Did the Atlanta teachers cheat? According to a court, they did. What is the appropriate punishment? Time in prison? According to a court, it is.
This is a travesty. The conditions that led to these teachers involvement in this "racketeering" as the court called it are something most people have NO clue about.
I was at a "failing" school my first year of teaching. The pressure from administration was INTENSE. There were constant meetings with peers, supervisors and outsiders where the importance of raising scores was hammered home. If you were not on board with "the program" which involved very nebulous yet somehow specific things you had to do (read that: impossible), then it would be reflected in your appraisal. It was made clear constantly that a "needs improvement" appraisal would result in contract non-renewal, which in the teacher world, is "being fired".
There was no "tenure" like people believe. The Union said lots of things but could do nothing. Teachers were running scared. Three quarters of the English department were first-year teachers - because they were well known to push you out if you didn't meet their expectations. Those who managed to "meet expectations" were coincidentally those who taught either Pre-AP or AP classes, where they have a pre-selected set of students more likely to be successful regardless of teacher. Yet those teachers were rewarded. Teachers teaching "average" students had no hope of meeting the standards.
I was never asked to cheat. Schools are smart enough (mostly) to keep English teachers a mile away from testing since English is a core subject that is being tested. I can certainly understand the climate in which someone asked to do something out of line with the law might do so.
One could say that "business" works the same way - that results are rewarded and those who don't perform are punished. That's not exactly true. I worked in retail for years. We had regular sales reports, true. In some cases, store managers were given the "opportunity" to resign in light of years of decreasing sales. Yet the employees were never put on the kind of pressure I experienced as a teacher in a failing school. The closest job I can think of that had the same kind of pressure to perform was being a car salesman. The pressure there is so great, that nobody trusts a car salesman not to cheat! Even then, the goals are attainable for those who are good at their job.
In teaching, the goals set are often unattainable, no matter who you put in the classroom. If you have difficult goals, but they're realistic, then it is fair that it be on you if you fail to meet those goals. But given unattainable goals, what is a person to do?
I resigned from that school and applied at a school that's not a failing school. So did most of the English department, more than the year before.
That's of course a real disservice to the students of that school. Experienced teachers are essential in a school that's struggling with low student performance. Yet the climate created ensures that those very best teachers will leave and go somewhere that they're appreciated. It leaves the students most in need with the least experienced teachers - those who haven't learned their lesson about working in a failing school.
Should the Atlanta teachers be punished? Yes. Should that punishment include years in prison? Hell no! The punishment does not fit the crime. I guarantee you that every one of these wanted the best for their students - but the system of intimidation and fear that's been created by our shortsighted focus on improving test scores at any cost put them up against the wall.