Thinking Right’s free-for-all — today on a single topic, the tragedy of Atlanta Public Schools.
1. The metastasized corruption that spread through the body of Atlanta Public Schools is the most heart-breaking collapse of public-sector integrity in Georgia in my adult life. Investigators found that 178 educators, including 38 principals, participated. More than 80 have confessed. Of 56 schools examined, cheating was found at 44. My God! So deep. So widespread.
2. Once in, cheaters were trapped in their own dishonesty — prompting Part 2, the cover-up. Investigators attributed a quote to now-retired principal Armstead Salters that explains how wrongdoing by individuals descends into systemic corruption. Said Salters, according to the report, “If anyone asks you anything about this just tell them you don’t know. … Just stick to the story and it will all go away.” That, one suspects, is the defense bureaucracies teach and learn to avoid accountability for program failings long before the don’t-know-don’t-tell strategy slip-slides into corruption.
3. Those who say “testing pressure” drove good people to cheat make excuses for the unethical and aid and abet their crime against children. That crime is failing to educate children while passing them through the system with self-esteem rallies and unearned grades. Meanwhile, they hold weekend “changing parties” to erase wrong answers on accountability tests.
4. Once the lie is spawned that children have been educated, their teachers, principals and administrators are vested in deceit. In one example offered by investigators, a hot-shot principal quickly produced unreal improvements in CRCT scores. Did Superintendent Beverly Hall drill down to find out how, as one might expect if a subordinate had indeed discovered a statistically impossible cure for nonperformance? Apparently not.
5. Hall and the Atlanta business community, as represented by the Metro Atlanta Chamber, were far too desperate to create a public image of success. A senior vice president of the chamber, according to investigators, sought to depict the cheating as limited and suggested that it be “finessed” past then-Gov. Sonny Perdue. It wasn’t. He appointed independent investigators. Hall cultivated business leaders, and they bought in to the “successful urban public school system” idea.
6. The scandal provides a clue to how segregation existed for so long in Southern communities. Leaders fell into an unspoken compact to create a mutually beneficial system based on illusion — mutually beneficial, that is, for those who controlled key institutions. That kind of compact is not always evil. At its best, it can elevate. Atlanta, “The City Too Busy to Hate,” was a community compact founded on illusion.
7. When bureaucracies or like-minded blocs come to believe it’s Us against Them — whoever “Us” and the more powerful “Them” are — it’s easy to self-justify cutting corners and disregarding laws or rules.
8. It’s a real tribute to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, to former editor Julia Wallace, to other editors and reporters, and to the principle of a free and independent media, that the sacred cow Hall personified was held accountable. Nobody wants to see the community’s National Superintendent of the Year or the system she ran brought down. Asking the questions that lead to truth required guts.
9. In every group scandal, there are individuals whose exemplary conduct under pressure inspires us all to hope that in similar circumstances we’d have been just as true to our conviction. An example is Arthur Kiel, the testing coordinator at Parks Middle School. He strongly resisted efforts by superiors and colleagues to tamper with tests, prompting elaborate efforts to deceive and to get him out the door.
10. Finally, nobody in the top job could be unmindful of that much corruption.