The Big Cheat: Why Teachers Go To Prison While Charter School Operators Get Praised
April 22, 2015

No one likes a cheater.So you’d think plenty of people would be pleased to hear that educators in Atlanta, on trial for cheating on standardized tests, were found guilty of those charges and sentenced “harshly,” according to the New York Times.

As CNN reports, of the 12 educators who went on trial for “inflating test scores of children from struggling schools,” 11 were convicted of racketeering—a crime normally associated with mob bosses—and other lesser crimes. Of those who have been sentenced so far (one sentencing has been postponed), eight have been given jail or prison time and three will serve at least seven years. Only those who admitted guilt and waived appeals were spared.

But even before the sentencing was finalized, there was widespread condemnation of the idea that prison terms were even in consideration. An "outrage" one commentator called it. "Racist," declared another.

Why the Controversy?

The strongest case for coming down hard on the cheaters came from the presiding judge, who declared the offenses were not “victimless crimes,” because test score altering gave children and parents misleading information about academic achievement. “The sickest thing that’s ever happened in this town,” the judge called the scandal.

But economist Richard Rothstein points out that what happened in Atlanta was, frankly, inevitable. Writing for the Economic Policy Institute blog, he notes,

“Holding educators accountable for student test results makes sense if the tests are reasonable reflections of teacher performance. But if they are not, and if educators are being held accountable for meeting standards that are impossible to achieve, then the only way to meet fanciful goals imposed from above—according to federal law, that all children will make adequate yearly progress towards full proficiency in 2014—is to cheat, using illegal or barely legal devices. It is not surprising that educators do just that.”

The test-enforced "standards" Rothstein refers to are not mere data points. To the judge, and those who support his ruling, they are not only accurate measures of academic progress but also represent a moral imperative whose transgression is evidence of evil intentions, hence the racketeering charge.

So was this a case of greedy educators being all about the money? It's true the educators and their schools possibly could have seen increases in salaries and bonuses as a result of increases in test scores. What's also possible is that these educators were much more motivated to cheat in order to avoid something bad happening to them or their schools. Because performance assessments of schools and individual teachers are now linked to changes in student test scores, schools that do poorly on the state tests are subject to harsh penalties, including outright closure, while teachers can be fired or required to withstand rigorous supervision.

Regardless of the motives of the perpetrators, what the offending educators did, strictly speaking, was falsify data. And if that is so, then shouldn’t any attempts to manipulate testing data be considered an invasion of the vault? That’s a question that should be asked given another big education story that recently made news headlines.

Another Way to Cheat?

In a recent feature in the New York Times, reporter Kate Taylor reveals how educators at the Success Academy charter school chain in New York City produce high scores by practicing what she calls a “polarizing” form of education. Taylor calls the charter school chain a “testing dynamo,” because of the high scores the schools produce, despite serving “primarily poor, mostly black and Hispanic students,” who so often score poorly on typical standardized tests.

Success Academy’s startlingly high test scores have been the rationale for expanding the chain into “the city’s largest network of charter schools,” with 43 schools. “A proposal by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo,” Taylor reports, could bring the number of Success schools to 100 —“more schools than Buffalo, the state’s second-largest district.”

But the “success” enjoyed by Success is due, in part, to the chain’s strict pedagogical approach, which includes stringent student discipline practices and precise behavior control in a bootcamp-like school environment.

“Students must sit with hands clasped and eyes following the speaker,” Taylor explains. “For those deemed not trying hard enough, there is ‘effort academy,’ which is part detention, part study hall.”

The schools place an enormous amount of emphasis on frequent assessments of students. Expansive portions of learning time—“up to 90 minutes each day”—are spent preparing for exams. Teachers and students described to Taylor a test-prep “regimen that can sometimes be grueling.”

Current and former teachers told of “students in third grade and above wetting themselves during the practice tests, either because teachers did not allow them to go to the restroom… or because the students themselves felt so much pressure that they did not want to lose time on the test.”

Students who score poorly on the exams are routinely publicly shamed by having their results singled out and displayed in the hallway for other faculty, students and school guests to see.

The charter chain’s founder and director, Eva Moskowitz, defends her schools. In an email to Success Academy employees, as reported by news outletCapital, Moskowitz claims the Times article “contains many inaccurate statements and unfair portrayals of our schools."

Yet reports of chronic humiliation practices at Success Academy are neither isolated nor new.

So This Is Success?

Eva Moskowitz, well-paid CEO of Success Acadamy.

Shortly after the Times story broke, education historian Diane Ravitch found yet another current Success Academy teacher who corroborates much of what Taylor reports. On Ravitch’s personal blog, the teacher, who remained anonymous, describes, “doing test prep for months” even though “some of the kids explode or break down.”

