Preventing cheating in schools

Parents, taxpayers must boost vigilance

June 12, 2000|By Matthew Robinson

WASHINGTON -- Another month, another standardized-test cheating scandal.

Principal Karen Karch stepped down May 31 after teachers in her Montgomery County school were caught helping fifth-graders cheat on statewide tests. Before then, her school, Potomac Elementary, was considered one of Maryland's best.

Teachers and principals are supposed to be role models for students, not partners in crime. But such man-bites-dog-stories are becoming all too frequent. Similar cheating scandals made headlines in New York City and Los Angeles earlier this year.

In fact, as long as educators, school bureaucrats and the political defenders of the status quo refuse to reform, the cheating will get worse. When officials resort to cooking the books, parents and reformers should understand why. In this era of "accountability," schools with fad-ridden curricula and unproven teaching methods will have to cheat to make it look like their students' scores are improving.

Accountability is the watchword of politicians and educators. They wield it like a wand to spellbind a public that consistently ranks education at the top of their list of concerns in poll after poll.

Truth is, accountability hurts.

As charter schools expand and prove their viability, and school choice programs surmount their legal challenges to become reality, the pressure will be on public school officials. They'll have to show good results -- by any means necessary.

One of the first reported incidents of official cheating broke in April 1999.The Austin Independent School District was caught fixing test results on the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills. The district threw out the scores of students in low-income areas to bolster results district-wide.

As Austin Interim School Superintendent A.C. Gonzales explained it, "There seemed to be an overemphasis on final results and an under-emphasis on just how to get there."

Ah, there's the rub.

The education establishment resents accountability in the form of tests, or audits, or evaluations, or nosy parents. Demanding results only aggravates the special interests -- teachers unions, ACLU lawyers, education schools and state bureaucrats, who think they know better. For them, the real issue is turf and money. Whether children learn matters little. They believe that the public doesn't know what it's talking about in education, and doesn't need to know.

A 1998 poll by New York-based Public Agenda showed that most professors at America's education schools and teaching colleges hold positions exactly opposed to what parents want. Only 12 percent of ed-school professors thought it is important for students to end up with the right answer. They place the "process" of learning over content.

Less than 20 percent of these teachers of teachers thought that correct grammar, spelling and punctuation should be stressed in the classroom. Only 37 percent said that maintaining order and discipline in class is important.

Nearly 80 percent felt that the traditional approach to education is outmoded and instead favor those techniques which boost self-esteem over systematic instruction. Fully 92 percent concluded that teachers should be "facilitators" of learning, not conveyors of knowledge.

If the definition of insanity is the repetition of the same action over and over with the expectation of different results, then 30 years of education policy is positively certifiable. Remember what has passed for reform over the years: Look-say, Whole language, Reading Recovery, New Math, "New, new" math. The public spends more and gets less as the debate hinges on the structure of funding rather than the content of knowledge.

The education establishment clearly does not want reform, and it will go to great lengths to avoid it while reaping the benefits of taxpayers' largesse.

As politicians scramble and educators grapple with increased scrutiny, it is imperative for parents and taxpayers to be more vigilant and demand to know more about what goes on in the public schools. Otherwise, expect more scandals like those in Maryland, New York, Texas and California.

Matthew Robinson is the 1999 Phillips Foundation Journalism Fellow and an adjunct fellow of the Claremont Institute of Claremont, Calif. He lives in Alexandria, Va.

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