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Education on Steroids

Atlanta’s Pitiful Hypocrisy

by DAVID MACARAY

By now most of us have heard the gruesome details of how Atlanta’s elementary and middle school teachers (and principals) conspired to falsify the scores on state proficiency tests.  The investigation not only implicated teachers and administrators, it reached all the way up the ladder to Atlanta’s celebrated district superintendent at the time, one Beverly L. Hall.

Dr. Hall was not only lionized by the media as the savior of Atlanta’s school system, she was named superintendent of the year by the American Association of School Administrators, she was invited to the White House by Secretary of Labor Arne Duncan, and she received more than $500,000 in performance bonuses.  While those first three things now qualify as embarrassments, that $500,000 is being treated as a felony.

The level of cheating (not to mention the audacity and nonchalance with which it was done) was mind-boggling.  Teachers raised scores a whole magnitude at a time by simply erasing wrong answers and replacing them with right ones.

Apparently, teachers got together after school in little groups (with full approval of their principals), and set about re-discovering America, believing there was no way they’d get caught.  After all, who really wanted to catch them?  Who wanted to ruin a good thing?  As long as the test scores were top-notch, no one asked questions.

According to investigators, Atlanta’s Parks Middle School was one of the most flagrant cheaters.  Its scores began to improve immediately after the new principal, Christopher Waller, arrived on the job. During Waller’s first year (2005), math scores went from 24-percent proficiency to 86-percent proficiency, and reading scores went from 35-percent to 78-percent.

Any educator in the country will tell you that proficiency improvements as dramatic as these are scarcer than hen’s teeth, and that when they do occur, they usually take decades to reach those numbers.  Yet Parks Middle School managed to pull it off in what—one year?  Really?  A complete reversal in one single year?  And yet no one bothered to investigate?  The hypocrisy was suffocating.

Actually, some people did notice.  Teachers noticed.  Teachers in other districts, other states and other geographical regions noticed.  The LAUSD teachers union and Randi Weingarten, president of the National Education Association (NEA), noticed.  In fact, union teachers not only noticed, they tried desperately to expose it, but no one listened to them because they were too busy gushing over Atlanta’s “miracle,” and because they thought the unions were acting out of jealousy or spite.

Why were teachers unions the first to go berserk?  Because teachers have the most skin in the game.  Union teachers are under attack by two alliances posing as “education reformers.”  One is Republican conservatives who hate organized labor for siding with the Democrats and want to see the unions (all unions, not just the teachers) dismantled, and the other of is a cartel of sharp-eyed entrepreneurs looking to privatize America’s public school system.

But you can’t fool teachers.  They instantly saw Atlanta’s wildly inflated scores for what they were—a bogus, public relations canard meant to appease citizens and business groups.  You can fool outsiders and amateurs, but you can’t often fool people on the inside, professional people who know what they’re doing.  There’s a perfect analogy to the Atlanta cheating debacle: steroids in baseball.

For years, baseball players knew (or strongly suspected) something wasn’t kosher.  For one thing, too many guys were showing up in spring training way bulkier than before; for another, you had banjo hitters doing their impersonation of Babe Ruth.  It’s one thing for a player to have a break-out year, but it’s a whole other deal for a veteran contact hitter to show up heavily muscled, recast as a power hitter.

Players know who’s juiced and who isn’t.  The owners and GMs may not know, and the fans, sports writers and commentators may not know, but the players know.  Just like the teachers know who’s cheating.  No school goes from 24-percent proficiency to 86-percent in one year, and no baseball player gets better with age.  Okay, there’s Barry Bonds.

While we can’t prove Bonds was juiced, we also can’t deny he put together his five best years from age 35 to age 39.  Or that his body got bulkier, and his head larger, and that he hit 73 homers when he was 36 years old, and had his highest batting average (.370) when he was 37, and his second-highest (.362) when he was 39.  We can’t prove he was chemically altered.  But the only person who’s going to believe he wasn’t juiced is the mayor of Atlanta.

David Macaray, an LA playwright and author (“It’s Never Been Easy:  Essays on Modern Labor”), was a former union rep. dmacaray@earthlink.net