The Atlanta Cheating Scandal: Students Were the Victims, but the School System Suffers Too

Co-authored by Phillip Jackson

Looking back, the image of Black teachers and administrators being handcuffed and led away for their roles in the Atlanta Public Schools' cheating scandal was one of the most unsettling of the school year.

The charges were just as troubling: Eight of the educators were found guilty in April of participating in a "criminal enterprise" under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organization (RICO) act for manipulating student scores on Georgia's state standardized tests. Improved performance by Black students in particular helped the school district meet national standards for Adequate Yearly Progress.

But something remarkable happened as the cheating case, which dates back to 2005, unfolded.

Over the last 13 years, Atlanta students have made significant progress on another test -- the widely respected National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), administered through the U.S. Department of Education and considered the "gold standard" of educational testing in the United States. In a comparison of grade 8 reading assessments for Black students in Atlanta, in Georgia and in the United States between 2002 and 2013, the U.S. percentage of Black students at or above grade level increased from 13 percent to 16 percent, and the Georgia percentage increased from 14 percent to 17 percent. But Atlantic Public Schools' Black student scores increased a stellar 10 points, from 5 percent to 15 percent.

If these NAEP scores are any indication, then Atlanta educators under the leadership of former Atlanta Superintendent Beverly Hall, who died of cancer in March, did something right. We're not spending enough time figuring out what it was and how other districts can duplicate those results.

Analysts have picked Atlanta's NAEP record apart over the last few years. Some suggested Atlanta educators could have "gamed" those results, just as they did with the state tests. The exams differ greatly from each other, however, and it would be much more difficult to cheat on the NAEP. Much also was made of the fact that Atlanta's student population has become whiter and wealthier -- another possible explanation for better performance, some might imply. Yet Marshall S. Smith, a former Stanford University education dean and one of the nation's most respected education policymakers, concluded that the strong results were not explained by population changes alone.

"The bottom line in this entire discussion," Smith wrote, "is that for the most part, the gains for Atlanta schools from 2003 to 2011 are for real!"

Besides, if the APS system had massive cheating, as prosecutors claimed at trial, then it would follow that grades would have spiked during the cheating, then gone back down once it stopped. After a small dip, however, scores continued to rise. We believe the groundwork, momentum, and high expectations for the students and educational reforms instituted in Atlanta had something to do with that. Other schools and school districts can benefit from Atlanta's teaching methods and experience. What worked on the NAEP ought to be shared.

Superintendent Hall, who would have faced trial had she lived, was aggressive about school reform in Atlanta. She wasn't afraid to reconfigure schools and cast aside school models during her tenure. She raised lots of money to support underresourced schools. And her marching orders to teachers and administrators were crystal-clear: Good or bad, you will be judged on your ability to reach pre-set goals. Sadly, Dr. Hall, who was named the nation's superintendent of the year in 2009 and was respected by many, is unable to defend herself or her staff. 

This brings us to another point about the trial that has not been adequately explored. The tenor of the proceedings was disturbing. Presiding Judge Jerry Baxter, of Fulton County (Georgia) Superior Court, addressed the defendants in what many court observers perceived to be a rude, dismissive and judgmental tone -- a far cry from the fair, balanced and objective approach Americans ought to expect from our system of justice.

This perceived behavior by an American judge, in the context of an American justice system under fire for what author Michelle Alexander ironically describes in her widely acclaimed The New Jim Crow as a national policy of "mass incarceration in the age of colorblindness," should set off warning alarms regarding the verdict. Indeed, Judge Baxter may have second thoughts about the proceedings. He reduced his original sentence for three of the educators with these remarks: "When a judge goes home and he keeps thinking over and over that something's wrong, something is usually wrong."

More food for thought about this verdict can be found in a recent, scathing United Nations report on our justice system. Clearly there are remnants of institutional racism in the American judicial system, representing some of the historical legacies that need to be recognized, investigated and addressed.  

Approximately 100,000 African-American teachers have retired or been terminated since the late 1990s. Yet experts continue to call for more "minority" teachers in the classroom who can better relate to an increasingly diverse student population. The Atlanta cheating case may be responsible for just a handful of those terminations, but the damage it does to effective teaching and our system of justice is profound.

Note: The 11 Atlanta educators found guilty in the Atlanta cheating scandal will be featured guests on NCEBC Talk Show June 1 and 8. 

Eric J. Cooper is the founder and president of the National Urban Alliance for Effective Education, a nonprofit professional development organization that provides student-focused professional development, advocacy and organizational guidance to accelerate student achievement. He can be reached at He tweets as @ECooper4556.

Phillip Jackson is the executive director of the Black Star Project located in Chicago, Illinois.