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Cheating: A Symptom of the Crisis in Urban Schools

Ben Curran

I know I am supposed to be shocked and surprised at the news of the Atlanta test-cheating scandal. However, I'm not. Not even close.

When an environment of high-stakes testing is imposed upon educators, cheating and cover-ups are simply bound to happen. Telling well-qualified professionals that their livelihoods depend on the results of a one-time test (and a test that was probably designed and written by people who haven't stepped foot in a public school classroom since their last day in 12th grade), is eventually going to drive people to bend and break the rules.

I have a lot to say about the backwards nature of this method of both evaluating student achievement and teacher performance. But something else comes to mind when I hear this sort of news, and it's something that I don't think gets a lot of attention. And this lack of attention is starting to frustrate me. No, I'm not frustrated. It's beyond that. I'm nearing outrage.

Let me explain. Take a look at the districts in which the major scandals have taken place: Atlanta, the District of Columbia, Philadelphia, and Baltimore. All of them are large, urban districts. Is it a coincidence that in school systems like these, where enrollments and revenues are rapidly declining, educators are cheating to help keep their schools afloat? I don't think so.

Urban American schools are in crisis. And test-cheating scandals are simply a symptom of a far larger problem. However, when news of these events breaks, the media and the public rush to do everything except open their eyes to why these things are happening. Yes, they blame the tests and the culture of testing that No Child Left Behind imposed on American education. Others cry foul about the unfairness of teacher evaluations that are based upon test scores. But when are people going to realize that we are far from having closed the achievement gap between rich and poor? And when will they see that this is the reason these cheating scandals occur?

Hamstrung by tight budgets and shrinking enrollment, administrators and teachers are resorting to desperate measures to keep students in the seats and to keep states from taking over schools. And still, the conditions in these schools remain. Our nation's most disadvantaged children continue to be short-changed and nothing is done.

Until we address the needs of these large urban districts and until we stand up for the needs of the students in these schools, these types of events will continue to occur.

Ben Curran is a K-5 instructional coach at a charter school in Detroit and co-founder of Engaging Educators.

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