An Interview with Alan J. Singer: Something Rotten in Atlanta?

Apr 4, 2013 by

Michael F. Shaughnessy

  1. Alan, there seems to be a pretty big mess in Atlanta, Georgia. What do you know about it and who seems to blame?

Legal officials and the media are content to blame teachers and school and district administrators for what happened in Atlanta, but there is a much more serious problem facing, not just Atlanta, but the U.S. school system. Everyone, Democrats as well as Republicans, is searching for an inexpensive magic bullet to lift test scores and supposedly improve education, but few are discussing the underlying problems in this country, which are poverty, unemployment, racism, economic stagnation, and an unequal distribution of educational resources.

There is tremendous social inequality in American society and this is reflected in school performance. A second problem is that major corporations and bankers see schools as investment opportunities. They are selling tests and test preps and an assortment of high tech wonders, none of which have been demonstrated to improve student learning, but all of which will ensure them high profits.

When you ignore the real problems, blame teachers and schools, and open the schools up to market pressures, you create a perfect storm that produced the Atlanta school scandal.

2) What was your initial reaction to all of this morass in Atlanta?

During the Watergate scandal in the Nixon administration the undercover source advised the Washington Post reporters to follow the money. I always follow the money. Which companies were making money off the testing craze in Atlanta and the supposed Atlanta school improvement miracle.

One of the biggest players in the mis-named school reform movement is Pearson Education, although the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation certainly plays a big role nationally. Pearson’s foundation arm funds improvement projects, and then Pearson’s corporate arm makes money promoting the improvements and commodities that will magically transform schools.

I found in Atlanta that a Pearson sub-division had contracts to provide support services to troubled schools and then touted the improved test scores in these schools as proof that their products worked.

Two schools were promoted as national model schools. Now we learn that there was cheating on the tests. There is no evidence that Pearson was involved in the cheating, but the company claimed that it had checkpoints in place to monitor improvements in these schools. I explain this in much greater detail in a Huffington Post

(http://www.huffingtonpost.com/alan-singer/pearson-and-the-atlanta-s_b_3005867.html).

3) Obviously tax dollars went to this “superintendent” who apparently got some awards or perks for the supposed ” increase in test scores “. Your thoughts?

It is not clear how the bonus money clause ended up in the superintendent’s contract. It would be very serious if she insisted on it and then tried to boost test scores to collect. This will have to be established through the legal process. However, it may turn out that this was a standard clause inserted by the district as a “merit pay bonus” and she was actually innocent of wrong doing. We will have to see how this works out. Certainly the legitimacy of merit pay for school personnel based on student performance on high stakes tests has to be questioned.

4) Many teachers believe there is more to education than just how well students do on these standardized tests- we are encouraging growth and social skills, and a variety of other skills. Can we balance learning, and the other more nebulous variables?

Most of the teachers that I work with in the New York metropolitan area see the test craze as a poison that is undermining legitimate education. Teachers are pressed to prepare students for the tests. There is no time for projects or thoughtful conversation. My eight year old grandchildren are in third grade in a Brooklyn public school where they attend “voluntary” test prep on Saturday mornings. I think they would be better off playing soccer or baseball.

5) Obviously there are going to be legal issues, court cases, and it may take some time to get this all sorted out. In the meantime, what about those students? Are we just going to ” leave those kids alone “? What happens to them?

The inflation of test scores actually hurt students because students who would have been eligible for special support services no longer qualified. I would like to see a moratorium on Race to the Top and the standardized testing. Companies that want to market tests and test prep, packaged curriculum geared to the tests, and the software and hard ware that support testing, must be required to prove the validity of their products before they are permitted to do business with school systems.

6) Any parental reaction that you know about?

There is a national opt out of testing campaign. I advise parents to look at the website of a Milwaukee based group called Rethinking Schools. They have done a very effective job documenting the problems with high stakes testing.

7) Do you know the exact company that makes the tests in Atlanta- and have they had any comment?

The specific Atlanta test under question, the Georgia Criterion-Referenced Competency Test, or CRCT was designed by McGraw-Hill. Pearson produces other tests for Atlanta and Georgia. As far as I know neither company has made public statements, although a Pearson representative replied to my Huffington Post saying that I was unfairly associating them with the Atlanta school mess.

8) Alan, you and I know that once time is lost- it can never be regained—how much instructional time have these kids lost and is the district or state going to do any remedial work ? Or what?

So far, state and legal officials are just blaming the schools for cheating when teachers marked the test. I have heard no proposals for addressing existing educational problems.

9) What have I neglected to ask about this quagmire of skullduggery, cheating and deceit?

High stakes testing where teacher and administrator promotion, tenure, and income rest on student test scores is a system designed to fail the students and produce this type of scandal. The American people need to tell politicians we do not want our children tested instead of educated and we do not want private companies enriched at the expense of public education

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