The culture that created
the Atlanta cheating scandal.By Fred KlonskyMarch 29, 2013
Today’s big education story is the indictment of former Atlanta school superintendent Dr. Beverly L. Hall. Dr. Hall was one of 35 Atlanta educators indicted Friday by a Fulton County grand jury. Dr. Hall, who retired in 2011, was charged with racketeering, theft, influencing witnesses, conspiracy and making false statements. Prosecutors recommended a $7.5 million bond for her; she could face up to 45 years in prison.
Back in February of 2012 I addressed the cheating issue in a piece written for Occasional Papers 27, a publication of Bank Street College of Education.
In the article I address the reform culture that has created the conditions for scandals like the one in Atlanta.
Also included in the collection are essays by William Ayers, Gail Boldt, Greg Dimitriadis, Jeff Duncan-Andrade, Ann Haas Dyson, Celia Genishi, Marc Lamont Hill, Kevin K. Kumashiro, Deborah Meier, Erica R. Meiners, Pedro Noguera, Diane Ravitch, Raynard Sanders, Gil Schmerler, Peter Taubman
“If We Look to Buy the Cheapest Paper, Why Not the Cheapest Teachers?”
by Fred Klonsky
Around 1972 I was working at the UniRoyal Tire and Rubber factory in the City of Commerce, an industrial suburb of Los Angeles. The front of the factory faced the Santa Ana freeway. For some odd reason it was designed to look like an ancient Egyptian temple.
Behind the Disney-like façade of pharaohs and slaves was a grime-filled, malodorous factory turning out thousands of automobile tires a day.
In 1972 the making of a tire went something like this: Two women, usually African-American, worked on a belt behind the tire making machine. They cut pieces of rubber ply and put them on the belt. Two men, usually white, were in front. One of the men pulled the rubber barrel off a rack and slid it on to a metal arm. One of the guys hit a button and the ply rolled onto the rubber barrel. They hit a second button that swung the barrel into a position to attach the rubber that later became the tread. Button three quickly spun all the tire components until you hit the brake pedal. The barrel broke loose and you slid it off onto another rack.
A tire came off the machine and a counter would flip a number. In 1972 there was not much that was digital.
I was a member of the United Rubber Workers union. Our contract allowed tire making to be piecework. I was paid a minimal base salary. To make any real money I had to make a rate. The rate was adjusted each week. If you made rate for five days, they raised the rate.
It didn’t take long for me to realize that controlling – as opposed to making – the rate was most important. I wanted to hit my target most days. But I needed to fall short on others. If I didn’t, they would constantly raise the rate. I soon came to understand the simple economics of this process.
I also realized that if I smacked the counter with the palm of my hand just at the moment that my partner was pulling a tire off the machine, the counter would flip twice.
Four decades later I am about to retire from 27 years of teaching. I began my teaching career at the same time as A Nation at Risk came out. I retire just as it seems that The Elementary and Secondary Education Act, also known as No Child Left Behind, is about to be trashed and replaced by some form of a more extensive Race to the Top.
As I exit the classroom, life in schools resembles my days at UniRoyal Tire and Rubber.
I teach in a school in a suburb of Chicago. Park Ridge is an upscale town. It usually has voted Republican and it is white. But that is changing. The town elected its first Democratic State Senator several years ago and voted for Obama by a thin margin.
Compared to when I started teaching in 1984, our K-8 school district is now consumed by assessments. Weeks and weeks of instructional time have been replaced by a world of testing initials: Illinois Standards Achievement Test (ISAT), Measures of Academic Progress (MAP) and the Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy (Dibels).
In spite of this, and despite the fact that the time spent on these assessments angers and demoralizes almost every one of my colleagues, our school does very well on all of these assessments. Ninety-seven percent meet and exceed state standards on the state mandated ISAT. This year 100% of our 4th graders did the same on the reading portion of the ISAT.
In a school district that is primarily white and privileged, it’s not surprising that our students do well on these tests. But it also doesn’t matter.
In schools this is called continuous improvement. It’s not much different than UniRoyal’s piece rate system. Do well and they simply raise the rate. The only thing they want to improve are the scores. It is the extension of Lake Woebegonism, where all children are above average. In this brave new world, all children must meet and exceed 100%. In districts like Atlanta and Philadelphia, continuous improvement has meant taking the palm of your hand and smacking the counter. Cheating scandals are breaking out like a contagious disease.
As the comedian Chris Rock likes to say, “I don’t approve. But I understand.” Just like a tire builder at UniRoyal, it is a matter of both teachers and school administrators coming to understand the simple economics of the process. Those who demand that schools be run more like a business are now getting what they asked for. There are those in the profit sector who have become expert at knowing how to game the system. Why be surprised when those in the public sector, like principals, order their staff to do the same?
