In Louisiana schools, a cautionary tale from Atlanta ought to be on the radar.
A jury found 11 of 12 former teachers, principals and administrators guilty of conspiring to change scores on standardized tests.
Those are felony convictions with hefty potential penalties in jail time, as much as five years for some of the former educators. A number of others in the scandal had pleaded to other offenses or died before trials.
It’s a case that drew unwanted attention to Atlanta Public Schools, previously seen as improving significantly — but the 2009 conspiracy inflated some of those test scores by cheating.
The issue was sparked by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, which reported on spikes in test scores; a resulting criminal investigation took two years, and the complicated mixture of testimony and physical evidence of cheating resulted in a five-month trial. What a mess.
What is cautionary about this tale is not that cheating is rife in Louisiana schools. Today’s accountability system in Louisiana has been developed over 20 years. It is protected somewhat by the regular practices that have been part of school life for a couple of generations of schoolchildren; the professional integrity and personal sense of honor of teachers and administrators is the first and most vital defense against cheating.
Large-scale cheating along the lines of Atlanta’s experience would be difficult to achieve, and then to get away with.
In the Atlanta trial, though, a significant part of the prosecutors’ case was that teachers of long experience had the motivation to cheat, that bonuses and raises were awarded based on test scores.
This is, not surprisingly, one of the criticisms of any system that relies on standardized tests. Yet there is no realistic alternative to the tests, because the taxpayers — with children in school or not — require a measure of school performance.
Cheating on test scores hurts the student most of all, because a child’s teacher needs the feedback of tests to help fill in gaps and build on strengths. What a high-performing teacher does when she motivates a love of learning in a student is a magical thing, but it is magic that is aided by the guidance that test scores provide.
The ideal that every student will have a high-performing teacher in the classroom is the motivation behind some of Gov. Bobby Jindal’s most controversial education changes in the past few years. It is an ambition that everyone in education and out of the system ought to share; the impact of a strong teacher has been quantified in studies to last for years and make a significant difference in the long-term success of students.
Measurement is vital. How that is done is a legitimate subject for debate, and the original teacher evaluation process has been considerably tweaked since its first passage in 2010.
The issue of carrots as well as sticks for accountability will never be entirely settled, but both are part of the process.
Which leads to another lesson of Atlanta: a sudden zoom in test scores is something of a giveaway.
Progress in public education, particularly in systems where poverty is an ever-present obstacle to student performance, is going to be a process of growth, not a sprint. A community can invest whatever ambitions it wants into a “star” superintendent, but it is the long haul of commitment that is necessary to achieve the goal that is widely shared for public education in Louisiana.