Here is a good piece by former AJC editor Hank Klibanoff offering some sound advice to APS Superintendent Beverly Hall in the ongoing investigation of possible CRCT tampering. (The results of that probe were scheduled to be released today, but are being delayed a few weeks.)
By Hank Klibanoff
There’s not much mystery about what we’ll soon hear from the panel investigating possible cheating by teachers and administrators at Atlanta public schools on the Criterion-Referenced Competency Tests. It’s going to be ugly.
The only question, given her track record in these moments of public embarrassment, is how Atlanta Public Schools Superintendent Beverly Hall will respond. Based on recent behavior, Hall could miss an opportunity to restore confidence in APS with strong words and concrete action. I have a little history with Hall, and some advice.
About three years ago when I was managing editor for news at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Hall and I met at a breakfast arranged by an Atlanta school board member. I had been (and remain) impressed overall with Hall’s leadership, and was (and remain) proud to have a child in the Atlanta public schools.
But I had been astonished at how, in 2004, her administration had been so defensive, difficult and self-defeating in its handling of the E-Rate scandal she inherited.
Over several months, reporters at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution had unfurled embarrassing stories showing corruption in Atlanta’s $73 million share of the federal program, which was designed to upgrade technology in schools across the nation.
APS, starting before Hall arrived, had billed the E-Rate program to wire classrooms that didn’t exist, to upgrade schools scheduled to be demolished and to buy electronics worth millions of dollars that reporters found in storage three years later. They found that competitive bidding had been abandoned, that cozy relationships between the APS technology director and bidders were glaring, and that nobody in the front office seemed fazed by it.
Hall did not see the stories as newsworthy, and she did not express dismay at the findings. At times, requests for records were treated like SCUD missiles, and requests for interviews like anthrax-filled envelopes. While APS eventually released many records, very little came without a struggle.
By the time Hall and I met, the reporters’ findings had been validated by Congress, federal funds had been cut off, and the APS technology director, Arthur Scott, was headed to the federal pen after admitting that he and his wife had taken $323,000 in bribes. (A Peachtree City businessman was later convicted as well.)
Over breakfast, Hall expressed regret for her defensive posture. She’d been so focused on looking forward, she said, that looking back on an inherited problem seemed like a waste of time. She’d made the mistake of trusting Scott, she said, when he told her the reporters were misguided.
But the Hall administration did not learn its lesson. Despite advice that many people, including me, tried to give her after state examiners validated AJC stories about suspicious improvements in student test scores, she has instead retreated to her default defense: She goes to pains to avoid acknowledging that teachers or administrators might have cheated and instead has offered a blanket wait-and-see cover for everyone. And she publicly blames the press for … for … well, it’s not clear what for.
Her response to the latest E-Rate story is also baffling. The AJC recently showed how APS continues to play fast and loose in writing bid specifications (using verbatim language from one bidder’s catalog) and awarding lucrative contracts. Hall and her procurement director refused to be interviewed. APS offered two other executives for interviews, then cancelled them.
In the end, APS responded only in writing and only to written questions, two weeks after they were submitted, a strategy that eliminated the opportunity for follow-up questions to evasive answers; the answers were at odds with APS’ own records. (In another bad sign, the new chairwoman of the Atlanta school board, LaChandra Butler Burkes, let three AJC requests for interviews, which her public information officer acknowledged, go unanswered.)
Now, some advice for Hall: Be open and decisive. If the report says APS employees cheated, show rage and indignation, show hurt, then fire the employees and file suit to get back any bonuses they received for improvement in student scores. State categorically that the cheating only hurt the students, didn’t help them.
Apologize to the students, their parents and the overwhelming number of honest APS employees, then explain how you’ll prevent this from happening again and how you’ll get the scores up honestly.
If all or some of your own $78,000 bonus resulted from test score improvements, return that money to the APS treasury before the end of the day.
Then do one even tougher thing: Thank the reporters who first exposed this fraud. What they did was commendable public service.
You might even invite them into Atlanta high schools to show students how such exemplary work is done.
Hank Klibanoff, the James M. Cox Jr. Professor of Journalism at Emory University, is co-author of “The Race Beat: The Press, the Civil Rights Struggle, and the Awakening of a Nation,” which won the 2007 Pulitzer Prize in history.