The Atlanta Public Schools Cheating Scandal: Legal Issues and Effects of Schools

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In wrapping up my educational leadership program at Southern Connecticut State University, I took an interesting class in educational law.  Here is my final paper for the course, an analysis of the Atlanta Public Schools Cheating Scandal.  With all of the controversy surrounding high-stakes testing and it’s effects on administrators, teachers, and students, I think this essay not only discusses legal issues but offers some insight and solutions into the problems posed by testing in general.

Read on, and let us know what you think in the comments.

The Atlanta Public Schools Cheating Scandal: Legal Issues and Effects of Schools

Explaining The State of Georgia v. Beverly Hall Et Al. and RICO
It is not every day state prosecutors level racketeering charges at a public school district. However, in the era of high-stakes testing as a means of increasing accountability in education, it is believed that an example must be made to show that the new series of standards-aligned exams are to be taken seriously. In what many refer to as a show trial, Judge Jerry Baxter dealt harsh sentences to 11 of 12 defendants indicted in this case, with three to spend 20 years in prison (seven to serve). Legal and public opinions on the case are polarized; some believe teachers and administrators conspiring to cheat on standardized tests deserve the harshest possible punishment and that they have failed their students on moral and ethical grounds. Others believe that these educators were trying their best to serve at-risk kids while persevering in a culture of fear among faculty and staff perpetuated by then Superintendent Beverly Hall. Regardless of opinion on this case and education reform in general, an interesting analysis unfolds when exploring the many facets of the case and its greater impact on our schools and the work of school administrators.

Case Summary
While suspicious test scores have been identified in nearly 200 school districts, the Atlanta Public Schools (APS) cheating scandal is the largest in history. In 2009, the Atlanta Journal Constitution (AJC) began an investigation when scores on Gerorgia’s Criterion-Referenced Competency Test seemed to have improved too much, too quickly in five elementary schools. Later that year, Beverly Hall was named the national Superintendent of the year for drastically improving test scores and graduation rates in Atlanta. A state investigation began soon after, and some test results were invalidated. All the while, Hall praised APS for their double-digit test score gains, and as the newspaper and the state continued investigating, she denied any wrongdoing. In February 2010, the Governor’s office found suspicious erasures on thousands of tests, and Atlanta had 58 schools in question. A supposedly independent review panel was formed, but the AJC found it had ties to Hall and the district. The state board of education threatened punishment, APS admitted to some cheating, and Georgia Bureau of Investigation agents began questioning teachers and administrators about whether they falsified test results. Further investigation confirmed the AJC’s initial analysis, and Hall announced she would retire. The district attorney, Paul Howard, began proceedings for possible felony charges of lying to agents and the destruction or altering of public documents. In February of 2011, investigators uncovered a pattern of intimidation, threats, and retaliation against APS employees who reported cheating or other improprieties, implicating that Hall lead the cover-up. The state’s report named 178 teachers, principals, and administrators in 44 Atlanta schools. Interim Superintendent Erroll Davis began dismissals and disciplinary tribunals for those wanting to appeal in the winter of 2012. Of the 178 educators, only 21 were reinstated (AJC investigates, n.d.).

In the fall of 2013, legal proceedings started, with defendants facing charges of influencing witnesses, obstruction, making false statements and writings, malfeasance in office, racketeering, and others. By February 2014, 13 of the 35 educators indicted planned to stand trial, including Hall; however, she succumbed to cancer while awaiting trial. Judge Jerry Baxter began the trial in July of 2014 against the 12 remaining defendants (AJC investigates, n.d.).

After a long trial, Judge Baxter handed out harsh sentences despite strong public support for the defendants and some racial tensions. Sentences ranged from weekends in jail for six months, a $5000 fine, five years of probation, and 1500 hours of community service for Donald Bullock to 20 years in prison, seven to serve, a $25,000 fine, and 2000 hours of community service for Tamara Cotman and Michael Pitts (Blinder, 2015). In a strange turn, Baxter later reduced the most severe sentences to ten years in prison, three to serve. Despite the shorter sentences, all defendants plan to appeal (Dalton, 2015).

