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I Witnessed the Real Crime in Atlanta's Schools

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With the end of another school year across the country, my thoughts have already turned to lessons learned the last nine months, particularly as we look to the coming fall. One of the biggest that comes to mind can be found in the harsh legal judgment handed down in the Atlanta public schools’ cheating scandal.

While the key media take-away from this trial was the length of the prison sentences and the class of charges—initally, up to seven years for racketeering—the cause of the defendants’ “organized and systemic misconduct” was largely overlooked. District officials at the highest level had lured educators with cash incentives and the promise of promotions to somehow produce better test scores. While the initial sentencing by Fulton County Superior Court Judge Jerry W. Baxter may have sparked a national controversy, we should not be distracted from the true abuses in this scandal.

Former testing coordinator for Atlanta public schools Donald Bullock was sentenced to 5 years probation, 6 months of weekends in jail, a $5,000 fine, and 1,500 hours of community service for racketeering and two counts of false statements.
Former testing coordinator for Atlanta public schools Donald Bullock was sentenced to 5 years probation, 6 months of weekends in jail, a $5,000 fine, and 1,500 hours of community service for racketeering and two counts of false statements.
—Kent D. Johnson/Atlanta Journal-Constitution

As dismaying as this case may be, the larger, and more troubling, story of what happened in the Atlanta schools is not generally known, and perhaps surprisingly, has nothing to do with either the case brought against the employees or their sentences.

Here, now, is that story: what occurred systemically in the Atlanta public school system, and the high price its students unwittingly paid. I know because I was a witness.

In 2006, I was the vice president for strategic partnerships with a nationally known, New York-based nonprofit organization, the Institute for Student Achievement. The organization’s mission is to improve academic performance in urban high schools through the creation of small learning communities within larger campuses. We were working with the Atlanta schools to transform and improve some of its high schools. In October 2006, prior to the investigation of the cheating-scandal, I visited one of our partner high schools.

"I do not believe that these teachers were outliers. Nor, in fact, can one reliably state that Atlanta is the only place in our nation where high-stakes testing has led to an abandonment of good teaching."

During my two-day visit, I sat in on the classes of every teacher in each of the four small learning communities within the high school. I found the students well-behaved and cooperative. The school facility itself was clean and well-maintained, and the classrooms were fully equipped with instructional materials and the latest technologies.

I had purposefully chosen October as the time for my visit. Atlanta had started its school year in August, and I knew that, by October, students and teachers would be ripe for observation. It can take a while for students and teachers to really get into the rhythm of the school day and be ready for a common set of expectations to be shared. By midfall, most teachers should have a good sense of their students’ needs, and students should be in tune with their teachers’ ways of doing things.

My experience as a former superintendent and high school principal had taught me, in short, that October was an optimal time for teaching and learning, and that it would be a good moment to catch schools doing something right.

Instead, what I found was totally surprising and dismayingly consistent. In every classroom I visited, whether English, history, math, or science (the only exceptions were art, music, and physical education classes), students and teachers were engaged in test preparation for the statewide exams—tests that would not be administered until the spring.

"We should know by now that test scores do not always equate with knowledge, and that teachers still need to really teach, not just prep students for tests."

There was no instruction in new material at all. In its place was an unrelenting barrage of test-prep activities of the most deadening kind. I found many teachers administering practice tests, while others were reviewing the results of practice tests. Still others handed out skill-drill worksheets. I did not see a single class—and I found this hard to believe, even as I observed it with my own eyes—in which an old-fashioned, content-based lesson was being taught.

Based on my conversations with several Georgia educators, I do not believe that these teachers were outliers. Nor, in fact, can one reliably state that Atlanta is the only place in our nation where high-stakes testing has led to an abandonment of good teaching (not to mention common sense).

Today, in my own state of New York and elsewhere, there are ongoing attempts to link student performance to bonus pay and/or tenure for teachers. The issue remains current. We should know by now that test scores do not always equate with knowledge, and that teachers still need to really teach, not just prep students for tests.

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As we seek to unravel the mysteries of how to legitimately enhance the performance of all the nation’s public school children, we must not lose sight of the larger, and typically unprosecuted, crime: depriving students of a full opportunity to be taught and to learn, in the name of high-stakes testing, accountability measures, and performance-based pay. We cannot let unrelenting test preparation replace effective, caring teaching relationships. Our students, and our schools, deserve more than that.

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