Atlanta Educators Sentenced for Racketeering; Statewide Testing Gets Off Scot Free

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When you think of racketeering, what image pops into your head? Do you picture a bejeweled drug baron presiding over a global cocaine cartel? A sleazy state senator trading political favors for campaign contributions? If you're like me, you're picturing a bunch of guys in a Scorsese movie sitting around telling each other where to get the best cannoli in Brooklyn.

You probably don't picture a bunch of school teachers, testing coordinators, principals, and administrators. But on April 1st, Georgia Superior Court Judge Jerry Baxter convicted 11 Atlanta educators on charges of racketeering, ultimately sentencing eight of them to jail time.

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Racketeering teachers. Did it all begin with No Child Left Behind?
The men and women at the center of the Atlanta cheating scandal have been found guilty of manipulating test answers and inflating scores on state standardized tests. Pending appeal, they will do hard time for it. The Fulton County courtroom was host to a surreal scene as teachers and principals were led away in handcuffs, all of them first-time, non-violent offenders.

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The charge of racketeering and the harsh sentences that come with it—ranging from 7 to 20 years and accompanied by an array of fines and community service duties—imply a decidedly conspiratorial and sustained measure of criminal behavior. And depending on how you define criminality, there's very little reason to believe that those convicted aren't guilty.

So why is it that the sight of these teachers and principals being marched to their holding cells feels so unsettling and wrong?

Perhaps it's the sense that the individuals charged are the easy scapegoats for something so much more encompassing, insidious, and unchecked. Perhaps it's the feeling that their actions, however illicit, were the product of an environment where anything less would have been professional suicide. Perhaps it's the feeling that this collection of mid-level henchmen is walking the gallows while the true dons of the testing mafia remain comfortably at large.

Since the Atlanta cheating scandal clogged up the school district's testing flush-hole in 2009, state prosecutors have been deliberating on how best to assign blame with an almost perverse disinterest in discussing the conditions that made the scandal an inevitability.

In this, the first of a three part series, we will explore the conditions and consequences of the Peach State predicament. As the most visible and startling case of professional academic dishonesty in recent memory, the mess in Atlanta is only a microcosm of a far grander and more systemic problem that we will explore with greater depth in Parts II and III. For now, we can look at the scandal in Atlanta as the tip of the iceberg, albeit an imposing tip on an absolutely glacial mass.

What Happened?

Technically, it all began with the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act of 2001. Under the oversight of George W. Bush's presidential administration, NCLB represented a dramatic but largely misguided attempt at reforming America's listless primary education system. Its reliance on standardized testing was nothing new.

What was new was everything that was at stake. At the heart of the new education regime was a hardline stance on performance accountability in which schools, especially those that struggled, were held to increasingly unattainable standards. Schools, principals and teachers whose students did not live up to these standards could face harsh penalties for falling short, including termination.

Enter Beverly Hall, superintendent of Atlanta schools from 1999 to 2010. The sweeping federal reform that was passed into law early in her tenure would come to define her decade-plus at the post. Indeed, under her watch, the Atlanta school district emerged as the poster child for NCLB.

From the day that statewide testing standards became the mark of compliance in 2001 to the day that Beverly Hall was recognized as the nation's top superintendent in 2009, Atlanta's inner-city students showed a remarkable curve of improvement.

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More than 250,000 student answers were manipulated by conspiring educators
Indeed, the curve was so remarkable that it piqued the skepticism of more than a few observers. Something was amiss. Either NCLB testing made Atlanta students uniquely passionate about math and reading, or shenanigans were afoot.

A 2009 article in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported on analysis conducted by the Criterion-Referenced Competency Tests (CRCT). The analysis found that the dramatic improvement experienced by Atlanta students was statistically improbable. This prompted a statewide investigation, which ultimately produced a 2011 report revealing that 44 of Atlanta's 56 schools had cheated on their CRCTs.

