An interesting word that conjures up all kinds of images in my head. Images of machine guns, crime lords leading violent crime syndicates, fast and expensive cars, murder, mayhem and all manner of dubious dark deadly deeds! I picture scenes out of The Sopranos, where Tony Soprano is issuing hits on those who challenge his authority. Admittedly, all images manufactured from watching too many CSI shows and Hollywood movies with handsome lead actors!
It is interesting to look at the meaning of racketeering (I promise there is a point to why soon). When you look at the definition of racketeering from The Free Dictionary (Legal), you can quickly see that the mental images we have are not too far from the actual reality of what racketeering is. See definition below.
What I don't think of when I think of racketeering, is of teachers or principals. In no universe, my own or any parallel, do I see a correlation with racketeering and education.
So let us imagine for a moment, what racketeering in education MIGHT look like, if we were to apply such a term to something taking place in education. If I was to write a Hollywood movie where racketeering was the main thrust, this is a rough idea of what it might look like;
School principals are 'encouraged' by key State authorities to implement a number of policies. They must all employ specific science teachers and not ask questions. Schools must also implement state mandated contracts in areas such as cleaning and canteens, and administer particular testing regimes with tests that are designed by only one 'contractor'. Schools must make sure that students grades are above national averages and show continued improvement and high achievement in order to keep national officials and the FBI from suspecting the real truth - that school science labs are being used to create synthetic drugs. In addition, students who are constantly failing to make the 'grade' and have the potential to make the schools look bad, are quietly whisked away to the 'Academy Farm' for special instruction but are never seen again.
State authorities are controlled by a Crime Syndicate known as the 'Corporation'. The Corporation is responsible for the creation of all tests and own all businesses that supply the contracts - they handle the manufacturing and distribution of all drugs created in the science labs. Principals or teachers who show concern or ask too many questions are 'taken out'.
We should probably throw in some fast cars and machine guns for good measure and of course, we would need two brave heroes to save the day! One handsome and well built PE teacher and a beautiful but feisty young teacher who just wants to save her 6 year olds!
Now, that is what I would expect racketeering in an educational setting might look like. Possibly a rubbish movie, but roughly what I would expect should racketeering occur within an educational context (yes, I have a good imagination).
What I would not expect is the truth.
Just this week, 11 educationalists (teachers, a principal and administrators) from Atlanta were convicted for racketeering. They had been caught inflating test scores on standardised tests. In total there were 35 indicted in 2013 by a grand jury but some had taken a plea bargain.
Cheating on test scores.
Not much of a Hollywood blockbuster movie in that, but those convicted face 20 years in jail. In some States, I believe, you get less time for murder. They may have 'murdered' a few test scores but no actual child was harmed.
Please don't get me wrong - what they did was inappropriate and not acceptable. It makes educators, in all countries, look bad. It was morally reprehensible and whilst I have no idea abut the actual legalities, I do know it is fraudulent to claim pay bonuses on falsified data. Each deserved to lose their practising certificate (or US equivalent) be barred from ever teaching again, made to pay back their bonuses and be faced with a hefty fine and community service.
Racketeering however, seems harsh. It would seem that the only reason they were slammed with such a harsh punishment was not so much about the crime but about the chance to use their misdemeanour to send a very strong message to all educators. Play ball, do as you are told, don't falsify testing (cheat) or be prepared to face the harshest of consequences.
I have some sympathies for those that perpetrated this crime. I can imagine that the pressure teachers and principals are put under in some States must be immense. To use standardised test scores as a yard stick of what is a quality education is so flawed, I don't actually know where to start. Suffice to say, the higher the stakes, the higher the pressure. The pressure to achieve is hard enough here on the other side of the world, and we do not have standardised testing and we are not paid on how well our schools perform or how well our students can sit a test.
This case is unfortunate - not just because it highlights the absurdity of high stakes testing and why pressuring a system into 'performance' is a flawed model, but because these educators missed an opportunity to show the world why the system is flawed. Instead of exposing the problem they felt cornered into trying to cheat the system. Now, all they have done is make the public less sympathetic and play right into the hands of the neoliberal policy maker. The neoliberal's main agenda is to sway the public into believing teachers are bad and self interested, and that privatisation and corporate methodology is the only way to 'save' the children.
This saddens me.
There is some hope that may come out of this case. On the face of it, it is still not likely to be a Hollywood blockbuster, but this story does have the makings of a jolly good documentary about why standardised testing is the ruination of our collective futures.
If you are from my country and you are wondering why we should care then I would remind you of a few policies that have crept into our own system, and I would ask you if this particular high stakes model is one you would like to see replicated here? (which I guess is a big fat no)
If you are from the States then I commiserate on your behalf. I live in hope that your fellow countrymen and women see the light and realise that the success of your country has always been on your ability to produce entrepreneurs, and this kind of testing is not conducive to creativity or entrepreneuralship.
Finally, if I was to be a little facetious, the only kind of 'racketeering' that I see happening in the education system in the States is not about inflating test scores, but in the exploitation of children forced to sit tests or attend profit driven schools. Tests developed by a massive corporation who is focussed on making a profit from the creation, administration and marking of said tests and schools which are run by businesses focussed on profits not the creation of a Nations future.
Wouldn't it be great if we just thought about what was in the best interests of the students.