The cheating scandals in Atlanta and Long Island that rocked the educational establishment last year appear to be spreading. In the past, the tendency has been to view these scandals as isolated incidents—examples of moral failures on the part of individual teachers or school districts. A new study by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, however, refutes this view—the problem of cheating is much more serious and widespread than previously thought. According to the study, which examined test results from the largest school districts in all 50 states, a full six percent (196) have evidence of widespread manipulation of test results. The evidence implicates school districts from Los Angeles to Houston to Baltimore, and the scandals, if true, could impact tens of thousands of students nationwide.
It is certainly possible that some of these anomalous results are just that—anomalies with a perfectly valid explanation behind them. But it is exceedingly unlikely that all—or even the majority—of them are; cheating is clearly a serious problem in a growing number of American school districts.
This speaks to a serious failure, both moral and systemic, in our education system. The moral issues are obvious—teachers face many difficulties in their jobs, but there is absolutely no excuse for fabricating test scores and lying about student’s achievements. The widely distributed nature of these allegations shows that this is a serious moral problem and not simply the work of a few bad apples.
Yet perhaps more serious is what this shows about the weakness of the big box model in American education. In today’s bureaucratic and centralized public schools, parents often find that they have little knowledge of the teachers who are entrusted with their children’s education. Taxpayers are frustrated: schools seem to be getting more and more money, but old problems persist and in some ways get worse. Partly to respond to these concerns, districts try to assess both teachers schools and states and federal authorities try to assess everything going on locally under their jurisdiction.
These evaluation process are almost always clumsy, bureaucratic and deeply flawed. Fraud often results; teachers and administrators resent what feels like the unfairness and arbitrary nature of crude and one sided evaluation measures. With both funding for their students and their own professional standing potentially at risk, the temptation to cheat isn’t always resisted.
In the short run, the authorities should come down on the cheaters like a ton of bricks. Students need to see that cheaters don’t prosper. Longer term, the solution is to keep bringing education closer to the grass roots and to give parents more say in how and by whom their children are taught. Big box schools that can’t monitor teaching effectively, and where teachers and administrators cheat are no place for this country’s kids.