Wednesday was the deadline for Atlanta Public Schools educators who were implicated in the district’s massive cheating scandal to resign, or be terminated by the district.
"You either confessed to cheating or were otherwise implicated in wrongdoing," the interim superintendent Erroll Davis wrote last week in a letter to the administrators, teachers and staff, Atlanta’s WXIA reported. "We give you the opportunity to resign your employment with APS prior to official notice of my intent to recommend your termination."
By the start of the day though, only four people, all of them high-ranking district officials, had stepped forward to give up their jobs, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported. One of those people left because they were retiring, MyFox5 reported.
The demands for accountability in the wake of the scandal are piling up. Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal announced findings from an investigation conducted by the Georgia Bureau of Investigation in early July which found widespread cheating in nearly 80 percent of the elementary and middle schools that were a subject of the yearlong investigation. Investigators found that changing answers on the Criterion-Referenced Competency Test, the Georgia state standards test, was a common practice for years. Educators, the investigators found, faced a district mandate to raise test scores at any cost, and whistleblowers were intimidated and threatened with termination when they attempted to speak up. Nearly 200 educators were implicated in the scandal, and 82 confessed to taking part in test tampering and cheating.
Investigators found that district officials prioritized test score gains above students’ education and even basic ethics, and that in the course of the last decade, top district officials had lied to investigators and fabricated or destroyed reports in order to cover up the breadth of the cheating.
In the last decade, Atlanta Public Schools’ test scores also skyrocketed. Dropout rates declined. The district was outstripping other districts in its improvements on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, commonly known as "the nation’s report card." It became a star in school reform circles, and attracted awards and national recognition for the now disgraced former superintendent Beverly Hall, including millions of dollars in extra funding and leadership development for district officials from educational philanthropies like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Broad Foundation.
With the news of the cheating scandal reverberating across the country, the legitimacy of those stunning test score gains has been called into question. While investigators are moving on to other Georgia counties to investigate similar reports of testing irregularities, Atlanta administrators, counselors, staff and teachers in particular are feeling the heat as the scandal unravels.
"We all bear a responsibility here as to what has happened," said Verdailia Turner, president of the Atlanta Federation of Teachers. "We don’t condone cheating at all and we are people of integrity, and if a person is guilty they’re guilty."
But Turner said that Atlanta teachers were being unfairly blamed for a cheating scandal that they did not create. Turner said that in 2005 and 2006 her members filed a report with the district complaining of unethical testing procedures at their schools and intimidation they faced. Those teachers were ignored.
"Teachers are in a culture where they do or die," Turner said. As a right to work state where teachers didn’t have access to collective bargaining, teachers could be terminated or put on a so-called "professional development plan" when their performance or conduct was deemed unsatisfactory. Teachers complied with the cheating mandate because many lived in fear, Turner said. "Being put on a professional development plan is a precursor to your professional death."
Atlanta is not the only school district mired in scandal, it’s just, because of its star status, the most scandalous. Schools in Philadelphia, Baltimore, Newark and Washington, D.C. are all currently investigating similar reports of testing irregularities. The proliferation of cheating scandals has surprised even lifelong testing experts.
"All these testing scandals are getting worse and worse," said Thomas Haladyna, a professor emeritus of education at Arizona State University. "And I’ve been doing this for 20 years."
Haladyna put the blame on school reforms placing a premium on standardized test score gains to the exclusion of all other considerations. Increasingly popular school reforms that demand teachers’ job evaluations and job security be tied to their students’ performance on standardized test scores incentivized cheating and created an unhealthy expectation that teachers alone control their students’ academic outcomes, said Haladyna.
"I think all teachers are motivated to teach and do their best, but to think that all of a sudden they’re going to try harder and harder and we’re going to see astounding gains is unrealistic."
"Real [student] improvement, especially for kids most at risk, comes very slowly. It’s like an oak tree growing."
The GBI report uncovered cheating at schools that were concentrated in poor neighborhoods where students of color are concentrated. Testing critics say that educator cheating on standardized tests is more common in poorer neighborhoods because those are the places that face the most political pressure to raise their students’ test scores. Those are also the places that are being targeted by the most aggressive school reforms.
As Atlanta attempts to clean up the mess left behind by the cheating scandal, rethinking the expectations of teachers ought to be at the center of the reform debate, Haladyna said.
"Teaching’s becoming less attractive of a profession because of this accountability movement, which is so misguided and puts so much responsibility on teachers for other factors that so much influence student learning which teachers have no control over."