Bad Teachers?

Eighty teachers in Atlanta Public Schools confess to cheating on standardized tests, while Cameron Diaz lazily besmirches the role of educator at the multiplex. When teachers cheat, what do we learn?

Cameron Diaz in the movie Bad Teacher

On Tuesday, Gov. Nathan Deal of Georgia released a report on a decade-long cheating network for state tests on the part of 178 educators in Atlanta Public School system, including 38 principals, 80 of which have confessed. The culture of cheating is said to have stretched all the way to the top, allegedly implicating former Superintendent Beverly Hall. APS, the report says, manipulated a “data-driven” system in which test-score targets were being set ever higher, and then achieved through falsification. This misleading achievement data led to national accolades and a rush of private funding for APS.

Stretching back to the nascence of the No Child Left Behind Act in 2001, the widespread cheating allegations in Atlanta could draw increased scrutiny of standardized tests, long considered the benchmark of how children are learning, and which schools deserve to stay open.

According to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, which broke the story:

“The investigators’ report, officials said, depicts a culture that rewarded cheaters, punished whistle-blowers and covered up improprieties. Strongly contradicting denials of cheating and other irregularities by Hall and other top district executives, the report describes organized wrongdoing that robbed tens of thousands of children — many of whom came from disadvantaged backgrounds and struggled in school — of an honest appraisal of their abilities.”

The report recounts instances in which children who could not read not only passed, but scored highest on the state reading tests. Had they been accurately tested, these struggling children would have received the support they needed to improve their skills, the Journal-Constitution reports. But in the school-funding meritocracy that closes schools with too many kids who don’t test well, it appears that the APS scandal is an ugly result of what can happen when financial support is tied to the black-and-white results of state tests in the sociological gray area of education.

State tests or no, teachers should know whether their students are able to read or not, and the practice of “social promotion” has long advanced students to upper grades who are not ready for the work they encounter there.

Next door in Alabama, one of the 10 poorest states in the U.S., the testing system of No Child Left Behind has drawn criticism. “There’s a fallacy in the law and everybody knows it,” said Alabama State Superintendent Joe Morton in August of last year. According to Morton, the whole system is out of order; the NCLB Act states that by 2014 every child is supposed to test on grade level in reading and math. “That can’t happen,” said Morton. “You have too many variables and you have too many scenarios, and everybody knows that would never happen.” In this context, it appears that the teachers and school leaders in Atlanta might have been acting unethically out of duress.

Are the victims in the Atlanta scandal that poor high school graduating class of 2011, who walked across the stage with a false sense of how their scores had measured up against the rest of the eighth graders in the U.S. back in 2006 – on the dubious “level playing field” of state tests?

Former Atlanta Public Schools Superintendent Beverly Hall displays her 2009 Superintendent of the Year award. Hall's lawyers maintain that she did not know of the widespread cheating among APS educators

Or the bureaurocrats, robbed of the veil of accuracy heretofore signified by the miles of Scantron sheets they determine is the best way to allocate resources?

From how the next few months play out in Atlanta, we will see the consequences of messing with the certainty that in education, data equals destiny.

Depressing accounts from the teacher whistleblowers profiled in the Journal-Constitution say they witnessed other teachers giving kids the answers, allowing them to cheat off of fellow students, or flat-out erasing and correcting wrong answers on the sheets. These whistleblowers say their reports were ignored by school leadership, and allege they were retaliated against for reporting the unethical behavior they witnessed.

In a Journal-Constitution story on the cheating scandal, one teacher accused of feeding fourth graders answers defended herself, saying she was merely walking the aisles to wake up sleeping students so they “wouldn’t salivate on their answer sheets.”

Is there any other way to determine whether these kids in Atlanta were learning all these years? Falsifying federal records is punishable by up to 10 years in prison. For this critical mass of cheating teachers, what will the consequences be?

