From Educators to Racketeers: How Education Reform Led to a National Testing Scandal

Thirty-five Atlanta Public School educators were accused by a grand jury of racketeering, false statements and writings, false swearing, theft by taking and influencing witnesses.

How could this happen in the Atlanta Public Schools (APS)?  The district is in a city that is home to The King Center, The Carter Center, Clark Atlanta University, Emory University, Georgia State University, Georgia Institute of Technology, and many other institutions that embody academic, research and cultural and social change.   Each of these institutions collaborated with the Atlanta Public Schools, some more than others, in research projects, staff development programs, curriculum development, and other educational activities for decades.  Grants were received from the U.S. Department of Education, the National Science Foundation, and many other funding agencies. The Georgia Department of Education has contributed to the APS by providing consultants to help teachers who work with struggling students in the lowest performing schools in Atlanta.  Some schools received funding from private foundations and corporations, as well as mentoring and training relationships with local universities, especially in science and technology.  (Disclaimer: I was professor of science education at Georgia State University from 1969 – 2002, and worked with teachers and administrators in the Atlanta Public Schools).

How could these educators end up being accused of racketeering?  It doesn’t make any sense.  Or does it?

The Parks Middle School Case

It might surprise you, but the Atlanta Public Schools did more than simply change answer sheets to improve student learning.  Did the students learn, in spite of some teachers’ and administrators’ behavior. They did because the teaching practices that were initiated, especially in reading and English/language arts, seem to hold as shown in CRCT test results the year AFTER the scandal.  I want to give some information that should be considered when we explore the nature of the charges brought against the APS.

In the Atlanta bubble test erasure investigation, Parks Middle School was center-stage in the investigation. According to the report, “cheating” occurred from 2005 – 2009. According to the report, the principal conspired with other administrators and some teachers to systematically changed answers on student bubble tests during these, and made an effort to keep this from the test coördinator.

But, during this period Parks was held up as a model of how to turn around an urban school. In fact a lengthy report in the form of a published paper (here) of Parks’ efforts and successes was included in the Governor’s Investigative report. Parks was involved in many creative curriculum efforts designed to help students make success.

I examined the data at CRCT website (Georgia Department of Education) for a three-year period, 2008 -2010. I wanted to find out how the scores changed (if at all) in 2010 in each subject area. As you can see in the areas of Reading and English/Language Arts Parks more than 90% of Park’s 8th graders met or exceeded the state target, even after the year when “cheating” was discovered. In the areas of math, science and social studies, we do see an appreciable decline in CRCT results in 2010.

At Parks Middle School, the increase in reading scores rose dramatically from 2004 from 35% to 74%, and then to 98.5 in 2009. According to the Governor’s investigative team, the scores in 2010 (the year in which we can be certain there was no cheating), students in the 8th grade at Parks still scored above 90%. The same is true for English/Language Arts.

Why Parks’ Students Scores Increased Dramatically. In a paper describing the Parks’ story of success, the dramatic gains in student test scores was attributed to effective leadership, data-driven planning and instruction, high expectations, strategic partners (corporate sponsors including the Annie E. Casey Foundation, the Arthur M. Blank Family Foundation), increased student discipline, and more professional development. The Annie Casey Foundation, which invests in charter schools, vouchers and organizations such as Teach for America, was a major contributor to Parks Middle.  The Foundation produced a video podcast of Parks success in turning around the chronic failure for many years. There is evidence that these did indeed occur, although some might argue with the “effective leadership” attribute.  But this is just the surface of the partnerships that Parks’ principal, Christopher Waller spearheaded since his appointment as head of the school.  The efforts that were made from 2005 on at Parks Middle School were impressive, and no doubt contributed to the success that was revealed in the years ahead.  Yet, with this success the school suffered financially by losing significant funding totaling more than $800,000 per year.

These dramatic increases in student performance were lauded, locally and nationally, and Parks received many awards, and enormous financial support during this period. Superintendent Hall praised the work of the principal, Christopher Waller, and both were recognized for creating conditions that made learning successful for poor children. Specialists in reading, special education and other areas were hired to give staff development and instruction for students. Waller launched Project GRAD at Parks Middle School, a reform model that included professional development for teachers, on going support, coaching and re-training. Twenty-five Atlanta elementary, middle and high schools now take part in Project GRAD. Project GRAD is a national program, and is in place in more than ten cities around the country.

Georgia State Department InvolvementThe Georgia Department of Education was involved with Parks Middle through the NCLB “Needs Improvement” schools support. The state assigned Dr. Cheryl Hunley to serve with Parks and six other area schools. Working closely with the principal, she provided professional development, and worked very closely with the entire staff at Parks.

