APS whistle blowers: Their credibility came under attack

The Sunday AJC is full of good education stories, but the one that will get people talking is an investigation into the fallout to APS teachers who report cheating on state high-stakes tests.

(If you don’t get the AJC on Sunday, this would be the day to pick up a newspaper as there is a lot to read, long story on how SACS works, a news piece on APS accreditation, an editorial on APS and two columns on education issues.)

As is often the case with whistle blowers,  APS teachers told the AJC that they experienced push back and recriminations for coming forward, although many still work for the Atlanta schools.

One of the common tactics in discrediting whistle blowers is to turn the focus on them and their job performance. It’s also an effective means to intimidate other employees from ever coming forward.

Teachers in the story allege that is what happened to them in Atlanta.

According to the investigative piece by AJC reporter Alan Judd and Heather Vogell: (Please read the full piece as it is lengthy.)

The newspaper reviewed reports of the school district’s internal investigations and spoke with more than a dozen current and former Atlanta educators. The documents and the interviews describe a culture that punishes employees who report wrongdoing and rewards those who keep silent. Some whistle-blowers end up under scrutiny themselves. Others are subjected to questions about their mental health. Some lose their jobs.

The prospect of even the most subtle forms of reprisal not only discourages teachers from reporting impropriety, educators say, it makes them more susceptible to pressure to cheat on such assessments as the Criterion-Referenced Competency Test.

Not one educator confessed during the school district’s initial inquiry into widespread cheating on the 2009 CRCT. Now, under threat of criminal prosecution if they lie to state agents investigating the cheating scandal, numerous Atlanta educators have acknowledged witnessing or participating in irregularities.

“It’s just this thing that everyone knows is going on but nobody says anything,” said former teacher Sidnye Fells, who alleged that administrators at Dobbs Elementary cheated. “It’s the elephant in the room. If you say anything, you lose your job.”

– From Maureen Downey, for the AJC Get Schooled blog

149 comments Add your comment

Dr. John Trotter

January 23rd, 2011
10:24 am

I guess that this now on target, eh?….Maureen, are we beginning to see now just how corrupt that MACE has been saying (like a lone voice in the wilderness for years) the Atlanta School System is? I hope that today’s headline article about the cheating, the retribution against those who report the cheating, etc., opens the eyes of those who have always thought that accusations about Atlanta’s corruption were over-exaggerated. Up until recently, you were still saying that overall Beverly Hall has been a good superintendent, and I countered with all due alacrity that she has been the worst superintendent that Atlanta has ever had. I repeat…the worst superintendent. She has been a complete and colossal disaster.

Just my unvarnished thoughts on a beautfiul Sunday morning.

MACE was right about Beverly Hall in Atlanta. MACE was right about Crawford Lewis in DeKalb. MACE is still right about Edmond Heatley in Clayton. MACE is right about Alvin Wilbanks in Gwinnett. MACE is right also about Mark Elgart and SACS…a story that the AJC began working on (I know because a reporter kept calling me, wanting me to give my input on SACS) but for some strange reason has held back on the story. It is easy to hate on the messenger (MACE) but the message remains what it is. Most prophetic voices are shunned initially. Even the old prophets in the Bible were almost universally stoned and killed. You can roll you eyes all you want, but the prophetic voice in Georgia’s educational arena has been MACE and MACE alone. Only when the evidence mounts so high that an avalanche is about to occur does the AJC and other outlets tepidly get on board. We write so as not to be misunderstood. Ha! © MACE, January 23, 2011.

Maureen Downey

January 23rd, 2011
10:37 am

@DR. Trotter, The SACS story is also on the front page of the Sunday AJC today.
Maureen

ScienceTeacher671

January 23rd, 2011
10:42 am

Maureen, for those of us in the far corners of the state, how many of those stories will be online?

teacher&mom

January 23rd, 2011
10:44 am

@st671—the AJC only delivers a few papers to my area at a cost of around $4. I’d love to read the articles but I doubt I will be able find a copy :(

schlmarm

January 23rd, 2011
10:44 am

Maureen could you post a link to the story on how SACS works? Thanks.

