Opinion: The high price of the truth in APS cheating. Tarnished reputation and shattered lives.

In 2008, The Atlanta Journal Constitution began to look at what seemed to be improbable test score swings in Atlanta Public Schools. Using data analysis, the AJC concluded test tampering had likely occurred, prompting  Gov. Sonny Perdue to order a sweeping review of test scores statewide in 2010.

When the results confirmed cheating in Atlanta, Perdue ordered an in-depth investigation, hiring two top prosecutors to lead the probe  and using GBI agents to interview educators in schools where cheating was documented.

As a result of the findings, a Fulton County grand jury returned a racketeering indictment against the former Atlanta superintendent Beverly Hall and 34 other educators in March 2013. Twenty-one defendants eventually pleaded guilty. The others are in the midst of their trial now. Fighting terminal cancer, Hall did not go on trial. She died last week.

In 2012, the paper undertook an unprecedented data investigation, which found high concentrations of suspect math or reading scores in 69,000 public school systems from coast to coast. Since the 2012 “Cheating Our Children” series, the newspaper has continued to report on the Atlanta case and test integrity nationwide

The AJC asked for feedback about our coverage. Writer and professional speaker Gene Griessman offered his view. Author of  “The Achievement Factors” and “The Words Lincoln Lived By,” Griessman looks at the resulting turmoil and damage to the system’s reputation.

I thought he raised points worth discussing and, with his permission, am sharing his comments.

By Gene Griessman

As the author of several books and two plays about Abraham Lincoln, I am the last person to tell journalists not to tell the truth.

But wisdom requires that the teller of truth take care how and when and to whom he tells it. We all know that telling the truth at the wrong time or to the wrong person or not telling all the truth can do great harm.

In telling the story of test cheating in APS, did other, more positive stories get lost? (AJC File)

In telling the story of test cheating in APS, did more positive stories get lost? (AJC File)

Though your writers and editors had good intentions, researched diligently and wrote well, your work has done harm. It may have done much good, too. But it has given racists new weapons, since the majority of test cheaters were black. It created a media frenzy. It led to an insane overreach by the judicial system. Racketeering!!! C’mon. Felonies!

And it created the impression all Atlanta public schools are worthless. Which makes it rather easy pickings for our governor who has already put on display his utter lack of judgment by his support of our universally mocked “Guns Everywhere” law.

It is a frightening thought to think this man who has been dogged by ethics questions and consumed by extremist ideology would have dictatorial powers over schools. (Who knows? If he takes over, all schoolchildren may be required to come to school armed!)

And the costs of dealing with the scandal you exposed! The millions in legal fees that could have gone for better things, like books and computers.

And the wreckage of careers. Could these teachers not have been disciplined, perhaps severely, and placed on probation like we do for other non-violent offenders?

Instead of helping the APS, as a result of the coverage, parents are more afraid than ever to send their children to Atlanta schools. Hence more flight.

I have a grandson in the Atlanta Public School system. His school is doing many things brilliantly. I have toured an all-black school that was remarkable. Spotless. Students wonderfully engaged and well behaved. One of the middle schools in northern Fulton is a model of diversity, a perennial state champion in several fields.

Maybe you have carried stories about these important accomplishments. But the public seems not aware of the good. Maybe good news is not news.

All the schools are being judged primarily by how they do on standardized tests. And how valid are the tests? How good are they at predicting success? And how do we measure success?  And should public teachers be measured by how their students do on these tests if they accept special needs students, which many charters refuse to take, and have to keep unruly students, which many charters expel, thereby inflate charter school scores?

(There is a terrific overview of these issues in the March 5 issue of The New York Review of Books, pp. 8ff. Your journalists would profit from reading it.)

I know you may have touched on many or all of these topics — I do not profess to have read every word — but the message that we’ve heard is how very bad these educators are and how terrible the Atlanta school system is. If that was not your intent, that is what the public has gathered from your coverage.

Every good communicator knows that what is most important is not what you say but what the other person hears.

You may say a journalist is not responsible for what is heard. To a large extent that is true, but there are ways to increase the likelihood that what is heard is what was meant to be heard.

Reader Comments 0

47 comments
Betsy Ross1776
Betsy Ross1776

Oh my God. I've read it all. Now this Get Schooled so-called "author" blames journalists for the cheating scandal.
PURE GARBAGE !
Don't cheat. Don't lie. Don't steal.
Every lying, cheating, stealing person deserves their "tarnished" reputation and the consequences of jail.