The Journal-Constitution, again:

“State School Superintendent John Barge and Executive Director of the Governor’s Office of Student Achievement Kathleen Mathers said in a statement Tuesday in coming weeks ‘they will be working on a number of key issues, including: 1) student support, 2) accountability, and 3) the financial benefit that some schools may have received as a result of cheating.’”

Will the schools implicated in this cheating scandal (and of the 56 schools investigated, evidence of cheating turned up at 44) be made to pay financially in keeping with the meritocracy of public education policy?

For their part, major private donor the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation this week said in a statement that they continue to support APS and the work they fund. In 2007 Gates gave the Atlanta Public School System $10.5 million to redesign their high schools, and in 2010, another $10 million to overhaul the city’s teacher recruitment efforts. These latter funds will presumably be needed more than ever now, with the new APS leadership vowing that the cheating teachers will not be back in the classroom.

“The vast majority of the district’s educators, administrators and students have all worked hard to overcome great odds and earn stellar results,” Gates Foundation press secretary Christopher Williams told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

As a nation, this might be a good time to ask ourselves, should cheating hold the same moral juice on Wall Street (where tens of millions of adults were robbed of an honest appraisal of their credit abilities with very little systemic accountability) as it does in the Teacher’s Lounge?

The implications of this scandal are that educators acted selfishly to secure their own jobs and financial gain at the expense of their students’ learning. But what if it was to keep the doors of their schools open in a system they believed was wrong-headed?

Selfishness is the order of the day in the comedy Bad Teacher, in which Cameron Diaz plays Elizabeth Halsey, a seventh grade English teacher with slacker ways who resorts to ludicrous sexual trickery and extortion to steal the answers to a state test and win a cash incentive. She is nearly caught, but never punished. In the moral code of Hollywood, tellingly, Ms. Halsey steals the answers so she can teach them overtly to her students – and perhaps she gets off Scott free because her kids actually learn.

Ms. Halsey pedagogy involves “really teaching” her kids (through a convenient montage of dubious methods), inter-cut with descending levels of sexual degradation. She needs the incentive money for a breast-enhancement surgery so she can land Justin Timberlake’s fancy watch empire-scion milquetoast not-doing-it-for-the-money substitute teacher.

Diaz delivers probably her most compelling onscreen characterization as a verge-of-burnout beauty cynically snapping on a smile for what feels like one last time, each time. But her keeping-it-realness is not grounded in any social reality other than that of a gold digger fallen from grace, her class populated with stock-character kids fated to be pint-sized echoes of her adult love quadrangle. Ms. Halsey’s story begs the question: not, will her kids learn, but will she learn to live with her own breasts through the love of a humble PE teacher, Jason Segal, a man doing it for the witty repartee, humble state paycheck and, oh yeah, the kids. And after all that, Ms. Halsey’s moment of redemption comes through a small bout of inappropriate, breast-related teacher-student line-stepping during a field trip.

Besides the upper class/middle class tension between Timberlake and Segal, race and class are largely absent from this education satire, with three notable exceptions. Before she becomes an all-business educator, Ms. Halsey screens the teacher-as-savoir movies of the past two generations for her class, from Lean on Me to Dangerous Minds, letting Edward James Olmos and Morgan Freeman to do her inspiring for her mostly Caucasian students. Posing as a Chicago Tribune reporter to lift a copy of the answer key from a hapless Thomas Lennon, the script flips the idea of intrinsic racial bias in the testing material into a queasy punch line referencing “Orientals.” And in the final frames, a middle school named for Malcolm X. gets an unlikely laugh, when it is announced that Ms. Halsey’s painfully corny teacher-nemesis will presumably receive her off-screen come-uppance there.

As for real life, stay tuned for how this all-too-real cheating scandal will play out. The more complicated “selfishness” of Atlanta Public Schools educators has been thrust into the sweat-inducing spotlight, which might release some toxins of what has been left unsaid in our all-important, high profile “national conversation” about education.