In addition to these two major sources of professional development, Parks was also part of the SRT 2 (School Reform Team 2), an initiative begun by Dr. Hall which was led by an executive director who oversaw several schools. Training, support, and help was localized with in the district through four SRTeams.  In 2012, the new superintendent initiated a cluster model organizing the schools in Atlanta into 10 clusters composed of dedicated elementary schools feeding into dedicated middle and ultimately dedicated high schools.

There is no doubt Parks was involved in innovative school improvement. And given, the data that is shown in the Figure 1, we can conclude that these efforts must have contributed to some of the gains shown in student CRCT test results, especially in Reading and English/Language Arts.

Test Results. The results in Math, which did decrease in 2010, are disappointing. The scores in science and social studies show the greatest losses. But I remember several years ago that Dr. Hall was quoted as saying that there is no way that students will do well on the NAEP Science Test with out Reading and Math. She indirectly was saying that schools should emphasize reading and math to the exclusion of science, and perhaps social studies.

The data reported by the Investigative Team of the Governor’s Office, and the CRCT data for these three years does not answer all the questions. Teachers may have cheated in changing student scores, but students did learn and improve, and they need to be informed that all of their gain was not due to teacher’s changing their papers.

Parks Middle School Reading English Language Arts Math Science Social Studies
2008 93.5 94.4 81.5 49.2 79
2009 98.5 96.9 85.4 58.5 66.9
2010 94 89.4 70.2 35 28
Average 95.3 93.5 79.0 47.5 57.9
Figure 1. Percent of Students Who Met or Exceeded the CRCT State Mandated Standard by Subject, 2008 – 2010 at Parks Middle School. Note: 2009 was the year the Governor’s Office investigated excessive erasures in the APS. In 2010, there were few, if any, erasures on bubble tests.
 

How could these organizations be involved with Parks Middle School and not question or wonder about the success that their efforts were having at the school?  Did they believe that their efforts did make the difference?  Did they ever consider that other factors such as cheating?  Yet, as I’ve shown, there was more going on at Parks Middle School than cheating on student achievement tests.  If you read the article on Parks Middle School written by the Annie E. Casey Foundation that is included in the Governor’s Investigative Report on the Atlanta Public Schools, you will find details of the educational innovations that were put into place including after school programs for students, staff development for teachers, and partnerships with tens of organizations.  These probably played as much a part in increasing student’s ability to offer correct answers on the state achievement tests as did the erasures of student test sheets.

Preserving the Status Quo

I am going to argue that the cheating scandal, and the charges against 35 educators is because the country is mired in educational reform that has turned schools into testing factories. We can explain this mire if we look at two different political and social world-views, the conservative world-view (preserving things as they are), and the progressive world-view (forward-looking). Each world-view has played significant roles in American history, including public education.  Progressive and conservative approaches to education have competed with each other in America for more than a century. The conservative view has dominated American education, but we’ll also find that the progressive view has affected American education in powerful ways at different times during this period.

In this post I will try to show how the conservative world-view has negatively affected the way public schools determine curriculum, hold schools accountable for student learning, and the effectiveness of schools and teachers.  The theoretical basis for the conservative agenda for education will come to light here, and we will see that the authoritarian nature of the conservative view effectively perceives teachers as workers who prepare students to take achievement tests.  Because of the top-down nature of an authoritarian system, teachers have little opportunity to influence educational policy, and have not been instrumental in determining the goals and standards which they are responsible for carrying out in public schools.

We would agree that the teachers and administrators who were indicted by a Fulton County grand jury are not only innocent until they are found guilty in an American courtroom, but we will see that they were an unfortunate part of an authoritarian regime that has claimed schooling in America.

The erasure and cheating debacle that happened in Atlanta was not directly caused by high-stakes testing.  And, it was not limited to the Atlanta Public Schools.  Other school districts in Georgia, and in school districts around the country including Washington, D.C., and New York City have shown very high erasure rates on student achievement tests.    In the Atlanta case, the Atlanta Journal Constitution launched an investigation into testing irregularities that they “uncovered” in some Georgia schools.  These irregularities lead to a full-scale analysis of millions of pieces of data that was available because of the open records law.  The AJC reports lead Sonny Perdue, then Governor of Georgia to appoint a special investigative team to probe the allegations of test tampering in the APS.  The report of this investigation was hand delivered to Governor Nathan Deal by the three investigators, Michael J. Bowers, former Attorney General of Georgia, Robert E. Wilson (Attorney and former District Attorney, & Chief Public Defender), and Richard L. Hyde (Former Atlanta Police Officer, and Lead Investigator for the Attorney General’s Office).

