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Thompson: The Columbus Cheating Scandal

NewsignThe Columbus Dispatch editorial, Another Blow to City Schools complains that the city's schools “scrubbed” 2.8 million attendance records since 2006.  They allegedly marked some students with low scores as withdrawn so they wouldn’t be counted against the district. 

Columbus schools are also facing criminal investigations for grade changing. Obviously, I have no idea whether Columbus schools are guilty and, if they are, whether they did something qualitatively different than accumulating millions of speeding tickets.

Statistical gamesmanship predated data-driven "reform," and those policies are not an excuse for cheating.  They just create a "perfect storm" where the damage done by education's longstanding "culture of compliance," is combined with inherently destructive and punitive accountability schemes, and where all are made worse by the resulting malfeasance.  I also know that I must be particularly careful with my words when addressing this tragedy.

"Juking the stats" is not limited to schools.  It has long been said that the prime qualification for a policeman, for instance, is a course in creative writing.  As it was cryptically explained in The Wire, our legal system could not function without the ability to "turn felonies into misdemeanors." 

I suspect that the cumulative damage of manipulating the nation's withdrawals and grades, as well as other tricks for jacking up attendance rates, will dwarf the consequences of outright cheating scandals. But, the Ohio case prompts die-hard supporters of test-driven accountability, such as Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and Andrew Rotherham, to grasp at more straws. They seem to claim that because test-driven accountability has opened multiple doors to a wide variety of scandals that, somehow, their favored policies aren't to blame.

I am curious about whether classroom teachers would agree with my speculation that fabricating grades and attendance are bound to be the most common results of numbers-driven accountability.  It so easy to jack up those numbers and, in my experience, it happened continually.  

Was it not inevitable that systems would look for ways to put a "W" for Withdrawn next to the names of students who lowered their metrics?  My school, for instance, had the highest dropout rate in the state, but for the price of a part-time clerk, whose job it was to find someone to say that former students intended to go back to school somewhere, sometime, our problem disappeared.  Once systems start down that road of, wink wink, making bad numbers go away, who knows where it will stop?

Once schools are held accountable for graduation rates, was it not inevitable that something like "credit recovery" would result?  Once teachers were forced to "pass kids on" because of some bogus online tutorial or doing a quick project, did anyone believe that grade inflation would stop at that point?

In our school, once teachers (who had 140 students) were pressured to meet with all of the parents of all of the failing students (who had not responded to phones calls and letters), was it not inevitable that overburdened teachers and/or principals would sidestep the conflicts by changing enough "Fs" into "Ds" to stay out of trouble?  I certainly stayed below my quota of "Fs." Different schools pressured educators to comply with different policies but I doubt that many teachers did not do what we were all pressured to do.

And, don't get me started with "working off" absences. 

"Reformers" can claim, correctly, that statistical gamesmanship and outright cheating did not begin with NCLB.  My first principal told me to "pick my battles."  Through my entire career, my goal was to comply as little as possible with mandates for dropping absences and bad grades.  I know a lot of teachers who were consistently pressured to do far worse.  The idea of not playing the game of making statistics look good was never on our radar screen.

To my knowledge, we did not violate the law.  Serving on a district committee, I once investigated the legality of our system's attendance procedures and I was consistently advised that nobody knew what would be considered legal and what would not be; enforcing our policies as written would have opened another can of legal worms. 

Smart administrators provided fig leaves for whatever changes were desired.  If parents did not respond to repeated attempts to contact them, then teachers were supposed to feel obligated to change failing grades. Otherwise, we were not placing students first. If we didn't have an explicit justification for making the changes, we could always rationalize extra credit grades for "effort" or picking up trash at lunch. 

We knew that our participation is the gamesmanship was wrong, but it had been going on for so long that we just assumed it was not illegal.  One day, we would see dozens of "Unexcused Absences" in our grade book and the next day they would be gone. It wasn't our job to play Sherlock Holmes, so we played the game and tried to not get too angry over it.

In retrospect, I often wonder how many of our normative activities were illegal.  We all knew that they were as destructive as they were ubiquitous.  They were unpleasant parts of the job that we had to do in order to be teachers or principals. Whether or not "reformers" knew the facts of life in poor schools, surely they understood that fabrication of data would become much worse once stakes were attached to it. I will say, however, that after a decade of NCLB, we all did things that we would not have even thought of doing when I began teaching.-JT(@drjohnthompson)Image via.   


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