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Why the Accountability Scandals Matter

September 10, 2013 By Michael Diedrich, Education Fellow

It's a few weeks now since reports first hit that Tony Bennett (former superintendent of Indiana and, now, Florida) had reworked the state's school grading system to make sure a particular school got the grade he thought it deserved. Those have now been confirmed by an official report [PDF] commissioned by Indiana's legislature.

It's a few months since a large batch of indictments was handed out to current and former district personnel in Atlanta, which was rocked by a massive cheating scandal.

It's a couple years since suspicious wrong-to-right erasure patterns triggered cheating suspicions around Michelle Rhee's time as superintendent of Washington, D.C.

It's more than few years since evidence surfaced of widespread cheating in Texas – with districts manipulating both test scores and graduation rates – during George W. Bush's governorship. That system (before cheating was unearthed) became the model for much of No Child Left Behind. Oh, and now there are new reports of Texas school districts manipulating test scores so that they can manipulate their graduation rates.

These are just a few examples. There are many more, including school-level concerns here in Minnesota. For each scandal that surfaces, one is left wondering how many more are going unseen.

Cheating is bad. Let's get that on the table right now. No one condones this behavior, at least not once it sees the light of day. Yet good people all over the country have ended up roped into the same kind of misconduct. Hard-nosed systems meant to encourage school accountability and keep educators focused on student outcomes appear to reliably produce cheating behavior.

This comes in different stripes. What Tony Bennett is accused of in Indiana – which the new, official report confirms – is reworking the state's grading system to ensure that Christel House Academy, a charter school operated by one of his donors, received the high grade he'd been publicly promising it would. When the school, assumed by many to be an excellent program, wound up with a C grade, that provided a warning flag to Bennett. Since he could rework the grading system, he did.

Most schools can't count on the designer of their accountability system already trusting them. Taking Bennett at his word that Christel House Academy is a good school, I wonder how many other, less well-connected good schools have ended up with a mediocre grade due to uncorrected flaws in their state or district accountability system. I also wonder how many mediocre schools wound up with good grades.

As soon as we create a system where penalties (closure, layoffs, etc.) are attached to low “performance” and major bonuses attached to high “performance” (as in Atlanta), we have created the conditions for cheating. Since most schools don't have friends retroactively changing the grades in their favor, school and district leaders take matters into their own hands. The result is illegal, unprofessional behavior. There should be no question that this is bad for students, their families, and their communities.

Of course, the vast majority of teachers, schools, districts, and state officials don't engage in scandal-worthy behavior. Many schools honestly do good work that does end up corresponding with the grade they get from their accountability system. Others honestly do good work and get bad grades, but take them in stride and hope for the best. A few coast by on grades that overstate their quality, and most people who could do something about it won't notice or care. Some lousy schools get appropriately lousy grades. And some give in to the pressure to cheat. The more intense the penalties and the bigger the incentives, the more schools you can expect to see caving to the pressure.

For some, this is an acceptable tradeoff. The extra vigilance needed to track down and punish cheaters, the students who end up short-changed in the meantime, and the occasional harmful mislabeling of a school or teacher are viewed as acceptable concessions if it means more attention paid to student outcomes.

It is certainly true that, until NCLB forced everyone to look at test scores for all major student groups, some districts and states – including Minnesota – coasted by with good reputations based on averages that masked a lack of educational equity. That was a tradeoff in a different direction, sacrificing attention to equity issues for comfort and security.

I argue that we need a different kind of accountability, one that isn't built on calculations using a few narrow inputs. Educators and communities should be central to that conversation. We continue to reap the consequences of simplistic, punitive “accountability,” and our students deserve a better kind of reform.

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