Be guided by your moral compass

We should ask how and why cheating and hacking episodes occur, writes Chris Husbands

Chris Husbands

Here is a poser: what connects school exams and the phone hacking scandal?

The news headlines in Atlanta last June were dominated by the story of the Atlanta testing scandal. Once the story had broken, the ramifications sent waves through the entire American education system. By the end of June, 178 teachers and heads in 44 schools faced disciplinary proceedings over systematic cheating in state tests. Press reports talked of a widespread "culture of cheating" and "a climate of performance at all costs". This testing scandal has been barely reported in England, but the stories are jaw-droppingly dreadful.

Atlanta schools had looked like a good news story. Between 2001 and 2009, Beverly Hall, the schools superintendent of Atlanta, Georgia, had overseen a seemingly remarkable improvement in her schools as George W. Bush's federal policies extended testing and accountability across the country.

But in 2009, an analysis of odd patterns of test results made it clear that the Atlanta performance was based on a fraud. An extraordinary pattern of behaviour was exposed.

The 800-page report on the scandal makes riveting, if damning, reading. Teachers systematically cheated: some altered test answers, others held "cheating parties" to revise entire sets of answers. The report found examples of teachers pointing to correct answers when standing next to students' desks; seating weaker pupils next to stronger classmates to make copying easier; and teachers changing their voices while reading the right answer. Teachers who raised concerns about cheating were themselves punished. As Erroll B. Davis, appointed as a temporary schools superintendent to clear up the mess, commented, "people felt that it was easier to cheat than to miss their objectives". Children who received artificially high results were excluded from the special needs support they needed. The state report concluded that "a culture of fear and a conspiracy of silence infected this school system, and kept many teachers from speaking freely about misconduct".

The scandal has produced a debate - and it is here that we find the similarities with phone hacking. For some, scandals such as that in Atlanta and the media's misdemeanours are "rotten apple problems". From this point of view, Hall ran a "success at all costs" regime in Atlanta that brooked no opposition, and bad teachers - teachers without a moral compass - put scruples aside for the sake of rewards. Those who take this view point out that not all Atlanta schools, and certainly not all Atlanta teachers, behaved badly - although the state's report found that almost four in five schools were involved in some way.

For others, the system is to blame: the problem is a high-stakes culture, where the rewards for breaking the rules so far outweigh the risks of being caught that bad behaviour becomes endemic. Some commentaries on the Atlanta scandal go to extremes. There are those who see the solution as tightening further the surveillance on teachers. Others argue that the systemic problem is not cheating but testing. Some even suggest the Atlanta scandal makes the case for ditching testing.

But there are more subtle responses about the relationship between incentives and rewards, between performance management and testing. Diane Ravitch was assistant secretary for education under the first President Bush, and in that guise was not soft on poor performance. But Ravitch is uneasy about the system that has produced the Atlanta scandal: she is quoted as saying that the American system "incentivises cheating". Other commentaries are clear: there are good people and bad people, and good systems and bad systems, but bad systems can make good people do bad things. Get the structures and incentives lined up wrongly and you can almost guarantee bad behaviour.

We live and operate in a high-stakes world, in which we (rightly) want to do well. Some teachers are so committed to their pupils that they will do almost anything for them. The problem in Atlanta was teachers did precisely that, with catastrophic results for pupils, teachers and public confidence. It is a reminder that in education - as in the media - reward systems that operate without a moral compass will end in catastrophe.

Chris Husbands is director of the Institute of Education, University of London.

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