It’s Greek to Me

According to the Journal of American Medicine in 2000, somewhere between 44,000 and 98,000 people die every year because of problems they developed while under a doctor’s care.  The Greek term for ‘doctor-caused’ problems is Iatrogenesis.  (By the way, Wikipedia ups the ante, asserting that 225,000 deaths every year have iatrogenic causes, but it includes pharmacists, psychiatrists, psychologists and therapists among the killers.)

I raise this point because it seems to me that the widespread cheating in American schools is the result of the educational equivalent of iatrogenesis.  It is educator-caused, the result of threats and intense pressure to raise scores on standardized tests.  Take your pick of cities where some principals and teachers have cheated to raise student scores, and I think you will find that the ‘doctor’ at the top put intense pressure on his or her minions to “perform or else.”

The ongoing trial in Atlanta is the poster child, of course.

If Washington, DC, had courageous political leadership and a strong newspaper like the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, I have no doubt that the DC students whose scores were falsely inflated would be getting an apology and perhaps some remedial compensation, as the Atlanta students will soon receive. My colleagues at Learning Matters and I have carefully documented what I called “Michelle Rhee’s Reign of Error” there.  In other cities (Columbus, OhioBaltimore; El Paso, Texas, et cetera), adults have been caught breaking the rules.

(Many others have resisted the pressures and temptations to cheat, and their honesty should be acknowledged. I am personally grateful to the few who have blown the whistle.)

Because, like Mr. Shakespeare, I have “small Latin and less Greek,” someone else will have to construct a word to mean ‘arising from an educator’ to describe what has been happening in our schools.  “Edugenesis,” perhaps?

Unlike Iatrogenesis, “Edugenesis” doesn’t literally kill people.  However, it has ruined careers and blighted lives.

On a positive note, I sense the tide is turning, and so perhaps a new coinage is no longer necessary.  The backlash against excessive testing seems stronger than ever, and many knowledgeable people are recognizing that our system uses standardized tests to evaluate teachers, while other countries use them to assess students (which is what they are designed to do).  The AFT’s Randi Weingarten has just turned her back on using VAM (value-added measurement) to assess teachers.  Respected superintendents like Josh Starr of Montgomery County, Maryland, have called for a moratorium on high-stakes testing during the transition to the Common Core.  The tireless Diane Ravitch, once a lone voice crying in the wilderness about the tyranny of machine-scored testing and the war on teachers, now has 70,000 Twitter followers and countless readers of her blog.

Will the backlash against excessive testing bring down with it the national effort to raise academic standards, collateral damage as it were?  These are interesting times, to be sure.  And hopeful too……

10 thoughts on “It’s Greek to Me

  1. As a former school board member in Texas for nine years and now as Executive Director of the national organization Parents for Public Schools, I do not believe that “pressure” is any excuse for cheating. The decision to cheat, whether by teachers or other individuals, is always just that — a decision to cheat. Pressure, even if from the top, does not make most teachers cheat. Pressure for high test scores may create an environment in which people prone to cheating will cheat, but it’s still their own decision.

    Secondly, I still believe that cheating is not “widespread.” The sensational stories like Atlanta are blown up in the media to the point that people start thinking this is what all teachers and schools do. It is not what all teachers and schools do. We do another grave disservice to our nation’s teachers when we assume that cheating is “widespread.” Most are in their classrooms working their hearts out trying to do the best they can and to have the highest student results possible in an honest way.

    I say these things based on my own experience. Someone else may have a different experience. This is mine, and it’s based on real life experiences.


  2. Do you really think the cheating scandals were caused by educators? Educators did not come up NCLB, RttT, or VAM.

    Educators did not decide that the best way to deal with the effects of poverty on standardized test performance was to shut down public schools rather than adequately fund them.

    All these decisions were made by career bureaucrats and profiteers. Shame on you, Mr. Merrow, for claiming educators are the cause. You cannot put someone in an impossible situation, threaten to take their job away if they don’t succeed in achieving the impossible, and then expect them to behave rationally all the time.

    That’s been done TO educators.


    • Ken,
      I stand corrected. You are right that much of the damage has been done by non-educators and politicians, although educators (like Beverly Hall) are just as culpable, and some education leaders were very involved in the writing of NCLB. Together, they created the pressures that led some (but a long, long way from ‘most’) principals and teachers to cheat. Clearly ‘edugenesis’ is the wrong coinage. Is there a word for ‘damage done to kids, teachers and principals by some educators, non-educators and politicians?


  3. The problem origins at the top or in the immortal words of a Michael Corlinone in the Godfather “the fish rots from the head first.” The problems in the public schools originates at that top of the system. Arne Duncan a shill for corporate America is at the top of the system of public schools that is totally corrupted by the industrialists that have take over our society. When graduates only 6% of the graduates from the academic community have a baccalaureate in the liberal arts we know that we have a educational system designed and defined by vocational purposes. It was originally designed to develop workers and it has 100 years later become expert at doing only that. Why not focus our attention on human development rather than conditioning and indoctrination into a mercantile world as commodities? Why not develop in our children a desire for a better society rather than the current dystopia built on debt and financial enslavement? First you condition the teachers to accept such trivial and mediocre ambitions, how else could you convince students to accept debt as the pass to getting a job? Is that all there is to being alive? Are human beings simply commodities to be shaped in the public schools?


