The long-awaited investigation into alleged cheating by Atlanta Public Schools on state exams is now in the hands of the governor, who is expected to release the findings as early as Tuesday.
A handful of posters expect the report to skewer newly retired APS Superintendent Beverly Hall. But I don’t expect the report to uncover a trail of treachery that leads directly to Hall’s doorstep. I expect that the conclusions will be more troubling than a top administrator or two gone bad.
The implications of what occurred will reach beyond the central office and the district. The report will likely spark questions over whether it’s possible to raise student achievement in poor schools under the current structure, design and funding of American education.
The report will likely describe APS teachers and principals under unrelenting and unreasonable pressures to improve student performance. We will read about beleaguered educators who believed that wholesale failure by APS students on the CRCT would be blamed solely on their inadequacies rather than on poverty, indifferent parents or challenging home environments.
I am sure that part of the motivation of those who doctored tests was preserving their jobs and appeasing a school leadership team that held them to higher and higher standards. But I think some of their motivation was less self-serving; they wanted to fulfill Dr. Hall’s vision that low-income children from single parent homes and tough neighborhoods could and would succeed at levels comparable to suburban Atlanta peers and that such performance could be achieved system-wide by adopting best practices and by working harder and smarter.
The APS teachers, principals and administrators wanted to prove that the faith of the Broad and Gates foundations and the Chamber of Commerce in the district was not misplaced and that APS could rewrite the script of urban education in America and provide a happy, or at least a happier, ending for its students.
And that’s what ought to alarm us, that these professionals ultimately felt their students could not even pass basic competency tests, despite targeted school improvement plans, proven reforms and state-of-the-art teacher training.
Here are the questions that the report ought to raise and that I hope we can discuss this week:
Do we know yet how to take children who live under the worst circumstances for learning and help them get fantastic educations anyway?
Can an urban school system elbow its students past poverty, uneducated parents and lack of education-rich home lives by extraordinary will, commitment and effort?
If the report establishes that any APS teachers, principals or administrators cheated, dole out the appropriate punishments.
But with evidence now suggesting that other urban systems also faked their meteoric score increases, we ought to focus on the larger questions about how much we are asking of these systems, schools and teachers and whether we are equipping them with the tools and resources to do so.
And the final and toughest question of all: Are we asking too much?
–From Maureen Downey, for the AJC Get Schooled blog