THE BLOG
08/20/2012 01:18 pm ET Updated Oct 20, 2012

The Public Trust

I've been frustrated by what has been a long, drawn-out scandal in Philadelphia education for the last year. It seems that some number of schools in Pennsylvania, and Philadelphia specifically, cheated on the PSSAs. In Philadelphia, there are 53 schools that have been identified as having suspicious erasure patterns. I don't know how many of them actually cheated on the tests; I don't know, if schools did cheat, if it was done by principals or teachers or both; and I don't know if these were concerted efforts or the act of someone panicking about what would happen if the scores weren't high enough.

And yes, we need to have a conversation in this country about the pressures being placed on schools, especially urban schools, because of the high-stakes nature of these tasks. We are seeing a growing number of the scandals in cities all over this country. And as the recent scandal at Stuyvesant High School shows, it is not just the adults who are feeling the pressure, the kids are feeling it too. But let's be clear -- it's wrong when kids cheat. It's wrong when adults cheat, no matter what the pressures are.

There are a million thoughts going through my head about this, but I keep coming back to one thought lately about a lot of what I see in the public sphere, whether it is a Republican candidate for president refusing to release tax returns, or the thought that a teacher or a principal may have cheated on tests:

We work in the public trust.

That has to mean something. And while I have no desire to romanticize the past, I worry that this idea means less and less these days. And that's just dangerous. Working in the public trust must remain profound work. It has to mean an understanding that your work matters more than making widgets, and that the seriousness of purpose with which you undertake your work must matter. It means that you have to have the understanding that your work probably won't make you rich, but the work is necessary and the work is good. And I believe there should be an understanding that the willingness to work in the public trust meant a pension after 35 or 40 years of doing so, because it is important that a society takes care of those who have taken care of the society.

There are many, many problems with the continued corrosion of faith in our public sphere. First among those problems is that what replaces it -- an ever-increasing competitiveness and individualism -- is having incredibly deleterious effect on our nation, specifically on our educational system. Whether it is the thought that CEOs of charter schools should make more than the President of the United States or the former CEO of a test-prep company bragging about how many millionaires his company has created or principals thinking they need to falsify student test answers to keep their jobs, we are seeing a movement in education that continues to erode the public trust.

"I got mine" has no place in education, public, private or otherwise. When you endeavor to teach children -- whether in a public school or as the head of a private company that sells curriculum to schools -- you work in the public trust. That trust should be sacred, and yet, so much we have seen has eroded that trust. And it is incumbent on all of us in education to begin to repair that trust.

So by all means, yes, let's punish those in our schools -- in my city -- who have been proven to have cheated on the PSSAs. And let's do what we can to make sure that no one else thinks that falsifying children's scores is a way to protect a school or save a career. That behavior has no place in our schools, as it is toxic and a fundamental betrayal of what I believe is a sacred trust.

But then, let's look across the educational spectrum and ask the hard questions in all corners of world of education that need to be asked so that we can remember the goal of what we do, and we can repair the public trust.