July 26, 2011

July 26, 2011 | Commentary on Family and Marriage

Failing the Character Test

Summer vacation is anything but relaxing for those embroiled in the most extensive cheating scandal in the history of American public education.

A 10-month investigation in Georgia revealed pervasive tampering with standardized tests in Atlanta public schools. And teachers and administrators, not students, are the culprits.

The report implicates 178 educators, including 38 principals. American public education was to be the training ground of civic virtue. Instead, Atlanta students have gotten an object lesson in hypocrisy and corruption.

We expect teachers to set a good example. Instead, some Atlanta teachers held "changing parties" to correct wrong answers on tests, the report said. In other cases, proctors provided extra time or gave answers to students during testing.

Some supervisors apparently knew about the cheating -- or even instigated the practices. A climate of intimidation convinced some teachers their jobs were at risk if they didn't cooperate. At least one reluctant principal resigned under pressure.

In the background of the scandal is a policy increasing pressure on schools to make gains in standardized test scores. In 2002, the No Child Left Behind Act for the first time prescribed a federally driven testing regimen for local schools. It stipulated that all students be proficient in reading and math by 2014.

That looming deadline may help explain, but is not an excuse for, the cheating. For one thing, why didn't educators previously feel a responsibility toward parents and students such as they showed to federal bureaucrats?

After all, a teacher's business is to help students learn. A good teacher recognizes a child's competencies as well as her capacity, and helps her grow as much as possible toward her full potential.

Today, "competitiveness" is the great policy pressure on schools. The going theory is that more rigorous, uniform demands will make America educationally and economically competitive.

No Child Left Behind and other centralized, one-size-fits-all policy implies that this goal is too important to entrust to those closest to students -- their parents, teachers and principals. Federal policymakers seem to have lost faith in the very democratic citizenry it is public schools' mission to cultivate. So parents enjoy less leverage than do education unions and distant bureaucrats.

But rather than better protecting the interest of students, centralized policy has made educators less responsive to meeting the needs of individual students and more attentive to making things look good on paper to comply with federal law.

That's the kind of perverse incentive that should give policymakers pause. Laws should make it in everyone's interest to do what is right.

To restore integrity in education, we ought to put greater authority in the hands of those with the greatest interest in the moral and intellectual formation of children -- their parents. With the most vested in long-term success, parents are the least likely to be swayed by external pressures that take the mission off course.

Human history is littered with the wreckage of utopian visions that sought social progress through central action.

The paradox of the American experiment is that cultivating individual moral responsibility and trusting individuals with self-government is the best way to ensure the common good.

Jennifer A. Marshall is director of the DeVos Center for Religion and Civil Society at The Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

Jennifer A. Marshall Vice President for the Institute for Family, Community, and Opportunity, and the Joseph C. and Elizabeth A. Anderlik Fellow

First moved on the McClatchy News Wire service