The cheating scandal that has enveloped Atlanta’s public schools has all the elements of an Aristotelian tragedy, one that reveals fundamental truths about things we might not always be willing to acknowledge. The difference between history and tragedy, Aristotle wrote, is the difference between what actually happened and what could happen in any place at any given time. Tragedies speak of universal truths; their tragic nature is derived from the idea that what happened here, in this instance, could happen anywhere because some human flaws—greed, avarice, jealousy, narcissism, fear—are always with us, in every culture and in every era. We pity the characters in a tragedy because we see ourselves in them, and tragedies, therefore, arouse in us a great fear of what we might do in similar circumstances.
The story in Atlanta is about race, gender, poverty, social class, and, of course, power. It’s about fairness and integrity, about leadership and about failures of leadership, and it’s also about social responsibility and the abdication of that responsibility. Its principal characters all have engaged in behaviors both defensible and indefensible. There is Beverly Hall, the National Superintendent of the Year in 2009, who took home almost $600,000 in performance bonuses—some of which she earned almost certainly because of test-score gains that are now suspected of having been tainted by cheating. There are beleaguered teachers, humiliated in ways that should inspire genuine outrage (read the three-volume investigative report on the Criterion-Referenced Competency Tests for details), pushed, in defense of their students and their jobs, to do things that most of us say we would never do. And there are the investigators, agents of a state government that has failed time and again to meet its responsibility to provide a quality education to poor children, in Atlanta and throughout Georgia, who nevertheless had a genuine duty to get to the bottom of the scandal. The difference between right and wrong is not always so clear when incentives have been perverted, and each major player in this tragedy apparently felt justified pursuing courses of action that seem, in hindsight, to be unjustifiable.
Indeed, the significance of Atlanta’s scandal derives, in part, from the fact that the circumstances that led to it are by no means confined to Atlanta. The federal No Child Left Behind law, passed in 2001 to great fanfare, helped create the conditions for the scandal by establishing a culture of intimidation, fear, and retaliation that extends far beyond Atlanta, no doubt even into places where rampant cheating has not yet been discovered. For many superintendents and principals around the country, there is only one goal to be pursued and achieved: evidence of “increased student achievement,” no matter the means utilized and without regard for unintended consequences. The Machiavellian tactics sometimes employed by these school leaders are justified and even encouraged by a system that rewards them monetarily and professionally for higher test scores, but often fails to hold them accountable for serious ethical breaches that occurred on their watch.
For teachers, NCLB amplifies the stress of a job already filled with countless pressures. It also, as others have noted, creates the perfect conditions for cheating by simultaneously rewarding people for facilitating higher pass rates on standardized tests while also punishing those held responsible for scores that don’t rise. Given a choice between earning an incentive for raising scores and being fired for failing to do so, many teachers have apparently made the decision that they’ll take the incentive. After all, they must figure: Who is the victim? Kids pass the tests, the boss is happy, and they get to keep their jobs.
But the real story here is about the law itself, and the school culture it has both fed on and engendered. By any objective measure, NCLB has to be declared an unmitigated failure. Ten years on, and with the law’s deadline for 100 percent proficiency looming ominously on the horizon, it is quite clear that we will not get there: The most overlooked, but most significant, lesson of the cheating scandal in Atlanta is that the students whose teachers helped them cheat simply could not pass the tests on their own. NCLB was supposed to bring a “carrot and stick” approach to school reform, but instead it seems all we have gotten is the stick. While U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s decision to grant waivers, with as-yet-unspecified conditions, to states struggling to meet the 2014 deadline represents at least an acknowledgment of reality, and a promising first step, the damage may already be done: The pressure of high-stakes testing, in Atlanta and elsewhere, has turned teachers into criminals and scapegoats and provided yet another leader with a golden parachute. It’s hard to argue that kids are better off because of it.
It remains to be seen if Atlanta will once again rise from its own ashes, phoenix-like, to recover from this scandal. It’s hard to count out a city that uses the simple term “Resurgens” as its motto. But the tragic consequences of No Child Left Behind as educational policy seem unlikely to dissipate, in Atlanta or anywhere else. It seems now that each new day brings another cheating scandal, and the list of states affected continues to grow: Maryland, Utah, Illinois, California, New Jersey, Texas, Ohio, and now Georgia and Pennsylvania have all witnessed significant cheating scandals since 2001. Many of these scandals have occurred in urban centers—from Philadelphia to Los Angeles, from Washington and Baltimore to Chicago—but the calamity is not confined to big-city schools. It has extended to a charter school in Oakland, to a small district in north Texas, and to a large suburban one in Maryland.
The real legacy of No Child Left Behind may ultimately be found in districts spread across the country, where the law’s “no excuses” approach to accountability has permitted, and even encouraged, an autocratic approach to assessment and school leadership that is as damaging to the teaching profession as it is harmful to learning. Who knows what scars it will leave on the generation of teachers and students browbeaten into accepting a testing regimen that promised results it could never deliver? No Child Left Behind was designed to combat the “soft bigotry of low expectations” perceived as the ultimate plague of our public schools, but the law’s promise is meaningless if the testing it authorizes cannot be honestly administered. Ironically, NCLB has only lowered our expectations further, reinforcing the dangerous and culturally decadent idea that “dysfunctional” is a synonym for “public.” If it’s true that pride comes before a fall, this fall is likely to be precipitous.
Maybe the time is ripe to reconsider the very basis of the school reform movement as it is currently iterated, something the Obama administration at least seems open to considering. Maybe one day soon we’ll look back at the national embarrassment caused by these scandals and conclude that they provided the impetus for reforms that elevated the profession of teaching, brought more transparency to school leadership, and, most importantly, brought genuine vitality and authentic learning to schools as a result. The solutions we seek may be closer than we think. Maybe we can rise from the ashes of No Child Left Behind to rebuild a public school system that we can all be proud of. Out of tragedy, hope springs eternal.
A version of this article appeared in the August 24, 2011 edition of Education Week as Finding Hope in Atlanta