When I was about 19, I worked as a cook at a fast-food restaurant chain. Their roast beef sandwiches were advertised as having four ounces of roast beef in them. Did they? Well, the loaves of raw beef that were sent to our restaurant were 10 pounds each. Now, 10 pounds divided by four ounces equals 40 roast-beef sandwiches, right? Not so fast. They actually weighed less when they came out of the oven, due to water loss. The central office was apparently concerned by this loss of “meat,” because they put pressure on all the restaurants to keep their sandwich count high.

In fact, the central office provided bonuses to managers at the
restaurants who squeezed the most sandwiches out of those ten-pound
loaves. The ones with the least were punished. Being forced to compete
with each other for the most sandwiches, the restaurant managers were
all, no doubt, tempted to cheat. And when one restaurant cheats, all
the honest ones look bad by comparison.

So there I was, weighing out my four-ounce sandwiches, and one day my
supervisor came to me and said, “Somebody is making these sandwiches
too big. Never weigh out more than four ounces. In fact, if you weigh
a little less, that’s okay.”

What an ethical dilemma! Should I keep weighing out four ounces and
risk getting in trouble or fired, or should I cheat the customers? It
was a bad position to put me in, all right.

So who was to blame?

This happened a long time ago, but it all came rushing back to me when
I read the news in USA Today that widespread standardized test
cheating had been found in Washington D.C. schools under
Chancellor Michelle Rhee (“When standardized test scores soared
in D.C., were the gains real?”
Jack Gillum and Marisol Bello, USA Today, March 28, 2011.)

According to Aona Jefferson, a former D.C. principal, Rhee visited all the principals every year and asked them to guarantee a 10 percent increase in standardized test scores every year. Meanwhile, according to the USA Today article, Rhee had also been firing principals and teachers every year.

That’s a setup for cheating. If you were told to cheat or lose your
job, what would you do?

That’s why I was so angry to see a blog post in the online journal
Education Next blaming teachers, principals, and schools (although
there’s no evidence at this point that they were the ones cheating),
and saying not a single word about Michelle Rhee or about the
high-stakes standardized testing (“Cheating and Other Deceptions About Students’ Learning,” Bill Tucker, Education Next, April 1, 2011).

Scapegoating teachers is just adding insult to injury, and hiding the structural problems that caused the cheating in the first place is just setting it up to happen again. More principals and teachers pressured to get high test scores, more
parents deceived about how well their children are doing, and more
scandals.

So what kind of education do we want, anyway? The high-quality, honest
kind, or the three-ounce roast beef sandwich kind?

Let’s not set up any more schools to cheat. No more high-stakes testing.

–Kristin

(Kristin is a founding member of Parents Across America, Seattle, and a frequent contributor to Seattle Education 2010.)

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