For decades, teachers’ unions and inner-city students had a hidden pact. The unions would send their worst teachers, the burned-out veterans grimly holding on until their pensions vested, into the inner cities. They would pretend to teach, and the students would pretend to learn, at least until they dropped out at sixteen or hung around high school because it was a nice warm place for gang members to congregate in cold weather. As a result, generations of African-American students were doomed to failure in school and in life.
In this century the notion that poor students were inevitably destined to failure because of bad schools and bad families proved intolerable, so No Child Left Behind was implemented, with the central notion that if students were forced to pass strict tests in order to move on to the next grade, they would have to learn something, and that was better than kids learning nothing. But as Rachel Aviv shows in this excellent article in the New Yorker, having tests dominate school curricula created an unanticipated new set of problems.
Aviv describes what happened in Parks Middle School in an inner-city section of Atlanta. The neighborhood was so morally corrupt that teacher Damany Lewis recalled that one day after school, as he was telling kids to quit hanging around a convenience store, he was propositioned by a hooker. “I’m like, ‘Whoa, whoa, I’m a teacher!” Lewis recalled. “And she’s, like, ‘I don’t care. Teachers get down.”
In 1999, Atlanta hired Beverly Hall as superintendent. She decided tough tests were the answer to the problems schools faced, and implemented a system where every employee at schools that did well on the tests, including the custodians, got $2,000 bonuses, and teachers at poorly performing schools got fired. At some schools as many as 90 percent of the teachers were sacked.
Faced with increasing pressure for good test scores, Parks Middle School students began massive cheating in 2006. Aviv notes that as many as six teachers went into the testing room during a time when the school’s principal, Christopher Waller (a Methodist pastor before he became an educator), took testing coordinator Alfred Kiel to a leisurely lunch. While the students were at recess, up to six teachers would go into the testing room and frantically erase answers before putting in the correct ones. The process, Lewis recalled, was “like a bad date where you’ve had too much to drink.”
Parks Middle School scores hit the national average in 2006 and rose even more in 2007. The school began to receive national recognition. The Annie E. Casey Foundation not only gave the school small grants but also in 2007 published a celebratory report trying to explain Parks’s success in ways that elided the true answer that the test scores were fraudulent. (The foundation has removed this report from its website.)
The fraud at Parks extended beyond test scores to attendance records. Teachers originally took attendance in the afternoons instead of the mornings, to count the students who had staggered in late in the day. Then they stopped recording absences, and attendance seemed even better.
Principal Waller, fed up with the cheating, decided to quit, but stayed on after getting a $15,000 grant from the Casey Foundation. The Casey Foundation issued a second report in 2008, which is still on their website, explaining Parks’s success.
Many factors have contributed to success at Parks. They include: low-income students rising to high expectations, a highly motivated principal, a hands-on partnership between the school and the Casey Civic Site team, an effective community outreach program, and numerous active partnerships between the school and local businesses and organizations.
The excellently credentialed Casey investigators were oblivious to the massive cheating going on.
Parks continued to attract national attention, topped by a 2009 Dispelling the Myth Award from the Education Trust (which has since retracted the prize). The school received the award at a ceremony where Secretary of Education Arne Duncan gave the keynote address.
Atlanta superintendent Beverly Hall, who saw eighth-grade test scores in language arts rise from 50 percent in 2005 to 90 percent in 2009, was recognized for her success with a $40 million grant from the General Electric Foundation and an additional $40 million from the Gates Foundation. The Atlanta City Council declared December 8, 2009, “Dr. Beverly E. Hall Day,” and Hall received the Superintendent of the Year award from the American Association of School Administrators.
A month later, Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporters Heather Vogell and John Perry reported that the test score gains at Parks and other schools were statistically improbable. The Georgia Governor’s Office of Student Achievement found erasure marks that were not normal in 75 percent of Parks’s classrooms. The Georgia Bureau of Investigation started to look into things, and got some of the teachers to confess. Their investigation led to 111 teachers being fired, including Damany Lewis. Christopher Waller plead guilty and was sentenced to five years’ probation and $40,000 in restitution. He has returned to his earlier role as a pastor.
The Atlanta cheating scandals continue, with twelve top school administrators currently on trial for racketeering. Beverly Hall is not among them, because she has Stage 4 breast cancer and has been declared too ill to stand trial.
The lesson program officers can learn from the Atlanta scandals is this: the current trend is to double down on the importance of tests in judging how well teachers do in school. Georgia is implementing a system where half of a teacher’s pay is determined by her test scores.
But as national and state tests rise in importance, the likelihood of further teaching scandals increases. So the questions foundations have to answer are these: are stringent tests the one best way to ensure that children—and in particular, children from low-income households-- do well in school? If they are not, what alternatives would be better?