In broader cheating scandal, lessons from and for Atlanta

My news-side colleagues at the AJC did it again. By taking their examination of suspicious test scores nationwide, with the “Cheating Our Children” series that began last Sunday, they felled another wall standing between the public and the truth about what’s going on in our public schools.

The question now is what the public, and those who make public policy, will do with this information. There are lessons both from and for Atlanta.

From the experience of Atlanta Public Schools, we know that, as explosive as the information about suspect wrong-to-right erasure marks on standardized tests at dozens of schools was, little would have come of it had there been no political will to look deeper — and keep looking.

In a couple of meetings during the process sparked by AJC reports, then-Gov. Sonny Perdue demonstrated a palpable anger about the way adults had cheated schoolchildren. That fire in his belly proved crucial when supporters of APS tried to pooh-pooh the wrongdoing with a toothless self-investigation: It drove him to commit the necessary resources to a real investigation.

That investigation ultimately found about 180 teachers and administrators were involved in cheating at more than half of Atlanta’s elementary and middle schools in 2009. The AJC could point to the likelihood of a problem, but it took a governor with gumption to get to the bottom of it.

From the APS scandal, we also know how hard it is to clean house even after evidence is compiled. Disagreements about school board leaders’ handling of the cheating scandal created a rift among board members that (wrongly, in my view) nearly cost APS its accreditation. Cleanup of the mess didn’t begin until after the superintendent during the years in question, Beverly Hall, retired on her own terms.

And even though Hall’s successor, Erroll Davis, has fought doggedly to rid the district of the adults responsible for the cheating, he has met resistance even from some of those educators who admitted to wrongdoing. This, in a city and state without the kind of true teachers unions and labor laws that, in other states, have made school policy reforms and dismissals of even bad teachers practically impossible.

But there also are messages for Atlanta to take away from this broader look at possible cheating in U.S. public schools.

First, it confirms that what happened here was not the work of some uniquely immoral actors. As much as I think Beverly Hall and her lieutenants should be held accountable for the gravely bad actions that happened on their watch, let’s not believe they were the only administrators capable of such negligence and/or scheming.

Ridding itself of those who perpetrated or turned a blind eye to cheating will in no way inoculate APS against future misdeeds. Davis has begun implementing safeguards against future cheating. But once he leaves — he’s always maintained his intention not to make this a long stop on his way to retirement — everyone from teachers and principals to parents and board members must be vigilant to ensure the habits of the previous regime are truly dead.

At the same time, the possibility that 196 other school districts engaged in similar cheating does not grant anyone at APS any form of “everybody was doing it” reprieve. Those 196 districts represent a maddening number of districts in which adults may have been rewarded for hiding their students’ lack of learning. Each one, if cheating is proven, represents a tragic hindering of those children’s futures — in the extra help they may have gotten if it was clear they were not passing muster, and in the impression they now have that adults think cheating is OK.

But keep in mind that, as significant a figure as 196 is, the AJC’s review of test scores found 2,929 of the nation’s largest districts did not exhibit these suspicious patterns. That is, 94 percent of these large districts didn’t raise red flags.

That’s not to say there definitely was no cheating in those 2,929 districts; the AJC’s analysis wouldn’t have caught, for instance, a teacher who simply read all the answers aloud to students. But it suggests the vast majority of U.S. schools administered tests and accepted the results, good or bad, without deception. Any conclusion that standardized tests are the enemy must ignore the other 94 percent.

Digging for truth must continue. The results prove that, as educators are fond of saying, learning is a lifelong process.

– By Kyle Wingfield

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36 comments Add your comment

ragnar danneskjold

March 29th, 2012
6:21 am

Saw the AJC article and checked on a couple of smaller districts outside Georgia well-known to be superior systems, and indeed their numbers were good. And the expected rogues were exposed on the AJC list, so I believe – from my limited basis for knowing – that the AJC methodology may have been pretty good. Since the rogues are primarily left-dominated political area, may be tough to give AJC the deserved Pulitzer for the good investigative reporting.

Quo vadis? We know that Federal incentives move the rogues to cheat. After 10 years of No Child Left Behind, we also need to ask whether Federal incentives motivate meaningful improvement in the 96% that play honestly. I respectfully believe the program is ineffective. The good systems that earn the NCLB incentives were good systems before NCLB, and the lousy systems that showed improvement under NCLB were mostly cheaters. Even harder than getting rid of lousy teachers, with or without unions, is disposing of ineffective Federal programs.