No Teacher Left Behind

January 23rd, 2011
10:45 am

HERE, HERE Dr. John Trotter! I hope that in the near future MACE will also be right about whomever is the next Fulton County Schools superintendent, and its “power crazed board members. Fulton County schools is also rampant with nepotism and fudging of scores and discipline reports especially in the “higher achieving” schools. I have an Hispanic coworker who is being targeted for standing up to our chairperson’s condescending and racially toned antics. She was assigned on a PDP and is being documented on her every move. And even though she is a superb teacher in her subject, and her students’ AP scores track record is impressive, the administrators are choosing to tarnish her work performance record but she is standing up for her civil rights.
Georgia’s educational problems are not the teachers or the students, it is the mediocre and unwise administrators that are selectively placed in these positions, not by their own merits or experitise but by who they “know” in the system.

Tonya C.

January 23rd, 2011
10:49 am

Dr. Trotter, they are everything you claim them to be and worse. I’ve worked on the inside, and to this day remain disgusted and disturbed by what I saw. I would sell a kidney before I ever let a child of mine go to school in the system. The corruption, nepotism, favoritism, and cronyism is rampant. After having contact with many of the teachers and students in the system, I believe everything that has been written about the CRCT scandal.

Tonya C.

January 23rd, 2011
10:52 am

And when people speak of “teachers’ unions’ I laugh. Really? GA tenure laws hold ZERO teeth. The PSC is a tool of the school systems, not an ally of ANY teacher. And PDPs are used like AK-47s to destroy the careers of many GREAT teachers.

oldtimer

January 23rd, 2011
10:52 am

And thse superintendants make more than the governor and vice president of the United States. Maybe our elected supers wre not so bad.

oldtimer

January 23rd, 2011
10:52 am

Mikey D

January 23rd, 2011
10:54 am

There is definitely a culture of fear in APS, but this is certainly not exclusive to Atlanta. Teachers in Georgia have no collective bargaining rights, are forced annually to sign contracts without pay scales or a specified number of days worked, are not given the same whistleblower protections that others receive (according tot he article), and are threatened constantly with loss of their jobs and livelihoods if they dare to “get out of line”… And now on top of all of that, we have politicians trying to score political points by misrepresenting what we do on a daily basis, simply because we are ridiculously easy targets.

And we still have posters who come on this blog and complain about how teachers are lazy whiners. Where else are professionals treated so horrendously, with the apparent applause coming from everyone outside the profession?

No Teacher Left Behind

January 23rd, 2011
10:59 am

@Mikey D, well said. I would am curious as to when this anti-teacher sentiment began to snowball in Georgia? We are thrown under the bus continuously, have no one to protect our civil or job rights, and our salaries have been and furloughed or frozen for the past 3 years now. Add to that, larger classroom sizes, tons of redundant and useless paperwork, high maintenance parents, and litttle to 0 classroom resources/materials.

Dr. John Trotter

January 23rd, 2011
11:02 am

Maureen: Could you please post a link to this story? I cannot find a copy of the AJC here in the Marvelous City. I would love to read the story, however. Agora, Eu vou ir na praia, OK? Ha! Please link it for me and others who cannot buy a physical copy of the paper today. Maureen, thanks!

Doris M

January 23rd, 2011
11:05 am

@Tanya C. “The corruption, nepotism, favoritism, and cronyism is rampant” Never have truer words been spoken! If an employee in APS raises any point that is considered negative to the Hall administration, they will be pursued until pushed out of the system.

I just hope the next superintendent is ethical.

Maureen Downey

January 23rd, 2011
11:20 am

@Science, All these stories will be online eventually, but they don’t put them up at the same time. The SACS story is not yet up, but I will post as soon as I see it.
Here are links to the some other stories I mentioned:
Atlanta SACS reaction: http://www.ajc.com/news/atlanta/probation-rallies-aps-supporters-812099.html
COlumn by Kyle Wingfield on school choice: http://blogs.ajc.com/kyle-wingfield/2011/01/21/debunking-some-myths-about-school-choice/
Editorial on APS: http://www.ajc.com/opinion/atlanta-public-schools-board-811838.html

