APS judge bids “Adios” but not before addressing role of poverty in children’s lives

“Adios.”

That was the final word a few minutes ago from Fulton County Superior Court Judge Jerry Baxter after reducing the prison sentences of three APS defendants from seven years to serve to three.

Fulton County Superior Court Judge Jerry Baxter re-sentenced three defendants today. (AJC photo)

Fulton County Superior Court Judge Jerry Baxter re-sentenced three defendants today. (AJC photo)

Baxter opened the short court proceeding by saying, “I have done a lot of reflection on the sentence that I rendered two weeks ago. I am not comfortable with it. When a judge goes home and he keeps thinking over and over that something’s wrong, something is usually wrong. Anyway, I want to modify the sentence so I can live with it. I am going to put myself out to pasture in the not too distant future and I want to be out to pasture without any regrets.”

He urged convicted educators Tamara Cotman, Sharon Davis-Williams and Michael Pitts to begin their community service now, noting their appeals — which he predicted would not prevail — could take two years.

In the meantime, Baxter said the talented trio could help the community. “These are smart people. They have something to offer,” he said.

It was apparent Baxter reflected on the contention of many educators after the original sentencing that he overstated the impact of test tamping on the fates of children while ignoring the effects of poverty.

At the original sentencing, an exasperated and angry Baxter dubbed the cheating scandal the “sickest thing that’s ever happened to this town” and said it pushed kids on a path to crime. “They are the most vulnerable children in our city, and they were shortchanged. They were passed on, and now they’re in the prison system,” he said.

Today, the judge went deeper, closing with a statement about the poverty and the hopelessness of the neighborhoods where cheating occurred.

Acknowledging the “fine” teachers in many APS schools serving the poorest of children, Baxter said, “But that alone is not going to solve the problem. Hopefully, after going through this, our community will put a microscope on it and hopefully make things better for these children who didn’t ask to be born in these conditions, but they are born in these conditions and need to get all the help they can to get out of there.”

I wrote about the same issue in the print AJC after the first round of sentencing:

To be clear, the altering of student exams to make schools appear more successful was inexcusable, and the educators deserve to be punished. But students in those high-poverty Atlanta schools didn’t falter academically because teachers changed answers on the CRCT. Teachers changed answers on the CRCT because students were faltering.

I worry that attributing poor student performance to test tampering promotes a simplistic remedy: Make it harder for educators to cheat and punish them severely when they do. It does not address the core issue of how to advance children who arrive at school far behind advantaged peers whose parents have already invested immense resources into developing their 5-year-old’s critical thinking and problem-solving abilities.

Cheating was so rampant at Parks Middle School that Atlanta has blotted out the name. After merging with another school in the old Parks building, the school was re-branded Sylvan Hills Middle. But APS has yet to vanquish the low academic performance.

On last year’s state report card, which grades Georgia schools on a 100-point scale, Sylvan Middle scored 52.7 — below the average APS middle school grade of 65.8 and the average state grade of 73.8.

In the five years after the state’s audit confirmed the AJC findings of cheating, testing protocols have tightened in Atlanta, and dozens of educators who confessed to cheating have been ousted from the classroom. But that hasn’t brought an end to academic challenges in the district. Twenty-eight Atlanta schools — more than in any other Georgia district — qualify for state takeover due to low performance.

Schools with high numbers of poor children face enormous hurdles catching their students up to middle-class peers; these schools often have to compensate for the collapse of multiple supports in children’s lives, from family, to personal safety, to adequate housing, to health care.

We’ve expected teachers and schools to shore up these fallen structures alone. And we’ve been telling poor kids, “Work harder and you will overcome these obstacles and succeed.”

Yes, some kids somehow find the resiliency and grit to reach the top despite the boulders in their path. However, they are rare, as are high school runners with a 4-minute mile or valedictorians with perfect SAT and ACT scores. While we can admire these preternatural talents, we shouldn’t pretend they are the exemplars. They are the exceptions.

Today, the achievement gap between high- and low-income students is 40 percent wider than a generation ago, mostly because wealthier parents are investing a lot more time, money and energy into their children’s cognitive development. They understand the future belongs to not just the educated, but the highly educated.

Many skeptics argue social programs and wraparound services can’t replace attentive and dedicated parenting. I agree and wish young women and men would not have babies when they are 17. And if they do, I wish they would provide secure homes for their babies and complete their own education so they can lift themselves and their children out of poverty.

