One aspect of the Atlanta test-cheating scandal that isn’t fully discussed among either reformers or traditionalists is how the test fraud committed by teachers and school leaders in the Peach City is indicative of the consequences of low-quality teaching, a problem that is endemic throughout American public education. As we already know, the shoddy recruitment of aspiring teachers by the nation’s university schools of education, along with the slipshod training they receive once they enter the programs, lead to far too many teachers unprepared to work in our classrooms. Just 11 of 71 ed schools  surveyed by the National Council on Teacher Quality in 2006 taught teachers all that they needed to provide adequate reading instruction; later studies by NCTQ of ed schools in states such as Texas have shown that the problem is even worse than first thought. Thanks to these problems, along with the low quality of teacher evaluation throughout public education and abysmal school leadership, low-quality teachers are allowed to keep their jobs, doing poorly in instructing students and making it harder for high-quality counterparts to do their work. And this denies children the cultures of genius they need for their potential to be nurtured.

voiceslogoIn this Voices of the Dropout Nation, Los Angeles teacher Peter D. Ford III explains why the Atlanta cheating scandal should be prompting American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten (as well as all of us) to have honest conversations about the low quality of instruction in classrooms that leads to test fraud in the first place, instead of blaming the existence of standardized testing. Read, consider, and take action. 

Yesterday, I was in line at the Space Shuttle Endeavour exhibit at the California Science Center, and I overheard some fifth graders talking about school. Being the teacher that I am, I said, “Wow, I bet you have lots of tests to take.” One of them  said: “Yeah, we have (California Standards Tests) coming up! They make me nervous.”

Then I said: “If you knew everything, you wouldn’t be nervous.” What I was really saying is this: “If your teachers taught what you’re supposed to know, the tests aren’t a big deal. This is a lesson for everyone when it comes to thinking about how to respond to the test-cheating scandal still enveloping Atlanta Pubic Schools.

It is bad enough that fifth graders are fretting over a test. What’s worse, which is the real crux of our testing woes, is that many teachers are failing to teach content. Thus they are being pressured to cheat. Or they blame the ‘biased tests’ or ‘poverty’ for their kids doing poorly when the problem lies with their failure to teach the content the students should know.

I suspect the Atlanta teachers caught up in the scandal were either not teaching content or curricula or weren’t teaching it well. Thus they felt pressure to cheat. I also suspect administrators were trying to achieve success in spite of the uneven content instruction. So they also felt the pressure to cheat. Improvements in student achievement doesn’t happen overnight. It takes years and a continuum of teachers teaching content to see real, consistent increases in student learning.

No matter how much you ‘engage students,’ make the learning ‘relevant,’ or are ‘culturally sensitive’ to students, if you’re not teaching content your students will not perform well on those tests. Of course we can argue about the need for those tests. But until it changes, tests are the tools we use to assess student learning.

More deeply, it is important that students know a 6.3 earthquake is 10 times stronger than a 5.3, that Pi is the ratio of the circumference to the diameter of any circle, that the Constitution came before the Civil War, and the Dodgers have been rivals with the Giants since their New York days. This knowledge allows us to embrace and function with each other in society.

If I were a school principal and I noticed my teachers scrambling around with ‘test prep’ as we approached the tests, that would send alarm bells off that maybe we didn’t teach content as we should. From the first day of school to the last day our priority is students acquiring the knowledge and skills that empower them to learn and grow. Weingarten should be engaging her teachers about what they’re teaching as much as how the students are assessed.