ScienceForever

January 23rd, 2011
11:27 am

So, Beverly Hall was not in the least disturbed by the high erasures from wrong to right. ‘We teach our kids to go back and check their work and erase.’ One only hopes “kids” meant students not administrators and principals. OK, gotcha. Said “kid” erases, say 26 out 40 questions. Sure, happens all the time. Kid rushes through a test, slaps down 26 wrong answers, thinks about for a bit…ah, yes, go back and erase. Good, just the way we taught em to. Question: Do they think people are complete and total idiots to believe that?
If that were true than I would suggest a really good strategy would be to erase every answer, because EVERY SINGLE ONE of the erased answers turned out to be right. So, if you just count the erased ones..they got a 100%!!! Now thats progress.

The really sad part, and not at all funny, is looking at APS scores this year when they were watched and couldn’t cook the books, and some really dedicated and hardworking students and teachers made some real gains. They need to be celebrated, and in NO WAY tainted by the cynical and dishonest doings of the last few years.

ScienceTeacher671

January 23rd, 2011
11:29 am

Thanks, Maureen!

ScienceForever

January 23rd, 2011
11:32 am

So APS hires a lawyer to evaluate the teacher blowing the whistle?? Really? If I was that teacher, I would have had my lawyer there, too. You don’t meet a lawyer without a lawyer.

V. Powell

January 23rd, 2011
11:33 am

Tell me how the computor that scored the “cheated exam” could report the correct answer and not the wrong. Do we know? The premise that the “cheating scandal” was based on was completely wrong, that is; “predominately minority students can not improve their grades on a standardized test without cheating.”

This reminds me of the time it was a known fact by some people, that Black athletes could not complete in professional basketball (NBA). This system is alive today for anyone that want to use it regardless how stupid it is to some.

This is BIzzare

January 23rd, 2011
11:35 am

This is sad. Of course Teachers get retaliated against. Look at how they treat board members who refuse to be cronies for Hall and the chamber. A poor little techer doesn’t stand a chance.

justbrowsing

January 23rd, 2011
11:37 am

@ V. Powerll- this not so much a race issue as it is an ethical one. The race card just does not apply in this case. It is evident that APS is a cesspool for unethical practices and personal vendettas.

ScienceForever

January 23rd, 2011
11:38 am

They were making it crystal clear to every teacher in that system what would happen to them if they came forward. This is so outrageous. Legislature? Governor? Feds? Ga. Proffessinal Standards? Hello? Please help. Testing service: Advise you to run the last ten years tests with the erasure detector turned way up. We need a baseline for honest achievement to start evaluating where gains have actually been made here in Georgia. Get some testing interns to do it. Be a good project for them. CC the governors office, DOE, GBI, FBI, Ga. Prof. Standards Commission, SACS, and the AJC with results.

ScienceForever

January 23rd, 2011
11:40 am

V. Powell, yes we do know. The scanner automatically shows answers erased as well as the ones filled in completely. Probably just have to adjust the sensitiviy on the scanners. Shows the ones from right to wrong, too, and of course, statiscally there should be some of those too.

Yankee Veteran Teacher

January 23rd, 2011
11:44 am

The problem with retaliation against whistleblowers is not limited to APS. I was surprised when I moved to Georgia that GCPS made me sign some documents promising to abide by the PSC’s “Code of Ethics” for educators. I hesitated before reporting a popular teacher’s embezzelment of school funds, but GAE told me I had report the crime. Yes it was non-stop retaliation in good ole GCPS! Trotter is right and has always been right!

SpaceyG on Twitter

January 23rd, 2011
11:44 am

After reading this seems Atlanta teachers need to look-up the word *complicit* in the dictionary. And stop being driven by imaginary fears, lawyer up, heck, start blogging for chrissake, and speak-up. En mass. What’s the worse that could happen? Change? Well, change is a’coming to APS now, so try getting on THAT bandwagon.

ScienceForever

January 23rd, 2011
11:47 am

With the IDMS system, when you scan your students benchmark results, for example, if there is more than one answer on a response, it flags them. It shows you one filled in heavily and the other thats been erased (it shows but not as dark). It asks you “Is this correct?” You hit yes, and it records the answer. Of course, there were only six or seven answers out of 103 students taking a 25 question test, so its relatively trivial exercise.

