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Thoughts on the Atlanta Public Schools Cheating Scandal

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Thoughts on the Atlanta Public Schools Cheating Scandal

Stacy Rosenblum

Last week, eleven former Atlanta school officials, including elementary teachers and principals, were convicted on charges normally associated with organized crime: racketeering, theft, and influencing witnesses. The disgraced educators were involved in a cheating conspiracy which occurred in 2009 on an annual state assessment, the Georgia Criterion-Referenced Competency Test.  

The cheating was detected by an unusual increase in test scores in a particular school district, and was investigated by state education officials with assistance from the FBI. In addition to the high level of pressure put on every district in the country to increase test scores, in Atlanta, a decree was given in 2009 by District Superintendent Beverly Hall to raise test scores, with promises of cash bonuses for teachers and principals for reaching specific goals.

How terribly sad is this? What is the state of our public education system that trusted educators, under the guise of “school reform,” partake in organized deception?

In my optimistic mind, the faculty involved in these acts were working with the best interests of their students in mind. Perhaps they thought, as I do, that the assessments wouldn’t be able to determine the true strengths of their students. Perhaps they wanted their students to have access to additional federal funds through Obama’s Race to the Top campaign for educational reform that was also happening in 2009.

Career teachers and administrators aren’t in their jobs for the money. Education, particularly public education, is not where riches are made, unless riches are calculated in personal fulfillment and very hard work. It’s hard to imagine that the Atlanta teachers and principals were motivated completely by the cash bonuses promised by former Superintendent Beverly Hall.

But if I was a pessimist, those cash bonuses are exactly where I would focus. Many people, arguably most people, are motivated by money. Many individuals, regardless of occupation, have compromised ethics for monetary reward. Why should educators be any different?  

In my mind, the person most responsible for this testing catastrophe was Superintendent Hall. By monetizing students’ test results, she created an atmosphere of competition between schools and teachers, providing motivation for success at any cost. Instead of investing in her students’ long term success, she incentivized a short term outcome, for which there was little teachers could do to legitimately improve student test results.  

School leadership is a top down model, and in the absence of a real plan for school reform, as well as an ethical model of leadership, the teachers succombed to the pressure for higher test scores. Of course, the teachers are not without blame. They knowingly conspired and participated in illegal activities so significant that they were charged “with violating the state’s RICO (Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations) Act by engaging in a massive criminal conspiracy.”

Regardless of optimism or pessimism, the actions of the teachers and administrators convicted last week were only detrimental to their students. Student efforts were undermined, trust was broken, and the pressure for increased test results has not abated.

This was not the first instance of cheating by educators on high stakes standardized tests, and it won’t be the last. If we must embrace annual standardized tests as the only feasible way of measuring student progress, it is best to view this as a team challenge, instead of a competition.  Let’s work to raise test scores together, as a nation. Competition between states and districts will only motivate cheaters. Collaboration and cooperation will cripple them.