Atlanta Schools' Cheating Scandal: An Insider's Perspective

The shock and awe reverberating around the nation in response to the cheating scandal unveiled this past week in Atlanta should be a point of contention for every American with any connection to any urban school district in our country. Some 178 educators, including 38 principals, were named as having cheated on statewide CRCT tests in the report which noted among other things the “culture of fear” and collusion that made cheating possible. 

Having worked at a school named in the report, I understand the instructional environment that makes events like these possible. The intensity around meeting key benchmarks, ensuring that schools meet adequate yearly progress by any means necessary, the way teachers are required to categorize students in the beginning of the year on the basis of their likelihood to pass the state test, and many other factors, all culminate to create an environment that is so heavily pressured from the top down that cheating is a likely outcome.

This does not mean that focusing on student achievement in an urban center automatically creates an environment for cheating. However, it does mean that when the focus is on targets and scores instead of what students actually need, cheating happens and school systems fail the very people they are intended to educate. Additionally, the teachers that committed these crimes are not evil people, as the media would like to make them out to be. 

On the contrary, in my experience, these teachers genuinely care about kids and their futures, but the educational system in our country demands expectations that are currently out of reach because of the lack of the right kind of support. By the time most of the kids in large urban school districts reach formal education at age five, they are already far behind and there is presently nothing in place to catch them up. Instead, leaders on every level demand that these kids perform at the same level as other students and then harass teachers when they don’t meet the bar.

This is not an attempt to in anyway justify what teachers and administrators did in Atlanta. It was wrong and their is excuse for it. However, as a country we should stop our finger-pointing and realize that this is the environment we are creating in every school system in America. 

This is not an isolated occurrence and it is not specific to Atlanta. Instead of going on a witch hunt for teachers and administrators engaged in unethical practices in every school district, we need to step back and evaluate what we are doing to students in this country. This incident should serve as a wakeup call to change the education (or lack thereof) we are providing to our most disadvantaged communities.

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