Back To School: 14 Huge Education Scandals
Welcome back, American children! The idea that your kids are protected by harmless do-gooder teachers and administrators is, we hate to tell you so bluntly, a total myth.
Here are the biggest scandals in American educational history… and they’re all very recent, which means you should look out for signs of this kind of trouble brewing as the school year unfolds…
No Child Left Behind
Testing has long been part of the educational system, but so-called “high-stakes testing” was mandated by the federal government after 2002’s No Child Left Behind act. Using annual test results as the primary benchmark, the federal government used NCLB to dole out rewards and punishments to public schools nationwide.
By giving good schools and good teachers big financial rewards, performance was supposed to improve or schools would be closed.
Unsurprisingly, this system has created a huge incentive for teachers and administrators to help students cheat on annual exams.
The Cheating Algorithm
The 2005 book Freakonomics did a lot to expose the endemic nature of cheating in public school testing. Author Steven Levitt revealed a computer algorithm that found identical strings of consecutive (correct) answers to multiple choice tests in Chicago public schools.
The “cheating algorithm” also detected spikes in performance followed by declines that were unlikely if the children had genuinely improved. A dozen Chicago teachers were reportedly fired as a direct result of Levitt’s investigation.
As a result of the publicity generated by Freakonomics, education authorities, school boards, and the media decided to look into the situation in schools in their own areas. Evidence of cheating emerged across America, with major scandals in Atlanta, New York, Texas, and Los Angeles.
Cheating took various forms, including teachers giving or suggesting correct answers, giving extra time, or changing answers to standardized multiple choice tests by swapping in strings of correct answers to inflate the scores.
An Unearned Degree
In May 2013, Ohio auditors seized records at 20 high schools in the Columbus area. Auditors alleged not just that tests had been manipulated, but that the final grades had been changed to increase graduation rates. In a related investigation, The Columbus Dispatch reported that 2.8 million attendance records had been falsely erased.
This meant that the students whose records had been tampered with were not marked as “continuously enrolled” in the district and therefore their test scores didn’t count toward the school’s overall test-passing rate.
As the scandal has unfolded, 13 district secretaries have been let go, but a Franklin County judge has dismissed a civil suit brought against the district by disgruntled parents.
A Snowstorm of Cheating
The Atlanta cheating scandal was one of the most widespread and notorious in the entire history of the U.S. educational system. Suspicions were aroused after increases in student performance in notoriously poorly-performing urban districts that were described as being “as extraordinary as a snowstorm in July. In Atlanta.”
An inquiry led to 35 teachers and administrators (including former superintendent Beverley Hall) being indicted by a grand jury for tampering with test papers, racketeering, theft by taking, and making false statements. The case is ongoing, although Hall reportedly has stage four breast cancer and is unlikely to go to trial.
Problems with a No. 2
Michelle Rhee, the chancellor of Washington D.C.’s schools from 2007 to 2010, was appointed to her post because of her record as a school reformer. She lived up to her reputation in the first year, closing 23 schools and firing 36 principals. She also offered teachers up to $30,000 in raises if they could improve their students’ test scores.
The scores did go up, but so did instances of wrong answers being erased and replaced by right ones. According to USA Today, Rhee ignored recommendations to investigate these erasures and instead commended schools who raised their test scores. Rhee has denied any wrongdoing.
Unions Without Scruples
Numerous teachers unions have been caught up in scandals, usually involving the theft or misuse of funds. Pat Santeramo, the former president of the Florida’s Broward Teachers Union, has been charged with 20 felonies, including grand theft, racketeering, fraud, and money laundering. (He resigned but has plead not guilty.)
He allegedly received $173,500 in kickbacks from construction contracts alone. Former United Teachers of Dade president Pat Tornillo spent forty years crusading for integration and collective bargaining rights. However, in 2003, he plead guilty to fraud and falsifying income tax returns to the tune of $350,000.
Where Have All the Students Gone?
Conventional wisdom says that small class sizes are good, even though there’s little if any empirical data to support this assertion. As such, “class size reduction programs” are often part of school targets, and, as with test scores, this can lead to a temptation to cheat.
In 2006, the Los Angeles Times broke a story on Santa Ana schools, where teachers alleged that administrators had asked them to lie about class size (e.g. by moving pupils off class rosters, even though they were in class), so as to collect money from the state, which rewarded class size reduction.
Prior to the scandal, the district had already lost $90,000 in state funds because their classrooms had too many students.
A recent case of cyberbullying involving a 12-year-old student from Queens tragically illustrates the inability (or unwillingness) of schools to dedicate scare resources to preventing cyberbullying. In May 2013, the bullied student hung herself after some fellow pupils at Jean Nuzzi Intermediate School 109 had allegedly called her a slut and a whore.
There had also been a related incident where she got into a fight with another girl, which was later posted on YouTube. The school had received a “C” in school environment during the previous year’s citywide progress report. Over 30% of the student body said they didn’t feel safe in the hallways and bathrooms.
The school’s principal has declined to comment about the bullying situation.
Sex, Lies, and Football
Sexual abuse is another massive problem in the education system. Few cases have attracted more publicity than the conviction of Jerry Sandusky on numerous counts of the sexual abuse of young boys, mainly committed while serving as an assistant football coach at Pennsylvania State University.
Sandusky came in contact with these boys through The Second Mile, a non-profit charity for at-risk youth. The so-called Penn State child abuse scandal also brought down legendary coach Joe Paterno, who was accused by the Penn State Board of Trustees of failing to act on the accusations when they first emerged. Paterno, who denied any wrongdoing and was never charged before his death, was relieved of his coaching duties and had 111 wins stricken from his NCAA record.
Steubenville High School Rape Case
The biggest high school sex scandal in recent years occurred in Steubenville, Ohio. The case involved the August 2012 rape and sexual assault of a drunken and unconscious teenage girl. The case came to national attention because of photos taken on a cell phone and uploaded onto various social media sites.
Two 16-year-old football teammates were subsequently convicted of rape in a juvenile court. An Ohio grand jury is still deliberating whether over a dozen adults, including Steubenville High football coach Reno Saccoccia, knew early on about the rape but did not report it. (Saccoccia denies this.)
Watch What You Eat
With child obesity at record levels, schools have attempted to address the situation by banning soda machines and placing restrictions on popular canteen meals like pizza and chicken nuggets. But as is the case with the proposed ban on “big soda” in New York, some believe restricting choice in this way is unconstitutional.
Much of the pressure for change in public school diets stems from the fact that tackling childhood obesity is a personal project of First Lady Michelle Obama, as part of her “Let’s Move!” campaign.
No Nuts on Campus
A school in Arkansas hit the headlines in September 2012 when it banned peanut butter and jelly sandwiches as part of a “no nut policy,” implemented to deal with potentially fatal peanut allergies. A Facebook page entitled “School Nut Ban Discussion” was set up and what started as a local issue made news across America and is still being debated today.
Cecilia Chang, a former dean at St. John’s University in Queens, killed herself in 2012 while on trial for fraud charges, including for allegedly using scholarship students as free labor at her luxury $1.3 million home, where some reportedly acted as cooks, chauffeurs, and housekeepers.
Fraud and embezzlement charges included allegedly taking over $1 million from the university and accepting $250,000 from a Saudi prince for putting on academic conferences that never actually took place.
Written by guest writer Nick Pope, who worked for the British Government for 21 years and is now a journalist and broadcaster covering a wide range of subjects, including conspiracy theories.
Photo: Michael Surran
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