This year a small Tea Party-ish group has begun attending our board meetings. They number two, sometimes three. Some have children in the district’s schools. Some do not. They are openly hostile to the teachers and our union. They are either amazingly misinformed, or they are purposefully lying based on the theory that a lie told often enough gets believed as the truth.
At the heart of their attack is the issue of student performance and teacher accountability. Only a few years back we would spend our time discussing issues of teaching and learning. Now we spend the bulk of our team planning time discussing assessments and interventions.
Still, the lies continue about student performance results. They continue to lie about teacher salary and benefits and the language that is in our bargaining agreement about the alleged inability to dismiss poor teachers.
I have been told that Tea Party groups are doing the same thing throughout Illinois. They have organized small groups to attend community board meetings. Some are paid, with the money coming from those like the Koch brothers, multi-billionaire right-wing funders. There are plenty of deep pockets operating here.
Going right after our collective bargaining agreement, they ask, “If we look to buy the cheapest paper, why not the cheapest teachers?”
And our board, pressed by growing financial concerns, must be asking themselves if that isn’t a good point. How much should you have to spend to find someone to prep for and administer a test?
Ex-Schools Chief in Atlanta
Is Indicted in Testing Scandal
After a 2½-year investigation, Beverly L. Hall, a former district superintendent who won fame and fortune for her performance, was charged with racketeering, theft and other crimes in the doctoring of students' test answers.
Published: March 29, 2013 652 Comments
During his 35 years as a Georgia state investigator, Richard Hyde has persuaded all sorts of criminals — corrupt judges, drug dealers, money launderers, racketeers — to turn state’s evidence, but until Jackie Parks, he had never tried to flip an elementary school teacher.
Readers shared their thoughts on this article.
In the fall of 2010, Ms. Parks, a third-grade teacher at Venetian Hills Elementary School in southwest Atlanta, agreed to become Witness No. 1 for Mr. Hyde, in what would develop into the most widespread public school cheating scandal in memory.
Ms. Parks admitted to Mr. Hyde that she was one of seven teachers — nicknamed “the chosen” — who sat in a locked windowless room every afternoon during the week of state testing, raising students’ scores by erasing wrong answers and making them right. She then agreed to wear a hidden electronic wire to school, and for weeks she secretly recorded the conversations of her fellow teachers for Mr. Hyde.
In the two and a half years since, the state’s investigation reached from Ms. Parks’s third-grade classroom all the way to the district superintendent at the time, Beverly L. Hall, who was one of 35 Atlanta educators indicted Friday by a Fulton County grand jury.
Dr. Hall, who retired in 2011, was charged with racketeering, theft, influencing witnesses, conspiracy and making false statements. Prosecutors recommended a $7.5 million bond for her; she could face up to 45 years in prison.
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.
Those test scores brought her fame — in 2009, the American Association of School Administrators named her superintendent of the year and Arne Duncan, the secretary of education, hosted her at the White House.
And fortune — she earned more than $500,000 in performance bonuses while superintendent.
On Friday, prosecutors essentially said it really was too good to be true. Dr. Hall and the 34 teachers, principals and administrators “conspired to either cheat, conceal cheating or retaliate against whistle-blowers in an effort to bolster C.R.C.T. scores for the benefit of financial rewards associated with high test scores,” the indictment said, referring to the state’s Criterion-Referenced Competency Test.
Reached late Friday, Richard Deane, Dr. Hall’s lawyer, said they were digesting the indictment and making arrangements for bond. “We’re pretty busy,” he said.
As she has since the beginning, Mr. Deane said, Dr. Hall has denied the charges and any involvement in cheating or any other wrongdoing and expected to be vindicated. “We note that as far as has been disclosed, despite the thousands of interviews that were reportedly done by the governor’s investigators and others, not a single person reported that Dr. Hall participated in or directed them to cheat on the C.R.C.T.,” he said later in a statement.
In a 2011 interview with The New York Times, Dr. Hall said that people under her had allowed cheating but that she never had. “I can’t accept that there is a culture of cheating,” she said.
Paul L. Howard Jr., the district attorney, said that under Dr. Hall’s leadership, there was “a single-minded purpose, and that is to cheat.”
“She is a full participant in that conspiracy,” he said. “Without her, this conspiracy could not have taken place, particularly in the degree it took place.”
For years there had been reports of widespread cheating in Atlanta, but Dr. Hall was feared by teachers and principals, and few dared to speak out. “Principals and teachers were frequently told by Beverly Hall and her subordinates that excuses for not meeting targets would not be tolerated,” the indictment said.