Racketeering and RICO
As previously stated, racketeering is not a common crime among educators. FindLaw defines the crime as “when organized groups run illegal businesses, known as ‘rackets,’ or when an organized crime ring uses legitimate organizations to embezzle funds” (Racketeering/RICO, n.d.). The website further explains that organized crime often invades legitimate businesses, “ruining the companies along with the shareholders and employees who depend on them”. At first glance, this does not seem to apply to the cheating scandal directly, as neither students nor parents were robbed or extorted in any way. However, in 1978 congress enacted the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO) to better protect people against the effects of organized crime and other malevolent influences in public institutions. For example, “members of the Catholic Church sued several clergy members under RICO for reportedly allowing priests to molest children” (Racketeering/RICO, n.d.). While not a true racket per the standard definition, the allegations and cover-ups perpetrated by the Church caused great private and public harm, and attorneys used RICO to great effect to find justice and to pursue damages.

Prosecutors followed this line of legal reasoning when moving against APS. While defense attorneys and some legal analysts felt that using RICO was a stretch, in “this case, Fulton prosecutors said, the defendants turned Atlanta Public Schools into a racket” (Rankin, 2015). Under federal and state RICO laws, defendants can be found guilty if “the defendant was associated with or employed by the enterprise; that the defendant engaged in a pattern of racketeering activity; and that the defendant conducted or participated in the conduct of the enterprise through that pattern of racketeering activity through the commission of at least two acts of racketeering activity as set forth in the indictment” (RICO charges, n.d.). Prosecutors successfully proved that APS employees working under Hall were guilty of these illegal activities under this law.

RICO may not seem like the first option to consider when trying the teachers and administrators of APS. Upon further examination, however, it seems to fit their crimes. As explained by LaJuana Davis,

The APS cheating conspiracy was motivated, state investigators found, by federal incentives that the educators would receive, including cash, when Atlanta’s students met the proficiency standards mandated under the No Child law. The APS officials and teachers are accused of cheating by giving students essay test questions in advance, assisting students during tests, and having grade-changing parties to erase and make students’ wrong test answers correct. State investigators have found that teachers in 44 of the 56 Atlanta schools examined had done some form of cheating on federal tests, according to a 300-page investigative report given to Georgia Governor Nathan Deal in 2011. (2013)

This summary suggests that the accused indeed worked for the district, conducted a pattern of racketeering activity, and that this activity occurred regularly for an extended period of time. Any question of whether helping students cheat actually benefited the teachers, beyond keeping their jobs in Hall’s culture of fear, is moot due to the cash bonuses drawn from federal funds for teachers participating in the scandal. Applying RICO to The State of Georgia v. Beverly Hall Et Al. may seem unduly harsh, but according to the letter of the law it was used correctly. Whether charging educators caught in cheating scandals with racketeering is a good precedent to set, however, remains to be seen.

The APS Cheating Scandal and its Effect on Schools
Defense attorneys worked hard to portray APS as a hostile work environment in which the pressure to perform and the fear of punishment was so great that many teachers and administrators were led to cheat simply to avoid disciplinary measures and firing. Many educational, legal, and economic analysts agree that Superintendent Hall’s flawed approach to raise test scores was more of a response to graver problems in education and society as a whole. Discussing the scandal’s effects on teachers and students helps to clarify how high-stakes testing, and potential cheating, affects our schools.

Effects on Teachers
Jan Resseger (2015) of The Progressive sums the arguments against the current emphasis on testing in our public schools as follows:

Our test-and-punish education philosophy says that it’s the teacher’s fault when scores in very poor schools are low. Others have pointed out that there is something about concentrated poverty that undermines the situation for children and teachers alike…It seemed to me yesterday that what I was hearing in that courtroom was, on the one hand, the judge’s truth: the myth that testing will improve children’s achievement, and on the other, the educators’ truth—their grasp of the struggles they and their students face day-after-day in their schools…We can send teachers to jail for cheating when it is demanded that they provide a quick fix for our society’s greatest tragedy, but that isn’t going to help the children in Atlanta’s poverty schools or the children in any other poor city.

