WASHINGTON — For more than a decade, Beverly Hall, superintendent of Atlanta Public Schools, proved brilliant at protecting her reputation. When she arrived in July 1999, she set about cultivating a coterie of mostly white business executives to serve as advisers and stalwart defenders.
It’s no surprise that Sam Williams, president of the Metro Atlanta Chamber, was deeply involved in helping Hall put together the school district’s half-hearted investigation. When I was Atlanta Journal-Constitution editorial page editor, Hall used to visit the editorial board with one or two execs in tow — present to testify to her accomplishments.
But Hall has done less well as a champion of educational excellence. Her initial response to the cheating scandal makes clear that she has been more concerned with the appearance of success than actually improving academic attainment.
Even if the stunning improvements in test scores had all been valid, Hall still presides over one of the worst-performing school districts in the nation. While she has gathered national acclaim (and a fat salary) for raising standards, too many of her students remain illiterate.
I’ve long wondered how she’s managed to dazzle education experts from all over the country, collecting accolades and prestigious awards. As I wrote four years ago, she has only raised achievement “from miserable to merely bad.”
It’s time for Hall to go. She should go ahead and retire, as she reportedly plans to do, when her contract ends next summer.
She has not been implicated in the scandal, which revolves around widespread cheating on standardized tests. There is no reason to believe that she knew administrators or teachers were apparently changing answers on tests.
Still, her leadership has been deeply flawed, not just in her initial response to the allegations — a version of “I didn’t do it!” — but also in the incentives she set in place. If she didn’t understand that her hard emphasis on test scores could lead to cheating, she has no business at the helm of the school system.
Many academic experts have noted that President Bush’s No Child Left Behind placed an unfortunate emphasis on standardized test scores, which it used to judge a school’s success — and, by extension, the success of its principal and teachers. At best, that led teachers to “teach to the test” rather than teach kids to think. At worst, it led some teachers and administrators to engage in deception, from manipulating school enrollments to falsifying test results.
Still, Hall picked up the emphasis on data, perhaps because she understood that the business leaders she courted are comfortable with such metrics. Indeed, she tied her own compensation to them: when Atlanta Public Schools showed signs of success through measurable statistics, Hall reaped a financial reward. Her bonus last year, according to AJC reporters Alan Judd and Heather Vogell, was $78, 115 — on top of a salary of $256,216.
That may be the reason Hall didn’t want to look deeply into AJC reports of widespread cheating and why she didn’t follow the state’s guidelines for a more rigorous investigation. That may be the reason that Hall celebrated a miraculous improvement in graduation rates that now seems, literally, too good to be true.
Hall should have known better than to take the graduation data — which showed an improvement of nearly 30 points over a few years — at face value. But she would have had a harder time justifying her bonus with more modest, if real, accomplishments.
Some Atlanta leaders — notably, former Mayor Shirley Franklin — worry that deepening investigations into Atlanta Public Schools will “destabilize” them. But there is no benefit in stable but poorly-performing public schools.
Hall should save the schools more controversy and go gracefully into retirement.