And What Have We Learned Today, Class?
April 8, 2015

Brittney Cooper in Salon writes about a story everyone should read: Some Atlanta teachers are going to jail over inflating test scores on standardized tests. They were convicted under RICO, the racketeering law that could more appropriately be applied to the officials of almost any Republican organization -- but for some reason, isn't. She explains the context:

Last week, an Atlanta jury convicted 11 teachers and school administrators of racketeering in a system-wide cheating scandal. Yes, you read that correctly. Teachers and administrators inflating student scores on standardized tests is now considered “organized crime” in this country, and is punishable by more 20 years in prison, in these cases.

I am an educator. I am a Black woman who may someday mother a Black child. I have taught other Black mothers’ children. Much of my educational success in elementary school is directly attributable to high performance on standardized tests that caused my white teachers to notice me and intervene on my behalf to get me “tracked” into higher-achieving classrooms. I believe all children deserve access to a good, high-quality, public education.

Therefore, I don’t have to condone cheating in any form (and I don’t) to assert that what has happened in Atlanta to these teachers is a travesty. The pictures that emerged last week of handcuffed Black schoolteachers being led out of Southern courtrooms in one of the country’s largest urban Black school systems were absolutely heartbreaking.

Scapegoating Black teachers for failing in a system that is designed for Black children, in particular, not to succeed is the real corruption here. Since the early 1990s, we have watched the deprofessionalization of teaching, achieved through the proliferation of “teacher fellow” programs and the massive conservative-led effort to defund public education in major urban areas throughout the country. There is no longer a consensus that a good public education — a hallmark of American democracy — should be considered a public good.

Black children have for generations been the primary victims of this continuing social mendacity about the national value of education. More than 51 percent of children who attend public schools live in poverty. In Georgia, the percentage of Black children living in poverty hovers right around 39 percent. For Latino children, the number is consistently over 40 percent. Nationally, the number for Black children is 39 percent, according to most recent data, and 33 percent for Latino youth.

Eighty percent of children in Atlanta Public Schools are Black. Eleven percent are white and 3 percent are Latino. However, only 50 percent of children in Atlanta’s Gifted and Talented programs are Black, whereas 40 percent are white. More disturbingly, 98 percent of all students expelled from Atlanta public schools during the 2009-2010 academic school year were Black.

These numbers taken together paint an abysmal picture of students who are disproportionately poor, over-disciplined, and systematically “tracked” out of high-performing classrooms. And yet we expect teachers to work magic in conditions that are set up for failure.

It's been seven years since I had a corporate job, but I doubt things have changed so much that I can't speak with some authority on how you run an organization.

First, you don't make someone's incentives contingent on factors that are out of their control. For instance, when I was a business development rep, my job was to line up appointments for the sales team. If the sales team blows the sale, it's not on me and it doesn't affect my bonuses. After all, I did my job.

That's what they're doing in schools across America. If your high-poverty students don't perform, not only are you assessed on that, so is your school -- and your funding. So if you don't hit those test numbers, not only do you lose any raises, those poor kids will suffer because that school's already-threadbare funding will be cut. Now, what are the incentives here? I think you know.

Is that insane, or what?

Another rule of a well-run organization is: Don't set people up for failure. That means you have to be given all the tools you need to do your job, and the goals have to be attainable. Otherwise, you have people cutting corners and even cheating to make the numbers (which is what we saw here).

Most important of all is this: The head of an organization sets the tone. If cheating is a widespread occurrence, we can be pretty sure that 1) you're making people responsible for something out of their control and 2) they're not getting the tools they need to do their jobs.

This is not a failure of these teachers. It is an indictment of the political leadership, people who are more interested in looking "tough" for voters than in actually improving things. And look how well that works! You get to cut a school's funding when it doesn't work!

Moral of the story? Next time, don't get caught.

Can you help us out?

For 18 years we have been exposing Washington lies and untangling media deceit, but now Facebook is drowning us in an ocean of right wing lies. Please give a one-time or recurring donation, or buy a year's subscription for an ad-free experience. Thank you.


We welcome relevant, respectful comments. Any comments that are sexist or in any other way deemed hateful by our staff will be deleted and constitute grounds for a ban from posting on the site. Please refer to our Terms of Service for information on our posting policy.