Exploring the Root Causes of Atlanta Public Schools’ Cheating Scandal

 Billy Corriher 

The Atlanta Public Schools (APS) system has been rocked by a cheating scandal involving 178 teachers and administrators.  A report from the state of Georgia found cheating on standardized tests at 44 schools.  Teachers held weekend “erasure” parties, during which they changed students’ answers.  The state concluded that the system kept the cheating under wraps through “a culture of fear, intimidation and retaliation.”

The report says the primary cause was “the pressure to meet targets in the data-driven environment.”  The state found that cheating began in 2002, when the requirements of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) were imposed.  Some commenters also blamed our increasing reliance on standardized tests to measure progress, but given the unprecedented scope of the cheating, that explanation seems insufficient. 

Education reform has become an increasingly urgent topic in the last decade.  Whenever reform hits a roadblock, many are quick to blame teachers’ unions. But in Georgia, there are no real teachers’ unions, no organized opposition to reform.  So how did this happen?

Teachers, administrators, and the business leaders who supported the administration all failed to deal with the cheating until public pressure forced them into action. One local columnist faults what he calls “the Atlanta way,” which he describes as the tendency of the city’s elites to gloss over problems plaguing the city.  The columnist finds the origins of Atlanta’s moniker as the city “too busy to hate” in the smoldering ashes of the 1906 Atlanta race riot, which killed dozens.  He says city leaders realized such publicity was bad for business and implemented the “Atlanta way.”

A similar phenomenon is discussed in Courage to Dissent, a book which chronicles Atlanta’s decades-long battle over school desegregation. The author criticizes white and black leaders for agreeing to token integration and failing to support true desegregation.  She faults business leaders for resisting integration, while publicly insisting that APS was united.  The local Chamber of Commerce remains very influential with APS, and it strongly supported former Superintendent Beverly Hall until the extent of the cheating became undeniable.

Courage to Dissent also describes teachers at all-black schools as a “core” segment of the city’s black elite in the 1960′s and 1970′s, and it suggests they resisted integration because they were worried about losing their jobs. The book discusses how a settlement in a desegregation lawsuit “quashed pupil integration . . . and conferred financial benefits on blacks who obtained new administrative positions.” The cheating scandal revealed that current teachers – black and white – also put their own well-being before that of their students.

No matter who is to blame, thousands of students were harmed.  Many students should not have been promoted to the next grade, and some would have been eligible for help if their scores had reflected their abilities.  APS failed to help its most vulnerable children.  The interim superintendent has fired those accused of cheating, but the damage has been done.

Some Atlanta schools recently saw dramatic improvements in test scores.  Such news used to be greeted with exuberance in Atlanta.  Now, it just breeds suspicion.

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