The report cited evidence that 178 teachers and principals from across the schools in question had participated in wholesale cheating by feeding answers to students, correcting wrong responses, and using any number of additional creative measures to falsify test scores. All told, estimates drawn from the Georgia Bureau of Investigation (GBI) probe reveal that more than 250,000 student answers were manipulated by conspiring educators.

In 2013, 35 educators were indicted but the majority accepted plea deals for reduced charges. Judge Baxter opted to throw the book, and a host of decidedly hostile opinions, at those who instead decided to stand trial. Baxter referred to the scandal as “the sickest thing that's ever happened in this town.”

This view certainly informed his decision to levy the harshest legal repercussions ever seen for an educational scandal of this nature.

Why Did It Happen?

One might argue that the scale of these punishments is appropriate. After all, this was most certainly the largest cheating scandal in American history. But this is where things get a little hazy.

Those who stood trial, and who, pending appeal, will likely spend some portion of their lives sharing residential quarters with convicted murderers, are being punished for absurd behavior in an absurd time and place.

There are few educators or policy analysts who viewed the gains made in Atlanta schools as possible. It didn't take a scholar to see that the standards to which troubled schools were being held were neither fair nor realistic. And yet, we were more than ready to believe that the miraculous, downright suspicious performance improvements that we saw were real. No matter how absurd the prophecy, it could be made to be self-fulfilling.

The way that No Child Left Behind works is that federal funding is incentivized according to statewide testing performance. This means that individual schools are themselves incentivized or penalized based on their contribution to adequate testing scores, or the lack thereof. Following the logical chain of command, this means that principals, then educators, and then the students themselves, were subject to a set of expectations that everybody, at every level, recognized were delusional.

Evidence suggests that Superintendent Hall embraced the delusion, not just by fostering but by insisting on a culture of smoke and mirrors. This culture was crafted to descend through every single tier of the Atlanta public and charter school systems. Amid scandal, Hall stepped down from her post in 2010 and passed away in 2013 before standing trial on her indictment. Naturally, there are few who are inclined to accept her version of events in which she had no knowledge of the scandal in question.

During the trial, the American public learned that teachers throughout the Atlanta school district would gather together for “cheating parties,” where colleagues schmoozed over cocktails, erasers, and test forms. This kind of bald-faced disregard seems to fly in the face of the testing regime with open disdain. It makes it easy, on the surface, to share Judge Baxter's righteous indignation.

On the other hand, is it reasonable to believe that this kind of behavior could possibly carry on without institutional acceptance?

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Cheating was not just encouraged, was not just rewarded, but was required
Just to reiterate, this took place at more than three-quarters of the district's schools. Those unlucky few who ultimately stood before a judge have absorbed the punishment for an entire district in which cheating was not just encouraged, was not just rewarded, but was required.

Over the decade of Hall's reign, test manipulation was simply part of the job description in Atlanta. Teachers were awarded bonuses for the scores that their students achieved on state testing. To be sure, many of those who were singled out for conviction, evidence suggests, were driven largely by this incentive.

However, countless others were motivated by fear. The Atlanta School District had become a hierarchical pressure cooker in which those whose students did not pass muster risked disciplinary actions, pay cuts, and termination. Those who questioned, objected, or showed the telltale signs of a future whistle-blower were met with threats, intimidation, and the specter of unemployment.

Those who have been sentenced are almost certainly guilty of the actions for which they were accused. And yet, we understand and recognize that these actions transpired in an environment where such behavior was almost mandatory. Even if those who will pay their dues for the Atlanta cheating scandal are among the most egregious offenders—and really, who's to know since these individuals are only distinguished by having refused a plea bargain—there is something truly disturbing about the resolution of this case.

Do we believe that the conviction of these individuals resolves what's wrong with Atlanta's schools? Do we believe that those convicted would have been capable of similar wholesale academic dishonesty were they not operating in an environment governed by dishonesty? Is it possible that this government of dishonesty could have itself flourished so effectively without the help of an absurd testing regime?

