My first question after reading about seven teachers in an Atlanta, Ga., public school accused of altering standardized test scores to make it appear students performed better than they actually did was: How could they!?
The seven were nicknamed "the chosen" and, according to Georgia state investigator Richard Hyde, the less than magnificent seven sat in a locked room without windows, erasing wrong answers and inserting correct ones. It's one thing for a child to cheat on a test; it's quite another for teachers to do it.
Compounding the cheating scandal is that the children in this elementary school are mostly poor and African-American. How are they helped to develop a moral sense, not to mention an academic foundation that will lift them out of poverty, if they get the message that cheating is better than achieving?
According to The New York Times, the scandal goes beyond cheating. Retired district superintendent Beverly L. Hall is among 35 Atlanta educators indicted by a Fulton County grand jury. Dr. Hall was charged with "racketeering, theft, influencing witnesses, conspiracy and making false statements." Hall reportedly earned more than $500,000 in performance bonuses. She faces up to 45 years in prison.
Dr. Hall has received considerable recognition for her achievements, which later turned out to be counterfeit. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan invited her to the White House. In 2009, The American Association of School Administrators named her superintendent of the year. It was a case of something being too good to check. Who doesn't want to see poor and minority children succeed in school? It appears these teachers cared more about themselves than the children.
Even the reliably liberal and pro-public school columnist Eugene Robinson is disturbed. Writing in The Washington Post, Robinson says, "It is time to acknowledge that the fashionable theory of school reform -- requiring that pay and job security for teachers, principals and administrators depend on their students' standardized test scores -- is at best a well-intentioned mistake, and at worst nothing but a racket."
Robinson quotes Post education reporter Valerie Strauss, who has written that while there have been "dozens" of allegations of cheating around the country, "only Atlanta's has been aggressively and thoroughly investigated." Strauss wrote, "We don't really know" how widespread the problem might be. Isn't it long past time to find out?
The problem is that a monopoly always protects itself. The teachers' unions and many Democratic politicians, who receive their campaign contributions, oppose school choice, which would improve not only public schools, but also the chances of poor and minority children to have a better life. The current approach appears to be to keep disadvantaged children in underperforming schools so that underperforming teachers keep their jobs and the politicians they support keep theirs. As long as the monopoly survives, we can expect more cheating and corner-cutting and less real achievement for children who ought to be everyone's first concern.
Instead, as Atlanta would suggest, public school children are subject to all manner of manipulation and disservice by people charged with educating them. Perhaps if parents had the freedom to send their children to a school they believed would offer them a better shot at true success they would fare better. Could school choice be the answer?
Indiana thinks so. Last week, the state's Supreme Court upheld a voucher program that gives poor and middle-class families access to tax dollars to help them pay private school tuition. Parents should decide where their children go to school.
It's not the children who cannot achieve. It's the system that fails them. "Our schools desperately need to be fixed," writes Robinson. "But creating a situation in which teachers are more likely than students to cheat cannot be the right path. ... Students are not widgets. I totally reject the idea that students from underprivileged neighborhoods cannot learn. Of course they can."
Authorities should pursue investigations of alleged cheating by teachers and school administrators. Meanwhile, for this and many other reasons, the school choice movement is gaining strength. It is seen by increasing numbers of Americans as the best way to prevent cheating children out of the decent education they deserve.
(Readers may e-mail Cal Thomas at email@example.com.)