The front page of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution one day in late March was almost completely taken up by news of indictments of 35 public employees. They were not legislators or crooked cops but principals and teachers in the Atlanta school system. They had been doing what one expects to hear students have been doing—namely, cheating on exams. But going by the tone of the grand jury report, one could have been forgiven for thinking they were sanitation department employees cutting deals and working kickbacks with the mob.
The Atlanta educators had, for years, been revising answers on their students’ statewide, federally mandated competency tests. This was done to improve the students’ scores, and unsurprisingly it worked. The Atlanta school system was celebrated. Its chief, Beverly Hall, was named National Superintendent of the Year in 2009 by the American Association of School Administrators, which declared her to be
“an outstanding superintendent whose leadership has turned Atlanta into a model of urban school reform. . . . She has demonstrated a commitment to setting high standards for students and school personnel, working collaboratively with the school board, and meeting the needs of the local community.”
Hall was also honored at the White House by Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, who later said, while the rumors of widespread fraud and corruption were already in the air, “Whatever the outcome of the state investigation, [Hall’s] accomplishments should not go unrecognized.”
Hall was also endorsed by the Gates Foundation, which found the Atlanta public school system “the leading edge” in “effective teaching.”
The grand jury thought otherwise. According to the indictment, Hall had indeed worked collaboratively: “In her capacity as the superintendent, [she] conspired and endeavored to violate the Georgia RICO Act through a pattern of racketeering activity . . . ”
If convicted, Hall could do 45 years, which seems harsh and probably is. But she is accused of profiting from a criminal enterprise to the tune of some half-million dollars, of ruining the careers of principals who refused to go along with the enterprise and rewarding those who did. And, of course, there are the thousands of children and their parents who were defrauded and no doubt feel truly cheated by what Hall was doing when she wasn’t soaking up the praises of the educrats and foundation chiefs.
Suspicions about the test scores being rung up by Atlanta students first emerged in 2008 and were reported by the Journal-Constitution. The test scores were, quite simply, too good to be true. The improvement was too dramatic. Inner-city schools were, almost overnight, outperforming those in the suburbs, but it was indelicate to point this out. There were, predictably, racial undercurrents.
Still, the Journal-Constitution persisted. The evidence was compelling enough that a Republican governor, Sonny Perdue—a white man from rural Georgia—pushed an investigation. The conspirators were defiant. As the AJC reported, one superintendent met “in 2010 with a dozen principals where schools were most suspect. She disparaged the state investigation and then told the principals to write and read aloud memos telling the state investigators to ‘go to hell.’ ”
Eventually, one teacher wore a wire, just like on the television shows, and gradually the evidence was accumulated and the indictments handed down. Now there will be trials.
It is, of course, a depressing story. Not least because of the brutal insensitivity and unconcern about “the kids.” That is to say, the victims. Hall and her co-conspirators sold them down the river while soaking up the money and the glory.
But that is, sadly, ordinary human frailty, and that has been with us a long time. The conspirators were tempted and they gave in to it. But they had their enablers at the foundations and in the Department of Education. Why were the latter not suspicious when the Journal-Constitution began reporting the story in 2008? These, after all, are supposed to be the people who really understand education. They are the experts.
And yet they were apparently more clueless than some parents of Atlanta schoolchildren who went to officials and demanded to know why, if their children were testing so well, they were reading so poorly.
“Don’t worry about it,” was Beverly Hall’s answer. And the big dogs at the Gates Foundation and the Department of Education backed her up. A mother of one of the defrauded children was quoted in the AJC as saying, “Beverly Hall needed to take the fall for this. She made a deal with the devil, and the devil called her out.”
The Department of Education has a budget of over $77 billion a year, and it also needs to be called out. This, of course, will not happen. What is happening is an effort by education theorists and teachers’ union bosses to transfer the blame from Hall and her co-conspirators onto . . . the tests.
The scandal, according to this line, proves that there is too much emphasis placed on standardized tests. One voice making this argument is that of William Ayers, writing in the Washington Post, where he is coyly described as:
a radical activist during the 1960s and ’70s, [who] had the national spotlight thrown on him during the 2008 presidential campaign when right-wing commentators tried, incorrectly, to say he had a close relationship with then candidate Barack Obama. In any case, Ayers is a well-known Chicago educator who worked with mayor Richard Daley on school reform and who taught and did research for years at the university. He has written numerous articles and books on elementary education.
In his short piece for the Post, Ayers (who in fact took part in the Weather Underground’s bombing campaign and was later a fugitive from justice) writes that Hall’s work “embodied the shared educational policies of the Bush and Obama administrations.” He then goes on to blame the No Child Left Behind initiative of the Bush administration (no mention of the big part Ted Kennedy played in that one) and Obama’s Race to the Top program for putting heavy emphasis on testing and “reducing education to a single narrow metric that claims to recognize an educated person through a test score.”
The stress on testing is an incentive to cheating, Ayers writes, and maybe so. But life is full of temptations that people are reasonably expected to resist. The Atlanta conspirators did have choices. Some of their colleagues chose not to cheat and not to tell investigators to “go to hell.” Some even chose to cooperate with the investigation.
Many, if not most, of the students who went to the corrupt schools—and their parents who sent them there—had no choice.
If testing has been tried and found wanting, one thinks, then how about trying something different?
Like school choice. If the Department of Education and the Gates Foundation and the rest of the education apparatus can’t sniff out a fraud and a con of this magnitude, let the parents and the students give it a try. They can’t do any worse.
Geoffrey Norman, a writer in Vermont, is a frequent contributor to The Weekly Standard.