Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Cheating is NOT an Option

A familiar, frequently-used phrase used to describe “good” schools is “No Excuses.” It’s supposed to mean that no matter what circumstances are blocking your improvement, no excuse will be accepted for not reaching your goal. Many influential people who consider themselves “reformers” will wax poetic about the idea of no excuses.

While the thought behind the phrase may be noble, in real life there are plenty of things that can make a child’s school achievement just about impossible to happen on time. These may include physical or mental abuse, lack of sufficient health care, violence in the house and neighborhood, insufficient food, heat, water, and other factors. “No Excuses” was even a motto of the year during a recent time when our region had a horrible superintendent. It meant that only the teachers and principals were blamed for their students nor performing as well as the children in the richer suburbs performed.

“No Excuses” promoters feel that everyone can bring themselves up by their bootstraps, and often use this phrase to denounce the low scores of high poverty schools. Although it is not impossible for children to score well, it requires a certain mix of ingredients to make it happen. A supportive family, a caring community, and school personnel who can point the families towards the right services, can lay the groundwork for higher achievement of the child who is lucky enough to have all three ingredients.

No Excuses is a zero tolerance policy. I have a huge problem with zero tolerance. Everything is NOT black and white; there are more than 50 shades of grey in school and in legal situations. No excuses touts that the teacher or administrator is ALWAYS right. Not true! There are many reasons why a child acts the way they do or doesn’t act the way we want. The motivation behind a child’s disrespect almost always lies in their not feeling respected themselves. The root could have been planted at home, in the community or at school itself. Kids like this must be shown the we feel they are worthy of respect and only then will be able to teach them how to show it to others.

Teachers are on the front lines in school for these students. Teachers need to make sure they are cultivating a culture of respect in their classroom. This does not mean total acquiescence on the part of the students. If the students feel they are respected, they will be able to question the reasons behind certain rules and policies. They will be able to respectfully question and argue their point and agree to disagree, if necessary. No excuses demands total subjugation to the whims of the teacher and school. Subjugation is NOT the way to get students to work hard and contribute to society. It feeds a subculture of resistance and revolt and will come back to sting you eventually. Questioning rules is a rite of passage for teenagers coming into their own, a necessary part of growing up and finding your place in this world.

No excuses requires sick kids to come to school and have eye contact 100% of the time the lesson is being taught even though their headache is stabbing their eyes. No excuses means even though you spent 6-8 hours in the ER trying to get your asthma under control, you have your homework completely done the next day. No excuses means not being able to speak at all during the school day unless your teacher speaks to you, except for your 30 minute lunch which is often eaten in silence as a punishment for some infraction against the rules. No excuses means when you are being bullied unmercifully and you get punished for your outburst. A recent “no excuses/zero tolerance” issue came to light a few weeks ago when a bully accused a kid who was twirling his pencil of making gun shooting motions at him. The bullied kid with the pencil was suspended, questioned at the police station, given a slew of psychological tests, examined by a psychiatrist and ultimately returned to the classroom having been vindicated. No excuses put all that into motion automatically without giving the pencil-wielding kid a chance to explain. No excuses means many round kids who don’t fit in the square holes get excluded from schools unfairly.

Behavior is one no-excuses way to get rid of recalcitrant kids, academics is another. A popular law, sponsored by the American Legislative Exchange  Council (ALEC) and written into many states’ educational regulations, is the Third Grade Reading initiative. This means that if a child isn’t reading on grade level by third grade, they are retained until they can. If this includes Special Ed kids, as some school districts believe it does, then some children are going to spend a long time in grade 3. There could be many reasons why a child is not reading on grade level by third grade. I am not saying they should NOT be retained, just that you have to go on a case-by-case basis to decide. This No Excuses mantra doesn’t accept that there are exceptions and many shades of grey.

There is one area however, that I truly feel there is no excuse for, and that is cheating on standardized tests. Over the past few years, cheating scandals have occurred in many major cities such as Atlanta, Washington DC, and Philadelphia. In many cases, the teachers were either strong-armed or made to feel threatened with being fired or laid off if they didn’t help the kids or fix the wrong answers. At the same time, the principals of the schools were also being strong-armed and threatened by the superintendent in increase the scores or lose their job. I know from close association that threats and embarrassment were being foisted upon principals in Philadelphia by both the Regional and the City Superintendents. The principals would face berating remarks and have to sit there as principals whose scores had increased got special rewards and favors. They were expected to go back and do the same to their teachers. Thank God our principal would stand up for the teachers in those meetings and refuse to make our jobs any more stressful than they were already. She truly did succeed in keeping the specter of cheating at bay.

Our Test Coordinator was very thorough in her handling of the tests and in enforcing the security imposed by the state. We were trained and had to sign that we understood the procedures. She collected the tests every day before lunch and locked them in a safe place until the next morning. We had been able to make AYP (Adequate Yearly Progress) every year or two. It was nice to be recognized when you did, but we didn’t let it ruin our year if we didn’t. We tried harder and changed what we thought we needed to change and tried again the next year. I never felt the need to have higher scores than anyone else, although their were some teachers on the staff who wanted to be better than their grade partner. I can honestly say that I have never allowed cheating on any standardized test in my classroom during my 37 years working in Philly schools.

Was I aware of cheating? Yes, but way back in the 60’s when we had a different principal. In fact, it was the principal who would come in the room and ask a child who had bubbled the wrong answer, “Are you sure you want that answer?” She’d ask the question as many times as it took to get the kids to mark it properly. She was obsessed with being the best school in our region, but I didn’t let that convince me to cheat, I just felt that I’d rather know honestly how the kids were doing on the test, than not be sure.

My brother-in-law is a lawyer who worked for our rival union for a while and told me stories of teachers losing their certification because of cheating. I decided that I liked teaching and didn’t want anything to happen so that I’d find myself losing my teaching certificate. I warned teachers at school about the consequences. I really don’t know if my colleagues cheated or not, but our scores didn’t go up precipitously or unexpectedly. Our test scores pretty much aligned with our report cards and reading levels, so I think that would indicate that we weren’t cheating. That coupled with the fact that we didn’t always make AYP is a fairly good indicator that our school was on the up and up.

But in these times of Value-Added metrics and 50% reliance on test scores for a teacher’s evaluation, cheating may look better and better for those principals and teachers who are trying to hang on but whose kids are not making enough progress. I retired before the 50% test score rule and I am sure I would not have received a good score on that end because of our school’s less-than-stellar performance. But the difference between me and the teachers who cheated is that I know I am a good teacher, whereas newer teachers may not feel confident in their teaching, I know that I only have so much influence on a child and the bulk of their score is molded by home, health, poverty, and community. The teacher’s roll in all that accounts for at most 15%, 85% being influenced by out-of-school factors. I know what my kids can do or not do yet. I know that each child has their own strengths and weaknesses, and those strengths may not be in an academic area. I know it’s important to develop a child’s confidence and self-esteem so they will be able to recognize when they have to persevere, and the way to do that is play on their strengths first. When I do that, I know that I am giving each child the best chance to succeed, and eventually they will.

Teachers and principals, superintendents and school board members must understand that there is no excuse for cheating in a district that supports its students well.  And that if you feel the need to cheat, maybe it’s time to leave.


Still learning!

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