Since President Bush initiated No Child Left Behind (NCLB), followed by President Obama’s Race to the Top, education reform has focused on student performance gains on standardized tests. The focus on testing was done to improve school accountability and to identify and remedy problem areas for students, but some districts take a strictly quantitative approach. They measure student success only by the numbers. APS was one of these districts, and Superintendent Hall went so far as to reward teachers for increasing test scores by any means necessary. She intimidated dissenters, threatened whistleblowers, and rewarded teachers and administrators that could show performance gains. Furthermore,

APS principals and teachers were frequently told by Beverly Hall and her subordinates that excuses for not meeting targets would not be tolerated. When principals and teachers could not reach their targets, their performance was criticized, their jobs were threatened and some were terminated. Over time, the unreasonable pressure to meet annual APS targets led some employees to cheat on the CRCT. The refusal of Beverly Hall and her top administrators to accept anything other than satisfying targets created an environment where achieving the desired end result was more important than the students’ education (Strauss, 2015).

The effects on teaching and learning were profound. Hall sent the message that students must improve their test scores at all costs, and it did not matter how results were gained. Teachers were responsible for producing these results. They were not to serve as advisors, mentors, or role models for students. Teachers’ primary function was to improve the district’s numbers and to make Hall look good. The superintendent also received awards and bonuses thanks to their efforts.

While there are many positive aspects of testing, the potential for cheating scandals will increase exponentially with value-added teaching, merit pay, and the inclusion of testing data in teacher evaluations. As in any strictly quantitative endeavor, the over-reliance on the bottom line causes participants to game the system in order to achieve increasingly higher levels of performance. This is seen in business, on Wall Street, in sports, in government, and now more than ever in schools. Hall’s call for higher test scores is a natural progression of the current mentality in education right now, and the effects on teachers should not be of any surprise.

Effects on Students
Policy makers and educators have long been at odds over whether standardized testing is of any benefit for students. Strong arguments can be made for both sides. When testing is done right, students and teachers can receive timely and valuable feedback that identifies areas of growth, and instruction can be promptly modified to meet students’ needs. When testing is conducted merely as a measure of performance and accountability, scandals like that in Atlanta inevitably result.
When too much importance is placed on testing for its own sake, instruction suffers. Educational consultant Arthur Greenburg (2015) noted the following when he visited APS:

What I found was totally surprising and dismayingly consistent. In every classroom I visited, whether English, history, math, or science (the only exceptions were art, music, and physical education classes), students and teachers were engaged in test preparation for the statewide exams—tests that would not be administered until the spring. There was no instruction in new material at all. In its place was an unrelenting barrage of test-prep activities of the most deadening kind. I found many teachers administering practice tests, while others were reviewing the results of practice tests. Still others handed out skill-drill worksheets. I did not see a single class—and I found this hard to believe, even as I observed it with my own eyes—in which an old-fashioned, content-based lesson was being taught.

Skills drills and familiarity exercises are an important method to prepare students for any performance task, but Greenburg’s account testifies to a system gone awry, one in which curriculum and instruction is abandoned in favor of learning by rote.

It may be inferred the Superintendent Hall would not have felt any pangs of guilt over the changes in instruction that occurred under her leadership. Additionally reported by Strauss: “The refusal of Beverly Hall and her top administrators to accept anything other than satisfying targets created an environment where achieving the desired end result was more important than the students’ education” (2015). Overemphasis on standardized testing is what really cheated kids in Atlanta. Teachers and administrators acted unethically to be sure, and they deserve punishment, but leadership created the conditions for their crimes by enforcing such a myopic view of education. Reducing students to numbers is the real crime for which no one has been charged or convicted as of yet.

The APS Cheating Scandal and its Effects on the Work of Administrators
Amidst great change in the educational landscape, school administrators have a tougher job than ever. They must bring together teachers, parents, policy makers, and politicians to do what’s best for our students. Doing so is a daunting challenge to say the least. Stories of success and failure abound both at home and abroad as educators work to prepare students for the 21st century. Administrators whom prefer the latter should remember to always put students before data, and they should support teachers in setting audacious goals and in achieving them with integrity.