As the Times reporter found, the teacher explains, “Children are assigned a color depending on their test scores, and every classroom posts the names of the children… the goal is to shame the lowest performing students so they try harder to move up into the next level.”

The teacher tells of a “dispiriting and joyless” school environment that subjects any student who struggles to repeat suspensions or to require their parents or guardians to come to school every day until the behavior changes or the student leaves.

In yet another reflection on the Times article, a journalist for Business Insider recalls a comment on the website of a Success Academy charter school. The commenter, who claims to be a parent of a former Success student, said his or her child “developed problems with going to the bathroom at the charter school… My son wet his pants for the first time since he was three years old because the school did not let him go to the bathroom when he asked.”

The parent called the school “strict, cold, and insensitive to the overall needs of the young children.”

Even more evidence of Success Academy’s ritual humiliation comes from Seton Hall University education professor Daniel Katz. On his personal blog, he recalls a report from the New York Times in 2011 explaining that children who do not fit into the “very narrow mode” Success Academy enforces “find themselves subjected to excessive punishments and ongoing suggestions that they should leave.”

Calling this type of school environment humiliating is an understatement—perhaps as humiliating as the scene in Atlanta of educators in shackles being led from the courtroom. Except in this case, the humiliation is directed at little kids.

What's the Motive?

If every crime has to have a motive, what's the motive for Success Academy to go to such lengths to get the test scores it wants?

Much like the cheating educators in Atlanta, charter schools have powerful incentives to increase test scores. First, charter schools in New York City, and many other places for that matter, want to avoid the harm that can result from low student performance on tests. After all, ardent charter school proponents frequently declare their allegiance to the market-based ideology that schools should be accountable for "results" and parents should have a "choice" to leave "low-performing" schools." So for any operation adhering to this ideology to underperform on tests—which many charter schools actually do, by the way—would be a prime example of being hoisted on your own petard.

Second, just like with the Atlanta educators, the scent of money is in the air. Charter schools, especially in New York City, are a big business. And no other charter operator in the Big Apple is as big as Success Academy, whose annual revenue doubled last year to $34.6 million.

Moskowitz herself has become infamous for gifting herself a salary of $567,500 while keeping her teaching staff relatively low paid, with fewer benefits than city teachers, and with longer days that can stretch to 11 hours or more. This is a business model that literally runs on keeping the test scores high.

So Who’s the Cheater?

In today’s education landscape, so dominated by the tyranny of testing, charter school operators like Eva Moskowitz have found that falsifying data is not the only way to ensure high scores. You can falsify education practice itself.

As an in-depth report, also from Capital, explains, Success Academy charters operate under the belief that “what's wanted in the city's most troubled neighborhoods is a stiff dose of discipline and parochial-school rigor … Without futzing around with intellectually messy questions about … the opportunity cost of ‘teaching to the test.’"

Defenders of Success Academy say the schools are part of a “reform” movement in education, reliant on a three-legged stool of "moral justice, political will, and test scores.” But equating a statistical data point to moral and political values is not only a dubious proposition, it comes with huge risks.

As Rothstein explains, “Our use of tests as the chief way to measure school and teacher performance has corrupted schools everywhere.”

“The widely lauded Success Academy model,” writes classroom teacher and popular blogger Peter Greene, “is based on the emotional brutalization of children” with a “mission to weed out those students who just can't cut it the SA way.”

Greene contends that the “tunnel-vision focus on The Test” is justified by “an ugly lie” at least as big as the lie the Atlanta judge accuses the cheating educators of committing—“that if poor kids can get the same kind of test scores as rich kids, the doors will open to the same kind of [long term] success.”

Yet despite their test scores, there’s no assurance the children of Success Academy will, in the long term, be any better off than the cheated children in Atlanta. Professor Katz points to an analysis from reporterJuan Gonzalez of the New York Daily News, who found that of the original class of 73 students who enrolled in one Success Academy in 2006, only 32 made it to the last week of school, and “despite 27 of those students sitting for the entrance exams to New York City’s highly selective public high schools, no Success Academy graduate qualified for admission.”

So yes, you can argue Success Academy’s kids are being cheated, too. In exchange for years of humiliation and mindless test prep, in stultifying conditions, without the rich, adventurous learning experiences enjoyed by their more well-to-do peers, they’re being given a chance to join the ranks of the college and career bound that seems no more assured—and could actually be worse—than what they faced to begin with.Put that way, it does sound like cheating. And no one likes a cheater.

Jeff Bryant is an associate fellow at Campaign for America's Future and the editor of the Education Opportunity Network website. Prior to joining he was one of the principal writers for Open Left.

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