Reporters for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and state education officials repeatedly found strong indications of cheating — extraordinary increases in test scores from one year to the next, along with a high number of erasures on answering sheets from wrong to right.
But they were not able to find anyone who would confess to it.
That is until August 2010, when Gov. Sonny Perdue named two special prosecutors — Michael Bowers, a Republican former attorney general, and Robert E. Wilson, a Democratic former district attorney — along with Mr. Hyde to conduct a criminal investigation.
For weeks that fall, Mr. Hyde had been stonewalled and lied to by teachers at Venetian Hills including Ms. Parks, who at one point, stood in her classroom doorway and blocked him from entering.
But day after day he returned to question people, and eventually his presence weighed so heavily on Ms. Parks that she said she felt a terrible need to confess her sins. “I wanted to repent,” she recalled in an interview. “I wanted to clear my conscience.”
Ms. Parks told Mr. Hyde that the cheating had been going on at least since 2004 and was overseen by the principal, who wore gloves so as not to leave her fingerprints on the answer sheets.
Children who scored 1 on the state test out of a possible 4 became 2s, she said; 2s became 3s.
“The cheating had been going on so long,” Ms. Parks said. “We considered it part of our jobs.”
She said teachers were under constant pressure from principals who feared they would be fired if they did not meet the testing targets set by the superintendent.
Dr. Hall was known to rule by fear. She gave principals three years to meet their testing goals. Few did; in her decade as superintendent, she replaced 90 percent of the principals.
Teachers and principals whose students had high test scores received tenure and thousands of dollars in performance bonuses. Otherwise, as one teacher explained, it was “low score out the door.”
Ms. Parks, a 17-year veteran, said a reason she had kept silent so long was that as a single mother, she could not afford to lose her job.
When asked during an interview if she was surprised that out of Atlanta’s 100 schools, Mr. Hyde turned up at hers first, Ms. Parks said no. “I had a dream about it a few weeks before,” she said. “I saw people walking down the hall with yellow notepads. From time to time, God reveals things to me in dreams.”
“I think God led Mr. Hyde to Venetian Hills,” she said.
Whatever delivered Mr. Hyde (he said he picked the school because he knew the area from patrolling it as a young police officer), 10 months after his arrival, on June 30, 2011, state investigators issued an 800-page report implicating 178 teachers and principals — including 82 who confessed to cheating.
By now, almost all are gone. Like Ms. Parks, they have resigned or were fired or lost their teaching licenses at administrative hearings.
Higher Scores, Less Aid
Some losses are harder to measure, like the impact on the children in schools where cheating was prevalent. At Parks Middle School, which investigators say was the site of the city’s worst cheating, test scores soared right after the arrival of a new principal, Christopher Waller — who was one of the 35 named in Friday’s indictment.
His first year at Parks, 2005, 86 percent of eighth graders scored proficient in math compared with 24 percent the year before; 78 percent passed the state reading test versus 35 percent the previous year.
The falsified test scores were so high that Parks Middle was no longer classified as a school in need of improvement and, as a result, lost $750,000 in state and federal aid, according to investigators. That money could have been used to give struggling children extra academic support. Stacey Johnson, a Parks teacher, told investigators that she had students in her class who had scored proficient on state tests in previous years but were actually reading on the first-grade level. Cheating masked the deficiencies and skewed the diagnosis.
When Erroll Davis Jr. succeeded Dr. Hall in July 2011, one of his first acts as superintendent was to create remedial classes in hopes of helping thousands of these students catch up.
It is not just an Atlanta problem. Cheating has grown at school districts around the country as standardized testing has become a primary means of evaluating teachers, principals and schools. In El Paso, a superintendent went to prison recently after removing low-performing children from classes to improve the district’s test scores. In Ohio, state officials are investigating whether several urban districts intentionally listed low-performing students as having withdrawn even though they were still in school.
But no state has come close to Georgia in appropriating the resources needed to root it out.
And that is because of former Governor Perdue.
“The more we were stonewalled, the more we wanted to know why,” he said in an interview.
In August 2010, after yet another blue-ribbon commission of Atlanta officials found no serious cheating, Mr. Perdue appointed the two special prosecutors and gave them subpoena powers and a budget substantial enough to hire more than 50 state investigators who were overseen by Mr. Hyde.
Mr. Bowers, Mr. Wilson and Mr. Hyde had spent most of their careers putting criminals in prison, and almost as important, they could write. They produced an investigative report with a narrative that read more like a crime thriller than a sleepy legal document and placed Dr. Hall center stage in a drama of mind-boggling dysfunction.
