It is time to acknowledge that the fashionable theory of school reform -- requiring that pay and job security for teachers, principals and administrators depend on their students' standardized test scores -- is at best a well-intentioned mistake, and at worst nothing but a racket.
I mean that literally. Beverly Hall, the former superintendent of the Atlanta public schools, was indicted on racketeering charges Friday for an alleged cheating scheme that won her more than $500,000 in performance bonuses. Hall, who retired two years ago, is also accused of theft, conspiracy and making false statements. She has denied any wrongdoing.
Also facing criminal charges are 34 teachers and principals who allegedly participated in the cheating, which involved simply erasing students' wrong answers on test papers and filling in the correct answers.
In 2009, the American Association of School Administrators named Hall "National Superintendent of the Year" for improvement in student achievement that seemed, in retrospect, much too good to be true. On Georgia's standardized competency test, students in some of Atlanta's troubled neighborhoods appeared to vault past their counterparts in the wealthy suburbs.
For educators who worked for Hall, bonuses and promotions were based on test scores. "Principals and teachers were frequently told by Beverly Hall and her subordinates that excuses for not meeting targets would not be tolerated," according to the indictment.
But there was a sure-fire way to meet those targets: After a day of testing, teachers would allegedly be told to gather the students' test sheets and change the answers. Suddenly a failing school would become a model of education reform. The principal and teachers would get bonuses. Hall would get accolades, plus a much bigger bonus. And students -- duped into thinking they had mastered material that they hadn't even begun to grasp -- would get the shaft.
State education officials became suspicious. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution wrote probing stories. There seemed to be no way to legitimately explain the dramatic improvement in test scores at some schools in such a short time, or the statistically improbable number of wrong-to-right erasures on answer sheets. But there was no proof.
Sonny Perdue was governor at the time, and in August 2010 he ordered a blue-ribbon investigation. Hall resigned shortly before the release of the investigators' report, which alleged that 178 teachers and principals cheated over nearly a decade -- and that Hall either knew or should have known. Those findings laid the foundation for Friday's grand jury indictment.
My Washington Post colleague Valerie Strauss, a veteran education reporter and columnist, wrote Friday that there have been "dozens" of alleged cheating episodes around the country, but only Atlanta's has been aggressively and thoroughly investigated. "We don't really know" how extensive the problem is, Strauss wrote, but "what we do know is that these cheating scandals have been a result of test-obsessed school reform."
In the District of Columbia, for example, there are unanswered questions about an anomalous pattern of wrong-to-right erasures on answer sheets during the reign of famed school reformer Michelle Rhee, who starred in the documentary "Waiting for 'Superman'" and graced the cover of Time magazine.
Our schools desperately need to be fixed. But creating a situation in which teachers are more likely to cheat than students cannot be the right path.
Standardized achievement tests are a vital tool, but treating test scores the way a corporation might treat sales targets is wrong. Students are not widgets. I totally reject the idea that students from underprivileged neighborhoods cannot learn. Of course they can. But how does it help these students to have their performance on a one-size-fits-all standardized test determine their teachers' compensation and job security? The clear incentive is for the teacher to focus on test scores rather than actual teaching.
Not every school system will become so mired in an alleged pattern of wrongdoing that officials can be charged under a racketeering statute of the kind usually used to prosecute mobsters. But even absent cheating, the blind obsession with test scores implies that teachers are interchangeable implements of information transfer, rather than caring professionals who know their students as individuals. It reduces students to the leavings of a No. 2 pencil.
School reform cannot be something that ostensibly smart, ostentatiously tough "superstar" superintendents do to a school system and the people who depend on it. Reform has to be something that is done with a community of teachers, students and parents -- with honesty and, yes, a bit of old-fashioned humility.
Contact Eugene Robinson at email@example.com.