!

What Will the Governor do about “Janet’s Board?”A Matter of Trust
Recent posts