The cheating scandal in Atlanta and other school districts around the country is a symptom related to something bigger than achievement tests.  The cheating calls into question the nature of contemporary schooling.  We have a systemic problem that relates to why we have put so much emphasis on achievement test results, when we know that in the larger scheme of things, test scores do not tell us very much about student learning and the effectiveness of schools.  The end-of-the-year achievement tests are summative (a point in time assessment of what students know), and do not necessarily relate to the student’s curriculum.  A better way to assess student learning is to rely on the evaluation tools that local schools and teachers use to help students learn.  Numerous research studies have shown that formative tests (tests that a part of instruction), student journals, portfolios, student work, student conferences, teacher questioning and probing give a clearer picture of student learning.  Teachers across the nation have put into practice this form of evaluation and assessment.  Unfortunately none of this data is used to “measure” student learning in public schools in America.  It is reduced to a single end-of-the-year test.  We are on the wrong path.

World-Views

In order to understand how world-views can be used to look at education and the scandal that happened in Atlanta, and that is occurring in other school districts, I am going to reference the cognitive modeling and cognitive theory of metaphor by George Lakoff. Lakoff in his book Thinking Points:

formulated the nation-as-family metaphor as a precise mapping between the nation and the family: the homeland as home, the citizens as siblings, the government (or the head of government) as parent. The government’s duty is to citizens as a parent is to children: provide security (protect us); make laws (tell us what we can and cannot do); run the economy (make sure we have enough money and supplies); provide public schools (educate us).

World view refers to the culturally dependent, generally subconscious, fundamental organization of the mind,” according to William W. Cobern, who has done extensive research on world-view and how it impinges teaching. One’s world view predisposes one to feel, think and act in predictable way, according to Cobern. World-view inclines one to a particular way of thinking.

Conceptual Metaphor of Nation as Family

According to research by George Lakoff and the Rockbridge Institute, the moral world-view of either conservatives or progressives can be understood by using the conceptual metaphor of Nation as Family. Using this idea, ones political beliefs tend to be structured by how we think of family, and our early experiences in our own family which contribute to our beliefs. Thinking of a nation as a family is a familiar notion, as in phrases such as Mother Russia, Fatherland, sending sons and daughters off to war, the founding fathers, Big Brother (see Joe Brewer, Rockbridge Institute, discussion here).

In Brewer’s thinking, the conceptual metaphor of nation as family organizes our brains in this way: homeland is home, citizens are siblings, the government (or head) is parent, and so forth. The diagram below shows the organization of schooling according to a conservative world-view.  In the illustration that I have created, the authority or head of the family resides with the State Department of Education.  From the DOE, each school district is headed by a superintendent and team of school principles.  The teachers in each school serve the principal, who serves at the will of the superintendent.  It’s a top down organization, and that is a problem.

Conservative World-View

The world-view of conservatives can be explained using the conceptual metaphor for Nation as Family. Lakoff would say that a conservative family would be based on authority, and would be represented by the “Strict Father Family”. In the Thinking Points Discussion Series published by Rockbridge, the conservative family can be characterized as follows (from Brewer, Conservative Morality):

  • The Strict Father Family is the traditional family with a father and mother
  • The father is the head of the house
  • The mother is supportive and upholds the authority of the father
  • A hierarchy exists and is never to be questioned
  • Children are weak and lack self-control
  • Parents know what is best
  • Children learn right and wrong when punished by doing wrong
  • When children become self-discipline, respect authority, and learn right from wrong they are strong enough to succeed in the world.

This list of characteristics helps us understand a conservative family’s world-view. As we look around us, and especially when we look at schooling today, we see the influence of the conservative world-view. Indeed, the fundamental values of the conservative world-view shape most aspects of public schools today.  The top-down conceptualization of schooling means that teachers are at the bottom of the organizational flow chart, and have little power in shaping policy, standards, and assessments.  Yet, they are ones whose jobs are dependent on policies that are not democratic.

In their book, entitled, Thinking Points by George Lakoff, and the Rockbridge Institute, the core conservative values are:

  • Authority: assumed to be morally good and used to exert legitimate control ( it is imperative that authority is never questioned)
  • Discipline: self-control learned through punishment when one does wrong (it is understood that failure of authority to punish for wrong doing is a moral failure)

The public schools in the U.S. reflect the core values of authority and discipline, and many of the laws and acts (especially the NCLB Act of 2001) was written by the authority of the government, and set in motion an image that suggests that students, teachers and administrators are siblings in the Family of Education, and are beholden to the Authority of Federal and State departments of education. It’s a top-down system, and conceptual metaphor of the “Strict Father Family” mirrors the way public schools are conceptualized.

At the top of the organizational chart for the Atlanta Public Schools was Dr. Beverly Hall, who retired in 2009, and was replaced by Dr. Erroll Davis, former chancellor of the University System of Georgia.  But the system of education in Atlanta is linked to and includes the Georgia Department of Education, which has the legal authority to decide the teaching and learning standards for all Georgia schools, and is responsible for measuring the year-to-year achievement of students on statewide assessments.  These assessments are used to decide the AYP or Adequate Yearly Progress of schools in the state.