  4. The notion of cheating is contextual. In a corrupt system, what is cheating? I advise all students to cheat. This is an imperative. Their test scores impact their future, but have no bearing on their learning.


  5. No one has mentioned that both educators and the “corporate education reformers” are seen, heard, and sadly, modelled by the students and parents they are charged with educating. When young people see cheating happen – they naturally see nothing wrong with cheating. When parents see the corporate leaders cheat and lie, they see nothing wrong with cheating and lying. We reap what we sow. Children will never buy “do what I say, not what I do”. In turn we can expect a generation that has little or no conscience about dishonesty. I am ashamed of these individuals – all who DO know better – know that cheating is wrong no matter what, no matter how tempting, no matter how threatened they feel. No excuse. If our young people saw and heard the media praise those who refused to cheat, those who stood up for doing what was right despite the consequences we just might see our children grow to be strong, moral adults.


  6. I’ve used the iatrogenic analogy before. But I don’t think it is accurate to state that the epidemic of cheating in U.S. public schools is “educator-caused.” It was not teachers, principals or superintendents who initiated the test-and-punish framework that is at the root of this problem (and many others). Elected officials, influenced by a mix of ideology and financial supporters, are primarily responsible.

    I have no doubt that Beverly Hall created a climate in which subordinates concluded that manipulating test results was necessary to preserve their jobs or to enhance their livelihoods. But Dr. Hall may well have thought that this was the most plausible route to meet the goal of ever-rising scores expected by her Atlanta Board of Education employers. The Atlanta business community was also pressing hard to maintain the city’s image of educational progress as measured by test scores — that’s why they worked so hard to block the Journal-Constitution’s courageous investigation that ultimately uncovered the ugly truth.

    As I repeatedly stress in public presentations, high-stakes testing is not an “educational” policy, it is a “political” one. To change the direction of what goes on in our classrooms will ultimately require changing the behavior of public officials or replacing them.

    Thanks for your continuing coverage of the fallout from the testing explosion.


  7. I continue to be disappointed in John Merrow’s attack on teachers. The people who have created the system, and the expectation are not educators. Educators would have some knowledge, and tap into that knowledge, about how we learn. Learning is what education should be about, not test scores on bits and pieces of rote memory puked out on a standardized test booklet. Even the “educators” Merrow cites are not educators. They are administrators in education. Most haven’t been in a classroom in years, if at all, Arne being the top “educator” example. Does he have any idea how humans learn? Those “educators who helped with NCLB and the tests were all pressured by the “education industry”, not by what happens in the classroom when real learning takes place.

    Please John, find some words that describe who and what is happening. Get beyond laying the blame on teachers – though I suppose teachers, a mainly female population still, are an especially easy goat to lay the blame on. While teachers are being put in the position of producing an impossible product, perfect scores, or losing their jobs, and their profession, those above them should be those we focus as the cause. Let our teachers do their job, which is providing learning. Take them off your “educators” guillotine.


  8. I think John’s key point is this one: “Will the backlash against excessive testing bring down with it the national effort to raise academic standards, collateral damage as it were? These are interesting times, to be sure. And hopeful too……”

    As to the “Lone Wolf,” – Fair Test has been raising thoughtful concerns about the use of testing for a long time…much longer that another person you mentioned.

    Fair Test was a terrific ally in an ultimately 3 year battle we had with the NCAA over their questionable tactics with students and schools all over the nation.


  9. The Florida Times Union sued the state of Florida to force release VAM scores on Teachers. Now they are releasing that information. More stunning. No One in the State Department can explain how the tests score teachers. They can wave their hands and talk education mumbo jumbo, but cannot give any specifics. I honestly doubt if they know, and they assign the scores. I think. It is all top secret.

    Stunning Fact…… 68 Teachers of the Year ( 1 from each Fl. district) when the scores were released, he majority of those teachers were given bad ratings.

    Some received ratings from other teachers. The traditional schools with the highest test scores had the lowest evaluations. No one in the State Department of Education seems to be able to explain why, or again, educational mumbo jumbo.

    I question if any teachers are involved in the testing,or the scoring. Critics name Jeb Bush. Bill Gates. Michelle Ree. Artie Duncan as originators. Should they not release criteria?

    Testing methods. who designed the tests? The Republican Party? The Democratic party? The Florida Legislature? Who scores the data? People hired off of Craig’s list? follow the money?

    The Teacher of the Year for the State of Florida received a poor score. The Teacher of the Year in Duval County and Clay County received a poor score. I could not make that up. Read the Sunday 3/2 headlines of the Florida Times Union.

    This is either the biggest scandal I have ever read about, or it is the biggest flop I have ever read about, or the biggest political overreach I have ever read about.
    something is way wrong here.

    And I can see why the Education Dept. of fought in court to keep these scores from the Public. They knew they had to be wrong. Teachers whose students consistently score high test scores..on the standardized tests the above four push………….cannot be the bad teachers that VAM ( which they push) paints them to be.


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