Cheating isn't the real story

As a former city and state superintendent and the grandfather of four Baltimore City public school students, I feel compelled to note several important points in the wake of the cheating incident at George Washington Elementary School reported by the city and state last month.

Cheating is wrong — on that we all agree. But let's not overlook the potential silver lining in such incidents. Baltimore City Public Schools CEO Andrés Alonso and state Superintendent of Schools Nancy S. Grasmick denounced what happened at George Washington and let the world know that cheating will not be tolerated. The school system has a rigorous process in place to guard against it and track it down where it does exist, underscoring the integrity of city schools and affirming the reality of the improvement in student achievement that is taking place throughout the system.

Meanwhile, some of the on-air and online chatter since the George Washington news broke has shown a disregard of such facts and has, instead, brought stereotypes to the surface. Those stereotypes, just like the cheating at George Washington, are wrong.

Some people are using the news of cheating at one school to suggest that cheating is widespread. The evidence from hundreds of Baltimore schools and thousands of schools in Maryland over the years makes it clear, that stereotype is false. Sadly, some people are too quick to ascribe our children's success to things other than their own hard work, that of their teachers and principals and support from families. This stereotype is wrong and resurrects past prejudices.

Others are using the George Washington incident to advocate for getting rid of testing and accountability. But the argument that education was somehow better before testing and accountability came along — that things like arts education, critical thinking, problem solving and greater equity flourished then — demonstrates serious memory loss.

The breadth and depth of student knowledge, along with skill development and graduation rates, still require significant improvement — but that means higher standards, better assessment and even more sensitive systems of accountability, not their elimination. We must not return to the time when we routinely failed children — especially children of color, low-income children, children whose first language is not English and children with disabilities — often not even knowing it, as we masked our failure with some children behind average test scores. A strong system of standards, assessment and accountability with the support our children and teachers need is our most powerful sword for fair and excellent education for every child.

Finally, disproportionate attention on test tampering at one school detracts from the very hopeful progress in Baltimore City schools. Let's celebrate improved achievement by the vast majority of students; better schools attracting increased enrollment for the first time in 40 years; 1,000 fewer dropouts; more equitable funding among schools in the city; and greater decision making authority where the students are, at the school level.

The real story is about our children's extraordinary gains and about hope for public education. Our children deserve our confidence and support.

David Hornbeck was schools superintendent for the state of Maryland and the city of Philadelphia. His e-mail is dhornbeck1@comcast.net.

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