Did Obama Administration Pressure Teachers Into Cheating?

A week ago Secretary of Education Arne Duncan sat down with MSNBC'S Andrea Mitchell to discuss the need for educational reform. In the interview Duncan touted

"some states and some districts that in these tough economic times are being very creative and doing some really innovative things, others are paralyzed..."

Since then investigations into two school districts, Baltimore and Atlanta, have confirmed widespread cheating on standardized tests occurring under Duncan's watch. "Creative" and "innovative" might not be synonymous with "cheating" but a July, 2009 Washington Post article featuring a video interview with President Obama raises some very serious questions about the administration's role in the latest school scandals.

The former CEO of Chicago Public schools blitzed across the country back in 2009 flush with billions of dollars in stimulus monies. The $4.3 billion allocated to Duncan's 'Race to the Top' program was used as leverage to lure school districts to "embrace reform or risk being shut out." President Obama made it clear to the Washington Post reporters in 2009 he wished to go beyond just closing the achievement gap through yearly testing proposed in George W. Bush's No Child Left Behind act.

We want to challenge all the stakeholders -- parents, teachers, unions, school administrators -- to not only raise standards, but make the changes that are required to actually meet those standards, by having the best teachers and principals, by having the kind of data collection that tells us whether improvements are actually happening, and tying student achievement to assessments of teachers.

What we're saying here is, if you can't decide to change these practices, we're not going to use precious dollars that we want to see creating better results; we're not going to send those dollars there...And we're counting on the fact that, ultimately, this is an incentive, this is a challenge for people who do want to change.

Secretary Duncan carried the President's message from state to state in a "pressure campaign" to broaden the federal government's role in local legislatures. Michael Shear and Nick Anderson of the Post described the administration's tactics in persuading school districts to get with the program or else.

President Obama is leaning hard on the nation's schools, using the promise of more than $4 billion in federal aid -- and the threat of withholding it -- to strong-arm the education establishment to accept more charter schools and performance pay for teachers. [snip]

Obama says the money will be distributed to states that can demonstrate results backed by data that show student scores and teacher performance are improving. [snip]

Some are wary of the long arm from Washington. A Tennessee newspaper editorial railed against an "inappropriate threat" from federal officials. [snip]

Other states are maneuvering for advantage, too. The Colorado legislature passed three laws this year [2009] aimed at aligning state and federal goals on turning around low-performing schools, linking teacher and student data ...

When Shear/Anderson reminded the President that no other administration had provided so much money to an educational program without congressionally mandated restrictions, Obama responded that "the proof of the pudding is...in the quality of the competition that's been set up."

Arne Duncan has gone through and talked to every educational expert out there, and they have arrived at a consensus that if you're improving teacher quality, you're combining that with high standards, you've got strong data to back it up, you're focusing on low-performing schools and not just the upper tier -- that all those things in combination produce results.

The Obama/Duncan dangling-carrot strategy may have induced numerous superintendents, teachers and principals to manufacture the desired "results" in their districts. Evaluating the "quality of the competition" two years later even supporters of Race to the Top must take into account testing anomalies erupting all over the United States.  

At the end of the Oval office video Obama laughs at the reporters' unintended honesty.

THE PRESIDENT: So you're already starting to see foment taking place in the education establishment...

SHEAR AND ANDERSON: Kind of as a result of the threat or incentive --

THE PRESIDENT: I would like to say incentive, yes. (Laughter.)

Who loses in this kind of a deal? The poor kids in the classroom whose coerced teachers and administrators find they've been threatened into making bad choices. Three Atlanta school teachers accused of cheating, but denying the charges against them told a local Fox affiliate that "they were told to produce high test scores no matter what it took or they could wind up working at Wal-Mart." Presumably state investigators have told them they have "lost their immunity."

The three teachers described an intense culture of fear and abuse to produce passing scores. They say their principal was so intimidating she told them if they didn't produce, "Wal-Mart was hiring."

The saddest report comes from Amirah, a 12th grader heading to college from Atlanta after attending schools there from kindergarten through high school. After the scandal broke the teen said she "felt very sad inside, and I feel very hurt...considering I made it..I couldn't even think if I made it by myself or not."

When the president hands taxpayer money to his DOE chief and tells him to go strong-arm school districts into doing as he says or else, he clearly has overstepped the bounds of his elected office. If Obama's and Duncan's pay were tied to their performance in raising school districts' test scores we would have to fire them and suggest they go to work in retail.

Read more M. Catharine Evans and Ann Kane at Potter Williams Report

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