4PublicEducation
4PublicEducation

I think it is very important that newspapers report the truth regardless of the consequences, with rare exceptions.  Worrying about public perception of the truth starts down a slippery slope of censorship and shaping the story that we have become used to on the 24 hour cable "news" shows.  Give us the unvarnished facts; there are plenty of pundits online, on TV and in print to spin the story.  Someone needs to just tell the facts without telling us what to think about them.

Truth2015
Truth2015

I'm amazed that this article would be called "The high price of truth..." as though assuming the articles written by the AJC, the Governors Investigation or the trial proceedings are in fact truthful. I am in court everyday and I am telling you there is very little truth being revealed. I listen to the witnesses and then I read the AJC articles or listen to the nightly news clips and I'm shocked at the obvious misrepresentation of facts. The "battery ram" style reporting covering this story has forever damaged the school district, the children and those educators who were truly innocent....and there are many. It made it impossible to get a fair trial or to recover your reputation. But, I believe many don't care because the majority of those harmed are disposable.  Writing this article is akin to a being physically abused and the abuser saying " I didn't mean to beat you that bad"...its too little too late.


The resounding effects of the investigation (that actually did little to verify facts) and the stories written in this newspaper will be felt for many years. 


Congratulations

hssped
hssped

If this had been white admins and teachers cheating (ie, robbing the black children of a proper education) the NAACP would have been all over it as well as the race-baiters.  The silence was deafening.  

class80olddog
class80olddog

Did this idiot REALLY try to make the argument that the truth should have been suppressed about the APS cheating scandal?  ARE YOU KIDDING ME?


Yes, I know the cheating was caused by those on high, stating at the top, and destroyed many reputations, but the fact is that these schools would not address the REAL issues that were causing them to fail (discipline, attendance, and social promotion) and so decided that CHEATING was easier.

EdJohnson
EdJohnson

“What to do now?Move on ….”

Yup, just move on and bother to learn nothing.  In fact, that is what the new administration and mostly new, young school board are doing.  They are moving on and bothering to learn nothing.  That’s why they continue to cheat the children, and they can’t even see it.  Just like Beverly Hall, they think they are helping especially the “African American” kids.

Then how do they continue cheating the children?  They do it by subjecting the children to computer-adaptive assessment (CAAS) twice yearly for an express purpose of predicting the children’s performance on standardized tests and then remediating based on the predictions.  The kids are tested once then tested again as part of teaching the kids to take standardized tests.  Thus the nature of the continued cheating includes loss of teaching and learning time and using the children as pawns to artificially inflate standardized test scores beyond what the children's scores otherwise would be.

AvgGeorgian
AvgGeorgian

Hope this is not too much off topic. From what I understand, the APS cheating was mostly caused by pressure from the top to meet unrealistic standards that would enrich those at the top (they could keep their jobs, get bonuses and promotions). 


Fortunately as Maureen writes " Using data analysis, the AJC concluded test tampering had likely occurred, prompting  Gov. Sonny Perdue to order a sweeping review of test scores statewide in 2010". 


The proposed OSD takeover of 100 local district schools could create these same pressures. The schools could be given to for profit out-of-state charter companies that could pressure lower level employees to produce results in terms of students passing courses or graduating so the charter company can make money. 


The problem is that lack of availability of data could prevent the sort of discovery that happened in the APS case. The state commission charter schools are not required to report the same data in the same way as traditional public schools. This lack of data makes it very hard to understand and track accountability, performance, and spending. If  this same lack of transparency were in place for the 100 OSD targeted schools, any testing/financial irregularities that might occur would be much more difficult to discover.

Wascatlady
Wascatlady

Was there "collateral damage?"  Yes.  Did the AJC and others do the wrong thing by bringing the "cheating" (way too mild a word, IMHO) to light?  Absolutely not!


What to do now?  Move on, and make APS above reproach by cleaning up the problems that led to this abuse.  



Astropig
Astropig

@Wascatlady


"What to do now?  Move on, and make APS above reproach by cleaning up the problems that led to this abuse.  "


Agreed. the past is done.The future is unknowable,but changeable.


