The Atlanta Public Schools Cheating Scandal – A Crop of Corrupt Educators

The Atlanta Public Schools (APS) cheating scandal will go down as the worst public schools governance failure in United States history.  The cheating involved administrators and teachers systemically altering the test results of the Criterion-Referenced Competency Test (CRCT) given to Georgia students in grades first through eighth.

What Happened?

The story began to unravel in 2008 when the Atlanta-Journal Constitution initiated reporting.  It culminated with the conviction of 11 defendants on charges of Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO) and other offenses.

By The Numbers:

– 35 indicted
– 21 guilty pleas
– 11 convictions
– 1 acquittal
– 2 died under investigation
– 178 educators named as cheaters
– 44 schools involved
– 80 educators confessed to cheating
– 150 educators lost their jobs
– $580,000 in bonuses paid to the Superintendent
– 50 Georgia Bureau of Investigation agents assigned to investigate

How This Happened?

The tone from this corrupt bell tower rang loudly.  The APS Superintendent set an unrealistically high bar for all to follow. Scores on the CRCT were expected to soar – “no exception, no excuses.”  Principals were given three years to raise their scores or they would lose their jobs. At an annual convention in the Georgia Dome, the high achievers were recognized and praised for their astonishing achievements.  The non-performers were relegated to the bleacher section.  One teacher that did not participate in the cheating described that “…it felt like we all had leprosy.”  All the while, the APS Superintendent won the 2009 National Superintendent of the Year.

The APS was achieving results never before seen in a school system. One school went from 1% of the students achieving the highest range on the CRCT in 2006 to 46% in 2007.  The APS was achieving statistically improbable results and critics began watching.  As various investigations began scrutinizing APS results, the APS administrators stuck by their guns.

The first line of defense was for APS to name its own Blue-Ribbon Commission to study the results, which not surprisingly minimized its findings. The Superintendent, an African-American who oversaw a school system comprised largely of African-American students and administrators, intimated that APS critics were racist.  One of the resulting investigations concluded that the APS had a “culture of fear and a conspiracy of silence.”  When one regional superintendent learned GBI agents had started interviews, she tried another tactic.  She gathered a group of principals together and instructed everyone in attendance to prepare a memo telling investigators to “go to hell.”  Each principal was then instructed to share this memo with their colleagues.

Why This Happened?

Using concepts the authors adeptly described in The A.B.C.’s of Behavioral Forensics (Willey, 2013), the teachers were the bad “apple (how ironic);” the principals were the bad “bushel;” and the regional superintendents were the bad “crop.”

This corruption undoubtedly started out as most do. Good people brought to a noble profession to do good things.  But how do we go from good people to convicted teachers and administrators facing significant prison time?

The answers to these questions are as difficult as they are varied. Although greed is often thought of as the answer to many corruption and fraud offenders, that answer usually doesn’t capture the real motivation.  There isn’t a one-size-fits-all answer.  Each participant probably acted under a somewhat different motivation that was emotionally based.

Take the Superintendent for an example. She did receive in excess of $580,000 in bonuses during her tenure.  Were bonuses her primary motivation?  What about pride?  What role did her perceived accomplishments leading up to her winning the 2009 National Superintendent of the Year award play?

How about the mid-level management?  What kind of tone were they setting and following?  They were instructed to achieve at all costs.  What role did pride and shame in the work force play?

How about the teachers?  Several teachers were single-parent mothers with teaching being the only way to make a living.  How much of a real choice did they have when their principals invited them to erasure parties where CRTC answers were changed from wrong to right?

How about the cover up?  How ironic is it that the teachers are the ones cheating.  Did the potential for monumental embarrassment drive management to obstruct investigators?

Can This Type of Fraud Be Prevented?

There are two types of controls that may help reduce this risk of cheating in the future: hard controls and soft controls.

The APS has already adopted some hard controls.  Physical controls are being placed over the exams so they are not opened prior to testing. Further, the exams and scores sheets are tracked through the system to minimize changes to answers.  There is an anonymous hotline so that anyone can report cheating. Incentive pay has been stopped and is under review. Over 60% of the principals have been replaced.  The shortcoming with hard controls is that they are only as effective as the people that implement them.

Soft controls aim to create a culture of compliance.  All participants are motivated to do the right things for the right reasons.  The tone does start at the top and it rings and modulates with the governing body.  There also needs to be a perception of detection.  An atmosphere must be created so that no one wants to do wrong because they know they are surrounded by well-intentioned educators that will report them.  For soft controls to work, they must be intentionally implemented and monitored.  These controls should also be tested by an independent party.

Every parent in Atlanta is pulling for the new Superintendent.

The Impact of This Fraud

A generation of students was harmed by inflated test scores that masked true achievements by hiding them under unearned “achievements” through fraudulent test results.  Students requiring and deserving remedial assistance were deprived of honest assessment of their academic abilities and the resources for remedial assistance.