March 29th, 2012
6:27 am

Kyle; I find it telling that many of these school districts are in Demo. controlled cities and states. These same Demo.controlled areas were the first to complain about the sereral states with new Voter ID laws, stating that voter fraud does not exist!

Karl Marx

March 29th, 2012
6:29 am

You know if you are caught doing what the superintendent and those teachers did in the private sector. you are fired immediately. them you may end up in jail. I think the real question is why is is so hard to get rid of PUBLIC school teachers. That is what we need to fix first.

Karl Marx

March 29th, 2012
6:31 am

Oops “Then” you may end up in jail.. Sorry need more coffee this morning.

Lil' Barry Bailout (Unexpectedly Revised Downward)

March 29th, 2012
6:46 am

We know that Federal incentives move the rogues to cheat.

Can anyone think of any pile of federal cash that did not attract flies?


March 29th, 2012
7:49 am

@Kyle…”Any conclusion that standardized tests are the enemy must ignore the other 94 percent.”

It’s not so much they are the enemy as the easy way out with consequences. Anyone that didn’t see the emergence of cheating as a dead certainty once standardized tests were used as the benchmark either doesn’t understand human nature or chooses to ignore reality. Those are the consequences and they will not go away.

As for the easy way out, I had this discussion in detail the other day with a friend who has a child in middle school. She had raised issues regarding classroom curriculum and student engagement during a conference and was told bluntly that students were simply taught to the test. Nice easy and simple as long as you don’t value critical thinking skills.

That’s the real cheating of the students, we have substituted the ability to take a standardized test for an education.


March 29th, 2012
8:14 am

Since the middle 1960’s, one social experiment after another has been tried to get all students, black, white, asians and others to achieve equal scores on tests. None of them have worked. It appears that some school systems think cheating is the only way to succeed. Now that they are being caught, look for more experiments to continue.


March 29th, 2012
8:34 am

Karl Marx-”You know if you are caught doing what the superintendent and those teachers did in the private sector. you are fired immediately. them you may end up in jail. I think the real question is why is is so hard to get rid of PUBLIC school teachers. That is what we need to fix
Unless you work for Wall Street, in which case you get a few million dollar bonus and a place in the Hamptons.

Misty Fyed

March 29th, 2012
8:40 am

There are a few troubling issues for me. The lack of integrity among these teachers who are in positions of trust worries me greatly. I do however sympathize that they are caught is a system where the teacher is being held entirely accountable for the success of their students without any regard to the student or his/her parents. That old saying,” you can lead a horse to water but you cannot make him drink” is not a new concept. But then how can you evaluate teacher performance?

This is the number one reason I would support vouchers. Allow parents to identify a system that works for their particular child.

Tiberius - Your lightning rod of hate!

March 29th, 2012
8:49 am

I know I’m shocked when yet another Federal program produces bad behavior and decidedly mixed results.

Yet some keep thinking government, and government disconnected from the local level in particular, is a great way to fix the ills of society.

Road Scholar

March 29th, 2012
8:55 am

Misty Fyed: Aren’t the teachers suppose to contact the parents if a child is under performing or a problem in class? Now if the parents didn’t show, or ignored the teachers warning, it shows their disregard for their child. Is there proof these teachers didn’t contact the parents?

Penny Pincher

March 29th, 2012
9:04 am

“Unless you work for Wall Street, in which case you get a few million dollar bonus and a place in the Hamptons.”

I do not think Bernie Matoff(spelling?) would agree with you on this.


March 29th, 2012
9:33 am

When one ties incentives to results,one should not be surprised when some cheat to achieve the incentives.It should be expected.

Now one only need tie cheating to disincentives to cure the problem.

UGA 1999

March 29th, 2012
9:44 am

Hmmmm Imagine that. Atlanta Schools cheating. Now who runs Atlanta Schools?

Junior Samples

March 29th, 2012
9:48 am

Kyle, I am impressed. Acknowledged that the problem isn’t just centered around APS. Stressed continued involvement from administrators, teachers, and parents. And no mention of vouchers nor charter schools as the answer.

It can be fixed, but it requires everyone’s involvement. Thanks for being objective.

