Accountability for Whom?

Fulton County Superior Court Judge Jerry Baxter listens as former Dunbar Elementary School testing coordinator Lera Middlebro
Fulton County Superior Court Judge Jerry Baxter listens as former Dunbar Elementary School testing coordinator Lera Middlebrooks testifies under cross examination by defense attorney Keith Adams, about cheating at Dunbar for a second day during the Atlanta Public Schools test-cheating trial in Fulton County Superior Court in Atlanta, Thursday, Dec. 4, 2014. Three former Dunbar teachers are among 12 educators and administrators who prosecutors say cheated, lied and stole as part of a widespread but cleverly disguised conspiracy to inflate state test scores that affected thousands of students. Middlebrooks pleaded guilty to obstruction charges and was sentenced to 12 months probation and 250 hours of community service in December 2013. (AP Photo/Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Kent D. Johnson, Pool)

So much is wrong about the cheating scandal in Atlanta: the miscarriage of justice in the verdict rendered by Judge Jerry Baxter, the unwillingness of policymakers to recognize their own culpability in the scandal, the lack of attention to the educational needs of the children in Atlanta and hundreds of other communities where failed policies have undermined the quality of education children receive, and of course, the cheating itself.

There is no doubt that cheating occurred in Atlanta Public Schools (APS), and that it was systemic, pervasive and involved dozens of educators across many schools. The fact that there was extreme pressure placed on educators to obtain higher test scores, and that unrealistic goals for improvement were set, may explain why it occurred but it does not justify it. Educators may not get paid like doctors but they are trusted and generally held in high regard by the public (less so by policymakers) for the work they do. The mere fact that we apply the term in loco parentis (in place of parents) to teachers is just one of many indications that they occupy an important role in our society.

Certainly there was considerable pressure to cheat. It was created by demanding, "take no prisoners" administrators, primarily the recently deceased superintendent, Dr. Beverly Hall. Though she never admitted to cheating or knowing about its occurrence, the threats and mass firings of principals she used to get results certainly played a role in creating the atmosphere that allowed cheating to flourish. But the demanding strategies used by Hall have been followed by celebrated superintendents throughout the country, including Michelle Rhee when she was Chancellor of schools in D.C., Joel Klein, the former chancellor of New York, and yet another now deceased superintendent, Arlene Ackerman, who was once highly acclaimed as an educational leader in Philadelphia.

I knew and respected Dr. Hall and I had extensive contact with schools and educators in Atlanta during the years when the cheating occurred. One of the schools I visited was Park Middle School, the site described in a New Yorker article as the epicenter of the cheating conspiracy. When I visited Park for the first time in 2001 it was a chaotic and dysfunctional school, a place not conducive to good teaching or serious learning. Over the course of the next five years I visited the school regularly, met with educators about how to address the needs of their students, and saw the school transformed into a safe, orderly place where teachers collaborated about their work and students appeared to be invested in learning.

I attributed many of the changes I observed at Park and other schools in Atlanta to the demanding leadership of Dr. Hall. Like many others, including Education Secretary Arne Duncan, I was impressed by the progress that was made in Atlanta during the Hall years, 1999-2010, and I did not doubt the stunning results because I had seen concrete evidence of improvement. I had spent time in the Atlanta Public Schools in the past when Ben Canada was superintendent and I had seen the poorly managed schools up close. I was also well aware of the petty political battles among school board members that frequently degenerated into threats and name-calling and were an embarrassment to the entire city. My familiarity with the past was one of the reasons I credited Dr. Hall with the turnaround and for that reason I believed that the awards she received for her accomplishments -- Superintendent of the Year in 2010, a distinguished service award from the American Educational Research Association, an honorary degree from Bank Street College (which I received along with her) -- were well deserved.

Like so many others, I heaped praise upon the district because I'd seen the changes in the state of the schools and there was objective evidence that the improvement was real. An analysis of NAEP (National Assessment of Educational Progress -- also known as the nation's report card, and an assessment on which there was no evidence of cheating) results in 2012 showed that Atlanta made more progress than any other urban district in the country. Low-income African American students gained 22 points in mathematics and 12 points in 8th grade reading. Writing in a blog to explain these results, former Assistant Secretary of Education Michael Smith wrote "The evidence suggests that there was a lot going on in Atlanta from 2003-2011 other than alleged cheating. The good should not be erased or discarded."

During the decade she led the district of 52,000 children, many of them poor and African-American, Atlanta students often outperformed wealthier suburban districts on state tests. These results caught the attention of her admirers and also raised suspicion. Reporters for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and state education officials repeatedly heard rumors of cheating and began monitoring the district closely. One of my colleagues, a well-known statistician, was brought in to analyze the extraordinary increases in test scores that had occurred from one year to the next. He reported that it was highly unlikely that the increases could be explained by good educational interventions alone, and he advised the superintendent that widespread cheating was probable.

Unfortunately, my colleague's warnings went unheeded, not only by the district but others. A 2007 report by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, titled "Beating the Odds at Atlanta's Parks Middle School," attributed the remarkable progress achieved by the school to its "relentless focus on data." The awards and bonuses for Beverly Hall kept coming even as rumors of cheating began bubbling to the surface.