RTTT

January 23rd, 2011
11:51 am

This story begs contemplation of another issue. Although the RTTT push for pay for performance for teachers seems like a good idea on paper, how do you actually evaluate teachers and make sure that those evaluations are fair? Do you use test scores? How do you make sure that the scores aren’t the result of cheating? Do you use administrative evaluations? How do you make sure that those evaluations aren’t subject to the same issues outlined in the story above? Legislators and others in education academia (those who DON’T actually teach in primary-secondary schools) have been pushing the idea of pay for performance for years, and as a teacher the idea always raised these exact questions.

I work extremely hard spending many hours in the evenings, on weekends, and during summer vacation to make my classes the best they can be. I have excellent AP scores that support that hard work on paper, and have never had anything other than excellent evaluations. I know that there are those in my school and in every school that draw the same salary I do–often much more–who don’t work very hard (though at least in my experience those teachers are a relatively small number). It is a source of frustration, but because of the seemingly insurmountable (at least from my perspective in the trenches) problems with the implementation of pay for performance, I just don’t see it as the answer to the problem. There are plenty of hard working teachers that I know that agree.

Another view

January 23rd, 2011
11:53 am

@ScienceForever You write “They were making it crystal clear to every teacher in that system what would happen to them if they came forward.” This is what I got out of the article too. The simple fact is that the article is rife with several positions based on fear: the fear of the teacher making a report, the fear of the teacher losing the job if grades did not improve, the fear of the principal losing their job, and the fear of the district losing money with no increase in test scores. Let us be frank here. Fear associated with test scores tied to money demonstrates that the use of such measurements will continue to produce the results displaced in this article. At the same time, we can see how fear among teachers comes from a lack of protection. Both points show that GA is suffering from the lack of union protection of teachers. With a strong union, teacher’s would not have to worry about losing their jobs for simply reporting wrongful behavior by other teachers and administrators. This was true in my district in Utah and Illinois, but sadly not here. Unionization, equitable financing of the system, and responsible testing measurements would eliminate the climate of fear and, more importantly, allow students to recognize the cheating and manipulation of scores is unethical in education. Sadly, the corporate powers that control education in the state and federal levels would not allow for such a democratic (small “d” by the way) system.

Mike

January 23rd, 2011
11:57 am

This goes on all over the place, not just Atlanta and not just with teachers. Retaliation and fear of retaliation is a major problem in schools systems. Administrators are just as susceptible to it, especially since most never have any tenure. I can relate a story about an administrator was forced to resign for speaking up about cheating regarding graduation rates. This person has been harassed for years since leaving that system by libelous blog posts in several places and phone calls to his superintendents by the prior district’s administration attempting to ruin his reputation and get him fired. The culture of fear and retaliation in our school systems is nothing short of vicious.

ScienceForever

January 23rd, 2011
12:02 pm

RTTT, the only real way to evaluate a teachers performance on test results is longitudinally. Track each students year on year results. Did most dip one year? Did most make gains one year, but not the next. You can really compare horizontally because like you I teach the highest achievers now. I didnt always though, and significantly raised scores those three years at an underachieving schools. (Without erasers, I might add. Now I am at 100%, with 67% achieving. At that school we went from 52% to 72% in three years. Its going to be much harder for me to show improvement year on year. Also, statewide there is a 10% drop in CRCT from 7th to 8th grade. Its not that the students are suddenly not working, or teachers not teaching, it is the simple fact that 8th grade physical science (like intro chemistry and physics combined) is well, HARDER, than 7th grade Life science.
So any system would have to evaluate kids yearly progress from teacher to teacher, factor in overall percentage gains or losses year on year due to subject matter, and factor in things like a teacher going from 95% on the test to 93% is the expected variation year to year. It complicated, but could be done with some real thought and intelligent reasoning. Oh, I see your point…

ScienceForever

January 23rd, 2011
12:04 pm

“can not compare horizontally” teacher to teacher or school school. sorry

Mike

January 23rd, 2011
12:05 pm

ScienceForever

January 23rd, 2011
12:06 pm

67% exceeding. Sheesh, I gotta proofread this …

Tonya C.

