All things excellent are as difficult as they are rare.


21 July 2011

Thoughts on the Atlanta Cheating Scandal et al.

It's all over the news, so I'm not going to bother linking to any specific discussion. I just wanted to share a few only-semi-connected thoughts:

Thought #1: I've had occasion to tell a student or two a variation on the following: "If you put as much effort into actually reading your book as you did into trying to cover up the fact that you copied this paper from the internet, you'd have been able to write it yourself." This goes for teachers, too. If they spent as much time TeaCHing as they did CHeaTing...

Thought #2: In a just world, students who lie or cheat in college would be expelled without question (see this discussion of UVa's Honor Code and the recent Perkins dust-up). High school students would be given F's and suspended.

And teachers would be fired, having their credentials revoked by the state.

There's enough outrage flying around that the latter may actually happen, but I wouldn't count on it.

Thought #3: Teachers who knew about this and said nothing are moral cowards who should be ashamed of themselves.

Thought #4: Corollary to Thought #3 -- it seems likely that there are very few people in the affected districts who aren't moral cowards.

Thought #5: Corollary to Thought #4 -- given that behavior like this isn't likely to be limited to just a few high profile districts, it seems likely that there are very few educators in this country who aren't moral cowards.

Thought #6: There's going to be a temptation to chalk this up to a few bad apples -- probably people closer to the top who can be excoriated without having to actually inflict any substantive penalties. It's not a problem of a few bad people. It's a problem of widespread moral cowardice, of institutionalized workers "going along to get along", and the hell with what's morally right.

There's a very famous saying that gets abusively misinterpreted: "You can't legislate morality." It's often thought that the saying is about how one can't really pass laws about moral issues. But really the quote is an insightful one about human nature: passing laws doesn't make people into better human beings: morality in the population is what gives laws their force, not the other way around. So we're not going to be able to address the root causes of scandals like this by passing laws, or putting in place new policies, because it's not policies that are the problem. The problem isn't that we're not watching teachers and administrators carefully enough.

It's impossible to watch them all the time.

But it's not impossible that they should watch themselves all the time. And that's what we need: teachers (and citizens generally) who understand that they must speak up, they must take a stand against what is wrong.

Much like actually enforcing penalties for misbehavior leads to having to deploy those penalties less often, a population with the courage to stand up and say, "YOU! You're misbehaving and I won't tolerate it!" finds itself in the happy circumstance that people have to stand up and speak out less often.

Thought #7: Corollary to Thought #6 -- The individual sense of moral responsibility is stronger when one considers oneself as a member of a community: whether a church, a town, or a nation. The sense of belonging can help give others the courage to stand up and say, "You're betraying us all!" I have a nagging suspicion that multiculturalism, while no doubt wonderful for many reasons, erodes the sense of community unity needed for the public enforcement of moral standards. In a "culture" with no solid, unified foundation other than law, only the law will serve to regulate behavior, and that is insufficient to the task.

Thought #8: Moral cowardice isn't the only thing to blame for the cheating scandals. Laziness plays a part, too. Enforcing standards is hard work.

In conclusion: I wish I had a solution, or even an overall point. I don't. I just have a vague sense of unease about the future of our country, and a worry that two months from now this will have all been swept under the rug in the name of convenience and not wanting to make a fuss.


Rachel Levy said...

Michael, I understand your pessimism, but there's evidence that some did speak out. There's evidence that there were cover ups. There's evidence that there was coercion, blackmail. This is not a straightforward tale of immoral actors, or of some simple but grand failure of morality, nor can the actors be isolated from the conditions in which or incentives by which their actions took place. It's complicated.

Michael E. Lopez said...

I've no doubt that some people did speak up. And that's good for them. They get to look themselves in the mirror in the morning and feel good about themselves.

And I've also little doubt that many who spoke up, or who started to, were, as you point out, promptly blackmailed/coerced, threatened with unemployment or worse. But the proper response when someone tries to coerce or blackmail you into doing something wrong is to tell them to do their damnedest and then do the right thing anyway.

Blackmail isn't an excuse for bad behavior. It's a declaration of war.

So yes, I'm sure the situation is complicated, and that incentives can be aligned better (to promote, say, learning rather than mere test results). No doubt oversight can be a little better, too. And frankly, the whole testing regime we have in place is ludicrous; what we're doing with it in terms of evaluation of teachers and incentives for schools is worse than ludicrous.

But at the end of the day, lots and lots of people knew what was going on and said nothing. There are plenty of excuses and explanations for that, but none of them are good. You do the right thing, and face the consequences - even if that means you get fired and have to move in with your brother.

That's not to say people don't have failings. They do.

But they're failings.

Rachel Levy said...

I know, Michael. I agree with your entire comment. In these situations I always try to keep the young adult book Two Moons in mind: Don't judge a man until you've walked two moons in his moccasins.

gallowshillbilly said...

Thought 1: check
Thought 2: check
Thought 3: right
Thought 4: hmmm..
Thought 5: This is stretched pretty far. Atlanta represents a mature, ripened web of corruption, probably (I hope) an extreme case.
Thought 6: It looks like the soldiers and the capos are both hitting the dirt.
Thought 7: Yes, legalistic control is useless without some other basis. But the cheaters in our culture have learned to mimic legitimate moral or semi-moral values (loyalty to the team, for example). This is quite toxic.
Thought 8: I think these scandals are going to further undermine the education system. After all, they make a joke out of the last ten years and all those mountains of data. The broom and the rug are both gone now, and there is so much dirt.

Michael E. Lopez said...


That's a really excellent point about the invalidity of the last few years' data.

I hadn't thought about that.

"Value added evaluation" (a silly idea to begin with) may end up being almost impossible to implement -- anywhere. Anyone who gets fired might be able to just demand that the state/city/district prove that the prior test scores against which his or her students' scores are being compared were legitimate to start.