TAKOMA PARK -- I've always thought parents knew best when it came to their children's education. But I'm ready to alter that view based on some parents' responses to Montgomery County's latest school cheating scandal.
School officials say math teachers at Silver Spring International Middle School (SSI) obtained advance copies of the math portion of a nationwide test given in Maryland called the Comprehensive Test of Basic Skills (CTBS).
Investigators add that teachers used the copies to prepare review lessons and two of them gave students the actual test questions for homework in advance of the exam. Two students recognized the questions while taking the test and alerted the proctor.
After an investigation, School Superintendent Jerry Weast removed the principal, assistant principal, math team leader and four teachers. He proscribed demotions and suspensions in some cases and reprimands in others.
They were all placed on administrative leave until a final recommendation is made to the county board of education. The school system will also have to pay $600,000 for a new math test.
Predictably, there was parent outrage. But it was largely directed at the investigators, not the teachers or principal.
One SSI Parent-Teacher Association leader dismissed the affair by saying "mistakes were made." Another went so far as to proclaim, "There was no cheating and no scandal."
Other parents termed Mr. Weast's decision "harsh" and an "overreaction." The parents maintain there was no conspiracy to cheat and have bitterly criticized the investigation and the inevitable leaks of the inquiry to the press.
That the tests were photocopied and handed out in advance is not in dispute. The school system says the math team leader copied the test, gave it to teachers at a department meeting, told them what they were getting and then warned them not to share it with students. Two teachers did, claiming they didn't know they had actual test copies, although the investigators maintain one was informed personally and the other was at the meeting at which the team leader's warning was issued.
The assistant principal, according to the school system, knew the math team leader copied the test questions but said nothing. The principal notified school authorities by e-mail on the day of the test after learning of the students' concerns from the math team leader.
But the principal's note did not mention the math team leader's confirmation that the tests had been copied -- a confirmation the math team leader offered when first informing the principal about the students' suspicions. Do all these acts sound innocent? Nothing more than mere "mistakes"? At worst, it certainly sounds like cheating. At best, it looks like massive indifference to state-mandated education policy regarding testing.
That everyone involved (except possibly the math team leader) will keep their jobs is far from "harsh" or an "overreaction." If anything, it's extremely generous. Parents who are angry that the principal and teachers were replaced with substitutes should be reminded that educators have been removed for a lot less than what is alleged at SSI.
Teachers have withheld comment at the behest of their union, but to date no one has disputed that test questions were handed out in advance. The SSI parents' complaints ignore the teachers' alleged actions and instead focus on punishments and the investigation, calling it "arrogant," "unfair" and "insensitive."
Why are SSI parents so reluctant to condemn the possibility of cheating? It's fine to question the inquiry, but why ignore the central issue? Perhaps evidence will emerge that exonerates the teachers. But to date, there are not even hints that such will be the case. Until such a development occurs, shouldn't these parents at least agree that what happened was wrong?
That is, unless they think no wrong was done.
In a society in which "everybody does it," in which U.S. News and World Report found that one in four adults feels a need to cheat to get ahead and 20 percent of parents said it's fair to do their children's homework, it's no wonder they could conclude that teachers copying test questions and passing them out in advance to kids is nothing more than a minor transgression -- a "mistake."
The spokesman for the Montgomery County Public Schools, Brian Porter, said he is "bewildered" by SSI parents for not seeing this incident as "a serious violation of test protocol."
So am I.
Neal Lavon is a Washington-based journalist with two children in Montgomery County public schools.