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News of the World and Atlanta Schools Scandals

By Walt Gardner — July 27, 2011 3 min read
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It’s not often that two institutions as fundamentally different as the press and education are in the headlines for the same reason at the same time. But that is exactly what happened in early July when the News of the World and the Atlanta public schools were exposed for engaging in illegal behavior on a scale never seen before in their respective professions.

By now just about everyone knows the details about the hacking scandal in Britain. When Rupert Murdoch is involved, it’s impossible not to. Beverly Hall is not exactly a household name, but she now takes her place in the infamous annals of education as a result of the largest cheating scandal in a public school district in American history.

For those who have been titillated by the tabloid story abroad, it’s easy to forget that an equally riveting story is taking place domestically. A probe led by a former state attorney general, a former district attorney and a private investigator examined every 2009 test answer sheet in three subjects from every Georgia elementary and middle school. It uncovered cheating by adults in 44 schools involving 1,508 classes and 178 teachers and principals.

The investigation stemmed from irregularities first made public in December 2008 by Heather Vogell, a reporter for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. She discovered gains on the Georgia Criterion-Referenced Competency Test that were too good to be true. This led to a series of revelations and the ultimate resignation of Beverly Hall, who was named superintendent of the year by two national organizations. She has steadfastly denied knowledge of widespread cheating.

The still unfolding News of the World story has so far seen the resignation and arrest of Rebekah Brooks, News International’s chief executive; the arrest of Andy Coulson, who edited the newspaper during its most egregious era; and the resignation of Les Hinton, chairman of the subsidiary when the hacking was rampant.

What makes the parallel scandals instructive is that they both arise from unrelenting pressure to produce results in an atmosphere of intimidation. Britain’s press is known for being among the most competitive in the world. Getting the story is the only thing that matters. That’s how careers are made.

Atlanta’s schools, like all school districts in the U.S., operate in their own pressure cooker because under No Child Left Behind Act those that do not produce evidence of “adequate yearly progress” face escalating sanctions, including closure. That’s how teachers lose their jobs.

It was inconsequential that the origin of the pressure and intimidation differed. In the News of the World, they came from within the organization in the form of orders from Murdoch to boost circulation and profits. In Atlanta schools, they came from outside in the form of the impossible goal that all students would be proficient as mandated by No Child Left Behind.

But the existence of Campbell’s Law saw to it that both the private and public sectors would be equally affected: The more any quantitative indicator is used for decision making, the more it will be subject to corruption and the more it will corrupt the very process it is intended to monitor.

Being No. 1 in the tabloid wars at any cost assured that sooner or later the News of the World would succumb. By the same token, posting stipulated gains every year made it inevitable that Atlanta’s schools would also cross the line.

It mattered not one whit that the victims in both cases were those most vulnerable. The family of Milly Dowler suffered unnecessarily when its phone was allegedly hacked and some messages erased during her 2002 disappearance, cruelly raising hope that the girl was alive. In Atlanta, educators, who are supposed to look out for children, betrayed their trust and that of their families.

Despite efforts by Murdoch through his testimony before a House of Commons committee and Hall through a statement from her attorney to distance themselves from their respective scandals, they can’t avoid the growing perception that they knew or should have known what was happening. The Guardian published a series of articles beginning in Sept. 2002 that described in detail illegal practices by the News of the World. And The Atlanta Journal-Constitution wrote stories and editorials starting in Dec. 2008 about suspicious test scores in Atlanta schools.

Although Murdoch and Erroll Davis Jr., the interim superintendent of Atlanta’s public schools, have promised reforms to assure integrity, it’s unlikely that abuses will disappear when the stakes are high enough. Have athletes stopped taking steroids and have hedge fund managers stopped trading on insider information?

The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner’s Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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