As I See It: Rigging Reputation
April 8, 2013 Victor Rozek
In Atlanta, the teachers cheated so the students didn’t have to. It was an imperfect solution to be sure, designed to relieve the pressures of standardized testing, an unintended consequence of No Child Left Behind, otherwise known as “Are our children learning?” Dozens, perhaps hundreds, of educators were involved over the span of a decade. As of 10 days ago, 35 have been indicted, including former superintendent Beverly Hall, charged with racketeering, theft, influencing witnesses, conspiracy, and making false statements. Can you spell “prison time?”
As test scores miraculously soared even in the poorest, most challenged districts, it became evident that all was not as it seemed. Suspicions rose, but for years, administrators managed to stonewall and/or rebuff the questioners and doubters until, under relentless pressure from investigators, one of their ranks flipped.
It was Jackie Parks, a third grade teacher, who provided her students with a final valuable life lesson: how to turn state’s evidence. Michael Winerip, writing for the New York Times, reports that Parks admitted being one of seven teachers–bizarrely dubbed “the chosen”–who, during state testing week, worked in a locked, windowless room erasing their student’s wrong answers and penciling in correct ones.
Where was that angel when I took my SATs?
Once investigators convinced Parks to wear a wire, the party was pretty much over. It turns out that the superintendent had a half-million in bonus pay riding on the testing. So she decided to get tough on failure, accepting no excuses for low test scores. Zero tolerance for the effects of poverty, and overcrowding, and children living in violent, drug infested neighborhoods. In the process, she replaced 90 percent of the principals (presumably the honest ones), and the message was clear: give me the results I want, or give me your job. As the indictment noted, “achieving the desired end result was more important than the students’ education.”
What creativity teachers may have lacked in the classroom they applied to cheating. Amazingly, they found no fewer than 50 ways to game the system before, during, and after the testing process. Ironically, as scores “improved,” schools that once received federal funding to help struggling students were assumed to no longer need it. Standardized testing was supposed to ensure that kids would get smarter, but in Atlanta, quite the opposite happened. They never got the chance.
Even more ironically, investigators discovered, according to Winerip, that suspects generally seemed to be nice, concerned people. Listening to hours of secretly recorded conversations, they heard men and women who clearly believed they “cared about kids.” Of course they cared about tenure and bonus pay as well, but the two are not incompatible.
It would be easy to dismiss Atlanta as being unique, but FairTest, the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, notes that adult “test cheating has been confirmed in 37 states and Washington D.C.” Doubtless, before the scandal broke, many school districts wanted to replicate Atlanta’s success. Like the pressure among athletes to use steroids, if you’re competing against artificially inflated opponents, you either join the cheaters or lose.
Nietzsche said: “In individuals, insanity is rare; but in groups, parties, nations, and epochs, it is the rule.” That, in part, explains why a teacher’s union, or a corporation, or a teenage gang is more likely to cause damage than the individuals that comprise those groups. It’s why Google sometimes does evil things, and why IBM did business with Nazi Germany.
But there is more at work in Atlanta than group think. In his engrossing book The Righteous Mind, Jonathan Haidt posits evolutionary motivations for why people think what they think and act as they act. There is little correlation between people’s moral reasoning (their professed values) and their behavior, Haidt argues. What appears seemingly irrational to the observer may be a consequence of deep genetic imprinting. In fact, says Haidt, the role of the mind is to provide post hoc justification for actions already taken or beliefs intuitively held. If people instinctively believe something is wrong, like standardized testing, for example, they will rationalize workarounds.
That explains why educators saw little discrepancy between rigging test scores and their student’s welfare. Superintendent Hall had established a meritocracy based on preempting the loss of reputation. And Haidt would argue that reputation–from an evolutionary perspective–is far more important than reality.
As a survival tool, reputation is what kept you a member in good standing in your clan or tribe. The group offered safety and belonging. Disavowing your group was–and remains–risky, as whistleblowers and gang members frequently learn. Small wonder so many teachers kept silent for so long. At minimum, deliberately harming a group’s reputation results in exile.
Suppose, Haidt says, that you could either be “a supremely honest and fair person throughout your life, yet everyone around you will believe you’re a scoundrel.” Or, “you will cheat and lie whenever it suits your needs, yet everyone around you will believe you’re a paragon of virtue.” Which would you chose? If you answer too quickly, you haven’t thought things through. Most people would choose the former, intuitively believing they could control their flaws, and still see themselves as virtuous while enjoying the benefits of widespread approval. The administration at Penn State comes to mind.
Deserved or not, the Atlanta school district had developed a sterling reputation. Winerip notes that stellar test scores brought the superintendent fame. “In 2009, the American Association of School Administrators named her superintendent of the year and Arne Duncan, the secretary of education, hosted her at the White House.” Teachers and principals received bonuses. Money and acclaim flowed. Atlanta was the Enron of education–the best of the best until Toto pulled back the curtain.
Socrates said: “The way to gain a good reputation is to endeavor to be what you desire to appear.” When that fails, we turn to advertising and PR firms that renovate reputations with selective images designed to obfuscate reality. We even have online reputation monitoring services to help manage public perception. And it’s a growth industry. Negative press, hostile forum posts, social media attacks; reputation has acquired new vulnerabilities in the information age. Self-Googling, and the compulsive monitoring of emails, tweets, and social media are some of the ways we check the evolving status of our reputations. We are, Haidt argues, obsessed with what other people think about us, and for most people looking good is more important than being good.
That’s an important lesson brought to you by the crack team of educators from greater Atlanta. Let’s hope it’s just one of the many lessons Atlanta’s children didn’t learn.