I’m having trouble figuring out exactly how to approach this particular blog post. I feel very compelled to write on this topic, but I’m muddling through such a mélange of thoughts and emotions on the topic, ranging from total outrage to deep empathy. It particularly galls me that I’m moved to write this post by an article I came across on the first day of school, when idealism and the belief in possibility flow more than any other day of the school year. The article is from a publication focused on the Philadelphia public schools, and it is a veteran teacher’s explanation of why she helped her high school students cheat on the state tests.
Some of the teacher’s actions include:
- Answering students’ questions;
- Pointing to the part of a passage where an answer could be found;
- Giving students definitions of unfamiliar words;
- Discussing reading passages students didn’t understand;
- Commenting on students’ writing samples;
- Pointing to correct answers to difficult questions.
Why? She has several explanations. The teacher said most of her students were reading well below grade level, poorly prepared, unable to relate to the middle-class content of the tests, and had major challenges in their lives. She considers herself a good teacher and wishes she could have found a way to address students’ deep-seated academic deficiencies and the troubling school culture that she believes was created by high-stakes testing. According to her, school administrators did nothing to stop “constant” and “widespread” cheating, even mandating certain protocols against the legal guidelines. She claims that teachers who questioned the system were coerced into cheating: “My only defense would be that I lost track of what was right because it was so stressful to be there… It’s easy to lose your moral compass when you are constantly being bullied… I was someone I didn’t recognize by the end of my time there.”
At various points in this blog I’ve written about my concerns with standardized testing, mainly as a very limited and limiting tool. I’ve talked with enough public school educators to understand the pressures they feel because of the state testing. Cheating scandals have erupted in 22 states and D.C. I know I would hate working in such circumstances. I’m trying to walk in this teacher’s shoes. I get what she is saying, and I really do feel for her…to a point. But then my outrage erupts again. At the risk of seeming sanctimonious, all I can say is, “Really?!? Give me a break.”
I want to give this teacher the benefit of the doubt, at least when it comes to her motivation. One article I read on the case says, “She considers herself a good teacher and wishes she could have found a way to address students’ deep-seated academic deficiencies and the troubling school culture that she believes was created by high-stakes testing. Instead, she took another route.” Perhaps she felt she had no other choice except to engage in what she called “self-styled subversion.” But we always have a choice to do what’s right. We may just not like some of the consequences of taking that stand.
There are two ultimate ironies to the story. I like to take the first as another sign of cosmic justice—that perhaps the teacher’s accusations are actually false alibis. The district is investigating 28 schools because of suspicious results on the 2009 tests. This teacher’s school is not among them.
The second irony captures so many of the issues raised by the story. It’s much sadder. The teacher says, “I wanted them to succeed, because I believe their continued failure on these terrible tests crushes their spirit… I wasn’t willing to say, ‘Just do your best.’ They were my students, and I wanted to be there for them.” The article doesn’t say how the students did on the state tests. In some ways it doesn’t matter since the results are so tainted. Plus what those students really learned—the lesson that is going to stick—is that their teacher helped them to cheat. So they may have “passed” the state test, but their teacher failed a much larger one.