Atlanta Public Schools Superintendent Beverly Hall did not sit in a locked room, eraser in hand, changing wrong answers to right answers on standardized tests. Absent a blockbuster revelation in a state report expected to be released soon, Hall also did not preside over staff meetings in which she directed or encouraged others to do so.
But let’s be blunt, because Hall will not: The responsibility is hers. The failure of moral and ethical leadership is hers. The evasion of accountability is hers. She set the tone, she created the high-stakes system of rewards and penalties driven by test scores, she chose to ignore the warning signs, and when given repeated chances to address the problems that she and her staff created, she refused the opportunity.
As a result, people may be going to jail. Others may lose their careers and professional reputations. The credibility of the school system that Hall led for a dozen years is in tatters and its operations paralyzed. Its capacity to deliver quality education to its schoolchildren has been compromised, and it will take years to recover.
Against that backdrop, Hall last week released a videotaped farewell to district personnel in which she grudgingly acknowledged a portion of the truth. The state investigation, she said, is likely to reach “some troubling, no some alarming conclusions.”
“It’s become increasingly clear over the last year that a segment of our staff chose to violate the trust that was placed in them,” Hall said. “And let me be clear: There is simply no excuse for unethical behavior and no room in this district for unethical conduct. I am confident that aggressive swift action will be taken against anyone who believes so little in our students and in our system of support that they turned to dishonesty as the only option.”
The statement is remarkable on several levels. Hall claimed there is “simply no excuse for unethical behavior and no room in this district for unethical conduct,” but the state report is likely to document the opposite conclusion: The breakdown of integrity was too large to be explained as random acts by random individuals, and instead reflected institutional failure. In fact, if the cheating was as widespread as many fear, otherwise ethical people may have felt pressured to cheat themselves as a means to keep pace with their peers.
That does not excuse those who operated unethically or criminally, but they alone should not bear the consequences of an environment that Hall and others created.
Hall also said she is confident that “aggressive swift action will be taken,” but the claim is laughable; the deadline for aggressive swift action passed long ago. This is belated action, action that in some cases will be more severe than if Hall and others, including the Atlanta School Board, had taken the problem more seriously when it first came to light.
However, the most striking element of Hall’s statement is her continued attempt to distance herself, as if she has been a passive witness to these events. She clearly implies that if others took unethical actions, if others “chose to violate the trust that was placed in them” and turned to dishonesty, then those others should be held responsible. She is not to blame for their shortcomings.
Again, if this were a few random actions by a few random individuals, Hall’s stance might be understandable. That’s not the case. Furthermore, these are people whom Hall put into positions of authority, operating in a system of her design and answerable to her. In fact, one of Hall’s more impressive achievements as superintendent was her ability to make a stubborn educational bureaucracy responsive to her priorities. She cannot now walk away as if she were somehow a victim, rather than a cause, of this scandal.
– Jay Bookman