Okay, so I thought letting the disappointment over the scandal in Atlanta simmer a little overnight would help, but I am truly so disgusted today that this blog will be just as difficult to write. I have spent the better part of the morning reading over the evidence in the Georgia Bureau of Investigation’s report regarding the schools that were involved in the massive cheating, and it is chilling.
The basic pattern these schools followed is pretty consistent. In almost all cases the order started at the top with full participation and encouragement from the principal. In a few rare cases, direct participation by the principal was not proven but there was evidence of implicit knowledge of what was taking place. Often, the test coordinator was also involved.
It saddens me to admit that, in most cases, the teachers who were involved were veteran teachers, but that is not to say that all veteran teachers participated. The pattern seemed to be that newer teachers were let into the cheating circle if they seemed “trustworthy.” (I know that is more than a little ironic!)
The most common cheating technique employed was the changing of answers by erasing wrong answers and replacing them with correct ones. This took place before, during, and after school often with the principal present or right outside the door. Sometimes, it occurred during the administration of the tests. And at times, tests were even removed from the school and changed at teachers’ homes.
Parks Middle School’s Principal Waller
At Parks Middle School, the test booklets were kept in the testing coordinators office, Dr. Alfred Kiel. The principal of this school, Principal Waller, would routinely find excuses to get him out of his office so that the teachers were free to do their thing. Once, upon returning to his office, he noticed that things had been moved around on his desk and reported it. After that, Damany Lewis, the teacher’s ringleader would take a picture of his desk before anything was moved and use the photograph to return everything exactly as they found it when they were done.
At this same school, before the tests were administered, Waller asked Lewis, “Do you think you could get into something undetected?” When he said he thought he could, Waller gave Lewis a key to the room where the test documents were stored and Lewis used a razor blade to open the plastic wrap encasing the test booklets. He then copied the tests for each grade and used a lighter to heat and reseal the plastic. The tests were distributed to teachers in the cheating circle to preview before they were administered.
Many other techniques were used to falsely raise test scores. Teachers often gave answers, posted answers, reviewed the answers before the test, walked around the room during the tests pointing to the right answers, or used nonverbal signals to indicate wrong answers. Some students who were not as likely to pass were tested in smaller rooms or individually, even though they had no such testing accommodations, and then their answers were changed. On writing tests, some teachers gave the prompt ahead of the test and would not let their students write in their test booklet until the rough copy had been proofread and corrected by them first. And in some cases, teacher were instructed to make sure that students were strategically placed in the classroom so that struggling students could cheat off of more proficient students’ test booklets while taking the test.
What a despicable mess! My first thought when I began reading about this travesty was why would teachers go along with this? What about those who were not involved? Why didn’t they speak up? Well, let me address some of these questions, but I warn you, it just gets worse.
The GBI report referred to it as a “culture of fear” and said the following:
“Dr. Hall and her top staff created a culture of fear, intimidation, and retaliation, which was usually enforced on principals and teachers by some of the SRT (School Reform Team) executive directors. Many witnesses said that after reporting cheating, or some other misconduct, they became the subject of an investigation and disciplined.
This culture of fear, intimidation, and retaliation has infested the district, allowing cheating-at all levels-to go unchecked for years. Those who dared to report misconduct in the district were held in contempt and punished.”
Let me give you just one of so many horrific examples of the mob mentality of those involved and the ramifications of threatening the status quo.
The principal at Harper Archer Middle School from 2006-2009, Michael Milstead, became concerned over the huge discrepancy over many students high scores on the CRCT in elementary school and their low academic performance. Since many were several grades behind were they should have been academically, he became suspicious that their test scores had been inflated.
At a meeting in 2008, Milstead brought up the issue and suggested that the elementary and middle school principals might consider working together to resolve the problem. After the meeting, Executive Director Tamara Cotman berated him for bringing up these issues at the meeting and claimed that many of the principals had been upset over his comments regarding the CRCT results. Milstead resigned in 2009, when Cotman informed him that his services were no longer needed in the district.
The report tells of multiple teachers and staff members whose jobs were threatened if they didn’t mind their own business. Some teachers wrote letters or filled out forms regarding improper testing procedures which were at the least, ignored. At the worst, some of these teachers were called into their principal’s office and told to stop. Some teachers were bullied into compliance or being silent by threats of being placed on a professional development plan (PDP) which could lead to termination. And some teachers found themselves, like Milstead, without a job after trying to voice their concerns to administrators.
Superintendent Beverly Hall was informed on a number of occasions about concerns, suspicions, and outright instances of improper test procedures and conduct. She refused to follow up on these reports. For example, several teachers from Parks Middle School reported Principal Waller’s misconduct in 2005 and 2006, yet the Atlanta Public Schools did nothing to discipline him. “In fact, SRT-2 Director Michael Pitts held a meeting at Parks and told the teachers to ‘stop writing letters about Waller because he is not going anywhere.’”
Pitts dismissed the investigation calling it racist, and Superintendent Hall declared Waller a “model principal.”
After reading this report, I can’t help but feel that this cheating scandal started right from the top and was condoned, either tacitly or openly from the superintendent on down. Too many warnings were raised, too much progress was made too swiftly by too many schools, and too many complaints were lodged and ignored for it to be otherwise. This was fueled by a superintendent who wanted to make a name for herself by finding the miracle cure that would save a crippled district. And the pressure she put on others and the lengths to which she expected her staff to go to accomplish her dream trickled down to administrators, test coordinators, teachers, and paraprofessionals.
Too many in this school district lost sight of the reason they were there; to educate and serve children so that they can one day be productive members of society.
For some, the desire for acclaim and publicity overtook their desire to serve. I wonder how that publicity feels know.
For some, fear of termination or disciplinary action made them compliant. As they face the anger of the public they swore to serve and the possibility of termination and loss of licensure, I wonder if they wish they had taken a firmer stand at the beginning so they could respect the face they see in the mirror every day.
For some, fear of termination or disciplinary action made them silent. I wonder if they wish that their outrage over what they witnessed had outweighed their fear and loosened their lips until someone was willing to hear them.
For some, the fear and intimidation was not enough to gag their mouths or stop their hands from reporting misconduct. I wonder if they aren’t walking taller since this report became public and feeling like the weight of the world has finally been lifted from their shoulders.
So many lives have been shattered over misguided goals and corrupt behavior. In my next blog, I will look at the community that has been critically wounded in this ugly story.
low-performing schools, state achievement tests, Teacher-World's Blog