Mama Madison: At what cost 'success at any cost'?

Cheating is no way to learn anything

This past winter I attended a screening of the excellent documentary, Race to Nowhere, hosted by Hamilton Middle School. The film puts forth a distinct opinion -- that the current thinking on American education has created a pressure cooker environment focused on a very narrow concept of "achievement." The filmmaker Vicki Abeles, a former attorney and concerned mom, presents a compelling case that high school students are so stressed out, depressed and completely disconnected from a love of learning that they will, among other things, easily resort to cheating.

From crib sheets, to copying, to writing answers on body parts, it appears high schoolers will readily adopt a "by any means necessary" approach to obtaining the GPA they think they need to get into Harvard, or whichever university's acceptance they hope to receive.

And even if these kids do get into Harvard, the "succeed at all costs" mentality doesn't necessarily subside. Last spring, while grading a batch of take-home exams, a teaching fellow at the Ivy League university noticed a striking similarity among many students' answers. The course's professor brought the issue before the Harvard College Administrative Board, and found that nearly half of the course's 279 students had collaborated on the "open book, open note, open Internet, etc." final in a way that constituted academic misconduct.

And just this past week the "Crimson" saw four of its National Quiz Bowl titles revoked after it was discovered that the Harvard team members improperly accessed a database of information that could have included parts of questions used in the college competitions.

Now ,I don't mean to be picking just on Harvard (although as a non Ivy League grad, it is kind of fun). Students anywhere, from the elementary grades up through graduate school, will consider cheating if the perceived stakes are high.

But the idea of teachers cheating still seems shocking to me. I am afraid though, in our current high stakes testing culture, we may just see more and more of what happened in Atlanta, Georgia, where, just this past Friday, a grand jury indicted 35 teachers, principals, administrators, and even the former superintendent on charges including racketeering, making false statements, and improperly influencing witness in the four-year-old Atlanta Public Schools cheating scandal.

The allegations date back nearly 10 years, with 178 educators in 44 Atlanta schools found to be cheating by either giving their students answers to standardized tests, as well as changing wrong answers to correct ones.

The tests in questions were the main assessment Georgia was using to determine standing under No Child Left Behind. Those schools with good scores would receive more federal aid, with the opportunity to pay teachers and administrators showing "progress" bonuses.

Whoever initially said, "Cheaters never prosper," hadn't been fully briefed in the Atlanta situation. According to media reports, former Atlanta Superintendent Beverly Hall received more than a half million dollars in "performance" pay between 1999 and 2009. It is money that likely won't be recovered by the district.

But perhaps the very saddest part of the story is that because of their new "higher" test score, many students--such as those at Parks Middle School, the site of some of city's worst violations--lost out on $750,000 in state and federal aid because their school no longer qualified as "in need of improvement."

In the end, it was the kids who were cheated out of supports they deserved. By frightened adults desperate to "achieve."

Cheating always comes at a price. And unfortunately the right people don't always pay it.

So if anyone knows where we can start coming up with answers on to how to lower the "stakes" in education without lowering expectations, please chime in. Because unlike with a take-home test, this is an issue that begs for lots of collaboration.

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