January 23rd, 2011
12:08 pm

V. Powell:

This investigation was based on the whistle-blowing of several teachers. The scores we re-analyzed after several individuals came forward. I am black, and working for APS demonstrated what a ‘race card’ really was, b/c anyone who challenged them was accused of being racist. WRONG! SO many of the kids that I met in the system had no grasp of common English and wouldn’t have impressed anyone they met.

Anyone with good vision would question the leaps and bounds of gains reported by APS no matter the racial makeup of the district.

dismay

January 23rd, 2011
12:14 pm

i shouldn’t be shocked by the first to cast stones. As I recall, MACE isn’t a paragon of professsionalism either. Is it any wonder that more and more families opt for home schooling or private schools. The need for vouchers becomes clearer by the day.

ScienceForever

January 23rd, 2011
12:17 pm

I don’t know if the drop from 7th grade CRCT to 8th grade statewide is actually 10% or 8%, I wanted to write this morning and not research state CRCT results is science. I can guarantee you, though, it is a significant drop. So, if students in my 8th grade class “dropped” 3% points in science CRCT, but statewide the overall drop was 11%, I should be 8 points to the good. It would seem to me.

I hate MACE

January 23rd, 2011
12:20 pm

I will say it again; Beverly Hall is a woman of grace, posture, class and the greatest superintendent Atlanta has ever seen. The only thing she is guilty of is trusting these undereducated southern fools who don’t have a basic idea of how schooling works. Dr. John Trotter is a fool who needs to go lie down somewhere with his communist organization that is trying desperately to get recognized. So the pressure made a few cheated, who cares people cheat all the time in every organization, in every walk of life, every day. Generally, teachers who complain about administrators are the weak, the useless, and the ones who do not need to be in education. Atlanta Public Schools is not an employment agency.
Dr. Hall will leave Atlanta Public Schools in the best position ever and a little thing like cheating will not matter in a couple of months. I love Beverly hall and what she has done for Atlanta Public Schools. Mace is for idiots and John Trotter is driving the bus.

ScienceForever

January 23rd, 2011
12:21 pm

For example, a few years ago before I taught high achievers, I had a girl who came with a 763 on science CRCT. We really worked, the two of us. She raised that to 796, a 33 point gain. But, of course, she was recorded as “Not on grade level.” OK, I guess she wasn’t, but you know, the tools that are used to judge these kids and teachers, as well, are, how should put this, rather BLUNT.

Dr. Craig Spinks/ Augusta

January 23rd, 2011
12:21 pm

Whistleblowers,

KUDOS to you for standing up for Truth and for the integrity of your profession!

Also, KUDOS to the AJC for reporting your stories!

It’s “gut-check” time for the GAE and PAGE? Will they flex their legal muscle in defense of you whistleblower-members? If they don’t, they won’t deserve another penny in membership dues from ANY TEACHER. (Don’t most teachers join for legal representation?)

N.B.: Keep detailed documentation of each episode of retaliation: What? Who? When?
Where? Why?

The e-mail address of the Atlanta FBI office is: atlanta@ic.fbi.gov.

Remind retaliators that tampering with witnesses in state and federal investigations is
a felony.

I hate MACE

January 23rd, 2011
12:22 pm

mace is for fools

Tonya C.

January 23rd, 2011
12:25 pm

Dismay:

MACE may not be the paragon of professionalism, but they have been ’sounding the horn’ about these issues for YEARS. If someone, ANYONE, would have listened what is happening now could have been prevented. But people were so enamored by Beverly Hall and her brand of ‘improvements’ they couldn’t see the forest for the trees.

The tree of APS may be standing, but the inside is rotted to the core. This is IS NOT about race; it’s about right and wrong and educating students so they can be contributing citizens as adults. There are no shortcuts to achieve this goal.

V for Vendetta

January 23rd, 2011
12:41 pm

Surprise, surprise. The $hit always rolls downhill.

