Corruption is one of the basic enemies of good governance. And nobody denies that corruption is a bigger problem in some places than in others. Transparency International ranks 180 countries on a corruption index that ranges from “Very Clean” (New Zealand) to “Highly Corrupt” (Somalia). The World Bank gauges control of corruption using a detailed list of measures and sources. By the same token, various municipalities in America have different levels of corruption. The Illinois Department of Corrections budgets for prison construction costs based on demographic projections of the number of future governors. The Sopranos was set in New Jersey for a reason.
It’s no surprise, then, that some public education institutions are especially prone to corruption, and that they tend to be located in places where corruption infects other aspects of civic life. Over the last decade, the city of Atlanta has seen construction bid-rigging, warrantless drug raids, and its former mayor sent to federal prison on tax evasion charges after being acquitted of racketeering, bribery, and wire fraud.
Yet much of the discussion of educational corruption in Atlanta has focused on the culpability of standardized tests. One local commentator said :
Of course, it was the teachers who made the ultimate decision to cheat, which is immoral and unethical. But it was the laws and tests that pressured them to make those unethical and immoral decisions. Just like a man who is poor and can’t feed his family is more likely to steal than a rich man, a teacher who fears that his job may get cut, his school may get shut down or he won’t get a raise, is more likely to cheat on a test than one who isn’t.
Or as Bob Schaeffer of FairTest told NBC Nightly News:
When test scores are the only thing that matters in education, teachers feel that they have to boost those scores by hook or by crook.
Being under pressure to increase student test scores is not at all the same thing as being the parent of a hungry family. The whole point of the feeding-your-starving-children example is to illustrate a situation where your moral obligation to keep your children alive overwhelms your moral obligation to follow the letter of the law. Victor Hugo wrote a long book about it.
Atlanta public school teachers subject to humiliation and pressure from management were put in a terrible position and the weight of law enforcement investigation of educational corruption ought to fall on the administrators who drove the cheating scheme. But to say in Schaeffer’s broad terms that teachers feel they have to cheat is to take away their moral agency and their professionalism along with it.