By Charlie Mitchell
OXFORD – You may have seen a couple of stories last week about teachers accused of paying to have others take (and pass) their licensing exams. News such as this paints a picture of a world in which values are upside down.
Of course, it’s wrong – always wrong – to draw from the few conclusions about the many. Ninety-nine point nine percent of teachers (or more) were not caught cheating to get licenses, but still last week’s news of more than a dozen federal indictments (six of them in Mississippi) raises questions.
For example, what do teachers accused of cheating do when they catch one (or more) of the students in their classrooms doing the same thing?
High-five? Extra time at recess?
Do they fail them for being ineffective cheaters (because they got caught?) Or do they score the students variably based on the the cleverness of their schemes?
The news accounts were pretty straightforward. Federal prosecutors in Memphis revealed they’d caught a “fixer,” who for $3,000 would arrange for a “ringer” to show up with a fake ID and take the PRAXIS exam for clients.
Apparently this network was longstanding and fairly sophisticated. Indeed, the indictments are technically for wire fraud, which means using the Internet or telephones to set up deals.
As these things go, the violations had to become pretty flagrant for the U.S. Attorney to get involved. It takes a lot of time and effort and expense to prepare criminal cases. Federal prosecutors are notoriously picky.
As another aside, think about this: Having a teacher who can’t pass the teaching test is one thing – let’s hope this type of fraud is not also taking place for the licensing of heart surgeons and airline pilots.
Mississippians facing the fraud charges, according to published reports, are from Port Gibson, Charleston, Jackson, Columbus, Meridian and Richland.
Some of the reactions were pretty interesting. For instance, a fourth-grade teacher in Charleston has, according to her attorney, received a “vote of confidence” by the school board.
And, for the sake of argument, let’s say she is a pretty good elementary school teacher. Indeed, how much “testable” knowledge in math, science or reading does it take to be able to relate effectively to 10-year-olds? But what about her basic honesty as an individual – or lack thereof? Sadly, some will argue it doesn’t matter that a person cheated to get a job so long as once hired the job performance is acceptable. Hence the statement about a world in which values are upside down.
Another respondent, Superintendent Ellis Brown of Port Gibson, said the administration there is conducting its own investigation into an accused teacher aide.
Now that’s an interesting response. It could mean that the district finds a federal indictment insufficient or is merely respecting that those charged are innocent until proved otherwise. But it could also mean something else. In circles of treachery, it is not uncommon that lots of people are in the know about assorted acts of wrongdoing. Be too quick to condemn a colleague for cheating and he might share with the feds his video of you stocking your deer camp freezer with food that was supposed to be served in the school cafeteria. Corruption is often not an isolated, one-time thing.
Mississippi wasn’t alone in the sting. The alleged Memphis-based mastermind, also identified as an educator and clearly an entrepreneur, had clients in Arkansas and Tennessee.
But there’s no downplaying that this is a kick in the teeth for those who labor long and argue passionately for more support of public schools in this state.
Funding is one aspect – and the Legislature hasn’t been able to deliver on its on pledge of “adequate” dollars in years. In the larger picture, there’s public sentiment. Schools need friends. Schools need believers. Schools need community support to fulfill their roles as centers of learning and self-improvement.
No matter how many times it is pointed out how unfair it is to say the actions of six people reflect the work of the 33,103 teachers in 1,097 public schools with 493,000 students in Mississippi, the indictments will be seized upon by critics.
There will be lasting damage for young people – not because a couple of their teachers turned out to be cheaters – but because their lack of basic values will energize those who seek to condemn rather than build.
Charlie Mitchell is a Mississippi journalist. Write to him at Box 1, University, MS 38677, or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.