Lewis

January 23rd, 2011
12:41 pm

What the article is describing for all to see is the “nuts and bolts” of corruption at work in a system, permeating from top to bottom, and the common fact that folks go along with it either out of fear, complicity, or jaded sensibilities. The message, “Don’t rock the boat”, always carries with it the threat of force behind it to hurt those who don’t go along. It is thuggish behavior, not much different than physically threatening people to get what you want or to cover for you. There should be a widespread house-cleaning and criminal charges brought to demonstrate that threats against those who talk are absolutely unacceptable. The whole culture of the school system must be reformed and the rot at the core removed.

Attorney

January 23rd, 2011
12:49 pm

All of this is so true about APS! Retailiation is rampant in the Hall administration. You have to keep a lawyer on retainer at all times if you work there to fight for yourself. They are always surprised by smart employees with money that fight them legally and win! Is there any way that the AJC can request through the Open Records Act information about the lawyers that sent letters to Dr. Hall and the Human Resource Department at APS on the behalf of employees that they were representing against the district? Also is it possible to request documentation about the amount of taxpayer dollars spent in the APS legal department to defend cases and the number and type of cases?

The employees didn’t stand a chance working under these gangster who seem to enjoy violating students and staff civil rights on a daily basis in the city of Dr, Martin Luther King’s birth.

The white collar”black on black” crimes committed against the black children and employees of this city is shameful! Let’s be real, the CRCT scandal is about cheating the minority children on the south end of the city and the black administration bullying the minority teachers working there to commit the illegal acts.

The APS Legal and Human Resources Department are complicit in all of the retaliation activities big time! Millicent Few and Jeffery Thomas of the HR Department are the chiefs of retaliation against employees in APS. They carry out directves from Hall and Augustine to attack employees until you force them to quit! Hall hides her hands of involvement of course as in the CRCT cheating scandal. APS has lost so many exceptional employees under this gangster administration due to bullying and retaliation.

chillywilly

January 23rd, 2011
12:55 pm

I believe whistle-blowers Paul Landerman, Ryan Abbott, Sidneye Fells, Lillian Lockhart, & Gautam Saha. It’s obvious to me that Penn Payne’s only role is to protect Beverly Hall, other top administrators, and participate in coverups while lining her pockets. Again I ask, “Why did two of APS top Human Resources Managers leave APS to work for Clayton County Schools just this past year? Just as Dr. Trotter stated, Beverly Hall is the worst school superintendent in APS history. As I’ve stated before, sit back folks, the show is about to begin.

Inman Park Boy

January 23rd, 2011
1:01 pm

Gee, what a surprise. The bureaucracy of the APS lashes out at those trying to help it be a better system. Corrupt to the core.

teacher&mom

January 23rd, 2011
1:04 pm

It is sad when the PSC tells a teacher….”We can’t protect you from retaliation.” I’ve had fellow teachers who have talked with the PSC, PAGE, GAE, and local lawyers and they were told the same thing.

Who do we turn to when the system fails to protect those trying to do the right thing?

justbrowsing

January 23rd, 2011
1:05 pm

@Science Forever- I think they look at the state averages scores and compares your average or gain to those in your discipline. Science is not a subject that can be linked to the last grade level.

bootney farnsworth

January 23rd, 2011
1:06 pm

as stated above, its not just APS.

the BOR is even worse. and they make sure you understand -very subtly, mind you – speaking out on what you know will cost you:
your job
your profession,
your pension,
and whatever else they can levy upon you.

they have a very simple but effective weapon. deep pockets.
they’ll fire you or punish you in some way which heavy handed and
intended to send a message to you and others.

then they’ll invite you to sue them. and just drag things out and bleed you dry until you can no longer sustain the legal fight.

technically we (state employees) have an “ethics” (ha!) hotline, but
no one I know trusts it.

No Noise

January 23rd, 2011
1:06 pm

Don’t raise any objections, make no noise and bring no complaints in the Ga public schools if you are a teacher—administrators and the school system will make your life miserable with sudden “poor performance” reviews and phony “complaints” about your teaching. It’s one of many reasons why Ga is near the bottom in performance nationwide. The system is a national laughingstock.