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.

Push/Precious and The Hurt Lockdown

The Hurt Locker wins Best Picture at the 2010 Oscars

Put the hurtin' on Best Picture: The Hurt Locker

I am experiencing delayed-onset Oscar Fever via disjointed YouTube clips due to the Cablevision flap – or whatever it was that interrupted the ABC signal on its way to my rabbit ears and sturdy little DTV digital converter box, where it could have slid down the series of wires and flickered onto my screen in I guess pixels now!  showing me a bunch of people in gowns and black suits, wearing diamonds, weilding gold statues.

Hollywood’s biggest night.  The Oscars.

I have pretty much caught up – the beginning musical number with Neil Patrick Harris was really (can I say this?) gay (I think that that’s what Antonio Banderas was mouthing when the camera showed him). There was what is now being called a Kanye West/Taylor Swift power struggle over the acceptance speech for Best Documentary Short.  Well, hopefully this will get more people to watch the film, Music by Prudence, which I am looking forward to watching – hopefully this behind the scenes drama will get it to Blockbuster!

By the way: how crazy is it that you can now “Kanye West” somebody – which means a racially tense grabbing of the spotlight on a live awards telecast.  It should mean also to make a radical statement on a disaster-relief telethon (too bad nobody really Kanye Wested any of the Haiti events, frankly, because the IMF and the World Bank and thus the United States DO NOT Care About Haitian People.)

Mo’Nique also won big in the category of Best Supporting Actress for Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire. When I saw her stirring acceptance speech I immediately thought about MY FRIENDS that I sat around with when we were fourteen and talked about how we were going to become famous.  Yay Mo’Nique!

In her wardrobe, speech and backstage chat, Mo’Nique referenced Hattie McDaniel – the first African American woman to win the award for her performance in Gone With the Wind.  “She is on my mind tonight,” Mo’Nique told the press backstage after her win, “And she should be on your minds as well.”

And how.  Gone With the Wind is an indelible part of Hollywood legend and iconography.  Though nowhere near as flagrant as the hate-mongering Birth of a Nation (itself still celebrated as a feat of early cinema), Gone With the Wind – like all movies – and definitely Awards shows serve like time-capsules of how the situation is on the ground: play the role of Mammy onscreen, win an Academy Award for it.  So now we have only the fourth African American woman to win the award, and she plays a mom that has turned on her own children, three generations after Hattie McDaniel and so many other women played an exaggerated Mammy to white children who are pampered like Vivian Leigh – the servant to a child.

So then we had The Blind Side with Sandra Bullock, who plays the matriarch of a Taco Bell franchise-owning millionaire clan who take in a young African American man who later goes on to play in the NFL (based on a true story!).  After breaking on the scene sixteen years ago in Speed, Bullock’s bus finally pulled up (screeched to a halt?!) when she won Best Actress for The Blind Side Sunday night. (Clooney barely clapped when they showed the clip from the film as a Best Picture nomination, but who can blame him? It featured what Mos Def might call “corny color jokes” – yikes).  She dedicated her Oscar to the mothers who take in babies with no place else to go, presumably including African American and Latin American, Asian babies who have impoverished mothers or mothers who won’t take care of them.  Hattie McDaniel, you’re on my mind.

A big winner was the Iraq war film The Hurt Locker, with screenwriter [embedded Playboy journalist] Mark Boal and director Kathryn Bigelow winning statues, as well the film itself taking home the Best Picture trophy, which it will proudly display on its video rental boxes.  When the triumphant cast and crew took the stage, co-stars Jeremy Renner, Brian Geraghty and Anthony Mackie hugged one another like brothers in combat as they celebrated like bros in a manner that recalled the scene in the movie in which they celebrate surviving an unexpected standoff with faceless Iraqi insurgents after they stumble upon Ralph Fiennes and a bunch of British special forces who are mysteriously dressed like Iraqis (Agent provacateurs? In the movie’s most interesting moment, we wonder).

Celebrated for giving audiences all of the taste of the Iraq war with none of the getting dirty or shot up or messed up or “politics,” The Hurt Locker is the story of a bomb-diffusing Army unit’s three members, as they count down the days until they can go home.  And then [SPOILER ALERT] one of them gets home, takes one look at his little baby son and wife that played on Lost and turns right back around to the war.  Enlisting.  Again.

Like so many people in the Army were forced to do through in the real world through the policy of “stop loss.”  In December 2009, Army Specialist Marc Hall was jailed in Liberty County, Georgia for refusing to re-deploy to Iraq after being stop lossed – oh, and spitting an angry hip-hop song about it didn’t help him stay out of jail either.  Read more about Marc Hall here.

Maybe we should have followed Serget JT Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) home instead – it didn’t seem to sit well with him what had gone on the past couple years.  But unfortunately, his character isn’t as fleshed out as it could have been in the writing, even as Mackie embodies the tense  manner of his occupation within the occupation as a man of color, making the movie that much more interesting.

But Staff Sergent William James is the hero of the movie, maybe named after the Varieties of Religious Experience guy, as being in the Iraq war is his form of religion, apparently, or as the opening quote hints bleakly, context-lessly, his drug.  Wait a minute: he does help the Iraqi people through diffusing the bombs that are being set off in their midst.  That are meant for him.  An important thing to do.  His character, interestingly enough, is never directly shown killing anyone.  Not so for his co-unit people Sergent Sanborn and Specialist Owen Eldridge who do kill, left and right.  James actually tenderly coaches Sanborn through sniping the “insurgent” Iraqis who hole up  in an isolated stone fort in the middle of the desert.

Whoa so the best we can do in this war is tread water harm-wise like James, get an adrenaline rush and make a few buddies?  Does that make sense to do?

Oh, and another thing about Staff Sergent James: His methods are unorthodox.  He’s crazy. Renner’s male bonding scenes with Mackie and Geraghty feel put on, like acting class exercises where he plays the coolest guy in the room.  But this crazy bastard might be just what we need.  Sort of like a metaphor for Bush’s and now Obama’s war?  It’s kind of gross.

Following the blueprint of – as journalist John Pilger puts it Hollywood’s “pity the invader Vietnam war tragedies,” but dialing down the Army-is-absurdity of its predecessors (though did anyone else catch a weird Chaplin Tappan character reference to Catch 22?)  – this is tragedy lite – the kind of movie you make when the war is still going on.  What is the word for that?  Propaganda?

More Asians depicted most centrally as children (see Tropic Thunder): the Iraqi character with the most lines is a young boy who is sadistically murdered by the ghostly insurgents – who are these people intent on tearing their country apart?  At least in David O. Russell’s superior Three Kings we got the “What’s the matter with Michael Jackson?” scene with Mark Walhberg forced to guzzle crude oil.

But nope, in The Hurt Locker, all the tragedy lies with the Americans.  We don’t get to see the people whose country is being occupied.  It’s a desert cypher, as incomprehensible as Japan to Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson in Lost in Translation.  It’s as though the U.S. has the lockdown on feeling of hurt from this war, and with more than one million Iraqis dead since 2003 – how can that possibly be true?