The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

October 6, 2012

Cheating is a symptom of failed education reform

The Back Porch column

By Nerissa Young


Sometimes cheaters do win — for a season.

An Oklahoma high school principal has been outed by students and teachers as a cheater who manipulated classroom instruction and grades so school statistics would look better to outsiders.

The U.S. Department of Education has joined the Oklahoma City Public Schools district in an investigation into Douglass Mid-High School and principal Brian Staples, according to a story posted at, the website of The Oklahoman newspaper.

Former teachers and students submitted affidavits alleging that Staples told teachers to not assign homework and to pass all students, “no matter what.”

2011 graduate Kanda Barnes wrote she did not take a senior English class as required for graduation. Staples gave her a C for both semesters, she said, and she paid another student $250 to take an algebra class for her. Her two F’s for freshman math were changed to C’s by Staples.

Another teacher said students’ excessive absences and tardies were disregarded with respect to course grades and there is no record of the reported absences and tardies.

Other teachers have said they were ordered to teach English and math regardless of their assigned instructional duties. English and math were taught to the exclusion of all other subjects.

Former assistant principal Marcia Muhammad was fired by Staples. She uncovered multiple instances in which school administrators changed the grades assigned to students by teachers.

“It saves the funding,” Muhammad told The Oklahoman when asked why a principal would cheat. “It saves the school. It makes him look good. It hurts the kids, but it makes him look good.”

The investigations have not proved Staples cheated; they are merely allegations as of now.

But why would a principal cheat? Muhammad’s answer is telling as schools struggle under the so-called education reform act No Child Left Behind.

What the law has done is leave poor schools — and the students enrolled in them — behind. It is the federal government’s war on public education, which is ironic because state, and not federal, constitutions are where the right to an education comes from.

Administrators, teachers and students are under increasing pressure to make sure test scores meet the act’s annual yearly progress goals. Numbers alone form the basis of whether a school is a failure or a success. A school’s persistent failure means students can be siphoned off to charter schools or other schools in the district, which leaves the most disadvantaged to fend for themselves.

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney has said he supports merit pay for teachers. That’s good rhetoric, but the merit of merit pay ends there. How is merit determined? By student test scores.

Why might Staples have insisted that teachers instruct only in math and English? Because those are the two subject areas reported on test scores.

President Obama continually resists dismantling No Child Left Behind while claiming improved education is a pillar of his campaign.

The federal government’s dictates have built in every incentive possible to encourage school personnel to at best massage the numbers and at worst outright manufacture them, as Staples is accused of doing.

Why wouldn’t he cheat? His job, the jobs of his teachers, the labels attached to his students and the continued fiscal and physical viability of his school are all dependent on whether the numbers are right any given year.

If the investigation proves Staples did what he is accused of, he will likely lose his job and be held up as a pariah.

That’s just backward. He ought to be given a medal for performing exactly the way the system groomed him to. The ones without a job ought to be lawmakers who refuse to overturn No Child Left Behind and the yahoos at the U.S. Department of Education who enforce it.

— Young is a Register-Herald columnist. E-mail: