Misplaced Priorities: The Teachers in the Atlanta Cheating Scandal Aren't the Problem

by Dee Rene As a former teacher, for two months of every school year I watched some of the most brilliant educators I’ve ever known compl...

by Dee Rene


As a former teacher, for two months of every school year I watched some of the most brilliant educators I’ve ever known completely stop teaching. Their usual curriculum was tossed to the side for one focus: standardized testing preparation.

When it was all said and done, teachers and administrators would either celebrate with bonuses or start submitting job applications elsewhere. There was meeting after meeting about how to prepare for the test, rules and regulations, and—most importantly—the consequences of low performance for students and teachers. As a student you could be retained—no matter what your grade was in the class—and as a teacher, you could be terminated for students’ low performance.

This month, 11 teachers from Atlanta Public Schools were convicted of racketeering and other crimes due to cheating on standardized tests, likely responding to the immense pressure for their students and schools to perform well.

The Washington Post reports:

The case stemmed from a 2013 indictment by a grand jury of Beverly Hall, the now-deceased Atlanta schools superintendent, and 34 teachers, principals and others. Twelve teachers eventually went to trial; one was acquitted of all charges and the 11 others were all convicted of racketeering — under a law used against the Gambino organized-crime family — plus a variety of other charges. Prosecutors alleged that Hall had run a “corrupt” organization that used test scores to financially reward and punish teachers.
The indictment suggests that Hall, who was an acclaimed superintendent before her indictment and death, put such pressure on her teachers and administrators to perform that widespread cheating erupted. Schools whose test scored jumped were given bonuses and job security. Those that could not meet the goals were fired.

But how did our education system’s focus go from providing valuable learning experiences to students, to being so focused on standardized testing, that it led to corruption?

It is important to understanding the context in which this scandal has occured. According to the National Council on Teacher Quality, Atlanta Public Schools (APS) demographics show that 75% of APS students receive free or reduced lunch, a service provided for low-income or under-served students. The student population is also 77% Black. There has been a long historical correlation between race, class, and the resources students receive. This all relates to how well students are able to perform in the classroom. Additionally, Atlanta teacher evaluations (which can lead promotion or termination) are tied to student performance, which includes performance on standardized testing.

There are many questions that comes up due to the APS cheating scandal. Were these teachers not confident in their ability to prepare students for success on the test? Or did they have low expectations of their students, feeling that their students were incapable of getting the type of gains needed and cheating was the only possibility?

According to the Center for American Progress, research shows that when teachers have high expectations of high school students, the students are three times as likely to graduate from college. However, a lack of high expectations is prevalent in communities of color and low-income communities. The APS teachers may have believed that their students were incapable of achieving gains in test scores on their own, so rather than teaching, they turned to cheating instead.



Or were teachers sure that they lacked the resources to adequately prepare students? Low-income schools and students often face significant challenges compared to their middle-class and wealthy counterparts. As pointed out in the article, “Why Poor Schools Can’t Win at Standardized Testing,” the author found that in Philadelphia, many of the standardized tests are written based on specific curriculum, rather than general knowledge. The same is true around the country. If schools can’t afford the books these tests are based on due to budget cuts and poor funding, the students are at a significant disadvantage when it comes to excelling on the test. Even with tests that cover the common core—the controversial set of universal curriculum standards for all schools—these exams do not take into account that low-income students of color begin school behind their peers due to a lack of early childhood education. As the Huffington Post acknowledges, they also face nutritional challenges, lack of stability, and language barriers.

If there aren’t enough teachers or enough resources, and students are already starting out behind, what is there to do? Risk losing their jobs, or cheat on the tests to keep their jobs secure and the doors open for their students?

We must also question whether or not is was greed that influenced the cheating? Teachers are notoriously underpaid. The allure of bonuses, acclaim, and promotions for high achievement could have led some teachers to rig the system for their own benefit. If districts are unable to pay teachers more across the board, it’s likely that some teachers took matters into their own hands and used the test to ensure that more money would be headed their way after evaluations.

Although no one is condoning the actions of the 11 APS teachers who were found guilty last week, it’s time to look at how the broader system of inequality led to this point. Most importantly, we must remember the implications this has for students. Several teachers, administrators, and even the superintendent were fired in 2013. That means several schools had to shuffle students to new classes, lost valuable instructional time, and are under even more scrutiny and regulations than before. The idea that we need better performing schools is noble, but the APS scandal shows that our methods to go about measuring performance by focusing on standardized test scores is only creating a corrupt system in which our young people ultimately suffer the most.

Photo: GeorgiaNewsDay.com

Dee Rene is a connoisseur of snacks and brunch. Her focus is holding onto faith in all the things that make us laugh, cry and cuss. Follow me her on Twitter: @deerene_.

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