Mediocrity—It’s All in the Numbers

Two stories trending this month with unlikely parallel comparisons are Atlanta’s middle school cheating scandal, and the Comcast customer service debacle recorded for all to hear.

Avoiding news of the latter would be quite a feat. Tech journalist Ryan Block and his wife tried desperately, and respectfully, to unsubscribe from Comcast internet service. Despite his own calm demeanor, Block was subjected to “Kafkaesque” badgering from a “customer service” representative trying to maintain his positive numbers. A portion of the near 20-minute Soundcloud recording made the social media rounds via NPR, Slate, ABC, CBS, and even the domestic staple magazine Real Simple. Naturally, customers everywhere chimed in with their similar experiences.

Comcast senior director of corporate communications network and operations Jenni Moyer claimed the customer service operator’s bullying tactics are “not consistent with how we train our customer service representatives.”

In anecdotal comments former Comcast employees beg to differ.

As one husband of a former Comcast employee explained:

It wasn’t the employee gone crazy. He was working within the guidelines and using the exact phrases taught to him by a mentor. Problem was he was tactless and insistent. But he was exactly doing his job and trying to keep his statistics up so he wouldn’t get fired. My wife worked for Comcast collections . . . I know what I am talking about. She lasted almost a year and was fired for cause so no Unemployment. What was the cause? Not making her quota of “full payment” collections. “Full payment” is a euphemism for getting people that are a couple days late to pay up for that month and the following month they don’t owe yet. This gives Comcast an interest free loan on next month’s bill. If you fall behind requirements on any upsell category you get a warning, training and fired.

Block agrees and doesn’t want the customer service representative fired, saying he wants to call attention to the larger, systemic problems of the media giant. Block states that this system “pits a representative and the customer against one another. Everyone loses—except maybe the cable company’s bottom line . . . ”

The bottom line. Brings me to the now notorious Atlanta Parks Middle School cheating scandal, where teachers changed test answers in order to meet required target scores. As sub-superintendent Michael Pitts, who oversaw a district that included Parks Middle School, told principal Christopher Waller, “The way principals keep their jobs in Atlanta is they make targets.”

Parks Middle School is in one of the most destitute of Atlanta’s regions. With absent parents and dire financial constraints, Parks’s students face daunting challenges outside the classroom, which trickle in to the classroom, needless to say. With data-driven accountability pressures, the epic cheating scandal commenced. The New Yorker has a very detailed account of the case.

It got to a point where that parallel with Comcast’s pressured quotas becomes apparent:

According to Waller, the district became increasingly “corporate,” with every school focused on the “bottom line.” He wrote teachers’ targets in marker on the floor of the entryway to their classrooms, in view of the students. He instructed the teachers, “I need those numbers,” and, “You need to teach to the test. Do what you’ve got to do.”

“Do what you’ve got to do.” To keep those internet customers. To meet those standardized test score targets. Never mind the customer. Never mind the student.

Math teacher Damany Lewis, who was intimately entwined in the scandal, traces back his justification:

Since college, he had found himself devising mathematical equations to make sense of events in his own life. He was no longer as disappointed when his father, who was in and out of rehab, didn’t return his calls, because he saw the situation in terms of mathematical probability: if he assigned a zero to every day that his father hadn’t called and a one to every day that he had and added all the digits and divided them by three hundred and sixty-five, he saw that the probability that his father would call on any given day was about zero. His calculations “gave me back my sense of control,” he said.

But it didn’t give Lewis a connection with his father—any more than a score on a standardized test gives a student a sense of self and of empowerment in that pride of self.

The irony is, as cheating became “a well-oiled machine” at Parks, the “teachers now changed answers in the chorus room, because they didn’t want to raise the suspicions of the testing coordinator, who noticed that someone had been in his office and had changed the lock.”

I say “the irony” because what could have been going on in that chorus room would have gone so much further than any testing prep to pass the bubble tests outright toward meeting those students’ real needs—as individuals.

Which brings me to why I’m discussing bad customer service by a media company, and the extreme negative outcome of overemphasizing data-driven accountability in education, on a music education advocacy blog.

What really matters is not all in the numbers. Even if students legitimately meet all test score targets—are their needs met? Are the needs of the wider communities where they live, and the economy and culture to which they will contribute met? Hardly.

We are more than the number of questions we can answer correctly. What inspires us? What draws out our innermost aspirations and motivates us to act on them? What leads us to innovative ideas to meet unforeseen needs of the 21st century? We need to provide those opportunities to students where they can discover, collaborate, and create. And it begins with finding their individual voices.

They don’t find that by scoring 85% or higher on their states’ tests. They find it beyond the bubbles. It’s why we at NAfME so adamantly support a broader mindedTM approach to our students’ education. And of course a significant part of that is access to classroom music, which so many have credited with having a positive impact on their education, and life. Positive lifelong effects to which they—unlike the reporter trying to unmarry himself from Comcast—would never want to unsubscribe.

Catherina Hurlburt, Special Assistant, July 16, 2014. © National Association for Music Education (