Why Jailing Cheating Teachers Probably Won’t Help America’s Kids

Atlanta educators were convicted for fudging standardized test results, but activists say children are being swindled by segregation and unequal funding.

Elementary principal Dana Evans, educator Donald Bullock, educator Angela Williamson, and former educator Sharon Davis Williams. (Photo: Kent D. Johnson/Reuters)

Apr 16, 2015· 2 MIN READ
A veteran journalist and former White House correspondent for Politico, Joseph Williams is a freelance writer, blogger, and essayist in Washington, D.C.

When a judge sentenced 10 Atlanta educators for rigging the standardized test scores of their students—including seven-year prison terms for three of them—it was an ugly conclusion to perhaps the largest cheating scandal in American public education history.

A group of grassroots activists who want the educators freed, however, say it’s just the beginning of a longer, more important fight against the culture of high-stakes testing and the decades of institutional inequality they say are directly responsible for the conspiracy.

Rise Up Georgia, a progressive community-organizing campaign, says the 10 teachers and administrators who were found guilty of conspiracy in the wide-ranging scandal are scapegoats for a broken system. Although Judge Jerry Baxter condemned the educators for swindling their elementary and middle school students out of an education, RiseUp argues the students were cheated long before the first test answer was changed.

“The justice being served is unequal,” said Allie McCullen, Rise Up’s education justice organizer. “We see this as a way to educate the Atlanta community about the larger systemic problems in education.”

Although “we recognize that cheating is wrong, the justice being served is unequal,” said McCullen, noting that Rise Up’s petition drive has collected more than 35,000 signatures. “Jail time for these educators is not addressing the high-stakes culture. They’re taking the fall for cheating that happens all across the nation. And it has its roots in high-stakes testing.”

Most of the cheating took place at 44 schools and involved nearly 180 educators between 2005 and 2009. In 2013, a grand jury indicted 35 Atlanta Public Schools educators after an investigation revealed cheating was behind a remarkable spike in statewide aptitude scores at previously failing schools in the city. Authorities say teachers and administrators under the gun to meet No Child Left Behind achievement mandates altered, fabricated, or gave children the answers on the tests.

Beverly Johnson, the school superintendent, was charged in the conspiracy but died before her case went to trial. Under Johnson, authorities say, educators were offered cash bonuses—or pink slips if test scores didn’t improve.

The bulk of educators involved took plea deals, but the others opted for jury trials, which ended in convictions on racketeering and other lesser crimes two weeks ago. The sentences Baxter issued Tuesday range from probation to 20 years in prison, with seven to serve.

Although the teachers’ defense attorneys and some education analysts argued the punishment didn’t fit the crime, Baxter retorted that a generation of Atlanta children were cheated out of an education. “I think there were hundreds and thousands of kids who were lost in the schools,” he said. “This is not a victimless crime that occurred in this city.”

RiseUp’s McCullen, however, said the basics of the case—educators being told to show results, or else—are an example of why our current education-reform bureaucracy, not the educators, should have been on trial.

The defendants, she said, taught poor kids in crumbling, long-ignored, mostly black schools that couldn’t get the same resources as higher-performing schools in wealthier districts. The high-stakes testing culture, coupled with concerns that their school might close and their kids be left behind, practically invited teachers to do the wrong thing for the right reason.

“A lot of them had to ask themselves, which is more detrimental: cheating on the test or seeing another vacant [school] in Atlanta?” McCullen said. The nation’s sad history of public-school discrimination—including unequal school funding, lack of social services for poor students, and standardized tests that are skewed toward the white middle class—and the worst elements of high-stakes testing were on display in the case, she added.

According to McCullen, true justice “is not just about improving test scores. It’s about improving the whole lives of the student.” Although the case is now closed pending appeals, the students Baxter spoke of “were cheated long before,” she said.