What happens when all that matters are test scores? Just ask former El Paso Superintendent Lorenzo Garcia who was sentenced by a federal judge to three and half years for a test-cheating scandal(See “Former EPISD Superintendent Lorenzo Garcia Gets 42 Months, Offers No Apologies for Scandal.”) Don’t get me wrong, I don’t shift the blame for one minute away from from Garcia. As a leader, compromising your morals to cook the books is never excusable, even if there’s pressure from elsewhere to do so. Yet, Garcia’s actions are understandable in a corporate American culture where “cooking the books” in order to deceive investors is acceptable. After all, is that not what the financial meltdown was about? Was it not about Wall Streeters who hid toxic loans from investors while making exorbitant salaries? “Cooking the books” has become an American management strategy, so should anyone be really surprised when school leaders like Garcia, or Atlanta Public Schools Superintendent Beverly Hall does just that to make their school systems appear to perform better than they really are?
In his book, Who’s Araid of the Big Bad Dragon: Why China Has the Best (and Worst)Education System in the World, Yong Zhao blames the accountability system based on high stakes testing. True. This obession with test scores in the United States is unhealthy. Our politicians and state education leaders have convinced many school leaders that obtaining higher test scores is the ultimate goal and product of school systems. No wonder there are cheaters who cook the books of school accountability to make it look like their districts are performing better than they really are. Accountability in the United States is evolving into the same game that Wall Street bankers play; cook the books to make it look like things are better than they are.
But at the end of the day who are these who cook the books really fooling? Are our students really learning more than they ever had? Are we actually producing the best graduates we have ever produced? Is our graduation rate really any higher than it has ever been? In some ways, I am afraid accountability in education has become a game that educators play. In a culture where numbers ultimately matter more than kids, education has adopted the exact same thinking that Wall Street adopted; whatever you can do to make your bottom line appear better than actually is becomes acceptable. Instead of focusing genuinely on the kids, accountability is game of data manipulation.
Garcia and Hall did a great disservice to education by cheating. Their actions are inexcusable. Yet, there are other educators still playing the game of accountability, shifting data points around, in order to make it “appear that their school or district” is on top.
Wall Street's “book-cooking” tactics have no place in education. What we do as educators determines the course of young lives, and when our focus shifts from that to numbers alone, we too are as guilty as those who wrecked the economy, and who “cook the books of accountability” for appearances sake.