As Atlanta school superintendent, Beverly Hall made sure that everyone in the district was accountable to her, and that she was held accountable by no one.
The result was a school district in which reporting ever-higher test scores, regardless of how they were achieved, became more important than educating children. Under Hall’s leadership, the district not only lost sight of its mission, it lost its soul.
“In many ways, the community was duped by Dr. Hall…,” a special investigative report released Tuesday by the state concludes. “She abused the trust they placed in her. Hall became the subject of adoration and made herself the focus rather than the children. Her image became more important than reality.”
The sheer numbers in the report are appalling: Thirty-eight elementary and middle school principals implicated in cheating on state-mandated standardized testing, part of the larger total of 178 teachers and staff members involved in the scandal. Cheating was discovered in 44 of the district’s 70 elementary and middle schools.
But the description of the environment within the district even more appalling than the numbers:
“A culture of fear, intimidation and retaliation spread throughout the district….”
“Dr. Hall and her administration emphasized test results and public praise to the exclusion of integrity and ethics.”
“Virtually every teacher who confessed to cheating spoke of the inordinate stress the administration placed on meeting targets and the dire consequences for failure.”
Even though bonuses were paid to administrators, teachers and staff in schools that met their test-score targets, money didn’t motivate most of the cheating. Instead, “fear of termination and ridicule in faculty and principals meetings drove numerous educators to cross ethical lines.”
In one notable case, the principal at Fain Elementary School “forced a teacher to crawl under a table in a faculty meeting because that teacher’s students’ test scores were low…. Administrators used these tactics even though they knew, as they told us, that the targets set for the school were unreasonable.”
Despite the immense pressure they were putting on their subordinates to meet testing targets, the report concludes that district officials did nothing to stress the importance of acting ethically. Quite the contrary, “those who reported unethical behavior often became a target of retaliation, intimidation and harassment.”
Whenever evidence of cheating began to emerge, it was repeatedly ignored, destroyed, discredited, “lost” or otherwise made to disappear by Hall and her senior staff. Those individuals who had dared to tell the truth were made to disappear as well.
In May of 2010, to cite just one example of many in the report, Hall and her staff buried an independent report by Andrew Porter, dean of the education graduate school at the University of Pennsylvania, that clearly validated claims of widespread cheating published by the AJC. Instead, Hall cited a second, superficial and highly flawed study to claim total vindication.
“If we are guilty of anything, we are guilty of demanding high standards of our students, teachers and principals,” Hall said at the time.
The sheer gall of such a statement, issued at a time when Hall knew without a doubt that serious problems existed, is astonishing. As the report concludes:
“To be clear, however, it was Dr. Hall who decided to use the services of Dr. Porter to evaluate the AJC’s work, held him out as the expert, participated in a teleconference regarding his study, proclaimed his work would be made public, received a copy of his report, deleted it from her computer, and allowed APS to falsely report that a copy of the report was not in the district. There is sufficient evidence that both Hall and [her top aide Kathy] Augustine did not properly maintain this public document and illegally withheld its release.”
Note the language in that paragraph. Its legal phrasing is important, because it is clearly written to describe a possible criminal case against Hall and Augustine. The report includes more than a few such paragraphs, citing false information given to investigators, destruction of public documents and other potential crimes.
In their public comments Tuesday, the newly elected school board chairman, Brenda Muhammad, and the interim superintendent, Erroll B. Davis, finally acknowledged the true gravity of the crisis, something that district officials have largely avoided until now. They acknowledged that while taxpayers have been cheated and state agencies have been cheated, the true victims are the thousands and more likely tens of thousands of students who have been told they were doing just fine, but in fact were being cheated of their one decent chance at an education.
– Jay Bookman