Bath, Maine—The controversial importance of test scores in public schools has been brought to the forefront of the news, as CNN reports a shocking cheating crisis — not by students this time — but by teachers and school officials.
Today’s headlines are filled with the discovery of 187 educators in the Atlanta public school system who have falsified and changed students’ answers on tests over the past decade to raise student scores.
In a statement that begins to get at the core of this national issue, Georgia Governor Nathan Deal said that “testing and results and targets being reached became more important than actual learning for children.”
“This is an unfortunate outcome of the achievement culture that has been imposed on our educational system,” says author and education expert Malcolm Gauld. “But perhaps this discovery is the call for change that we need to allow the achievement pendulum to swing back to a more healthy and productive place for children and educators.”
Malcolm Gauld is president of Hyde Schools, a network of college preparatory public charter and boarding schools in New York City, Connecticut and Maine that are rooted in character education. He is the author of “College Success Guaranteed: Five Rules to Make It Happen” (Rowman & Littlefield 2011) and co-author of the parenting book “The Biggest Job We’ll Ever Have.” (Scribner)
“Today’s students are under unprecedented pressure to achieve,” Gauld says. “They know we have created an educational system that values their aptitude more than their attitude, their ability more than their effort, and their talent more than their character. They are surrounded by signs that tell them WHAT they can do is more important than WHO they are, regardless of the code of conduct posted on the classroom wall.”
According to Gauld, students, teachers — and now schools — are pushed to succeed in a grade-based system that starts naming winners at an early age, so a ‘win at any cost’ philosophy takes over. Now that test scores are key in determining levels of staffing and school funding, teachers can exhibit the same fear and desperation about grades as their students.
“What has transpired in Atlanta is the natural outcome of this approach to education, and there are serious ramifications to the winning at any cost mentality,” he says, “including the loss of real self-esteem and the ability to be an honest role model to kids.”
This emphasis on grades, which has little to do with character or the child’s overall effort, is the reason Gauld’s father founded the original Hyde School in Maine in 1966.
“As a teacher, my father didn’t understand giving a good student, who struggled and honestly tried his best, his worst grade while giving another student, who didn’t really care, an easy A. It didn’t make sense to him then, and with what we’ve learned from these teachers in Atlanta, it doesn’t make sense now.”
Gauld adds that the Hyde approach places principles at the core of its educational philosophy. Five principles — courage, integrity, leadership, curiosity, and concern — are part of every lesson plan at the schools’ boarding and public schools, and attitude and effort are included when measuring student performance.
“I received grades for my effort and attitude in the classroom,” says Hyde graduate Kayla MacMillan. “Getting the ‘A’ in class not only meant getting the right answer, but having a good attitude about learning.”
A growing concern at the decline of ethical awareness over the past decade has led to a reemergence of character education in public and private schools throughout the country. While Gauld contends that the trend — as part of educational reform — is movement in the right direction, he sees few schools that infuse character development into all areas of learning.
“Students need to grow and strive together, but without the performance pressure that leads to vacuous competition,” Gauld says. “Additionally, if teachers — and parents — are not modeling positive standards for learning to students, it’s all for naught.”
“Grades matter, but in the end, who you are matters more than how you stack up against others. That goes for teachers, too.”