From the Trenches: Cheating

Mike Lawson • Commentary • September 19, 2013

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When our leaders cheat, our students are cheated


Once upon a time, in a land far, far away, there was a nation with a vision for education. This nation believed in the right of all children to have a well-rounded education regardless of economic or demographic backgrounds. This nation believed that professionally trained educators were the only people who should be employed in the institutions that develop young minds. This nation believed in using educational methodology and curriculum that were steeped in research with a proven record of effectiveness. This nation believed that students are much more than just test scores. This nation allowed the facts to inform decisions, not to allow desired outcomes to manipulate the facts. Lastly, this nation believed in the rights of parents to have an input and say in the education of their young people.

If this sounds like a fairy tale, maybe that is because… it is. Nothing can be further from the reality of what is being passed off as “education reform” in our nation than the paragraph above. And the potential outcomes could undermine the very premise of public education.

Let’s review some of the most recent developments.

Too Much Emphasis on Testing?

An Atlanta grand jury indicted 35 educators from the district, including principals, teachers, testing coordinators, and the superintendent, who back in 2009 was named the state’s “Superintendent of the Year.” All were charged in a district-wide cheating scandal where answers were changed on tests and miraculous improvements to test scores appeared.

In Washington, DC, schools chancellor Michelle Rhee rode in on promises of reform and a “no excuses” approach. This led to gains in school test scores (meanwhile, 50 percent of a teacher’s evaluation was tied to test scores). USA Today reported in 2011 an unusually high number of “wrong to right” erasures on tests. The chancellor refused to investigate. Six years after the “Reign of Rhee” began, the test scores have now plunged and the schools are worse off than when she arrived.

Several districts in several other states report similar patterns of cheating.

Don’t Like a School Performance Grade?

Just this summer, the commissioner of Education for the state of Florida, Tony Bennett (no, not the crooner), was forced to resign due to a cheating scandal that occured during his previous appointment as commissioner of Education in Indiana. It is reported the commissioner manipulated the state’s system for evaluating school performance. Bennett, a Republican who created an A-to-F grading protocol for Indiana schools as a way to promote educational accountability, is accused of raising the mark for a charter school operated by a major GOP donor. The email exchange on this one is fascinating! Changes to evaluations were made for a number of schools, discrediting the entire system used to measure school performance across Indiana.

What is notable is that Bennett is also a the chairman of “Chiefs for Change,” a group of Chief State School Officers committed to “education reform” by way of things like more testing, expanded charter schools, closing schools, teacher evaluations, narrowing the curriculum, and so on.

The guy in charge of a group of state education leaders all promoting the same brand of education reform was caught manipulating his own accountability system to benefit a charter school.

If the people in charge of education are manipulating the system for their own benefit, who is looking out for our children?

The Emperor Has No Clothes

Several years ago there was a race to create a set of common educational standards for reading and math. The U.S. Department of Education put up the money for the development of these new standards to be dubbed “Common Core.” Forty-five states and the District of Columbia agreed to adopt the Common Core standards before they were even developed! The standards were not tested or piloted. There was no research developed to verify the validity of the claims being made about the impact of the standards.

Now, states are running as fast as they can in the other direction. Legislators in several states are introducing bills to halt the implementation of the Common Core standards. Many view this as an intrusion on states’ rights, others see it as the federalization of education, and a few even see it for what it is: a hastily developed, poorly designed effort with not a shred of research to demonstrate any educational impact – good or bad. I like to call it a cure for no known disease!

If 75% of Students Fail a Statewide Test, Who is at Fault?

The first statewide use of Common Core assessments occurred in New York. The results were released in mid-August. The results show a complete collapse of test scores in reading and math with nearly 70 percent of all students failing to meet proficiency levels in math and 75 percent failing in language arts. Public education in the state of New York has completely fallen apart! Well, at least according to this test.

Was this decline a result of testing student knowledge for content they have never been taught? Was it because the state failed to provide the appropriate materials to teachers to prepare their students? Was it because the assessments were not age appropriate? Or maybe it was “all of the above”?

The U.S. Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, explains it like this:

 “Too many school systems lied to children, families, and communities. Finally, we are holding ourselves accountable as educators.”

Really? We have been lying to our children? Is that why our colleges are full? Is that why we still have the dominant economy in the world? Is that why we still lead in creativity and innovation? Is that why the New York State Regents exam was viewed as one of the most stringent exit exams of any state for the past several decades – because the school systems have lied to families?

Or… could it be the Secretary of Education and all his pals in education reform land have been lying to all of us?

What is now playing out in the state of New York will soon be implemented across the country. Does anyone really believe that only 30 percent of our students are receiving the type of education needed for success?

New York students did not fail. The system promoted by Secretary Duncan and New York leaders has failed. He and the other leaders who have hoisted this whole charade on our students should be held accountable.

They all should resign!

Is Six Weeks Enough to Learn How to be an Effective Teacher?

In many of our urban schools, teachers who have been through the formal education required to be in front of a classroom are being replaced by college grads with six weeks of training through programs like Teach for America. These young do-gooders are then thrown into the most challenging schools.

The intentions of these young people who see teaching in challenging schools for a year or two as public service is not in question. But can anyone really look me in the eye and with a straight face tell me they are just as qualified or prepared to be effective as someone who has six years of professional preparation?  I think not.

Just because I play music does not mean I am qualified to teach music. Six weeks of training is not going to dramatically change this fact. But this is what education leaders tell us is a viable solution.

I would not want a doctor treating me who only had six weeks of training… I am stunned how some very smart people think this is a good idea for our children.

What Does All of this Mean?

There are certainly schools that are in need of improvement. But to categorize all schools in this way is disingenuous at best and destructive to our democracy at worst. All of the changes to the education system in the name of improvement should be tested before being implemented on a broad scale. This has not happened.

Our so-called educational leaders have turned the entire educational ecosystem into one big petri dish of unproven and undocumented theories of education reform. Which leads me to ask: is it more important to be fast than correct?

As educators in an important profession, it is time to speak up. It is time to state unequivocally that these policies have not been tested and imposing them on our children before they have been properly vetted is the equivalent of educational malpractice.

The time for sitting by and idly watching has come to an end.

The time to speak truth to power is now.

This insanity must come to an end.

Robert B. Morrison is the founder of Quadrant Arts Education Research, an arts education research and intelligence organization. In addition to other related pursuits in the field of arts education advocacy, Mr. Morrison has helped create, found, and run Music for All, the VH1 Save The Music Foundation, and, along with Richard Dreyfuss and the late Michael Kaman, the Mr. Holland’s Opus Foundation.

He may be reached directly at

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