Atlanta’s former schools chief charged under law used against Mafia

Paul Sakuma / AP / File
Beverly Hall (Paul Sakuma/Associated Press)

In 2009, Beverly Hall was tapped as the National Superintendent of the Year, hailed for driving up standardized test scores in the Atlanta Public Schools and turning the system “into a model of urban school reform.

But the scores were illusory, and Hall was just indicted under a law used against Mafia leaders, charged with leading a “corrupt” organization in which students’ standardized test scores were used to reward or punish teachers.

Yes, a law used against members of the Gambino crime family is being used against educators and school administrators in a test-cheating scandal.

Thirty-four other educators and administrators were also charged in a 65-count indictment returned Friday in Fulton County, the culmination of a long probe into a massive scandal in Atlanta’s public schools involving cheating — by adults — on standardized-test scores. Hall, slapped with a $7.5 million bond, faces 45 years in prison if convicted on all of these charges:

* Violation of Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO)
* False Statements and Writings
* False Swearing
* Theft by Taking

Hall and the others — four high-level administrators, six principals, two assistant principals, six testing coordinators, 14 teachers, a school improvement specialist and a school secretary, according to the Associated Press — all face racketeering and other charges.  Details of who was charged and for what can be found here.

RICO laws allow prosecutors to try leaders of what they view as a corrupt organization for crimes they ordered, even if they didn’t carry them out. RICO laws have been used against a variety of people around the country, including pro-life activists who blocked abortion clinics.

How did this happen in Atlanta?

The indictments follow a lengthy investigation ordered by a Georgia governor into suspicions of cheating on state standardized Criterion-Referenced Competency Tests (or CRCT) in the Atlanta school system, which were first raised by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. A report on the investigators’ conclusions, released in 2011, said that cheating was widespread, that clear warnings had been ignored by top administrators and that an environment of “fear, intimidation and retaliation” existed in the data-driven school system.

Hall stepped down as Atlanta Public Schools superintendent shortly  before the release of the report, which found that 178 teachers and principals had cheated on standardized tests for about a decade and that Hall knew or should have followed up on warnings that cheating was taking place. Eighty-two people confessed to investigators, and half a dozen others plead the Fifth Amendment. The report was used as a blueprint for the indictment of the 35 educators and administrators. Why all of those who confessed were not indicted is not clear.

Atlanta is not the only place where cheating scandals involving the adults in schools rather than the kids have been reported in recent years; in fact, dozens of them have occurred in cities around the country. The reason Atlanta’s probe got as far as it did was because a governor gave independent investigators power to subpoena witnesses. Other investigations have been less thorough, so while it appears that the Atlanta scandal is the most widespread, we don’t really know.

What we do know is that these cheating scandals have been a result of test-obsessed school reform.

For years, reformers — first under President George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind initiative and then under President Obama’s Race to the Top — have been been ratcheting up the importance of student standardized tests for accountability purposes. First used to assess students, test scores are now used to assess not just teachers, principals and superintendents, but schools, districts and even states. There is even an Education Department proposal to evaluate colleges of education on the test scores that the students of their graduates receive.

With support from the Obama administration, teacher-evaluation schemes have been put in place in numerous cities and states that are heavily weighted according to student standardized-test scores. Big bonuses are won based on test scores, and jobs are lost. The formulas that are used to decide how much “value” a teacher added to a student’s test score are unreliable, experts say, but reformers whose mantra is “data-driven education” have glommed onto the practice anyway. In some cases, teachers are evaluated according to the scores of students they never taught. Award-winning teachers with high-achieving students get bad scores for no good reason other than a formula quirk.

The obsession with test scores turned schools into test-prep factories and narrowed curricula so teachers could concentrate on the subjects that are tested. Reformers came to decide that all subjects needed standardized tests so teachers could be evaluated by the scores, and contracts were issued for more tests. That’s why a student wrote a post, which you can find here, asking why he had to take a standardized test in Yearbook class.

Some educators say that the pressure on them to raise students’ test scores has led to more cheating. That is not an excuse for the behavior, but it is an explanation.

A revolt is growing around the country, with students, parents and teachers fighting back against the testing obsession. Students are refusing to take tests; school boards have passed resolutions against high-stakes tests; and researchers have written open letters to policymakers warning them about the consequences of using standardized-test scores as an assessment tool.

But here we are, with the former head of a school system — a person deemed by the American Association of School Administrators as one of their best just a few years ago — indicted on charges of leading a “corrupt” organization.

Reformers keep pushing their bankrupt test-based accountability system — with help from two presidents — despite overwhelming evidence that it has failed to improve schools and made a mess of school districts and communities. The saddest thing: There’s no end in sight.

(Clarification: An earlier version said RICO is a federal law. There is a federal RICO statute though these defendants were charged under Georgia’s RICO Act.)

 

 

 

 

 

Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.
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Valerie Strauss · March 29, 2013