April 16, 2013

It's a Far Greater Sin than Cheating

The Atlanta Public Schools cheating scandal may, on the surface, appear to be just one more "drop in the bucket" in the the long list of school cheating scandals across the country that reared their ugly heads since the passing of the federal No Child Left Behind Act in 2001.  And some would agree that one of the many insidious byproducts of NCLB has been federal and local incentives to cheat and/or inflate standardized test scores.  In fact, many education scholars have argued for years that NCLB not only "leaves behind" the very students it seeks to serve, it encourages educators to cheat.  In the face of the unsurmountable odds stacked against students and educators in urban school systems, desperate teachers have resorted to padding statistics, coaching students during standardized tests, and just outright cheating.  Educators have all agreed that these variables are unfortunately true in the most disenfranchised and impoverished school systems in the country.  However, the corruption that has permeated the Atlanta Public Schools far exceeds the limits of simple cheating.

The racial demographic of The Atlanta Public Schools system is an important variable in arriving at conclusions about its current situation and fate.  APS is approximately 95% African American. Some of the published data about APS's racial demographics will assert that the system is 70-75% African American.  However, given the culture of dishonesty that investigators have uncovered at APS, we can assume that these statistics were also "constructed" in order to attract white students, educators, and donors to the system.  At any rate, because the school system is so overwhelming African American, there has been a consistent, if not subdued, voice of outcry from the black community about the well-published scandal.  

Many reporters, activists, and educators have a similar line of rhetoric.  It reads like this:  It is the system of high-stakes testing that is the blame for Atlanta Public Schools' fall from grace, or No Child Left Behind left educators with no choice, and better still, You can't blame the teachers; they were just following orders from the white power structure. Granted, high-stakes testing has completely usurped real teaching and real education in most school systems across America.  However, an African American led system must not scapegoat a white power structure for the decades-long, dishonest and criminal decisions it made.
Most of the 35 (all black), superintendent, administrators, and teachers, were indicted for "Racketeering."  In the Atlanta Public Schools system, the racketeering began very shortly after Beverly Hall, who left the Newark, NJ school system under suspicious circumstances, was hired as Superintendent of APS in 1999.  Hall cast a mafia style web of deceit, coercion, extortion, bribery, and intimidation from the top down.
Essentially, this is how the web worked.  Hall entered a failing school system in 1999 with the explicit purpose of "reforming" it in every way:  increasing student achievement (which amounts to test scores), infrastructure, public relations, and government and private sector funding.  The Atlanta Journal and Constitution sums it up nicely, saying:

Hall inculcated an atmosphere that encouraged using any means necessary to achieve test-score targets, the indictment said, and then “publicly misrepresented the academic performance of schools throughout APS.” Pressuring subordinates to produce targeted scores, the indictment said, “created an environment where achieving the desired end result was more important than the students’ education.”
Once Hall achieved the desired test-score targets by "any and all means necessary," the government funding poured into the district. The Huffington Post cites that in 2009 alone, APS received nearly $1 million in federal funds.  Let's not forget that Hall was superintendent for 11 years -- 1999 to 2011.  As a result of the district's extravagant gains in standardized test scores over a three-year period, it received the Title I Distinguished schools designation.  Of course, we know now that those gains were fraudulent and made by simply changing incorrect answers to correct ones.   However, after Hall's district received the $1 million in federal funds, the real criminal activity began.  Hall would parcel out monetary awards to the administrators of the SRTs (Student Reform Teams) of the "high achieving" schools in question.  Those administrators, in a "trickle down" fashion, would then disburse those funds to each Principal where the so called gains were made.  And from there, to specific academic coaches and classroom teachers.  This may all still sound like simple cheating; however, it was Hall's methods that would warrant the racketeering charges.

Hall established a test-score hierarchy which began with a "convocation" at the beginning of each school year.  The Mary Kay-esk environment took place at the Georgia Dome or the Atlanta Civic Center each year.  The seating was arranged in a "losers/winners" structure, in which those who had made little to no test-score gains were singled out and seated in the "nose bleed" seats in the farthest reaches of the audience.  Closest to the floor and seated on the floor, were the blue-blazer-wearing "successful" teachers and administrators who represented the "high achieving" schools with the highest test-score gains.  Each participant received a gift bag.  The gift bags of those with the highest gains were stuffed with checks, gift cards, and various other "shiny carrots."  Those seated in the risers, received little or nothing.  Administrators and Principals were said to have received cash gifts in the amount of $20,000 or more along with bonuses and of course funds for their schools and SRTs.  The teachers who left the convocation each year empty handed, either decided to join the blue blazer club or receive reperecussions from their SRT Directors.  These repercussions came in the form of intimidation, coercion, and ultimately bribery.  After all, teachers and principals who refused to achieve test-score targets "by any means necessary" were ruining the entire SRT's ability to receive its "just" rewards.

Not only was Hall fraudulently receiving government funds that she ultimately used to extort test scores from her schools, but she received  $10.5 million dollars from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to "transform" the APS high schools and improve "teaching" and "learning."  In hindsight, this would be laughable if the aftermath of Hall's deceit wasn't so tragic and far reaching.

While the so called educators, administrators, and the superintendent of APS were running their "school district mafia," the children of APS were mostly not learning to read, not learning basic Mathematics, not learning to write, and not learning any semblance of critical thinking skills.  Of course, there are exceptions in the system.  Despite the corruption, there were many APS students in the system who learned adequate and above adequate skills from a few good teachers (those who refused to join the "mafia").  There were also so gems who excelled in spite of their dismal circumstances.  In many cases, however, the standardized test scores that followed children from their cheating elementary schools into middle and high school claimed that these children were virtual geniuses.  However, many children who, according to the CRCT (Criterion-Referenced Competency Tests), were in the 80th and 90th percentile in Language Arts and Reading could, sadly enough, barely read simple sentences and could not comprehend much more.  

While the educators were enjoying their cash and bonuses, many of them simply began to act in accordance with the corruption surrounding them.  Children who came to them in the 5th grade unable to read became challenges and obstacles that teachers found overwhelming.  So, instead of using some of those Title I funds to actually teach illiterate children to read, school academic coaches established after school tutoring in which struggling students simply played dodge ball and listened to music instead of doing the very difficult work of closing the achievement gap.  This may sound unbelievable, but it simply became easier to placate struggling students than to teach them.  After all, struggling students had become accustomed to not really learning anything. So the few overzealous teachers and tutors who really wanted to teach were met with tremendous resistance from students who couldn't read or who couldn't divide and multiply.

Now, nearly thirteen years after the reign of Beverly Hall, Atlanta Public Schools students are attempting to enter technical and community colleges.  They are discovering that their high school diplomas are basically worthless.  Those students either end up stuck in Developmental Studies courses, eventually give up, drop out of college, and become urban statistics, or they find themselves struggling for years to get back what they lost in elementary, middle, and high school.  The sins committed against these students are far greater than simple cheating.  The fingers of this corruption reach far beyond 2009 and far beyond Atlanta Public Schools. Indeed, NCLB established implicit incentives for school systems to cheat.  Must we always bite the dangling, shiny carrot?  Real educators must have a higher calling and must have a moral center. Yes, we are underpaid.  Yes, we are overworked.  Yes, we are asked to do miracles in 16 weeks or 32 weeks.  But if the job is too much for us, we can always walk away.  If we find that we can no longer teach, nurture, and mentor the students we serve, we must find another line of work. What the Atlanta Public Schools system has done, under the leadership of Beverly Hall, is indeed criminal. The damage may be irrevocable. Atlanta Public Schools has miseducated and perhaps ruined the lives of an entire generation of black people.