It’s only been a week, and already we’re inundated with excuses, convoluted logic and fuzzy rationale on the widespread cheating scandal that has rocked the Philadelphia School District.
Former school district principals Barbara McCreery of Communications Technology High School in Southwest Philly and Lolamarie Davis-O’Rourke of Locke Elementary in West Philly voluntarily surrendered their administrative certificates in order to avoid further administrative punishment. Both women confessed to cheating on standardized state tests — erasing their students’ wrong answers on the answer sheet and penciling in the correct answer.
From all indications, McCreery and Davis-O’Rourke are just the tip of the iceberg, so we’re probably in for more horrifying revelations to come — doled out in bits and pieces like slow torture. There will be more confessions, and more teachers and principals accused of committing the ultimate academic sin — cheating on a test.
Remember when you were in school? If you were caught cheating on a test, you got a zero. No excuses, no reprieve. Why you cheated was unimportant, and how that zero affected your overall grade was not considered. You got the “Cheaters never win, and winners never cheat” lecture and suffered the indignity of having your lack of honor and integrity broadcast to the entire class.
So, if cheating is really a matter of integrity and honor, and if it’s so important that school officials conduct themselves with at least the same sense of decency they demand from students, how can we now listen to excuses for cheating when the adults are involved?
Sure, we all know by now that George W. Bush’s “No Child Left Behind” initiative, no matter how well intentioned, had the effect of tying school funding — and ultimately the jobs of teachers and principals — to statewide standardized tests, here in Pennsylvania called the PSSAs.
Those tests became the end all and be all of public education.
Teachers, with so much riding on test scores, simply taught to the test. Practical knowledge, critical thinking, and even teaching kids to think for themselves, took a back seat to drills and quizzes on the test answers. While programs featuring music, art, sports, and extracurricular activities disappeared one by one, teachers taught to the test. Even when it became clear that students weren’t really learning anything of practical use, the test trumped all.
Teachers and principals organized pep rallies around the test, distributed sample tests, and drummed the importance of the test into students’ heads until the poor kids were scared to death. A low score could mean your school loses funding, meaning fewer supplies, it could get your teacher or principal transferred or even fired, and might even get your school closed permanently. The pressure on everyone — students, teachers, principals and administrators must have been crushing.
But even recognizing the tremendous pressure put on principals — after all, their jobs and professional futures were at stake here — I have a hard time explaining away their succumbing to temptation and fudging answers. Honor doesn’t depend on convenience. In fact, it isn’t until we’re faced with temptation that our sense of honor kicks in. No one knows how honest a person they really are until there’s an opportunity to get away with being dishonest. To paraphrase a saying I once heard, integrity is what you display when no one is looking and you can’t get caught.
When it came down to cases, these caught and shamed principals, and the others that will surely follow over the next weeks and months, proved the limits of their integrity — and the limits of the behavioral examples they’re willing to set for the children under their care.
Unless you’re willing tell me we should teach kids that it’s ok to cheat if there’s enough at stake, or that cheating is alright if your job is on the line, then don’t give me any jive about how these poor administrators were somehow forced into cheating by a system that was rigged against them.
No one forces you to do wrong — you decide that all on your own.
There are people who would steal the wedding ring off their grandmother’s finger, and others who wouldn’t take a suitcase full of money they found lying on the sidewalk. It has a lot more to do with how you were raised than the desperation of your present circumstances.
There is a lesson to be learned from all this for the students of the district. It’s the same lesson you and I learned from the teacher’s lecture years ago: when you cheat, you’re only cheating yourself.
Daryl Gale is the city editor of The Philadelphia Tribune.
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