When the test-cheating scandal involving teachers and school leaders at Atlanta Public Schools broke out nearly two years ago, traditionalists such as American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten attempted to white-wash the role of teachers involved in the fraud by arguing that standardized testing leads to perverse incentives that force teachers to behave unethically, provide low-quality instruction, and ultimately, poorly serve the children in their care. Back then, your editor noted that such arguments were ridiculous because test-cheating occurred in five percent of elementary schools every year. More importantly, such arguments were letting laggard teachers and school leaders off the hook for failing to provide every which with high-quality education. If anything, the test-cheating scandal was just another of the ways far too many adults in schools cheat kids out of the instruction, curricula, and school cultures they need and deserve — and another reason why we must overhaul American public education so that the genius within all of our kids is embraced as it should be.
So it isn’t shocking that traditionalists attempt to trot out the same arguments two years later as the teachers, along with former Supt. Beverly Hall, now face charges of racketeering and making false statements for their roles in perpetuating the test cheating. Weingarten, in particular, joined the chorus of traditionalists by declaring in an AFT press release that the test-cheating was “the unintended consequences of our test-crazed policies” and that it is time for a ” balanced approach” that involves providing kids with “high-quality instruction” (along with an array of other supposed solutions that don’t involve testing). But Weingarten didn’t take too kindly to her sophistry being pointed out for what it was by Washington Examiner editorialist Sean Higgins, declaring on Twitter that it was “sad” that Higgins didn’t report her “condemnation” of the test fraud.
Of course, Weingarten fails to note that she has made this blame-the-testing-for-cheating argument before — and actually made such an argument on Twitter last night, a few hours before the AFT’s release went out to press. Weingarten also fails to note that her statement in the AFT press release was a rather tepid condemnation of the alleged test fraud, with just one paragraph dedicated to saying the national union and its Peach State affiliate did “not condone cheating under any circumstances” and proclaiming that “achievement can never be separated from academic integrity”. If Weingarten merely kept her statement to that first paragraph (as well as noting the laudable role played by the Peach State affiliate in blowing the whistle on the fraudsters), she wouldn’t have come under anyone’s criticism. But she didn’t. And that’s the problem.
In arguing that the use standardized testing is to blame for the Atlanta cheating scandal, Weingarten wrongly blames one of the most-useful tools honestly and objectively assessing how students are learning (as well as providing unbiased measurement of how teachers, school leaders, and school operators are doing their jobs) for what is essentially the craven incompetence of men and women who didn’t want to do the hard work of helping kids learn. Because of their actions, children and their families were denied the honest assessment of their academic progress needed to help them succeed. At the same time, their dishonorable behavior also cast an unfair shadow over the positive success Atlanta was having in improving student achievement (including a 16 percentage point decline in the percentage of eighth-graders struggling with illiteracy between 2003 and 2011, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress), as well as hindered the hard work of their colleagues who behaved honestly and ethically. Supporting efforts to cheat kids out of accurate and honest assessment of their achievement — and denying them high-quality instruction — is unacceptable and should not be used by anyone to justify their opposition to reform.
By playing the blame-the-testing game, Weingarten also dishonors the high-quality teachers (and even laggards) across the nation who behave honorably regardless of their perspective on standardized teaching. Those teachers expect their colleagues to conduct themselves in a professional manner. More importantly, they expect the presidents of the unions to which they are often forced to pay dues (including in the form of so-called agency fees) regardless of their desire to be members to offer strong and unequivocal condemnations of fraudulent behavior. Weingarten’s tepid condemnation did not even come close to meeting that standard.
But Weingarten’s opposition to standardized testing isn’t surprising. The fact is that standardized testing — along with Value-Added analysis of student test score growth data culled from those tests — allow for districts to evaluate teacher performance in an objective way (as well as catch instances of test-cheating and other forms of educational malpractice) and makes it easier for laggard teachers to be tossed from their jobs. For the AFT, which along with the NEA, generates its revenues and influence from dues paid by teachers (and, by the way, is supportive of the testing teachers on their own every day in the form of pop quizzes and diagnostic assessments), standardized testing means lost jobs. And that’s not good for business.
This fact, along with Weingarten’s argument, once again points to the reality that the AFT (along with the National Education Association) have little interest in elevating the teaching profession. For all the talk from Weingarten and her counterparts about building up professionalism within the ranks (much of it driven by the wrongful conflation of the generally high regard most people have for teachers in general with the rightful criticism of teachers’ unions and the antiquated policies they defend), almost everything the two unions do belie it. From opposing the end of seniority- and degree-based pay scales that neither reward high-quality teachers for their work or have proven to help in improving student achievement, to the opposition of AFT and NEA affiliates in California to legislation that would remove teachers accused of child abuse and worse, the two unions are far more-concerned with defending the decades of deal-making they have struck with states and districts that, along with dues collections, are at the heart of their now-declining influence. Because the AFT and NEA still depend on dues collections, they are more-concerned about expanding the teaching ranks (and keeping them employed) than on improving professionalism and holding members to high, well-defined, and metrics-driven standards. This runs counter to the demands of younger, more-reform minded teachers (as well as high-quality veteran colleagues) for a professional association model that helps them provide the kids in their classrooms with high-quality instruction.
One more time, Weingarten reminds high-quality teachers that it is time to move beyond AFT and NEA affiliates. And for the rest of us, Weingarten’s words prove again where her real intentions lie.