These questions remain wholly unresolved in the aftermath of a trial six years in the making. This observation is not written in defense of those who will be punished. Instead, it is to raise the question, is it right to dole out such decidedly harsh and unyielding punishments to those who were simply the worst products of their environment? An example has been made of these educators and we are meant to walk away with the sense that justice has somehow been done for Atlanta's students.

But the closer we have looked into the actions of Atlanta's disgraced educators, the more readily we have been willing to overlook the true catalyst here: the test.

Atlanta is distinguished by the conspiratorial degree to which it exploited a testing regime game for exploitation. However, the district is hardly alone in the liberties it has taken with statewide testing. According to the ongoing investigation by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, more than 200 school districts, encompassing roughly 69,000 schools, have yielded statistically unlikely scores. In all likelihood, says this research, Atlanta is merely the most obvious example of what we can deduce is happening throughout the nation.

What Now?

Of course, this fact does nothing to absolve the teachers of Atlanta, not that this is our goal. It seems pretty obvious that they were probably guilty of that which they are accused.

This discussion is not even to suggest that the few in question were unfairly punished for the systemic and institutional behaviors of the many. This is true but, in all likelihood, the harshest sentences will come down in appeal.

The point of this discussion is that, at the heart of the actions which generated so much moral outrage, statewide tests were largely spared scrutiny. The human perpetrators provided lawmakers with a wonderful antidote and a convenient misdirection while standardized testing remains unpunished for its role in the scandal.

It is tempting to make the argument that standardized testing should also fry for its crimes, that the whole institution should be deloused and thrown into solitary confinement for its determinant role in the Atlanta cheating scandal. But there are far too many lawmakers in the world who crave the kind of nuance-absent quantification that comes from standardized testing. It's a lot easier to rattle off a bunch of numbers than to explain why something does or doesn't work.

So we can dismiss the fantasy of a world without standardized testing right here and now. This does not mean, however, that standardized tests cannot be made to work for us. Accountability is a wonderful goal. Cash-based punishment and incentivization is, by contrast, a gross distortion of the goals of education.

The ironic thing about the amount of time that students spend preparing for and taking their standardized tests is that this process teaches them nothing. Moreover, the outcomes of student scores are rarely if ever used to identify needs, cultivate strengths, or consider interventions for individual test-takers. In others words, schools are dedicating millions of dollars and hours to a series of tests that are really only useful to government officials.

Stated simply, the punitive nature of standardized testing must be supplanted by an interest in and reaction to that which the tests actually tell us. Schools that struggle require intervention, not punishment. Teachers who work with at-risk populations need support, not pressure. If we want standardized testing to have value, if we want standardized testing to become anything more than an instrument that students dread and educators fear, we must begin to view it as a path for teaching and learning, not simply for accountability and punishment.

We're gathering this absolutely tremendous sum of data on student performance in math and reading, and the best thing we can think to do with it is punish and reward educators. What about the students? Where do they come out in all of this? At what point do we use the information drawn from standardized tests to actually aid in the development of individual students or the populations around them?

It seems obvious, but I'll just say it anyway. If standardized testing scores were actually used to test, teach, and improve student performance, educators would have had no good reason to cheat. But standardized testing was intended as a method of punishment, a way of using educators as human shields on the educational frontline while politicians and testing corporations remained at a safe distance from the crossfire. If you were an educator, would you not use your eraser in self-defense?

The Atlanta cheating scandal and its resulting trial have satisfied the institutional need for accountability. Eight individuals will serve jail time on behalf of a district in which 250,000 test answers were altered.

The math obviously doesn't work out. But then, Atlanta is no stranger to fudging the answers.

What's Next?

Those with knowledge of Atlanta's decade of deceit will say that superintendent Beverly Hall presided over the district's schools with unethical, politically motivated, and fear-inducing tactics. But of course, even Hall was merely a Frankenstein's Monster. She was created by a combination of bad policy and terrible implementation. In the coming sections, we will dissect the test-heavy strategy of accountability that incubated the Atlanta cheating scandal and, subsequently, offer more extensive recommendations for meaningful reform.

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