Will the Atlanta Schools Be Run by an Authoritarian Regime?

NASA Goddard Space Flight Center
NASA Goddard Space Flight Center

The Atlanta Public Schools (APS) hired a new superintendent, Dr. Meria Carstarphen, who formerly was superintendent of the Austin Independent School District (AISD).

Dr. Carstarphen is bringing five administrators who worked for her in Austin.  These people will form the nucleus of her cabinet or central staff.  With outside private funding, she and her staff have set up shop and begun the transition to take over the APS in July.

What kind of administration will emerge from the Austin group?  There are many who are very optimistic about the new superintendent.  Over the past few days, Dr. Carstarphen has made a number of public appearances talking to various constituencies in Atlanta about her vision for the APS.

Dr. Carstarphen inherits a district which was mired in one of the worst cheating scandals in memory.  According the state’s investigation into the scandal, a culture of fear, intimidation and retaliation spread through the APS, and this culture was directly connected to financial incentives for Atlanta’s schools to score at high levels (based on student scores on the state CRCT).  The financial incentives (~$500k) were paid from the top, down to the school administrative level, sometimes reached teachers. Pressure from above was put on administrators and teachers to do what ever it would take to improve standardized test scores.  The cheating scandal was collateral damage (Berliner & Noddings, 2007), of state and federal policies mandating high-stakes testing.  It got out of hand in Atlanta.

Dr. Beverly Hall and her administration worked in Atlanta from 1999 – 2010.   How did test scores for the city during her administration vary compared to the test scores before and after her tenure?  Well, surprise, surprise.   There was very little variation.

Atlanta Math Scores

Figure 1 shows National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) 8th Grade math scores for Atlanta from 2003 – 2013.  The Atlanta cheating scandal happened from 2008 – 2010, and as you can see there is a slight gain for math achievement during these years.  But notice that the NAEP scores actually were higher after the scandal.  But here’s the thing.  These variations, at any point along this time line, are meager and insignificant.  They fall within limits that we would expect.

Figure 1. Atlanta NAEP 8th Grade Mathematics Scores for Selected Percentiles 2003 - 2013.
Figure 1. Atlanta NAEP 8th Grade Mathematics Scores for Selected Percentiles 2003 – 2013.


Math Scores in Atlanta, Austin and other Urban Cities

Figure 2 is an even more informative graph, and one that the new APS administration should take seriously.  This is a control chart that shows statistical upper and lower limits of achievement scores that would be within statistical control.  The graph was produced from NAEP data from its Trial Urban District Assessments (TUDA) study.  The graph was created by Mr. Ed Johnson, a Deming scholar and advocate for quality education in Atlanta.  These are the same math scores that are shown in Figure 1, but the TUDA study included 20 other urban districts, including the Austin Independent School District.  APS is highlighted in green; AISD in red.  You can see that over time Atlanta’s scores were converging with Austin math scores.  Follow this link to see more graphs and charts produced by Ed Johnson.

Any Variation?

What kind of variation in math test scores do we see here?  Is this variation exceptional?  Is the variation do to innovations, or new curricula, or putting pressure on teachers to teach better?  Is it due to a new superintendent?  Or is it due to pressure on students and their parents?

Well, the variation is not due to any of these things.  The variation is normal.  The variation is within statistical limits.  The variation is what we expect from math instruction in these urban schools. There is no specific cause related to any variation along graph  The performance is steady.  The performance is predictable.  The performance is the result of the teaching and learning in these urban districts.

Ed Johnson explains that each of these 21 districts is sailing on the same boat, with movement from one side to another, but still on the same boat.

Now here’s the thing.  This historical period is the age of Bush’s No Child Left Behind and Obama & Duncan’s Race to the Top.  Neither of these programs has had any effect on math scores in some of the nation’s largest school districts!  Reformers seem to think that this continuous testing will in some way “cause” student achievement to improve.

In fact, in Georgia, state officials announced that instead of using the state CRCTs, a new slew of standardized tests will be developed and used starting next year.  A headline in the AJC read, Students face harder high-stakes testing, and when you read the details, the bar (passing score) will pushed higher.  Somehow, these state officials think that by making more difficult for students to pass a standardized test it will make them smarter.  What a dumb idea.

If they would look at the chart in Figure 2 and others like it, none of these testing reforms have had any effect.  If they want to improve student performance, they need to look some place else.  And it’s not by focusing on the darn test scores, or the graduation-rates.


Figure 2.  Systemic Story of NAEP 8th Grade Math Scores on the TUDA Assessment for 21 Districts, including Atlanta and Austin.  This graph shows 8th grade math as a system.
Figure 2. Systemic Story of NAEP 8th Grade Math Scores on the TUDA Assessment for 21 Districts, including Atlanta and Austin. This graph shows 8th grade math as a system.

So, for a new administration to come into Atlanta and start claiming that they raise graduation rates and student achievement score, raises many questions.

Is Carstarphen claiming that her legacy will be that Atlanta’s schools were turned around by raising rates and scores?

How does she plan to this? Will she import the strategies she used in Austin? Will she use an authoritarian style of leadership (which some teachers and professor claim she used in Austin), or will she engage the key players in the system, principals and teachers? Will teachers in collaboration with principals engage their communities without interference from orders from the top? Will the administration create a culture of learning and collaboration or one based on competition, test scores, fear?

It won’t be long to find out how the Austin administrators work with educators in Atlanta.

What do you think will happen?  With this be an authoritarian or receptive administration?