Atlanta school cheating: When teachers cheat, what do you tell the kids?

The Atlanta Public Schools cheating scandal has three-dozen educators facing trial for cheating on standardized tests. But the message kids wind up with is determined by how adults around them explore virtue.

AP Photo/David Tulis
Defense attorney J. Tom Morgan, left, argues a motion in front of Fulton County Superior Court Judge Jerry Baxter during a hearing for several dozen Atlanta Public Schools educators facing charges alleging a conspiracy of cheating on the CRCT standardized tests in Atlanta, May 3, 2013.

“To know the good, love the good and do the good.” Though Kevin Ryan, founder and director emeritus of the Center for Character and Social Responsibility at Boston University School of Education summarized it that way, that’s what a host of experts see as the goal in raising children of strong character. And with students back in the classroom this fall, their teachers are right there with them, as role models and guides.

But what happens when educators themselves are the ones flunking the character test? It happens, and in some places it happens big time. In Atlanta’s public school system, for instance, three dozen teachers and officials are due to stand trial for cheating on standardized testing in 44 schools, allegedly providing test answers, and changing answer sheets in an effort to boost test results. Testimony against the first administrator in the case began late last month.

So what can adults do when teachers or other important adults are caught doing something bad? It can be devastating to the children. But does that send an irrefutable message to children that “good” is just an empty word? That excuses can explain away immoral or illegal actions?

It doesn’t have to, says Leslie Matula, founder of Project Wisdom, which provides character education programs in schools. While hugely disappointing, and disillusioning to parents as well as kids, all is not lost, she says. “It’s important to remember that the vast majority of teachers are responsible, caring human beings who teach because they care about children. The demands on classroom teachers have probably never been greater.

“It’s always unfortunate when these things happen," she adds, "whether it’s a large scale scandal or a classroom teacher who 'falls from grace' because of a poor choice, but these situations do create teachable moments … opportunities to talk with young people about the consequences of their choices and the importance of living lives of integrity, lives based on a set of core ethical values. 

More importantly, she says, such times provide “an opportunity for adults to sit back and reconsider how their choices and actions impact the lives of the youngsters in their sphere of influence. Children look to us for guidance as they navigate their way through the challenges of life. We have a duty to strive to be the best role models we can be so they have every opportunity to become successful, caring and responsible adults.”

As child psychiatrist and author Robert Coles wrote in “The Moral Intelligence of Children,” “The child is an ever-attentive witness of grown-up morality – or lack thereof.”

If all adults at all times are indeed helping to form children’s character – whether they intend to or not, whether they are aware they are doing it or not – then all adults have the ability to positively influence the next generation, say experts.

They suggest adults take a break once in a while from cheering on academic and athletic accomplishments, and focus on children’s virtues. Label the components of good character when you see virtue in action in kids and offer encouragement: You were thoughtful when you helped the checkout clerk; you were respectful when you called the volunteer mom by name; that was generous of you to share your lunch; I appreciate your honesty when you came clean with me about cutting class.

In discussing the Atlanta situation, parents and teachers can ask questions about potential temptations like cheating: What does this test mean to you? What might happen if you mess up? What if someone asks you for the answers – how might you respond? If you actually cheated, do you regret it? Was it an empty “A”? What would you do next time?

Class dismissed.

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