Putting a dramatic and fitting end to the prosecution of professional educators accused of repeatedly changing student test scores in the Atlanta school system, 10 defendants were handcuffed and taken from the courtroom to jail last week. Another, pregnant and on the verge of delivering a child, soon will join them there.
Ultimately, they were treated like common thieves, convicted, among other things, of violating the state’s racketeering law.
And thieves they were, stealing from their students the chance for the best education possible, stealing from taxpayers’ hard-earned money earmarked for education, and sadly, stealing some of a proud profession’s honor and integrity.
Thursday’s convictions in the agonizingly long cheating trial brought to an end -- at least until the appeals are filed – a tragic saga of corruption, conspiracy and cover-ups that has hung like a black cloud over public education in Georgia for years.
It was late 2008 when the Atlanta Journal-Constitution first uncovered and publicized the fact that test scores in a handful of schools had made unrealistic improvements year-to-year, sparking what ultimately would be an intensive investigation of cheating involving dozens of schools in the Atlanta school system. The backlash extended to systems statewide, as test performance suddenly was under scrutiny everywhere.
Ultimately, 35 Atlanta system educators were indicted on racketeering and other lesser charges. Of those, 21 entered guilty pleas and were sentenced to probation. Two, including former superintendent Beverly Hall, who earned national recognition for the system’s accomplishments during what proved to be years of cheating, died before the cases against them were resolved. The remaining 12 decided to take their chances with a jury. Only one of the 12 was found not guilty.
The jury’s verdict made it clear that its members were not swayed by arguments that cheating was necessary in order for educators to keep their jobs, avoid demotions, meet standards of accountability and generally to keep the school system out of trouble.
Kudos to the jury.
In all, 32 people either entered guilty pleas or were convicted. Among them were teachers, principals, assistant principals, a testing coordinator, an instructional coach, an HR director and a secretary. Of those who entered pleas, some admitted to changing test scores, some to lying, some to obstructing the investigation.
They all were professionally trained educators entrusted by parents to teach their children not only lessons in academia, but also lessons in life, such as character development, integrity and personal responsibility. When the teachers are willing to lie and steal and cheat, what lessons will the students learn?
What is perhaps most disturbing about the Atlanta Public School scandal is that so many people were involved, as though there were a maddening mob mentality that flowed through the decision-making process, pulling in those lacking in integrity and bringing them together in a repulsive display of disdain for all that is good about public education.
The probe found evidence that for some of the educators, changing test scores had all the moral implications of playing a video game, with teachers getting together for test-changing parties and working in concert like teenagers planning a Halloween prank. And, once the investigation was in high gear, the efforts at covering up what had happened kicked into gear, with shredding of documents, hiding of facts and misdirection and outright lying the accepted norm for many of the defendants.
Given the seemingly never-ending march toward more and more standardized testing and public accountability based on the results of such tests, there are those who would espouse that a cheating scandal such as this one was inevitable. We don’t buy that. Those who became embroiled in this sad affair did so because they were weak and willing, and likely never should have been involved in the educational process in the first place.
We get the fact that many educators resist the “teach to the test” mentality that has often emerged in the era of No Child Left Behind accountability. But gaming the system isn’t the way to change it, and merely harms the students they are duty-bound to serve.
Yet while it was gratifying to hear the results of the jury’s findings Thursday, it is impossible to take satisfaction from any aspect of the sleazy mess.
There are things educators could learn from the investigation, arrests and trials — don’t cheat, don’t lie, don’t abuse your authority, don’t “go along to get along” to keep a job. But the truth is, if anyone in the field needs those lessons, they don’t need to be in education to start with.
The takeaway for parents and students is that college degrees may signify completion of mandatory training, but they offer no assurance of integrity nor character. The danger, however, is applying that level of skepticism too broadly, and in doing so mistrusting those who truly do have the best interest of their students at heart.
The profession of education is filled with good, honorable, noble professionals, and a shameful incident like the Atlanta cheating scandal puts everyone on them under a cloud of doubt and suspicion.
Shed no tears for those who were led from the courtroom in handcuffs Thursday. Theirs was a crime against us all, but more than that it was a crime against an educational system that is part of the backbone of our social structure.
As judge Jerry Baxter noted in sending those convicted to jail on Thursday rather than releasing them pending appeals: “They are convicted felons as far as I’m concerned. They have made their bed and they’re going to lie in it.”