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Whatever it takes

National | Teaching the test, testing the parents, detaining the teachers, and other news from the world of education

Issue: "AIDS: Africa's affliction," Sept. 9, 2000

Cheater, cheater
Teachers impress on most every child that cheating on schoolwork is wrong. But when it comes to standardized tests, more and more teachers seem to be breaking their own rules. Over the summer, at least six Fresno, Calif., teachers were disciplined for "helping" students take the Stanford 9 statewide achievement test last year. One allowed an entire class to use multiplication tables while taking the math portion of the exam. In Fresno Unified, at least three teachers made copies of the Stanford test and gave them to students to use as study guides. Last spring, teachers and administrators in California, Maryland, Louisiana, Florida, and Ohio were caught cheating on statewide achievement tests. In the Maryland case, students blew the whistle. A group of fifth-graders came forward saying that teachers had given them extra time, prompted them to change essay answers, and even provided correct answers to test questions. Critics blame high-stakes testing, particularly in districts where schools are rewarded for improving scores and penalized for declining ones, for the cheating epidemic. Under California's new accountability plan schools with improving scores could qualify for extra program funding; teachers could receive bonuses of up to $25,000 for personal use. Schools where scores decline or remain stagnant face stiff sanctions including removal of the principal or takeover by the state. Monty Neill, executive director of the National Center for Fair & Open Testing, says such performance-based measures create an environment where teachers will do almost anything to boost scores. Jeanne Allen, president of Washington, D.C.-based Center for Education, disagrees. "The cause [of cheating] is not the test, not the standards movement, but some character flaw," Ms. Allen told U.S. News &World Report. "These tests ... reflect what should be taught in various grades, and if educators are cheating, it means they don't have the ability to get these kids to learn, which means they shouldn't be teaching in the first place." Grading parents
When report cards go home to Chicago parents this fall, students won't be the only ones trying to make the grade. Teachers in all 600 Chicago public schools will this year begin grading parents. Every five weeks, educators will send home "parent checklists." The checklists won't contain letter grades, but will tell parents whether they're, well, parenting well. Teachers will evaluate parents in such areas as helping their kids with homework, dressing them properly for school, making sure their kids are in bed at an appropriate hour, and getting them to school on time. School officials could refer parents who score poorly to a "parent training academy." "The objective here is to help parents by continually communicating with them and sending home a checklist that can serve not only as an instructive instrument, but also as a reminder ... of what they should be doing," said Paul Vallas, chief executive officer of Chicago Public Schools. Citing the high number of at-risk children and young, single parents, he said, "the school system has got to get into the business of educating parents." Some Chicago citizens support Mr. Vallas. "Accountability is not something we should fear; it is something we should promote," wrote area resident Juan Rangle in a letter to The Chicago Sun-Times. Others are outraged. Some called the checklist initiative a diversion designed to shift blame to parents for the failures of the city's public schools. Johnny O'Neal Holmes, the father of a 15-year-old, noted that parents who would take seriously teacher advice probably are already involved in their children's lives. Extracurricular crime
Most teachers spend the simmering days of August preparing for the first weeks of school. But some teachers this year spent them in jail. In Madison, Wisc., high-school special-needs teacher Tracy Staven, 36, was accused of using her students to help stalk and harass her ex-boyfriend Scott Reigstad. Police say Ms. Staven recruited students to make harassing phone calls to Mr. Reigstad. She also borrowed one student's car, which she used to "spy" on her ex. Things were no better in Columbia County, Ga. Sheriff's deputies there seized marijuana plants, bags of marijuana, and 30 tablets of the drug "Ecstacy" from the home of high-school teacher Deborah Lynn Foley. Ms. Foley now faces felony drug charges as do six others, including two teenagers and a 20-year-old man who were living in Ms. Foley's home. Oklahoma City officials last month revoked the state licenses of four teachers found to have committed prior felonies, including sexual battery of a student. Oklahoma law bars a person convicted of a felony from working in a school system. Activists advance gay agenda
As the new school year gets underway, homosexual activists are reaping the fruit of seeds planted in seasons past. In response to a summer-long campaign by homosexuals and their supporters (parents among them), school board officials in Chicago's Naperville Unit District 203 added new anti-discrimination language to its books. The new verbiage says that sexual orientation-like race or religion-is often the basis for harassment. While the language stopped short of making homosexual students a protected class, activist students were emboldened to press further. "I think we need to work together to get the board to go further," Katelyn Heitmanek, president of Naperville North High School's Gay-Straight Alliance, told reporters. "I don't think this will be the end." So-called "gay-straight alliances," student-initiated clubs that purport to educate students about "nonviolence" and "gay, lesbian, and straight issues" are winning the right to meet on high-school grounds. In Salt Lake City, for example, school board officials were forced last month to bow to a court ruling that required them to allow such a club to meet in an area high school. In 1995, the board had staved off student attempts to form a gay club by banning all extracurricular clubs. That move sparked lawsuits in which homosexuals and their supporters eventually prevailed. In Orange, Calif., homosexual and "questioning" students at El Modena High School will this fall continue to meet under a controversial ruling issued in February by federal judge David O. Carter. Judge Carter ruled that a gay-straight alliance there could meet until a lawsuit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and others played out in court. The ACLU, People for the American Way, and other left-wing groups directly support many of the gay-straight alliances that currently meet in American high schools. Homosexual activists claim that 700 gay-straight clubs meet in American high schools, but Family Research Council researcher Peter LaBarbera believes that figure may be exaggerated. One group involved in promoting homosexuality in the schools, the Gay Lesbian Straight Education Network (GLSEN), made national news this summer when a workshop it sponsored at Massachusetts' Tufts University was tape-recorded by a parents-rights activist. The tapes revealed adults giving high-school-age students specific and graphic how-to instructions on homosexual sex techniques. Kids and crime
Juvenile delinquency these days is more than stealing hubcaps: Guns and cocaine now appear regularly on adult-length rap sheets, and defenders of beleaguered schools are accurate when they say teachers are out of their depth in trying to help those who have gone over the edge. But so are the social workers often charged to handle such cases, as Judge James Payne of Indianapolis points out. He's in charge of the juvenile court there, but has often been frustrated by government professionals who say, when they get a report, "I won't go into that home. What an awful neighborhood!" To Judge Payne, the solution seems evident: Allow in some counselors that the state system has locked out. He has gone to churches and other faith-based groups, recruited those who wanted to become involved, and then told troubled families that they could accept home-based counseling from a religious group in lieu of going through the official, secular counseling. Last year 190 families went through the faith-based counseling program; secular agencies took charge of 500. It's too early to compare results, but teachers point out that one student determined to sabotage a class and well aware of his rights in public schools can do immense damage. If there's a way of getting through to that teenager, not only his future but those of many others can be reclaimed.

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