This will be my last blog specifically addressing the widespread cheating that occurred over the last ten years in Atlanta Public Schools. In order to avoid more of these scandals in the future, it is important to understand why this one occurred. This blog will delve into the GBI report and its conclusions as to the motivation behind the madness and what it may foreshadow.
First, it is clear that things began to change in 1999, when Dr. Beverly Hall became the superintendent of APS. How could one person be blamed for jump-starting the madness? Well, Hall was all about data and reaching targets. And she set up a “target” program which held principals and teachers responsible for their students’ achievement. According to the report, “These targets were used to quantify expectations so that academic progress was measurable, based primarily on the prior year’s CRCT results.”
According to the report, “The unreasonable pressure to meet annual ‘targets’ was the primary motivation for teachers and administration to cheat on the CRCT in 2009 and previous years. Virtually every teacher who confessed to cheating spoke of the inordinate stress the district placed on meeting targets and the dire consequences for failure. Dr. Hall articulated it as: ‘No exceptions. No excuses.’ If principals did not meet targets within three years, she declared, they will be replaced and ‘I will find someone who will meet targets.’ Dr. Hall replaced 90% of the principals during her tenure. Principals told teachers that failure to improve CRCT scores would result in negative evaluations or job termination. The unambiguous message was to meet targets by any means necessary.”
Under the target program used in APS, schools were expected to move students test scores in two ways: from the bottom to the middle, and from the middle to the top, which means focusing on both the lower and higher performing students.
Targets were set each year by the administration working with outside consultants, which were then approved by the Board of Education. These targets were set for the district, for each school, and for each grade based on percentages of expected improvement, which were naturally higher for low-performing schools.
Keep in mind that as schools met their targets, those targets would increase each year. And the new targets weren’t based upon the new students coming into a grade level, but the scores achieved by the previous year’s students.
If you are a teacher, you know that each year’s students have their own strengths and weaknesses and have different levels of motivation. This target program makes no accommodations for those differences; instead the expectation is that each year there is a certain percent increase in student progress no matter what each group’s strengths or weaknesses might be.
Teachers and administrators at APS told investigators that “this element of targets, combined with the fact that the targets increase every year, makes them unreasonable. For instance, if last year’s fourth graders were mostly high-performing students, but the fourth grade class this year contains more low performers, the fourth grade targets are still set based on last year’s high performing students’ scores.” As teachers reported to investigators, it was like comparing apples to oranges.
As targets continued to increase each year, teachers reported that it was harder to attain the required results, and many resorted to cheating rather than risk disciplinary action or termination. It became that proverbially snowball effect; each year it required more cheating in order to go beyond the level of cheating the previous year in order to meet the new unreasonable target. And “the gap between where the students were academically and the targets they were trying to reach grew larger.” The cheating, once started, took on a life of its own.
While some of those who cheated were motivated by bonuses (schools that met 70% of their targeted goals received bonuses for all of their employees ranging anywhere from $50 to $2000 per employee) most of them seemed to be more motivated by their fear of recrimination if they were unsuccessful in meeting their targets. (A little sidebar from the GBI report that you might find interesting: Dr. Hall received tens of thousands of dollars based on her district’s doctored CRCT results.)
And to sweeten the pot a little more to motivate staffs, the district held a celebration annually at the Georgia Dome to honor and recognize those schools which had made their targets. At the Convocation, attendance from all schools was mandatory, and those who were being recognized for a job well-done got to “make the floor,” that is, they got to sit in a prominent place on the floor of the Dome, while those who did not reach their targets were forced to sit in the uppermost sections.
The report noted that for many it became very important to “make the floor,” especially for principals. For these individuals, the means by which this was accomplished became unimportant; the recognition, even if it was a fabricated sham, was so much better than the humiliation of sitting in the nose-bleed section.
Those schools who failed to meet their targets were usually placed on PDP’s, professional development plans. The original purpose of a professional development plan was to provide a tool for helping a staff to improve areas of weakness, in other words, to provide a low-performing school some strategies and professional development which would enable it to turn around and achieve success.
However, under Dr. Hall’s leadership, a PDP brought negative performance evaluations, threats of termination, and for some, outright termination. She made it clear that if these low-performing schools did not reach their targets in three years, she would replace the principal with someone who would find a way to meet those targets. (Her poster boy, Principal Waller, is a fine example of the kind of principal she hired to replace those principals who couldn’t make the grade.)
It comes as no surprise that those principals who feared that they would lose their jobs reciprocated in kind, putting that same negative pressure with its unreasonable expectations and demands on their teachers. And the pattern of threats and humiliation and termination became acceptable at all levels of this school district, which operated more like the mafia than a school system.
It is hard to say how any of us, placed in this hostile and vicious work environment would have reacted. I would like to think that the majority of us would have stood our ground and refused to be a part of this criminal behavior against children. But in this educational environment in which test scores have become more important than the children we teach, should we be so surprised when it creates a monster?
What is wrong with education? The scandal in Atlanta makes it very clear, and they are not the only school district to resort to cheating to improve test scores. No Child Left Behind has done more damage to our public schools than any doctrine or educational reform I have ever seen as a veteran teacher. If Congress doesn’t wake up and heed Arne Duncan’s warnings to rewrite NCLB legislation, than what we have seen here over the past week is just the tip of the iceberg.
If nothing else, APS has proven what can happen when you are sailing in troubled waters. The 2014 iceberg is looming, and unless Congress reroutes this ship, we will all be witnesses to the tragic sinking of our public education system.
Bullying, low-performing schools, No Child Left Behind, state achievement tests, Teacher-World's Blog