How American Courts Punish Cheating Teachers

A public school in Atlanta made a huge leap forward with the faculty’s violation of the law. The U.S. Justice Department reacted draconically.

A school principal in Vienna was removed from his position, making newspapers roar. They say he was not a despot, not a tyrant. On the contrary, the reason for his dismissal, it’s said, was that he favored students and turned a blind eye to grading. Because illegal changes to grades suggest suspicion of document forgery, school authorities had to inform public prosecutors.

When reports are in such agreement, they are interesting for several reasons. First, a school principal is not accused of “poisonous pedagogy,” but rather of favoring students. Second, it demonstrates what a school’s focus on tests and grades can lead to. There’s a current lesson from the U.S. in regard to this point. A court case in Atlanta, Georgia against a team of teachers has made headlines across the country. Photos of teachers, male and female, brought before the court in handcuffs and facing sentences of several years, are out of the ordinary for the U.S. public.

What crime did these instructors commit? They worked in city public schools, in immigrant neighborhoods, where more than 70 percent of the people live below the poverty line, and many fathers and mothers are hardly literate. Here, the students were supposed to get the same scores on standardized tests as the sheltered children in lavishly equipped rich neighborhoods of the city.

They performed worse, hardly a surprise. Only one-fourth of the poor children were able to score as well as the white, upper-class kids. Public school teachers felt abandoned. Because their contract extensions depended on student test results, the instructors broke the law.

They grouped the children so that the better ones could help the weaker students with filling in the tests. They opened the envelopes with the most important questions and prepared their classes specifically for the test. In addition, they improved the students’ work with the same writing utensils used by the children. The result of this fraud was the school making a huge leap upward in nationwide rankings. Parents began to show pride in their children, and the teaching staff was suddenly encouraged.

A clear violation of the law had improved everyone’s motivation. At this point, it would have been smarter to stop manipulating [the tests]. Further fraud would not have even been necessary. Studies discovered, namely, that the children’s performance did in fact improve due to the better school environment. Unfortunately, however, they continued to play the game until a local newspaper discovered the deception.

The U.S. justice system reacted draconically. The teachers came to court in handcuffs. At the end of April, the verdict was ready: Eleven of the 12 accused teachers, test coordinators and administrators were given sentences ranging up to 20 years of imprisonment, three years of which are unconditional.*

In the meantime, school authorities determined that the children were not harmed in any way due to the teachers’ offenses. Simultaneously, large newspapers reported that standardized tests results were “improved” by teachers in 37 other U.S. states, not just Atlanta, Georgia.

The conclusion is simple: Fraud is still fraud, whether in business, sports or schools. What has been known since the 1970s as Campbell’s Law should, however, lead to reflection: Every evaluation that a punishment is based on sooner or later corrupts people and, in so doing, makes the monitoring itself worthless. In other words, the longer one sticks to the illusion of raising school performance levels with punishable tests, the greater the disillusionment will be.

*Editor’s note: An unconditional penalty in the legal sense is one exacted exclusively as punishment for a crime.

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