Cheating in a public school district isn't a new issue. Fudging test score data and attendance numbers to make a district appear as though it's meeting state expectations is something districts around the country have seen in a variety of ways. In April, an internal audit of the Washington, D.C., district found evidence of cheating in 11 schools-seven public and four charter.
Widespread Cheating: We Are Not Alone
Cheating in a public school district isn't a new issue. Fudging test score data and attendance numbers to make a district appear as though it's meeting state expectations is something districts around the country have seen in a variety of ways.
In April, an internal audit of the Washington, D.C., district found evidence of cheating in 11 schools-seven public and four charter. These findings were released the same day school officials admitted they knew about the possibility of widespread cheating in 2009, with nearly 200 teachers at 70 schools allegedly erasing wrong answers on standardized tests and filling in correct ones.
Former El Paso, Texas, superintendent Lorenzo Garcia was the nation's first superintendent to be convicted of fraud and reporting bogus test scores to the state (he also collected more than $50,000 in bonuses because of the perceived district improvements). He was arrested in August 2011, accused of purposefully not testing the poorest performing sophomores at a district high school, changing failing grades to passing and forcing struggling students to drop out of school. Charges against other school officials are pending.
And in Atlanta, an investigation spearheaded by the Atlanta-Journal Constitution uncovered what's been called one of the nation's largest cheating scandals-rigging test scores in more than half of the schools in the district of 50,000 students, possibly dating as far back as 2001. While the trial is ongoing, 35 educators and administrators, including the superintendent, have been charged with racketeering and corruption.
It's the cheating scandal in Atlanta that those in the education community outside of Columbus have most closely aligned with what's happening here, says Ethan Gray, executive director of the CEE Trust, an organization that helps cities create an ecosystem that supports high-performing schools. "The good news is Columbus has done a wonderful job of facing it head on," Gray says. "Everything I've read has been admirable."
But he expresses a sense of caution along with hope because, while there is a plan, the results are not in yet. "You're in some uncharted territory," he says.
Gray's advice for Columbus school administrators is not to be lulled into a false sense of hope that with the right person hired or the right curriculum put in place all will magically get better. Instead, the question to be asking is: How can learning be individualized for each kid? And that's not a question for the central office to ask or answer, he adds. "My hope is that conversation is going to be fostered at the individual school level. What you don't want to be happening is a bureaucrat telling an educator what to do," he says. "You want educators to be empowered."
But there's no denying there's been loss of trust between the district and the community-it's a common problem facing many urban districts, Gray says.
So how do you reestablish the community's faith in the district? Communicate, says Atlanta school board member Cecily Harsch-Kinnane. Her advice for Columbus officials is to hold meetings, respond to every concern and be transparent in their answers. Through the cheating scandal and her district's recent loss of accreditation (a result of board infighting, Harsch-Kinnane says), the board held one to four open meetings a week to keep the community informed about what was being done.
"A tremendous amount of work was done to try and gain back people's trust," she says.
And be thorough, she continues, making sure to overturn every stone and address concerns immediately. Once you've addressed the problems, she says, "then you can start the healing."