Starik
Starik

@Astropig @Wascatlady It's possible, that as Atlanta becomes less of a city for the black underclass, the schools and city government will evolve and become much better.  The inner suburbs are absorbing the underclass and the associated problems.

redweather
redweather

This is a rather subtle argument, even though at times Griessman veers wildly and unsubtly off mark.  (Deal arming school children?  C'mon.  Almost made me stop reading.)  But the AJC has done its job and, as they say, let the chips fall where they may. My hope is that it will prompt all teachers, not just the exemplary ones, to think first about the children in their charge.  I have no sympathy for "the devil made me do it" defense, whether it involves cheating on standardized tests or cheating on spouses. 

Starik
Starik

"an insane overreach by the judicial system. Racketeering!!! C’mon. Felonies!"

Arguably true - but once any legal case gets a certain level of publicity, the rule book departs.  Imagine the cost of tying up a division of Superior Court for a five month jury trial? Has Georgia ever had a trial of even a single month before?  The defense lawyers got paid how much for a five month jury trial? 


What if there's a hung jury? Will the process begin again? What if the jury acquits?

OriginalProf
OriginalProf

Maureen, please forgive this off-topic FYI--it appears that SB152 (changing the teachers retirement plan after 2017 from the traditional defined-benefits TRS to a hybrid of TRS and a 401K plan) is stuck in committee. May it remain so until after cross-over day.

Bernie31
Bernie31

@OriginalProf  A friendly reminder -


MaureenDowney 5ptsmoderatorFeatured
1 day ago

Please address the topic. Top complaint from readers: A handful of posters take over the comments and derail the discussion. I am getting more and more complaints from poeple who have given up commenting because of these few folks.

This format allows the option to ban posters. I have hesitated to use that option as it bans you from all AJC blogs, not just mine. 

If you continually try to sabotage the discussion, your comment will come down. And eventually, you will be banned.

OriginalProf
OriginalProf

@Bernie31 @OriginalProf 

Yes, I thought of that, but figured that if Maureen thought my post out of line then she would take it down. My brief FYI affects a great many posters on this blog.


Btw, since we're on the subject...other off-topic posts would be, I should think, attacks on Gov. Deal's age when the topic has nothing to do with him, long reminiscences about past injustices experienced, detailed descriptions of what worms will do to corpses (they won't be "tapping their feet" though, I can tell you)....

Bernie31
Bernie31

@OriginalProf @Bernie31 - well My Friend, I too would say the same of your long winded ramblings sometimes of Nonsense. what is good fer de Goose is good fer de Gander.  They are STILL off Topic!  and what makes YOU so special? that you are excluded from the same rules as everyone? I will be waiting...uh..huh.

OriginalProf
OriginalProf

@Bernie31 @OriginalProf 

Of course you're right...though I do try hard to avoid being long-winded, but rather be succinct and blunt. However, as Robert Burns said (translated from the Scots dialect):

Oh would the Lord the gift to give us

To see ourselves as others see us.


Antagonist
Antagonist

This cheating scandal is not unique to Atlanta. Atlanta was the one caught.

Bernie31
Bernie31

@MaureenDowney @Antagonist  - The evidence that Atlanta had more documented Cheating, remains to be presented and verified via a comprehensive state wide investigation, that Never occurred. and that is a FACT!

MaureenDowney
MaureenDowney moderator

@Antagonist When Gov. Perdue audited every single CRCT answer sheet in the state for high numbers of wrong to right erasures, 191 schools statewide were flagged for potential cheating.

The Atlanta district was home to 58 of the 191 schools. The findings singled out 69 percent of Atlanta elementary and middle schools --- far more than any other district --- as needing formal probes into possible tampering.

I agree cheating occurred in other places, but Atlanta clearly had more of it.

OriginalProf
OriginalProf

But the AJC reported the truth!  If it had not begun the questioning of the APS high test scores, then the cheating would have continued!  Kill the messenger??

EdUktr
EdUktr

True to form, today's column provides yet another Governor Deal hater with a platform from which to spew ...

bu2
bu2

@EdUktr 


I was wondering whether this was written tongue in cheek!


This guy, if he really is serious, wants to sweep under the rug all failures, much like the Atlanta Chamber of Commerce tried and failed to do.  He wants to deny problems and failures and let them continue.  He wants to let people like Beverly Hall continue to rip off the taxpayers and, most importantly, the students, who might have gotten extra help if not for the cheating.