Put Students First
Data derived from summative and formative assessments, in addition to standardized tests, should only be used measure progress and to inform future instruction, not teacher merit pay or tenure status. Strauss (2015) shows that Hall took the completely opposite approach in Atlanta:

As part of the conspiracy, employees of APS who failed to satisfy targets were terminated or threatened with termination, while others who achieved targets through cheating were publicly praised and financially rewarded. For example, teachers who reported other teachers who cheated were terminated, while teachers who were caught cheating were only suspended. The message from Beverly Hall was clear: there were to be no exceptions and no excuses for failure to meet targets.

School administrators must realize that despite the pressures placed upon them because of NCLB and Race to the Top, a perform-or-punish approach to education is neither effective for teachers nor students.  Richard Rothstein (2015) broadens Strauss’s view:

Such cheating is widespread, as is similar corruption in any institution—whether health care, criminal justice, the Veterans Administration, or others—where top policymakers try to manage their institutions with simple quantitative measures that distort the institution’s goals. This corruption is especially inevitable when out-of-touch policymakers set impossible-to-achieve goals and expect that success will nonetheless follow if only underlings are held accountable for measurable results . . . Certainly, educators can refuse to cheat, and take the fall for unavoidable failure in other ways: they can see their schools closed, their colleagues fired, their students’ confidence and love of learning destroyed. That would have been the legal thing to do, but not necessarily the ethical thing to do . . . For years, the overwhelming evidence from other fields has been that accountability by simple quantitative measures does more harm than good, and too often results in corruption or illegal cheating. And it continues to accumulate.

Administrators must have the courage to safeguard teachers’ academic and personal integrity while ensuring students are highly engaged in rigorous and relevant curricula in all their courses. Teachers will never do their best work under such conditions, and students will never learn anything of real value.

Aim High, but with Autonomy and Integrity
Education reform has been almost as much about passing around blame as it has been about improving teaching and learning. Advocates for school choice, elimination of tenure, value-added teaching, and the increased reliance on standardized testing blame teachers for not putting forth enough effort for their students, for hiding behind their unions, and for maintaining the status quo. Opponents of these measures tend to blame larger societal issues of inequality, racism, and poverty for the lack of teachers’ success in addition to the reforms themselves, claiming that pundits and politicians are ruining the American education system. The truth, as always, lies in between.

In The Smartest Kids in the World: and How They Got that Way, Amanda Ripley (2013) describes the origins and outcomes of school reforms in America with those in Poland, one of four countries she studies in the book that have made amazing gains on the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) tests in recent years:

The defenders of America’s mediocre education system, the ones who blamed poverty and dysfunction for our problems, talked as if America had a monopoly on trouble. Perhaps they had never been to Poland. It is difficult to summarize the tumult that occurred in Poland in the space of a half century . . . Nearly one in six Polish children lived in poverty, a rate approaching that of the United States, where one in five kids are poor . . . In a United Nations comparison of children’s material well-being, Poland ranked dead last in the developed world . . . Yet something remarkable had happened in Poland. It had managed to do what other countries could not. From 2000 to 2006, the average reading score of Polish fifteen-year-olds shot up twenty-nine points on the PISA exam. It was as if Polish kids had somehow packed almost three-quarters of a school year of extra learning into their brains. In less than a decade, they had gone from below average for the developed world to above . . . unlike the United States, it had dramatically improved its results in just a few years—despite crime, poverty, and a thousand good reasons for why it should fail. (pp. 126-127)

This passage speaks to the need for education reform in America. We need to change our methods because our students are not keeping pace with countries like Poland, which lacks the seemingly boundless training and resources available to our schools. Additionally, teachers and students are succeeding in spite of Poland’s economic and social troubles.

