You could cite many reasons for the cheating scandal that has blown up the Atlanta public school system and given Georgia another black eye in the national media.
The major reason, however, was probably the ego and arrogance of the now-departed superintendent, Beverly Hall, and the culture within the school system that she perpetuated.
Hall evidently cared little about actually providing children with an education. She wanted the ego gratification that came with "reforming" an urban school system and figured the best way to do it was by boosting student scores on standardized tests. Throughout her tenure as superintendent, Hall put her emphasis on test results and media publicity rather than teaching students.
It didn't matter how those test results were achieved, either. Many administrators and teachers, under pressure to bolster scores, took part in schemes to erase and change answers on test forms so that they could bring the results up to Hall's standards. Whistle-blowing teachers who tried to bring the cheating to the attention of Hall were punished or dismissed.
The report compiled by state investigators expressed it this way: "APS became such a ‘data-driven' system, with unreasonable and excessive pressure to meet targets, that Beverly Hall and her senior cabinet lost sight of conducting tests with integrity."
"In sum, a culture of fear, intimidation and retaliation permeated the APS system from the highest ranks down," the report said. "Cheating was allowed to proliferate until, in the words of one former APS principal, ‘it became intertwined in Atlanta Public Schools ... a part of what the culture is all about.'"
The final tally: At least 178 educators, including 38 principals, took part in cheating. More than 80 of those involved in the cheating confessed. Cheating was confirmed at 44 of the 56 schools that were investigated.
In some ways, the Atlanta school system mess is a natural outgrowth of bad policy decisions made at the federal and state levels more than a decade ago.
George W. Bush, first as governor of Texas and then as president, initiated an education reform program called No Child Left Behind that requires extensive testing of K-12 public school students. Schools whose students did not achieve federally mandated test scores can be penalized and, in some cases, shut down. Teacher compensation in some systems is based on how well students perform on these tests.
Roy Barnes was enamored of the Bush school program and used it as the model for his own "A-Plus" education reform proposal that he pushed through the General Assembly when he was governor.
School testing is important as a way to measure a student's improvement, or lack of it, and pinpoint areas where more help might be needed. But programs like No Child Left Behind put so much emphasis on testing that educators were driven to "teach to the test" rather than focus on the subject matter students really need to learn.
When you take an egotist like Hall and combine her with an education program where so much of your success, and even your employment, depends on test scores, you wind up with cheating scandals like the one that has all but destroyed the Atlanta school system.
This is not a problem isolated just to Atlanta. State investigators are still examining similar curriculum test cheating allegations in the Dougherty County (Albany) school system. School systems in other states have been caught up in cheating scandals in recent years, including Baltimore, Houston, Michigan and Florida.
In Washington, Michelle Rhee was praised for the improved test scores that were seen at some underperforming schools while she was the superintendent there. Just as in Atlanta, however, questions were raised and schools were flagged for suspiciously high numbers of test questions that were changed from the wrong to the right answer.
The teachers and administrators caught up in the Atlanta cheating scandal are facing administrative and possibly criminal sanctions for their actions, which is how it should be.
Elected leaders at both the federal and state levels should take a hard look at cleaning up our schools by getting back to a system that puts more focus on teaching subjects like reading, math and science, and less emphasis on getting students ready for tests. Our kids deserve much better.
Tom Crawford is the editor of The Georgia Report, an Internet news service that covers government and politics in Georgia. His column appears Wednesdays and on gainesvilletimes.com.