Who do we punish? Who do we blame? Or do we have a better option?
A state investigation of the Atlanta public schools released last week identified 44 schools and at least 178 teachers and principals that systematically corrected student test answers in order to artificially inflate scores on the state’s mandated competency test. Governor Nathan Deal, according to a report in the July 5 New York Times, accused Atlanta school administrators of sanctioning a culture of fear, intimidation and retaliation which led to a conspiracy of silence. Pause here and reflect on your reaction to the last two sentences.
I remember hearing about the investigation on the radio as I was driving with my youngest daughter. “Did you hear, that?!” I asked the question in an overly dramatic way in order to signal my indignation and to wrest her attention from her iPhone. I summarized the story for her and waited for a response. Being a wise fourteen year old who understands both my opinions about high-stakes testing in public schools and the quickest way back to her iPhone, she dutifully shook her head and muttered something like, “that’s crazy.” Knowing I had a blog deadline approaching, I used the silence in the car to start composing a rant. That’s when the phrase from Governor Deal’s prepared statement came back to me, “a conspiracy of silence.” Did my fourteen year old actually agree with me that it’s “crazy” for teachers and principals to change answers on a test to intentionally misrepresent their prowess as educators or had she figured out the easiest way to preserve the status quo of the moment: dad driving, daughter playing a game on her phone.
All I needed was the headline, “Systemic Cheating Is Found in Atlanta’s School System” and I was prepared to sneak references to the story into all my interactions for the next few weeks. Facebook friends would get helpful links to editorials and news reports. Colleagues would get e-mails with attachments. Not even the Barrista at Starbuck’s would be spared – it’s a travesty of Venti proportions! Don’t get me wrong; I want to live in a world where people have passionate opinions. As a student of systems thinking, I also want to live in a world where people recognize that passionate opinions are a part of the systems in which we operate, not detached judgments apart from the systems in which we operate.
My reflexive reaction to the Atlanta Schools story was to vilify individuals in power who make shortsighted decisions. People with other beliefs and values might read the same story and vilify the teachers and principals for their lack of integrity. The New York Times quoted Governor Deal, “There will be consequences.” In a system, it’s a tautology that there will be consequences. One of the consequences, I’m afraid, will be a well rehearsed public witch hunt that will deepen our illusion that punishing the right people will make the problem go away. You want to see a culture of fear, intimidation and retaliation create a conspiracy of silence? Put all your energy into punishing someone.
My reflective reaction to the Atlanta Schools story is to wonder about my own contribution to conspiracies of silence. Where has a system suffered from influence I’ve neglected to offer? Which elements of the systems I lead have been disabled by an unwillingness to be influenced by others? My heart goes out to the teachers and principals who resisted the pressure to cheat; maybe they’re heroic integrity is the real story.
— Jay Cone
Photo by Hariadhi
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