Mary Elizabeth

March 29th, 2012
10:05 am

The real tragedy behind misrepresenting students’ standardized test scores, by cheating, is that the instructional levels for individual students will not be correctly identified. Their instructional levels will appear to be higher than they actually are.

That means that more students will be incorrectly placed and taught on their frustration levels instead of on their correctly identified instructional levels. Teaching more students on their frustration levels will lead to more students who will drop out of school.


March 29th, 2012
10:08 am

Again we see that black people, as a group, has no respect for life. It did not matter that these young people being condemned to lives of poverty and crime looked like these teachers and even came from the same neighborhoods as they.

I am black, and I am sick of black people’s willingness to cheat than even try to run a clean high performance organization. Sitting around trying to didact, lie, and proselytize about white demonism is not going to get it, when you are the willing to steal from your own offspring and pimp the devices provided for their progress. Y’all ain’t……sh**

Mary Elizabeth

March 29th, 2012
10:11 am

In my opinion, standardized test scores are better used for diagnostic/prescriptive purposes in order to maximize students’ academic growth, rather than as a threat to administrators and teachers. That will create a school environment of fear and intimidation, which is not productive for students or teachers.


March 29th, 2012
10:22 am

“…everyone from teachers and principals to parents and board members”

Teachers – complain about the lack of not having a union in this state; complain about lack of pay/respect; protect each others back regardless of the “crime” (most reported issues come from parents, state authorities, etc. – hardly ever from the teachers who are hesitant to “rat” each other out); blasts the elected cons in this state (they yearn for the days when Barnes went ballistic on them)

Principals – usually former teachers (see teacher section above)

Parents – in those areas like the APS rarely care about the quality of education that their kids receive; keep re-electing the same clowns to the school board.

No New Taxes, EVER!

March 29th, 2012
10:23 am

How about some disincentives for cheating? I suggest a 50% across the board pay cut for ALL teachers and administrators at any school where systematic cheating on standardized tests is identified. This pay cut is for two years, and must include ALL central office administrators and flunkies. If the teachers don’t like this plan, I urge them to quit, and forfeit all pension benefits.


March 29th, 2012
10:54 am

Test scores and education will not improve until we have a cultural change by our parents. There is study after study that says if a parent reads to a child nightly when they are young and is involved in their education process then they will succeed in our education system. We have way to many parents that will not take these few steps and until we as a nation and in every community shame them for not being engaged then nothing will change. We the people do not have the will power to tell a parent that it is their responsibility if their child fails to get an education.


March 29th, 2012
11:03 am

Obama’s budget gets voted down 414-0 by the US house of Reps today. Yes, Obama received 0 Democratic votes for his budget. The Democratic controlled Senate has not passed a budget in 3 years and will not this year. These are the people you libs want to keep running this country? Anyone voting for a Dem should be ashamed to show yourself in public.

Why are we not talking about this subject today?


March 29th, 2012
11:03 am

Sorry Kyle,

I posted the above on the wrong blog.


March 29th, 2012
11:19 am

Please remember that the article said that charter schools were TWICE as likely to cheat as public schools.

Kyle Wingfield

March 29th, 2012
11:26 am

Lynn43: I’d like to know more about the charter schools in question. There are charter schools that are run by school districts, and there are school districts in which all the schools are charters. In both cases, the same folks who run the traditional public schools also run the charter schools. So, there’s not as much difference between those kinds of charter schools and traditional public schools as there is between start-up charter schools (i.e, those not run by school districts) and traditional public schools.

And in any case, keep in mind that it’s extremely easier to make changes at a charter school — such as firing a teacher or principal who condoned or participated in cheating — than at traditional public schools. That’s one of the big points in their favor. Neither I nor most charter supporters I know ever said there were no problems at charter schools, only that there’s more flexibility to be innovative and to fix problems that do crop up.

Hillbilly D

March 29th, 2012
11:39 am

Test scores and education will not improve until we have a cultural change by our parents.

Very true and that’s something that can’t be legislated.

There is study after study that says if a parent reads to a child nightly when they are young and is involved in their education process then they will succeed in our education system.

