APS, Don’t Blame the Test

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The gummit made me do it!

Amid the cacophony of outcries following the report of the Atlanta Public Schools’ cheating scandal have been many voices. Some have decried a system that has completely failed the city’s children – many of them poor, and many of them black, and all of them in desperate need for a quality education. Others have pointed fingers at the city’s business community, with a chamber of commerce that has historically been happy to construct a hall of funhouse mirrors that presents the city’s image in the best possible light.

And now a new sense of dissent is emerging, with a push to lay the blame upon the process itself and hold No Child Left Behind (NCLB) accountable for the school system’s failure.

I don’t cotton to that critique. No, sir; not at all.

NCLB is an inherently flawed law that applies a universal standard to education, in which nothing at all is universal. It’s origins were understandable; after all, without certain standardized benchmarks, how can we at all be sure that we’re advancing education and that schools are doing what they are financed to do: teach? Get all the kids together, ask them pretty much the same questions, and if more answer them right this year than they did last year, well, we must be doing something right. If not, start over. It’s that simple. In fact, it’s over-simple.

Kids in different school districts face starkly different realities and opportunities. Many districts – including many more now that was the case when NCLB was enacted, owing to a slumping economy and a bottomless housing market that has sunk the property taxes upon which public education is financed – lack the resources to provide students with the best possible learning environment. I have a certain empathy for kids who are going to school in ill-fitting or tattered clothing and are faced with challenges, like finding enough food or having a warm place to sleep, that make school demands seem petty in comparison. And to these districts, some of which 100 percent of the students qualify for free or reduced school lunches, we are applying the same standard that we’re applying to districts that have the resources to spend many times more on education per student.

And then, when these districts fail to make adequately yearly progress, the federal government cuts their funding, leaving them with even fewer resources to educate their children.

NCLB does not level a playing field. Rather, for many districts, it makes gaining ground much more of an uphill slog, with more bureaucracy and fewer funds.

But does a flawed system inherently necessitate a corrupt approach?

That is the claim now put forth by a piece of the chorus of outcry. The corruption within Atlanta Public Schools occurred because NCLB is a bad law. A bad law, it stands to reason, makes it OK for people to do bad things to circumnavigate it. Were NCLB – a piece of Bush-era legislation that has been harshly rebuked – a better law, then corruption would not have occurred.

Nay, I say. Nay, nay, nay.

Corruption at the Atlanta Public Schools occurred because some people found a way to game the system rather than working within the system. If high numbers is what the government wanted, then high numbers they shall receive. That this required that some teachers and administrators grab an eraser and change a few (or a whole bunch) of answers on a flawed test, then it was only one wrong being employed to address another, and it all worked out in the end.

Except it didn’t, really. While some administrators received substantial notoriety (and bonuses) for seemingly accomplishing a great deal with nothing much with which to work, students were simply passed through a system that never endeavored to take an accurate accounting of their knowledge and preparedness to face the world.

I learned early, in a small elementary school in rural Winston, in a classroom that overlooked a cow pasture, that two wrongs don’t make a right. It was a simple but profound lesson, and one that was seemingly lost in the gilded halls of the Atlanta Public Schools. To place the blame for their actions on NCLB is tantamount to saying the devil made me do it; it ignores free will, freedom of choice, and – most disheartening of all – the example set by accepting responsibility for one’s actions.

NCLB is bad, flawed and unworkable. But it is not corrupt, and it’s silly to think that it causes others to be corrupt. Greed, not accountability, was behind the cheating. And may the devil get his due.

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