What the AJC did to keep pressure on getting the truth out and what Governor Perdue did was very important and good for Atlanta.

straker
straker

Bernie - "you Southern people"


You're clearly in way over your head here.


Better stick to your home schooling and maybe, if you ever get a high school diploma, you'll be able to post here and make at least some sense.

Bernie31
Bernie31

@straker  - No opinion on the Topic here......Hmmmmm! where have I seen that one before???

MaryElizabethSings
MaryElizabethSings

"Every good communicator knows that what is most important is not what you say but what the other person hears."

++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++


What an excellent article, thoughtful and creative.  Multi-faceted, with truths stated in depth.  There are more truths than one.  This writer needs to keep publishing.

RealLurker
RealLurker

@MaryElizabethSings Is it then your opinion that when the AJC discovered statistical discrepancies that they should have kept it a secret?  Many people who worked for Enron were just employees and didn't know that their company was a sham.  Should the media have hidden the Enron story to keep those thousands of  people from losing their jobs?


You can make arguments about standardized tests and ratings of teachers and schools based on those tests.  However, it is deplorable to excuse systematic cheating because the teachers were "pressured" to have their students score well.  It is even more deplorable to attempt to make an excuse for the actions of Hall's administration.  The tarnished reputations and shattered lives are not the result of the AJC investigation and reporting.  The tarnished reputations and shattered lives are the result of the many people who cheated to advance their careers while ignoring the needs of their students.

MaryElizabethSings
MaryElizabethSings

@RealLurker 


You have made a lot of assumptions about my perceptions and opinions.  One thing I can reveal to you about how I think.  I do not think in dichotomies primarily, and I do not indulge in stereotypical or cliched thoughts.

RealLurker
RealLurker

@MaryElizabethSings @RealLurker I made no assumptions about your opinions.  I specifically asked what your opinion is.  If I assumed to know what you think, I would not have asked.


In my second paragraph, maybe I should have used the word "One" instead of "You".  The second paragraph was a response to your analysis of the writer's essay, not any assumption of your opinions.  The writer claims that "your work has done harm".  He blames the AJC for the cost of investigation and litigation.  He blames the AJC for the Governor's plan to take over failing schools.  He blames the AJC for ruining the careers of people involved in the scandal.  The AJC uncovered facts and told the story.  The people involved in the scandal are solely to blame for the repercussions.


You seem to be making assumptions about how I think.  I also do not think in stereotypical or cliched manners.  I can however arrive at conclusions.  When someone forces subordinates to do something they know to be wrong, they are at fault.  When subordinates go along with something they know to be wrong, they are at fault.  I will not assign blame to the AJC(a mostly liberal news organization).  I will not assign blame to the Governor(a mostly conservative Republican).  I will not assign blame to the District Attorney(a Democrat).  The only ones to blame are the people who committed the underlying acts of the scandal, no matter what their race, party affiliation, economic class, or any other description that I could come up with.  It is not based on a stereotype or a cliche, it is based on the fact that they acted poorly.  If they had not committed the acts that they did, then no action of the AJC or DA would have occurred.

living-in-outdated-ed
living-in-outdated-ed

My issue has less to do with how the AJC reported the APS cheating scandal, but with their "Cheating Our Children" series when they used questionable statistical methods to accuse school districts around the country of cheating.   Lest not forget that because of their rush to judgment, they had to retract their statement and remove certain Tennessee schools which were unfairly and improperly included in the analysis.   I have blogged extensively about this and those points of view can be found elsewhere and in previous Get Schooled blog posts.

As for the APS scandal, I don't think you not move forward with an investigation because you're worried about collateral damage.   If it is proven that Hall and her lackeys established a culture of intimidation and "ends justify the means" that pressured principals and teachers to change test scores, then that is criminal activity and not an isolated incident.  So on this point, I think Gene is off base, though he is entitled to his opinion.

It is most unfortunate that it created a domino effect and put a big "Scarlet A" on APS. Yes, there were unintended consequences, but it takes time to change a culture.   And while I may disagree in part with how the AJC covered the scandal, it did shine a bright light on the moral hazard of over-emphasis on standardized tests.   You must be careful how you create accountability measures, and ensure you don't align incentives too closely to specific targets.   We know we have to assess our students and ensure that they are learning, and teachers are teaching.  But the APS scandal taught the country a huge lesson in how we design accountabilty systems and how we train our Superintendents who must act more than just teachers, but act like CEOs.


