For weeks, teachers and administrators implicated in the Atlanta Public Schools cheating scandal have been appearing one by one in front of a tribunal, telling their stories in hopes that they will be allowed to retain their jobs and careers.
The process — guaranteed to them by law — is meant to ensure that if fired and stripped of the right to teach, they will be fired and decertified for good cause and after they have had the chance to defend themselves. Frustrating as it might be to some who want a quicker, cheaper resolution of the controversy, that’s important.
However, the public nature of the process and testimony has also produced an important side benefit: Taxpayers, parents and citizens in general are getting a more complete and in many ways more human picture of the internal culture of the Atlanta school system and how that culture contributed to the scandal. It is possible in at least some cases to sympathize with the individuals involved and the pressure they experienced, even if that sympathy does not mean excusing what they did.
In fact, while each educator implicated in the controversy has had a unique story to tell, in the end they leave me circling back to the same basic question:
Where was Beverly Hall?
Whatever mistakes were made by individual educators, the atmosphere of fear and casual corruption within the school system was Hall’s creation as longtime superintendent. The absence of safeguards and indeed the total lack of concern about potential cheating was Hall’s responsibility. The institution’s reluctance and even aggressive refusal to support district employees who knew something was wrong and who tried to protest is a direct consequence of her leadership style and priorities.
Hall has retired and left the district, and so far has played no role in the tribunal proceedings. And while investigations continue, there is no indication that she will be held officially accountable in any way.
In her rare public utterances, she has portrayed herself as a victim of employees who failed to do their duty, but in the end she failed them, not the other way around. In fact, Hall bears a significant degree of responsibility for every career that is being ended and every future that is being compromised.
However, it’s important not to leave the issue there, because in some ways Hall herself is as much a symptom as a cause. As AJC investigations have established, cheating on standardized tests has become a nationwide problem, with high-profile schools all over the country producing wildly implausible claims of improvement in student performance. Confronted with that evidence, public officials in too many cases have retreated into the same pattern of denial that has become familiar to Atlanta residents.
When the same problems occur on such a large scale, in so many different communities and school systems in more than 30 states, it is no longer possible to dismiss it as the actions of an unethical few, or of a corrupted bureaucracy here or there. Something deeper is driving the phenomenon.
There is no question that standardized tests are an essential diagnostic tool. They can tell us which students, teachers and schools are performing well and which require attention. But when we take it a step farther and use those same test results to dictate fates, we place a burden on testing that it is too fragile to bear. When that happens, the tests themselves become a form of cheating, a means of producing misleadingly easy answers to what are really hard questions.
It’s also deeply confusing. In recent years, education reform has been dominated by two themes that are directly contradictory yet are often espoused by the very same people. And that contradiction is almost never acknowledged.
Here in Georgia, for example, state leaders have insisted that standardized testing be used as the educational equivalent of an industrial quality-control system. They produce a standardized model, and the tests determine how closely students conform to that model as they come off the assembly line.
Yet at the same time, we are told, the one-size-fits-all public-school industrial model must be dynamited to make way for a more experimental, let-a-thousand-flowers-bloom approach to education via charter schools and even vouchers. There’s a fundamental incoherence between those two messages that leads me to suspect that we really don’t know what we’re doing, and in fact are using schools as a battlefield in a deeper social struggle that we do not wish to acknowledge.
– Jay Bookman