Atlanta Trial: The Ultimate in Test-and-Punish

I watched live TV coverage of the final sentencing hearing in the Atlanta test cheating scandal. The Atlanta Journal Constitution described the sentencing of the educators who were convicted earlier this month on racketeering charges under a Georgia RICO statute: “Three former top administrators were given the maximum 20-year sentence Tuesday, with seven years to be served in prison and 13 on probation, and fines of $25,000 to be paid by each… Lower-ranking educators—those who were principals, teachers and testing coordinators—received sentences of up to five years with at least one-year in prison and hefty fines ranging from $1,000 to $5,000. All the defendants were granted first-offender status, meaning their record would be wiped clean after they served their time.” Two of the educators accepted a plea deal at sentencing; they admitted guilt, received long probation, and gave up their right to appeal.

What was clear to me as I listened to the judge, the defense attorneys, and one of the defendants who spoke eloquently, is that the truth is more complicated than the facts that are supposedly exposed in a trial.

The judge demanded again and again and again that the defendants admit their culpability and ‘fess up to the way they had harmed the children of Atlanta by changing the answers on the testing forms. Judge Jerry Baxter clearly believes that if children score poorly on standardized tests, the schools can address their challenges, and catch them up, and raise their scores. He continued to name the tragedy that too many students who have been graduating from high school cannot read. In Judge Baxter’s version of what is true, someone who scores low can be remediated, caught up, and made college or career ready. A teacher’s job is to make that happen. Judge Baxter has internalized the scenario the No Child Left Behind Act is supposed to guarantee. It is what was supposed to happen in Atlanta and what has been supposed to happen across the country. We would institute standardized tests, and we would punish teachers and close schools when they didn’t make the students’ scores rise higher and higher.

The reality is that more than a dozen years of standardized testing under No Child Left Behind have made little difference. Scores on the National Assessment of Education Progress have not significantly budged. Achievement gaps by race have not closed, and economic achievement gaps have widened.

But there was another reality present in the Atlanta courtroom. One defendant spoke on his own behalf to ask for mercy. His truth is very different than Judge Baxter’s. He said he worked as an administrator in very poor schools in Memphis before he came to Atlanta. In both cities some of the schools he oversaw were chaotic. Some staff members were overwhelmed and performing poorly. He worked to support the people working under him and to expect much from the teachers and principals for whom he felt responsible. He believes the schools improved because of his hard work. Other character witnesses spoke of school teachers and administrators who fed hungry children and helped students by providing clean clothes and even helping children with personal grooming so they wouldn’t have to be embarrassed. The educators being tried in Atlanta understand the realities for too many children in the schools of America’s big city ghettos, schools where our society segregates our poorest and most vulnerable children in places where everybody is poor.

Our test-and-punish education philosophy says that it’s the teacher’s fault when scores in very poor schools are low. Others have pointed out that there is something about concentrated poverty that undermines the situation for children and teachers alike. Here are short statements from just three of the experts:

Gary Orfield: “The law raises the pressure for schools, by themselves, to produce equal outcomes while other social policies bearing on the lives of poor children have been cut back. The dominant rhetoric has ignored the reality—reflected in countless studies over the past four decades—that poverty, low parent education, poor health, and inferior segregated schools all contribute powerfully to unequal outcomes, and that those conditions can only partially be addressed inside the schools.” (Forward to Why High Stakes Accountability Sounds Good but Doesn’t Work—And Why We Keep on Doing It Anyway)

Mike Rose and Michael B. Katz: “Throughout American history, inequality—refracted most notably through poverty and race—has impinged on the ability of children to learn and of teachers to do their jobs.” (Public Education Under Siege, p. 228)

Robert Putnam: “Do K–12 schools make the opportunity gap better or make it worse? The answer is this: the gap is created more by what happens to kids before they get to school, by things that happen outside of school and by what kids bring (or don’t bring) with them to school—some bringing resources and others bringing challenges—than by what schools do to them. The American public school today is a kind of echo chamber in which the advantages or disadvantages that children bring with them to school have effects on other kids.” (Our Kids, p. 182)

It seemed to me that what I was hearing in that courtroom was, on the one hand, the judge’s truth: the myth that testing will improve children’s achievement, and on the other, the educators’ truth—their grasp of the struggles they and their students face day-after-day in their schools.

The conversation in Congress—the markup of the new bipartisan bill that has been proposed in the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee to reauthorize the No Child Left Behind Act, the law that set in motion test-and-punish school reform—is really about the same thing. A lot of the discussion is about the validity of testing and what test scores should be used for.

There is a lot of of talk, much of it rhetoric at all levels, and a lot of misunderstanding—in Congress—in the Atlanta courtroom—and in state legislatures where there are threats to cut the taxes that pay for small classes and enough counselors so that teachers have more support. What I haven’t heard anyone seriously discussing are the steps our society would need to take to ameliorate family poverty and to address what is a rapidly growing trend for America’s children to be educated either in wealthy enclaves in the far suburbs or in what are now the tragically underfunded schools that serve the children in our urban ghettos. Two societies—separate and unequal—with fewer children all the time in middle class schools.

We can send teachers to jail for cheating when it is demanded that they provide a quick fix for our society’s greatest tragedy, but that isn’t going to help the children in Atlanta’s poverty schools or the children in any other poor city.

As I watched the courtroom proceedings, I thought about the words of the Rev. William Sloane Coffin: “One of the attributes of power is that it gives those who have it the ability to define reality and the power to make others believe in their definition.” (CREDO, p.60) Or at least the power to make others accept their definition. As a society we need to do considerable soul searching.