So Gene, while certain points may be worth rehashing, it is important for journalists to get to the truth and not always focus on the collateral damage.  Remember the movie, "The Insider" with Russell Crowe and Al Pacino?  

bu2
bu2

@living-in-outdated-ed 

I agree with you about their "cheating our children" series.  What they did on APS was excellent.


What they did around the country seemed to be a Chamber of Commerce effort to say, "Well everybody does it" using questionable statistical methods.  I found at least one of their conclusions didn't tie in to the detail.  They talked about the Houston Independent School District looking bad and their detail showed North Forest Independent School District looked bad, a 2 high school Houston area district that has since been closed for mismanagement.


It also distorted the truth.  When you read the article closely (and you had to read it closely), Atlanta still showed up far worse than anyone else.  The cheating was on a whole different scale here and was lead at the top by fear and intimidation.

popcornular
popcornular

Truth does often come at a high price. Teachers, principals, and superintendents across the country sent a loud but often ignored message - Some groups are incapable of performing at even basic educational levels, and all the teaching/differentiation/BS in the world is not going to change it. Cheating therefore becomes necessary for survival.

straker
straker

Apparently, those who started the social experiments in the 60's and have been initiating one after another for all these years never considered the law of unintended consequences. 

Bernie31
Bernie31

@straker  - Sooooo that is why we have the Marginal performing Charter Model being rammed down our throats. To show proof that the Parent Voucher Payment system is the ONLY WAY to Go moving forward.

A dastardly evil plot that is awaiting in the wings, to return the State of Georgia BACK to a SEGREGATED SCHOOL SYSTEM STATE WIDE, as it was n 1965 and the many decades going backwards!


My, What a Genius Plan to put forth without the People being Truly aware of what is REALLY Happening...


You Southern People are such Wise and Intelligent People.

RealLurker
RealLurker

Is it wrong for a news organization to report facts because they are not comfortable?  Is it the fault of a news organization that there are racists who will take anything as a justification for their ignorance?  Is it the fault of a news organization that prosecutors want to placate voters?


The APS was being run very poorly.  The administration of the APS was putting comfort for the teachers and administrators ahead of the educational needs of the students.  The parents SHOULD know that.  I would say that it wasn't just the right of the AJC to report their findings, but it was a moral obligation.  Children were harmed.  I would expect that the APS is experiencing a lot of "flight".  The Hall administration broke the trust of the public.  As much as the author would like for the public to forgive and forget, it takes a lot more time to build trust than to break it.  The problems that the APS is experiencing should be an example to all districts in Georgia, no matter racial breakdown.

Astropig
Astropig

@RealLurker


Agree. Strawman arguments ("created the impression that all Atlanta public schools are worthless" Who EVER said that? No responsible official or noted observer,I'll guarantee you.)


"Your work has done harm" Huh? Maybe to the cheaters,but this needed exposure.The AJC just shined some light into a dark corner and the roaches were revealed.


" I have toured an all-black school that was remarkable. Spotless. Students wonderfully engaged and well behaved. One of the middle schools in northern Fulton is a model of diversity, a perennial state champion in several fields."


I would remind the author that the plural of "anecdote" is not "data".


This is an apology and justification for epic lawbreaking.It's repugnant to see and read.

Starik
Starik

''But it has given racists new weapons, since the majority of test cheaters were black.''  Were any white, Asian or Hispanic teachers charged? Even one?   The trials also showcased the quality of the teachers APS has been hiring, and it was startling to see that an early confession in the case was prompted by a "vision." 

Bernie31
Bernie31

Sadly, this will be opinion of some in certain populations and corners. But those who know the Truth and the intent will be revered as Heroes and real contributors to the success of an oppressed people. A oppressed people best by a evil and hypocritical Populace, whose whole intent is to keep their foot on the necks of those whom they despise.

Astropig
Astropig

"It is a frightening thought to think this man who has been dogged by ethics questions and consumed by extremist ideology would have dictatorial powers over schools. (Who knows? If he takes over, all schoolchildren may be required to come to school armed!)'


So over the top that it is pointless to listen to any other point he may be trying to make.Political bromide disguised as commentary. Governor Deal is not an extremist.That is nonsense.He's a right of center governor that has done a surprisingly good job in transitioning from a legislative to executive function.This is just a cheap shot at him.