Opinion Columns & Blogs

Chicago Tribune: Learning from Atlanta's shame

Children learn what to do -- and what not to do -- by watching adults. Nowhere is that truer than in the classroom, with teachers serving as role models for students.

In Atlanta on Wednesday, however, the city's schoolchildren learned an important lesson by watching what a jury said about some of the school district's former educators.

It said they had cheated. Eleven former Atlanta Public Schools educators were convicted of racketeering for their roles in one of the most brazen and pervasive school cheating scandals ever uncovered. They could face years in prison. Another 21 Atlanta educators already had reached plea deals with prosecutors, admitting their roles in the wrongdoing.

Prosecutors said the district's superintendent, Beverly Hall, set performance targets and threatened principals and teachers if students' test scores didn't reach set goals. So teachers inflated students' test scores to make it seem that the school district was excelling. It wasn't.

The cheating lasted for so many years that one teacher told an investigator: "We considered it part of our jobs."

The cheaters reaped bonuses and kept their jobs. Hall, accused of creating "a culture of fear, intimidation and retaliation," reaped national plaudits. The American Association of School Administrators named her superintendent of the year in 2009. U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan hosted her at the White House.

Hall died before she could stand trial. She insisted she had done nothing wrong. The jury's verdict, and those plea deals, make that impossible to believe.

As the scandal unfolded, some critics of standardized testing tried to deflect blame. They said the emphasis on high-stakes standardized tests pushed educators to cheat. The jury wisely didn't buy that argument.

Trust is so basic to the function of public education that we don't talk about it much -- whether teachers are evaluating students fairly, whether parents know the testing process is fair, whether administrators run their districts with integrity.

Atlanta's educators demolished that trust -- and in the process deprived some students of honest evaluations of how their educations were proceeding.

Those educators then lied to the nation about Atlanta's supposedly superior school system -- but more important, they lied to those children about their academic progress.

Recall that in announcing the indictments in 2013, Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard highlighted the case of a third-grader who failed a benchmark exam. The girl was held back but soon passed another assessment test.

The girl's mother "knew something was wrong (with the second result) but was told by school officials that the child simply was a good test-taker," The Associated Press reported. The girl advanced, but when she reached ninth grade, she was reading at a fifth-grade level.

There's no undoing the damage inflicted on untold numbers of children here. Those students can't be reimbursed for their lost opportunities to learn.

But at least today's young Atlantans learn a different lesson: If you cheat, you can demolish your reputation and your career. You cheat no one more than yourself.

-- Chicago Tribune