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Cheating fails the character test

Posted: July 26, 2011 - 8:34pm

School’s out, but summer vacation is anything but relaxing for those embroiled in the most extensive cheating scandal in the history of American public education.

A 10-month investigation in Georgia revealed pervasive tampering with standardized tests in Atlanta public schools. And teachers and administrators, not students, are the culprits.

The report implicates 178 educators, including 38 principals, at dozens of schools. American public education was to be the training ground of civic virtue. Instead, Atlanta students have gotten an object lesson in hypocrisy and corruption.

The findings would be scandalous for anyone in a position of trust. They are especially so for public employees entrusted with children.

We expect teachers to set a good example. Instead, some Atlanta teachers held “changing parties” to correct wrong answers on tests, the report said. In other cases, proctors provided extra time or gave answers to students during testing.

Some supervisors apparently knew about the cheating — or even instigated the practices. A climate of intimidation convinced some teachers their jobs were at risk if they didn’t cooperate. At least one reluctant principal resigned under pressure.

In the background of the scandal is a policy increasing pressure on schools to make gains in standardized test scores. In 2002, the No Child Left Behind Act for the first time prescribed a federally driven testing regimen for local schools. It stipulated that all students be proficient in reading and math by 2014.

That looming deadline may help explain, but it’s not an excuse for, the cheating. For one thing, why didn’t educators previously feel a responsibility toward parents and students such as they showed to federal bureaucrats?

After all, a teacher’s business is to help students learn. A good teacher recognizes a child’s competencies as well as her capacity, and helps her grow as much as possible toward her full potential.

Producing data that feigns progress is a dereliction of duty. In Atlanta, children were advanced to the next grade without having mastered content in their current grade.

Even worse, this cheating ring made a mockery of education’s highest purpose. Aristotle said education should teach a child to love what he ought to love. Schools should cultivate the virtues essential for self-government.

In American history, schools traditionally shaped the moral and intellectual life of the individual, drawing on a rich classical and Christian heritage. Investing in individuals would lead to a civilized society.

By the early 20th century, amid massive immigration to America, progressive education theory introduced social reform goals into the classroom. The goal became socialization by experts. “Local diversity was defined as a problem,” writes education historian Charles Glenn Jr.

John Dewey, one of the most influential of the progressive reformers, had strong opinions about American education’s focus on forming individual character.

“What the normal child continuously needs,” Dewey wrote, “is not so much isolated moral lessons upon the importance of truthfulness and honesty ... as the formation of habits of social imagination and conception.”

With cheating scandals also surfacing in Philadelphia, Los Angeles and Washington, D.C., maybe public schools should have concentrated more on the moral lessons about honesty rather than socialization.

Today, “competitiveness” is the great policy pressure on schools. The going theory is that more rigorous, uniform demands will make America educationally and economically competitive.

No Child Left Behind and other centralized, one-size-fits-all policy implies that this goal is too important to entrust to those closest to students — their parents, teachers and principals. Federal policymakers seem to have lost faith in the very democratic citizenry it is public schools’ mission to cultivate. So parents enjoy less leverage than do education unions and distant bureaucrats.

But rather than better protecting the interest of students, centralized policy has made educators less responsive to meeting the needs of individual students and more attentive to making things look good on paper to comply with federal law.

That’s the kind of perverse incentive that should give policymakers pause. Laws should make it in everyone’s interest to do what is right.

To restore integrity in education, we ought to put greater authority in the hands of those with the greatest interest in the moral and intellectual formation of children — their parents. With the most vested in long-term success, parents are the least likely to be swayed by external pressures that take the mission off course.

Human history is littered with the wreckage of utopian visions that sought social progress through central action.

The paradox of the American experiment is that cultivating individual moral responsibility and trusting individuals with self-government is the best way to ensure the common good.

• Marshall is director of the DeVos Center for Religion and Civil Society at The Heritage Foundation (heritage.org) and author of “Now and Not Yet: Making Sense of Single Life in the Twenty-First Century.”

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