As we now know, the relentless focus on data at APS contributed to the climate in which the cheating occurred. Instead of settling for the steady, incremental progress that was occurring, the district and the state of Georgia demanded more. They wanted dramatic improvements in test scores and showed little concern for how this would be achieved. In a district serving large numbers of students suffering from poverty and the social issues that accompany it -- violence, malnutrition, family distress, etc., educators were expected to produce dramatic results or be fired.

It was a story we wanted to believe: an urban school district that overcame the obstacles created by poverty and political turmoil that became a high functioning beacon of hope. It was a great story but it wasn't true, at least not to the extent that its leaders or the test scores proclaimed.

Presiding over the trial of the twelve accused educators, Judge Baxter has shown no sympathy for the educators before him. He has not been interested in hearing about their herculean efforts to improve the schools, nor has he been moved to pity as he learned about the pressure that was used to create the context in which the cheating occurred. Rather, in his remarks at the close of trial he made it clear that he intended to deal with the convicted educators severely, warning, "They are now convicted felons, ... they have made their bed and they're going to lie in it." He added, "I've got a fair sentence in my mind, and it involves going to jail -- everybody." Ultimately, Baxter decided to send three of the defendants to seven years in prison because he claimed he was concerned about the children. "I think there were hundreds, thousands of children who were harmed..." he asserted at sentencing.

If Judge Baxter is serious about dealing harshly with educators who cheat he will need to find a very large bed, and if he is genuine about his concern for children. USA Today identified 1,610 examples of anomalies in which test scores rose; he will need to do more than issue harsh sentences to a few cheaters. Testing irregularities similar to those that led to the investigation in Atlanta have surfaced in Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, New York and several states, including Arizona, California, Colorado, Florida, Michigan and Ohio.

Should the fact that cheating on tests is widespread be a factor in how the accused in Atlanta are treated? I think so, not because it serves as a rationalization for the cheating but because it is yet another sign that the use of high stakes testing as an accountability measure has created so many problems that our whole approach to testing must be re-evaluated. Assessment should be used as a tool to guide instruction, to ensure that students receive more of what they need to perform at higher levels. It should not be used merely to measure and rank children in a manner that merely confirms assumptions about them. Nor should it be used as a weapon with which to threaten educators or to relegate children who fail to dismal futures.

I also agree with education historian Diane Ravitch who recently wrote: "Yes, cheating is wrong and should never be tolerated, but this punishment does not fit the crime. It is way too disproportionate to the charges. Some criminals get lesser jail sentences for murder and armed robbery. Since when did cheating in school become racketeering?" I would add unethical bankers, politicians and police officers to Ravitch's list of those who generally get off easy for their crimes.

There are important lessons that should be learned from this ugly episode in American education. They will in all likelihood be missed and go unheeded if the 12 educators are treated as sacrificial lambs. If it is true that they participated in cheating then the 12 educators should be held accountable for their actions. But, what about Governor Sonny Perdue, who relentlessly pursued the cheating investigation, is he not culpable too? He knew his state had the lowest SAT scores in the nation, that poor children across his state were enrolled in under-resourced schools, but his primary strategy for extracting better results was to apply pressure. He knew that schools like Park were serving children with a broad assortment of unmet needs, but he continued to demand higher scores and did little to help the school in addressing the problems it faced. He and all of us who cheered the educators in Atlanta on should have known that there was no magic or silver bullet that could produce such dramatic results.

The real lesson here is that we have substituted slogans and benchmarks for sound policy, and for this reason the Bush and Obama administrations are culpable too. They share in the responsibility for the widespread cheating, for the narrowing of the curriculum that has reduced time for art, music and physical education because they are non-tested subjects, and that has driven thousands of talented educators from the profession because they are tired of being blamed for conditions they do not control.

They must share the responsibility not only because they lauded the accomplishments of Dr. Hall but because they continued to pursue policies like No Child Left Behind (NCLB) and then made it worse by adopting policies like Race To The Top which reinforced the misuse of testing by incentivizing states to use student test scores to evaluate teachers. They are culpable because even when they had ample evidence that there were gross inequities in learning opportunities throughout the country (See: Helping to Ensure Equal Access in Education) they continued to pursue policies that pretended the playing field was level.

It is sad and ironic that in this era when the mantra about accountability in education is mouthed repeatedly by policymakers, those who have the most authority accept no accountability for the system they have managed and created. The state of New Jersey is responsible for four of its largest school districts -- Newark, Patterson, Camden and Jersey City -- but when is the last time you heard Governor Christie accept responsibility for the lack of progress. The same could be said of Governor Andrew Cuomo in New York who has threatened to take over "failing" schools across the state even though he has yet to demonstrate that he can produce any sustained improvements in the Roosevelt Public Schools, which the state has controlled for over thirteen years.

The educators found guilty of cheating in Atlanta should be held responsible and so should all of the policymakers who have endorsed high stakes pressure as a strategy for school reform. It will take more than pressure for our schools to improve and sending the educators in Atlanta to prison for cheating will not address the larger problem this country faces in educating its children.