By NICK CHILES
When my son was growing up, we spent a lot of time grappling with issues of character. This is an essential exercise in the development of all children, but I think it is particularly important when you have a smart, talented, athletic boy on your hands—a boy who, one day, might find himself with the power and opportunity to influence others. How do you treat people?… How do you deal with adversity?… How do you get beyond disappointment?…What if something or someone was being unfair to you? That last one was real big with my son—the boy was quick to label a situation or a teacher “unfair,” as if they all woke up every morning with the intent of cooking up new ways to screw him. I felt like I was constantly working overtime to get him to understand that there was no “fairness” judge standing by to insure that every situation, every result, would always be fair to him. As he got older, we began to turn the question inward, to get him to see that when he didn’t give 100 percent, when he cheated, when he took shortcuts, he was not being fair to himself and would only make things harder for himself in the long run. That was an important lesson I prayed he would internalize before he went off to college and to that big bad world out there—when you cheated yourself, ultimately you would live to regret it. He is now in his second year of college, where he has decided to major in Engineering, one of the toughest majors at his school. From all indications, that lesson about not cheating yourself seems to have been permanently stamped on his brain.
These memories have been bouncing around in my head lately as I pondered the gruesomeness of the Atlanta test cheating scandal. As I read through the report produced by the state investigators, I was numbed by the horrible things that these teachers and principals did to these Atlanta schoolchildren, acts that could ultimately be as damaging and long-lasting as molestation or physical abuse. It may take many years of work to unravel the lessons that have been indelibly stamped on the brains of these Atlanta kids.
The huge cheating scandal, the largest in the nation’s history, involved 178 educators at 44 schools—almost half of the 100 schools in the Atlanta system—and all indications are it had been going on for a decade. The Fulton County District Attorney is in the midst of a criminal probe that may result in criminal charges filed against many of the educators—maybe even former Superintendent Beverly Hall, though she has denied any involvement in or knowledge of the cheating. At least 41 of the 178 educators, including 13 principals, voluntarily resigned their positions and disciplinary procedures have begun against the others. And just this past weekend, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported that state investigators looking into cheating allegations in Dougherty County told the paper they had gotten 10 Dougherty educators to confess to changing student answers on the CRCT and giving students the correct answers during the testing. Dougherty, whose largest city is Albany, is 180 miles south of Atlanta and is 67 percent black.
The news reports that came out over the summer concerning Atlanta schools focused on allegations such as the teachers held erasing parties, where they would gather after school hours with stacks of student answer sheets and change wrong answers to correct ones. In one well-reported case, they even got together at a teacher’s home in Douglasville. That was horrendous enough, but it still felt a small step removed from the child—an enormous disservice was done to him, but he might not even be aware of it as he blithely moved on to the next grade and took his improved test scores with him. But I was disturbed to discover that was just a small part of the picture. There were many cases where the students were directly involved in the cheating.
According to the report, some teachers seated students in a way that allowed lower-performing students to cheat off higher-performing students. Teachers in first and second grade—who have to read the test questions to students—used voice inflection to signal the correct answer. Teachers sometimes pointed to the correct answer while standing at students’ desks. Teachers gave the answers aloud to students and sometimes allowed students to go back and change answers from the previous day. Investigators said in some cases students would request to be assigned to a certain teacher because that teacher was known to cheat. Some teachers allowed the students to change the previous day’s answers after discussing the correct answers. Teachers looked ahead with the students to discuss the next day’s questions. In one classroom a child sat under his desk and refused to take the test—and this child passed. One fifth-grade student noticed his answers were different than the day before, but when he brought this to his teacher’s attention she simply told him she would take care of it. In the report, many teachers commented that they noticed over the years that some students couldn’t read at grade level, but still had high standardized test scores—leading the teachers to conclude that rampant cheating must be going on.
Yes, of course these actions no doubt were a predictable outcome in an education system that has become single-mindedly focused on standardized tests to the detriment of actual learning. I get that. But I still found this story astonishingly sad.
For a parent sitting at home, fretting about his child’s character, knowing that such educators are out there, working amongst our children, is scary, horrendous, tragic. In Atlanta and likely in other school systems, a generation of children was guided by teachers and principals who taught them the best way to get through challenging situations was to cheat. Every time I think about that, my head starts getting hot, the hairs rise on the back of my neck. All at once, I want to find these teachers and administrators and commit some type of violence—and then lay down and have a long cry about the vicious disrespect, disregard and hatred these mostly black children unknowingly faced on a daily basis when they walked into their school buildings and stared up into the faces of teachers who, in most cases, looked just like them.
Every Atlanta public school child who walks across a graduation stage for the next half decade carries a taint with him. Every teacher and administrator whose paycheck says “Atlanta Public Schools” has a question mark over her head. It is unconscionable, disgusting.
As a new school year gets into gear, each of us should take this occasion to wrap our children in a tight embrace and pray that they should forever be spared from the uncaring, vile, child-hating teachers of this world. Amen.
Nick Chiles is a New York Times bestselling author and former award-winning education reporter.