That is also true and it can be far more benign than one expect. When I was a kid, Mama read to us. Usually Mother Goose books and that kind of stuff. Daddy, who never finished high school, also read to us. He read the newspaper, everyday, wildlife type books and Zane Grey books, etc. I can remember being very small and crawling up in his lap and hd had books that were sort of like encyclopedias of animals. He’d show me the pictures and tell me about what kind of animals they were and where they lived, etc.

Children don’t listen to what their parents tell them, they learn from watching what they do. If they never see their parents read anything, the thought will never cross their mind, to read, except in rare cases.

When I was 5, I started straight into the first grade. I got up at 4 in the morning the first day of school because I wanted to learn to read. I could read and write my name and a couple of words but that was about it. Of course, being 5, I thought I was going to go to school and come home knowing how to read that day but that’s another story for another day.

wishful thinking?

March 29th, 2012
11:52 am

Please remember that the article said that charter schools were TWICE as likely to cheat as public schools.

To say something and prove something are two different things. They can’t claim what they didn’t calculate.

The district calculations excluded schools identified as charter schools.


March 29th, 2012
12:18 pm

As a City of Atlanta resident, the majority of my taxes fund the public school system — which I did not and do not use. My inclination is to pay only those taxes that support Fire, Police, etc., and withhold the taxes for this corrupt APS system. It is very hard not to think about and comment on the cronyism, racial politics, union resistance, and unbelievable/costly bureaucracy of the system. If I could have the choice to get their attention by withholding funding I would do it.

Mary Elizabeth

March 29th, 2012
12:50 pm

Regarding “wishful thinking?’s” post at 11:52 am, it might be that the word “district” is what is creating the seeming discrepancy. Some charter schools are not aligned with school districts.

Here are words by Maureen Downey on her blog, “Get Schooled,” regarding this topic on March 24, 2012, 11:55 am:
“Among the discoveries by the AJC team:

•Improbable scores were twice as likely to appear in charter schools as regular schools. Charters, which receive public money, can face intense pressure as supposed laboratories of innovation that, in theory, live or die by their academic performance.”

Link to that article by Ms. Downey:



March 29th, 2012
1:12 pm

As much as the AJC turns my stomach on a daily basis I have to acknowledge they did their job on this one and deserve our grattitude. As for NCLB, it was SO effective in exposing cheating and corrupt educators/adminstrators anyone arguing against it or a similar State-sponsored program HAS to have their motives questioned.

The fact that education, even in Georgia, has tilted so far towards an entitlement employment program is very troubling. Some group of taxpayers is paying the costs of cleaning out the cancer, and many kids will pay forever. Why Beverly Hall and others are not rotting in jail would appear to be a HUGE travesty of justices.


March 29th, 2012
1:22 pm

APS Bumper Stickers

“I Got a Hall Pass from the APS”

“My Supt. Won An Award, and All I Got Was a Lousy Education”

“My Child Is An Honor Student (subject to a pending investigation)”

Lil' Barry Bailout (Unexpectedly Revised Downward)

March 29th, 2012
5:45 pm

If you don’t like charters, don’t send your kid to one.

Keep your laws off our schools, anti-choice tyrants.


March 29th, 2012
9:18 pm

The Atlanta public school system cheating scandal is bogus… The so-called cheating scandal is connected to the Bush/Cheney Admin. “No child left behind” public school policies… Bush/Cheney’s no child left behind is fatally flawed and designed to destroy the public school system… The Atlanta public school system should abandon no child left behind and forget about the so-called cheating scandal… All school systems in America should embrace the Obama Administration “race to the top” school reform program and move forward…


March 30th, 2012
9:26 am

Kyle, you are missing the point about Atlanta. The AJC article acknowledges noone else was nearly as bad as Atlanta. And Atlanta’s cheating scandal involved pressure and knowledge at the top, not just turning a blind eye. The intimidation was unbelievable. And the cooperation to hide the cheating by the community leadership and business community was disgraceful.


March 30th, 2012
9:28 am

Atlanta did have uniquely immoral actors in the business community and running the school system and appointing the principals. That is the difference between Atlanta and the other places with questionable scores.

Kyle Wingfield

March 30th, 2012
9:53 am

bu2: I don’t disagree with your 9:26. I don’t think my point was clear to you — it was only to say APS can’t think it solved its problem by getting rid of the folks responsible for the 2009 cheating, because the apparent cheating in other school systems strongly suggests plenty of other people are willing to do the same.