Education through Conservative Lenses

Atlanta Test Erasure Scandal.  In the Atlanta test erasure scandal, nearly 200 teachers and administrators in the Atlanta Public Schools were investigated by the Georgia Bureau of Investigation (GBI) and many of these teachers lost their jobs, were fired, or forced to resign.  Thirty-five, including the former superintendent were indicted by a Fulton County grand jury.  They face racketeering charges, false statements and writings, false swearing, theft by taking and influencing witnesses.

What happened in Atlanta? Why did so many teachers and administrators cheat when they knew that they were being monitored by the Georgia Department of Education? Does the conservative world-view shed light on the cheating scandal?

According to the Georgia Governor’s three-volume report, the Atlanta cheating scandal was caused by “a culture of fear, intimidation and retaliation that spread throughout the (Atlanta) district.”  That culture of fear was directly related to the pressure put on administrators, teachers, and students to make sure students scored high on the end-of-year tests at any costs.

In the years leading up to the time that the Atlanta Journal-Constitution crack investigative team released its report on the suspicious test erasures, the Georgia Department of Education assigned specialists to work closely with Atlanta administrators and teachers by providing staff development training, especially in schools that were identified by testing as “Needs Improvement.” Many of these schools saw their student’s test scores go up over several years. Did these scores go up because of cheating, or because of the professional support the schools received from the Georgia Department of Education?

According to the investigative report of the Governor of Georgia, bubble sheets were changed, perhaps as the Governor suggested, the culture of fear, intimidation, and retaliation led to this scandal.

If we could find out who or what perpetuated the culture of fear, it might help us understand why wide-spread cheating took place. (Note: I do not use this case to single out the Atlanta School System; the evidence from various reports is that cheating has taken place in many other cities around the country; nor do I condone the cheating).

Accountability  In the conservative approach to teaching and learning, hierarchical rules were established to make the nation’s schools and districts conform to an imposed set of standards and authoritarian assessments. In the first installment of the NCLB Act of 2001, terms such as accountability for schools, adequate yearly progress and getting results were used to discuss the way schools would be evaluated.

Teachers would agree that they should be accountable for their work by creating learning environments where students are successful. However, accountability in its present form means that student test scores will be used as the measure of accountability. Using an arbitrary level of performance, yearly progress will be based on student scores, and these in turn will be used to reward or punish schools, as well as teachers and administrators. The “strict father family” model shines a light how standards and assessments are used to judge student learning, and teacher performance. Learning and performance will be adequate (good) or inadequate (bad or see as failure), and students, if they are inadequate, will be retained, or forced to take summer classes, and then tested again, and teachers will be evaluated using their student’s scores, and then appropriate rewards and punishments handed out.

Accountability in the conservative world-view derives from an authority, and what the authority determines is success. In general the authority of the state is able to “raise the bar” on students over time. It’s as if the authority is mad at students (because of scores on international tests?), and punishes them by making it more difficult to pass the tests. Is this the kind of accountability that professional educators would choose?

Culture of Fear?

Was it the former superintendent of Atlanta that created the culture of fear? Or did the culture of fear spread to the Atlanta School System from the Georgia Department of Education? Could the annual testing cycle and the stakes that are placed on student test scores create a culture of fear in a district?  Was the culture of fear created by a system of schooling based on the “Strict Father Family” conceptual metaphor in which a hierarchy exists that is never to be questioned?  Have we created a system of schooling that is so hierarchical that teachers, who work directly with students, are not viewed as decision makers, but simply as workers to carry out the instructions of those above them?  Are students capable of only learning information that they will be asked on multiple choice exams, or can they do problem solving and inquiry?  In the model of schooling that we have today, it is implied that when children become self-disciplined, respect authority, and learn right from wrong, they are strong enough to succeed in the world.

This is a very controlling and narrow view of students and teachers.

If we assume that the Department of Education is the authority in determining what students should learn in schools across the state, and the authority in determining how the student’s performance will be judged, then one way of looking at education in Georgia is from a conservative lens. In the conservative view, the state, acting as the authority figure, holds school districts, and schools accountable based on high-stakes achievement test scores of its students.

Rewards and punishments are handed out each year. Those schools that meet Adequate Yearly Progress (AYI)–using attendance and test scores, are considered successful; those schools that do not meet AYI, are considered unsuccessful. If a school fails AYI for several years in a row they enter “corrective action,” which could lead to the take over of the school, or the firing of all the teachers.

What does this scandal tell us about the conservative world view?  Or what does the conservative world view tell us about what motivates professional educators to put themselves into a place that they have been charged with racketeering?

In the next post, I’ll look at schooling in America from the progressive world-view, and show that American values are progressive, and that education should be based on equality, human rights, social responsibility and inquiry.

What do you think about what happened in Atlanta?  Do you think that our system of schooling could have anything do with the wide-scale cheating that is occurring in American schools today?