She had praised Mr. Waller of Parks Middle as one of the finest principals in the city, while Mr. Wilson, the special prosecutor, called him “the worst of the worst.”
According to the report, Mr. Waller held “changing parties” where he stood guarding the door as teachers gathered to erase wrong answers and make them right. “I need the numbers,” he would urge the teachers. “Do what you do.”
(When questioned by investigators, Mr. Waller cited his Fifth Amendment protection against self-incrimination.)
Dr. Hall arrived in Atlanta in 1999, the final step in a long upward climb. She had advanced through the ranks of the New York City schools, from teacher to principal to deputy superintendent, and then in 1995, became the superintendent in Newark.
In Atlanta, she built a reputation as a person who got results, understood the needs of poor children and had a strong relationship with the business elite.
Her focus on test scores made her a favorite of the national education reform movement, nearly as prominent as the schools chancellors Joel I. Klein of New York City and Michelle Rhee of Washington. Like them, she was a fearsome presence who would accept no excuses when it came to educating poor children. She held yearly rallies at the Georgia Dome, rewarding principals and teachers from schools with high test scores by seating them up front, close to her, while low scorers were shunted aside to the bleachers.
But she was also known as someone who held herself aloof from parents, teachers and principals. The district spent $100,000 a year for a security detail to drive her around the city. At public meetings, questions had to be submitted beforehand for screening.
In contrast, her successor, Mr. Davis, drives himself and his home phone number is listed.
As long ago as 2001, Journal-Constitution reporters were writing articles questioning test scores under Dr. Hall, but when they requested interviews they were rebuffed. Heather Vogell, an investigative reporter, said officials took months responding to her public information requests — if they did at all. “I’d call, leave a message, call again, no one would pick up,” she said.
What made Dr. Hall just about untouchable was her strong ties to local business leaders. Atlanta prides itself in being a progressive Southern city when it comes to education, entrepreneurship and race — and Dr. Hall’s rising test scores were good news on all those fronts. She is an African-American woman who had turned around a mainly poor African-American school district, which would make Atlanta an even more desirable destination for businesses.
And so when Mr. Perdue challenged the test results that underpinned everything — even though he was a conservative Republican businessman — he met strong resistance from the Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce.
“There was extensive subtle pressure,” Mr. Perdue said. “They’d say, ‘Do you really think there is anything there? We have to make sure we don’t hurt the city.’ Good friends broke with me over this.”
“I was dumbfounded that the business community would not want the truth,” he said. “These would be the next generation of employees, and companies would be looking at them and wondering why they had graduated and could not do simple skills. Business was insisting on accountability, but they didn’t want real accountability.”
Once the special prosecutors’ report was made public, it did not matter what the business community wanted; the findings were so sensational, there was no turning back.
Ms. Parks of Venetian Hills was one of many who wore a concealed wire for Mr. Hyde.
As he listened to the hours of secretly recorded conversations of cheating teachers and principals, he was surprised. “I heard them in unguarded moments,” Mr. Hyde said. “You listen, they’re good people. Their tone was of men and women who cared about kids.”
“Every time I play those tapes, I get furious about the way Beverly Hall treated these people,” he said.
Another important source for him at Venetian Hills was Milagros Moner, the testing coordinator. “A really fine person,” Mr. Hyde said. “Another single mom under terrible pressure.”
Ms. Moner told Mr. Hyde that she carried the tests in a tote bag to the principal, Clarietta Davis, who put on gloves before touching them.
After school, on Oct. 18, 2010, the two women sat in the principal’s car in the parking lot of a McDonald’s. Inside Ms. Moner’s purse was a tape recorder Mr. Hyde had given her. Thirty yards away, he sat in his pickup truck videotaping as they talked about how the investigation and media coverage had taken over their lives.
Ms. Moner: I can’t eat, I can’t sleep, my kids want to talk to me, I ignore them. ... I don’t have the mental energy. ...
Ms. Davis: You wouldn’t believe how people just look at you. People you know.
Ms. Moner: You feel isolated.
Ms. Davis: There’s no one to talk to. ... See how red my eyes are? And I’m not a drinking woman.
Ms. Moner: It has taken over my life. I don’t even want to go to work. I pray day and night, I pray at work.
Ms. Davis: You just have to pray for everybody.
Later, when investigators tried to question Ms. Davis about her reasons for wearing the gloves, she invoked the Fifth Amendment. On Friday, she was one of the 35 indicted.
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
Correction: March 29, 2013
An earlier version of this article misstated the surname of the president of Caveon Test Security, a forensic data analysis firm. He is John Fremer, not John Caveon.