Sentences for ten of the eleven Atlanta educators who were convicted on April 2 of cheating by erasing students answers on standardized tests and filling in correct answers is scheduled Tuesday morning at 10 AM. One teacher who was convicted will face a later sentencing date, as she delivered a baby over the weekend.
Monday was the day the sentences were scheduled to be handed down in the Atlanta teacher test-cheating scandal, but after a morning when friends, families and defense attorneys called for compassion for the Atlanta educators, the judge announced that the prosecutor had been working with attorneys and their clients for post-trial plea deals, which would ensure that at least some of the defendants could avoid jail time. Emma Brown reported for the Washington Post that former Atlanta mayor Andrew Young testified, “I think these teachers got caught in a trap. We have messed up education so much. Tests and grades do not make you educated.”
Brown described the scene in the courthouse early Monday afternoon: “After defendants’ friends and family members pled for leniency during an emotional four-hour sentencing hearing Monday, Judge Jerry W. Baxter made an unusual move for the end of a trial. He called on the former educators to accept responsibility for their actions and strike a plea deal with prosecutors.” Some reports indicated the plea deals being offered by the prosecutors would involve jail time for at least some of those convicted in the cheating scandal.
So how did it happen that Atlanta’s teachers got tried under Georgia’s Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO)?
Dana Goldstein reports for the Marshall Project: “The relative harshness of the potential Atlanta sentences stems from District Attorney Paul Howard’s decision to charge the educators not only with falsifying documents, but with racketeering, which carries a possible prison term of five to 20 years… The statistical evidence, which was presented at trial, did not indicate who had done the erasing and correcting at each school, nor who knew about it or had ordered it. Georgia’s Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO) dates to 1980, and is based on the similar federal law. In applying RICO, ‘Prosecutors’ offices are going to look at unique situations that involve a pyramid structure,’ said Jeffrey Grell, an attorney and RICO expert based in Minnesota… In a RICO case, the prosecution can present hearsay evidence that the defendant was aware of or tacitly encouraged the wrongdoing; the defendant does not have to have committed the wrongdoing directly. Typically, the goal of RICO is to hold higher-ups in a criminal enterprise accountable.”
One problem in Atlanta is that the higher-up thought to be most responsible was never tried due to illness. Beverly Hall, the school superintendent, died just last month. Goldstein continues: “In Atlanta, the district’s former superintendent, Beverly Hall, was alleged to have encouraged and covered up the cheating. She was infamous—or celebrated, depending on one’s viewpoint—for establishing a ‘no excuses’ culture when it came to test scores. According to the March 2013 grand jury indictment, she fired whistle blowers who reported cheating or questioned her emphasis on testing.”
The majority of those involved in erasing and changing test scores in Atlanta pled guilty to misdemeanor charges and agreed to probation and community service. They were also punished by losing their teaching certification. Those convicted and being sentenced Tuesday had declared their innocence; they had hoped to be exonerated. More than half of them were not the higher-ups who pressured others to cheat; several seem to have felt trapped in a scheme they couldn’t figure out how to escape without losing their jobs.
Ten days ago, when the jury in Atlanta convicted the eleven Atlanta educators under RICO, this blog opined that the fault rests in our society’s denial about the urgently important and very difficult challenges of assisting children in poverty and supporting their learning at school: “As a society we haven’t spoken forcefully enough to stop the process when we’ve been told that educators can, in a year or two, magically turn around the school achievement of all children in a class or a grade level or even a whole school or school district. Atlanta’s school superintendent, Dr. Beverly Hall promised she could do that and then set out to prove it. ‘Turnaround’ is the code word for what we have been demanding of public schools for over a decade now. Turn around a school even if ‘turnaround’ is defined as firing all the teachers or just closing the school. And by a federal law in 2002 we demanded that all schools raise all students’ test scores to the level of “proficiency” by 2014. This is, of course, a matter of ‘just pretend.’ It’s never been done and can’t be done anywhere but Lake Woebegon, the fictional hamlet that uses the dialect dubbed “Minnesota Nice” to proclaim that all its children are above average. Statistically there are always means and medians and modes; people range in their abilities and each one has special talents and weaknesses. But school policy in America has been blindly denying reality.” We have pressured educators to produce a quick fix for poverty and inequality. Why should we be surprised when somebody like Beverly Hall demands cheating to meet our expectations?
John Merrow of PBS agrees that the real culprit is a system that sets up teachers but fails to address the educational needs of the most vulnerable children: “To me, the biggest hypocrites are those who preach, ‘Poverty can never be offered as an excuse’ (for poor student performance) but then to nothing to alleviate poverty and its attendant conditions. What they are saying, bottom line is, ‘It’s the teachers’ fault’ when kids in poverty-ridden school do poorly on tests or fail to graduate. These preachers disguise their mendacity with words of praise for teachers, calling them ‘heroes whose brave work changes the lives of their fortunate students blah blah blah.’ Sounds great, but when it comes from those who discount all the other factors that affect outcomes, it’s hypocrisy. They’re setting up teachers and students to be blamed.”
Richard Rothstein at the Economic Policy Institute responded to the Atlanta verdict by writing that school teachers were left to take the fall for our horrible test-and-punish system that led to a “culture of fear, intimidation, and retaliation” in the Atlanta schools. Rothstein believes that educators who cheated may have understood their ethical choices very differently than did the jury: “Certainly, educators can refuse to cheat, and take the fall for unavoidable failure in other ways: they can see their schools closed, their colleagues fired, their students’ confidence and love of learning destroyed. That would have been the legal thing to do, but not necessarily the ethical thing to do. As one indicted teacher told the judge before the trial, ‘I truly believed that I was helping these children stay in school just one more year,’ something from which they would have benefited far more than being drilled incessantly on test-taking strategies so they could pass tests legally.”
The Atlanta trial has not been merely about educators erasing and correcting students’ answers on tests. What happened in Atlanta exposes that something has gone haywire in our nation’s education policy. It should cause us all to stop and pay attention.