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Powell: Why cheating teachers hurt so much

Classrooms across Long Island were empty on Thursday.

Classrooms across Long Island were empty on Thursday. Check our listings of delayed openings, closures and cancellations to see what's in store for Friday. Credit: Daniel Brennan

Our society regards those in certain jobs as heroes, like firefighters, police officers, soldiers and teachers. The respect comes from our judgment that their work directly benefits serves the greater good of society.

So when teachers — heroes — cheat and lie, it cuts deep. We have come to expect, sometimes relish in, bad behavior from politicians and celebrities. But teachers? Not teachers.

Last Friday, 35 Atlanta-based administrators and teachers were indicted by a grand jury for their participation in one of the largest standardized testing cheating scandals in the nation’s history.

The case has been quickly framed as a mirror into the ills and benefits of standardized testing, teacher evaluations, federal funding and the quality of schooling in urban areas. But the case presents a moral issue, too.

Take, for example, the third grader who earned in 2006 the worst score in her reading class, but did inexplicably well on another assessment test shortly after. Her mother says the girl, now 15, is in ninth grade but reading at a fifth grade level.

It is disturbing to think of the children negatively and profoundly impacted by the irresponsibility of their teachers. Countless students were pushed through the system, even though they were not ready to advance. They will be at a disadvantage for the rest of their lives.

The allegations are astonishing — so many top officials not only permitted but requested that teachers alter test scores after school and give their pupils answers mid-test. Or, that such a scheme could go on for years before coming to light.

Regardless of how you slice it, there's no justification for their actions.

Teachers and administrators set the standard in a school system and for their pupils. They warn students against the consequences of plagiarism. They create three versions of a test so that wandering eyes aren't tempted to copy others' papers.

They are supposed to instill ethical lessons and encourage pupils to take pride in their work.

If teachers, principals and superintendents can’t be trusted, the entire education model falls apart.

No doubt, more troubling details will surface as the case unfolds. For now, though, some solace can be found in Juwanna Guffie's report, as told by Fulton Country District Attorney Paul Howard on Friday at a news conference.

During a standardized test in her fifth grade class, Guffie’s teacher went around the room offering correct answers. When the teacher approached Guffie, though, she refused her help.

"I don't want your answers, I want to take my own test," Guffie said, according to Howard.

That's a hero.