In the beginning, there was The Mission.
When Beverly Hall came to Atlanta in 1999 to serve as superintendent, she brought a powerful commitment to improving city schools. She did not believe that a child’s socioeconomic status determined his or her destiny, she said, and she was adamant that even in — especially in — low-income urban neighborhoods, public education could transform lives.
So she set about to prove it, and she has done so. In Hall’s 11 years as superintendent, she has produced results that current controversy should not diminish. Atlanta schools today are better run, teachers and administrators are more student-focused, graduation rates are higher and thousands of children are being given more control over their own destinies.
Yet when Hall announced last week that she would not return as superintendent in the 2011-12 school year, the news was greeted not with disappointment but relief. That’s because somewhere along the line, The Mission had given way to The Story.
The Story began to take shape early in Hall’s tenure, as the turnaround of the Atlanta system became national news. Major foundations were drawn to the city, eager for evidence that measurable progress could be made in a largely urban district. Hall became a sought-after speaker, and last year was named National Superintendent of the Year.
Human nature being what it is, Hall and others became invested in that success. The Atlanta School Board, the business community and for a long time the media all bought into it as well. The Story became a point of pride, telling us something that we all wanted to believe, and as Hall’s stature grew, so did the deference that she enjoyed from those around her.
That was part of the problem. The other part involved Hall’s approach to education reform, which relies heavily on testing. Under her leadership, test scores not only determined how students were performing, but how teachers, principals and even Hall herself were performing. The emphasis on test results for job security, promotions and bonuses created a temptation to cheat that some found too much to resist.
So when an AJC investigation in 2008 and 2009 turned up evidence of widespread cheating on standardized tests, Hall faced a choice: She could defend The Mission, or she could defend The Story. And I honestly think she lost the capacity to distinguish between the two.
Defending The Mission would have required Hall to react aggressively when confronted with well-documented allegations of pervasive cheating by school district personnel. After all, if true, the allegations meant that children were being cheated of the education that test scores said they were being given. Had Hall taken that approach, the damage to both the Mission and the Story would have been minimized. She did not.
Instead, she used the respect and trust she had built to downplay and minimize evidence of cheating, leading those who believed in her to follow that lead. She claimed vindication from evidence that in reality offered none, and as we learned last week, she and others withheld a damaging independent analysis which confirmed that cheating was a major problem.
Again, the gains made under Hall’s leadership are real, even if overstated in the standardized test results now under state investigation. But the damage is real as well.
Among other things, fallout from the scandal has fractured the Atlanta School Board at a time when its leadership is badly needed. Like Hall, board members seem more interested in The Story than The Mission. In their case, The Story is about where to place blame for what has happened.
The Mission, however, remains the same.