Wrong Answer

This week’s issue of The New Yorker has the story of an epic cheating scandal centering around Parks Middle School in Atlanta, Georgia, where teachers changed answers on standardized tests in order to improve overall results for their school. The article digs beneath the superficial narrative—that Parks teachers forged test answers in order to save their jobs—to reveal something much more complex: a struggling public school desperately trying to preserve the incremental positive advancement of its beleaguered student population in the face of a heavily politicized and unrealistic focus on statistical improvement.

Unlike recent cheating scandals at Harvard and at Stuyvesant High School, where privileged students were concerned with their own advancement, those who cheated at Parks were never convinced of the importance of the tests; they viewed the cheating as a door they had to pass through in order to focus on issues that seemed more relevant to their students’ lives.

While not blameless, Parks teachers were working in the larger interest of their students. The school resided in an underprivileged area of Atlanta, where students’ families were routinely broken or plagued by drugs or violence, and so the staff were determined to prevent the closure of yet another institution in the neighborhood, causing yet another public structure to be abandoned. They subsisted on typically meager wages and fought valiantly to give their charges every chance to surpass their conditions. And it turns out Parks Middle School was not alone; an investigation revealed that cheating was rampant throughout the school district.

After more than two thousand interviews, the investigators concluded that forty-four schools had cheated and that a ‘culture of fear, intimidation and retaliation has infested the district, allowing cheating—at all levels—to go unchecked for years.’ They wrote that data had been ‘used as an abusive and cruel weapon to embarrass and punish.’ Several teachers had been told that they had a choice: either make targets or be placed on a Performance Development Plan, which was often a precursor to termination. At one elementary school, during a faculty meeting, a principal forced a teacher whose students had tested poorly to crawl under the table.

Read the full article here.