Over 130 educators have now been implicated as a cheating scandal engulfing the Philadelphia school system widens. The scandal began in 2009 when suspicious erasure patterns were first noticed on standardized tests administered in the city. The Pennsylvania State Inspector General’s Office launched its investigation in 2011 and the information they gathered led to the Attorney General’s Office conducting its own investigation. The Pennsylvania Department of Education (PDoE) is also seeking to take action against a group of 69 educators separate from the potential legal action pursued by the Attorney General.
The scope of the Philadelphia scandal makes it one of the largest cheating scandals in recent history, at least since the implementation of the still controversial No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act in 2001 with its heavy emphasis on standardized testing. A similar scandal emerged in the city of Atlanta where a total of 178 educators were disciplined and 35 ended up facing criminal charges. The sheer number of educators involved in these scandals points to the pressures they face to produce results for students. As one Philadelphia principal stated, there is significant pressure from superintendents and school boards to improve student scores.
The scandal has grown to encompass 53 different Philadelphia area schools, comprising about 20 percent of the total number of schools in the city. Specific accusations range from submitting false statements to conspiracy and even racketeering. Of the 69 educators involved in the PDoE investigation, 40 still remain employed at their schools in some fashion while the other 29 have since retired, resigned, or taken non-educational positions.
While these scandals may be a new phenomenon, their genesis actually pre-dates the aforementioned NCLB legislation. When examining the recent history of educational reform in the U.S., it is more accurate to begin with the landmark “A Nation at Risk” report released in 1983. Almost every current reform initiative, be it merit pay, standards based curriculum, or standardized testing, can all be traced to this significant report. So the pressure to perform has been building for not just the decade since NCLB was passed, but forthe nearly 30 years since the release of “A Nation at Risk.” It is plain to see, then, how over 130 educators could succumb to this pressure as the cheating scandal in Philadelphia widens.
What is gained through all this pressure though, for teachers or for students? Sometimes it may be forgotten that it is the students that bear the burden of standardized testing just as much (if not more so) than the adults who administer the exams. Research dating back to 2007 would question the effectiveness of standardized testing on actually improving the academic performance of students. To the contrary, such research suggests that the emphasis placed on testing, test preparation, and the associated drills reduces the effectiveness of the educational process and can cause students to become “disengaged” from the learning experience.
The buzzword in education these days, however, is “accountability.” Education, by and large, is a publicly funded venture and public school systems still comprise the bulk of U.S. education. Therefore the politicians, and the taxpayers who elect them, have a vested interest in seeing tangible “results” for their investment in education. This is where standardized testing comes in. These exams create “easy to read” numbers that schools can use to track and report progress. So schools like those in Philadelphia can then use those numbers to show progress where there may be none, leading to scandals like the current one.
With the mounting pressure on students and teachers the question becomes, is this emphasis on standardized testing worthwhile? Is it achieving anything for students? Is it improving the educational process? Or is the only real “tangible” result burned out students and educators that become willing to bend and break the rules in order to produce results? As the cheating scandal in the Philadelphia schools widens, the answer to those questions becomes more unclear.
By Christopher V. Spencer