Ripley continues by describing the actual reforms Poland made:

A new core curriculum would replace the old, dumbed-down mandates that had forced teachers to cover too many topics too briefly. The new program would lay out fundamental goals, but leave the details to the schools. At the same time, the government would require a quarter of teachers to go back to school to improve their own education . . . To make sure students were learning, they would start taking standardized tests at regular intervals throughout their schooling—not as often as American kids, but at the end of elementary, junior high, and high school. The Poles couldn’t know it yet, but this kind of targeted standardized testing would prove to be critical in any country with significant poverty, according to a PISA analysis that would come out years later . . . Teachers would be free to choose their own textbooks and their own specific curriculum from over one hundred approved options, along with their own professional development. They would start earning bonuses based in part on how much professional development they did . . . The new system would demand more accountability for results, while granting more autonomy for methods. That dynamic could be found in all countries that had dramatically improved their results, including Finland and, for that matter, in every high-performing organization, from the U.S. Coast Guard to Apple Inc. (pp. 131-133)

Instead of handing down mandates and trying to centralize curriculum and instruction, like the Bush and Obama administrations have been accused of doing, Poland encouraged and rewarded teachers to improve their craft to help students meet regular benchmarks. Granting autonomy and incentivizing professional growth guarantees positive results in schools.

If we were to shift at least some of our focus from high-stakes testing to empowering teachers to do what is best for students, we would be far less likely to repeat cheating scandals like the one in Atlanta. Administrators need to emphasize the academic and personal development of students and teachers instead of being trapped by the mindless reliance on data and the rabid idealism enforced by many reformers. The average school administrator does not often get a say in state and federal education policy, but he or she must champion the good work teachers do for students and value it above else. To do anything less is the worst crime of all.

Resources

AJC investigates: cheating our children. (n.d.). The Atlanta journal constitution. Retrieved from
http://www.myajc.com/s/news/special-reports/school-test-scores/

Blinder, A. (2015, April 1). Atlanta educators convicted in school cheating scandal. The New
York times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2015/04/02/us/verdict-reached-in-atlanta-school-testing-trial.html?_r=1

Dalton, M. (2015, May 1). Judge reduced 3 educators’ sentences in Atlanta cheating scandal.
NPR. Retrieved from http://www.npr.org/2015/05/01/403474877/judge-reduces-3-educators-sentences-in-atlanta-cheating-scandal

Davis, L. (2013, May 7). RICO and the Atlanta public schools cheating scandal. Education law
prof blog. Retrieved from http://lawprofessors.typepad.com/education_law/2013/05/rico-and-the-atlanta-public-schools-cheating-scandal.html%20

Greenberg, A. R. (2015, July 2). I witnessed the real crime in Atlanta’s schools. Education week.
Retrieved from http://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2015/07/02/i-witnessed-the-real-crime-in-atlantas.html

Kenny, M. & Smith, H. (1992). A comprehensive analysis of Georgia RICO. Georgia State
University law review. 9(3). Retrieved from http://readingroom.law.gsu.edu/gsulr/vol9/iss3/2

Racketeering/RICO. (n.d.). FindLaw. Retrieved from http://criminal.findlaw.com/criminal-
charges/racketeering-rico.html

Rankin, B. (2015, April 1). RICO a powerful tool in APS test-cheating case. The Atlanta journal
constitution. Retrieved from http://www.ajc.com/news/news/crime-law/rico-a-powerful-tool-in-aps-test-cheating-case/nkkGy/

Resseger, J. (2015, April 16). Atlanta trial: The ultimate in test-and-punish. The progressive.
Retrieved from http://www.progressive.org/news/2015/04/188093/atlanta-trial-ultimate-test-and-punish

RICO charges. (n.d.). U.S. attorneys’ manual: United States department of justice. Retrieved
from http://www.justice.gov/usam/criminal-resource-manual-109-rico-charges

Ripley, A. (2013). The smartest kids in the world: and how they got that way [Kindle
Version]. Retrieved from Amazon.com

Rothstein, R. (2015, April 3) Taking the fall in Atlanta. Economics policy institute. Retrieved
from http://www.epi.org/blog/taking-the-fall-in-atlanta/

Strauss, V. (2015, April 4). How and why convicted Atlanta teachers cheated on standardized
tests. The Washington post. Retrieved from http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/answer-sheet/wp/2015/04/01/how-and-why-convicted-atlanta-teachers-cheated-on-standardized-tests/

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