But if they do none of those things, our default position can no longer be that schools can fix it all.

Reader Comments 0

118 comments
eulb
eulb

Four days and 116 comments after Maureen Downey's blogpost, we literate, educated commenters have generated how many practical ideas for improving the life trajectories of the impoverished, uneducated students and young adults in our city?  

My tally is zero. 

This does not bode well.

popacorn
popacorn

@eulb How is your reading comprehension for the writing on the wall?

Carlos_Castillo
Carlos_Castillo

Keep in mind that it's not as if student performance at public schools in the lusher parts of Fulton County are stellar to begin with.  

eulb
eulb

How to give kids a way up and out of the circumstances they were born into?  I don't know the answer, but we desperately need to find it. 

A few days ago, I heard a snippet of an NPR radio show in which the interviewee was talking about studies showing that recent immigrants are more likely to rise out of poverty than native-born Americans.  I'm pretty sure our decades-old "war on poverty" was designed to help the latter group, but it isn't working.

I didn't hear the whole program and can't seem to find it now.  (Wish I could find it and post the link.) Did anyone hear the whole program?  Did the interviewee offer any advice on how to actually  improve the chances that a child born into unfortunate circumstances here will manage to rise above it?

popacorn
popacorn

@eulb

Especially if those 'recent immigrants' are Asian - ever the fly in the liberal soup. I wonder why that is?

eulb
eulb

@popacorn @eulb I lean toward the liberal side.  But facts are facts, and that fly bites. 

I really want to find that radio show and hear the rest of it.  I'm hoping it discusses that issue.

popacorn
popacorn

@eulb @popacorn

Is it, gasp, possible that Asian kids are inherently different from American kids, and that holding all students/people to the same standards has caused the chasm that frustrates the people who then respond with apathy/violence etc?

Wascatlady
Wascatlady

@eulb You have to realize our recent immigrants are a select bunch.  They had the wherewithal to go through the immigration process (either because of horrendous happenings in their home land, or for some other good reason).  The rest of us?  Eh.  WE TAKE FOR GRANTED THAT WE WILL BE OKAY, THAT WE WON'T BE ALLOWED TO STARVE IN THE GUTTERS.  Not the same as entitlement (although that is also there) but a sense that we are Americans,and we will be okay because we live in a great country.  Some of us are NOT the motivated, hardworking person coming to a new place in thankfulness.

eulb
eulb

@popacorn @eulb 

Yes, that's possible.  But if true, how do you account for the grinding poverty and lack of education that these asian immigrants were trying to escape in their homeland?  


If asians are innately superior in intellectual pursuits, why have they not transformed their own homelands into shining societal success stories?  Those countries should be paradise by now.  We should all be trying to emigrate there.  Why is it not playing out that way?

OriginalProf
OriginalProf

@Wascatlady @eulb 

Also, the Asian immigrants (whether Indian or Pacific Rim) coming here today must have a certain amount of money, education, and work skills in order to get a visa in the first place. They're not like the Vietnamese "Boat People" of the 1970s. Refugees?  That status is hard to get today, given the influx world-wide.

OriginalProf
OriginalProf

@popacorn @eulb 

Well, it sure seems possible that the native cultures of the Asian kids differ from that of the American kids. The communal expectations of Eastern families aren't the same as those of Western families. You really need to consider all of the factors here.

eulb
eulb

@OriginalProf @popacorn @eulb 

I am truly willing to consider all the factors here.  That's why I asked my questions. 

This thread may be turning into a debate about nature vs nurture.  (Asian culture would fall into the "nurture" category.) 

Fifteen-to-twenty years ago, many U.S. families were adopting babies from China and India.  In those cases, Asian culture did not influence the children as they grew up.  I'm curious whether there has been any study showing how they are faring.

But I'm not sure that info would help us figure out what we can do about our native-born kids growing up amid entrenched poverty, high crime, and low education.  And that's what we desperately need to know.  

What are practical, legal steps we can take right away to begin to change the life trajectory of our own citizens who are stuck in that situation?  Anybody got a plan?

OriginalProf
OriginalProf

@eulb @OriginalProf @popacorn 

My comment about considering all the factors was addressed to popacorn, please note. You obviously are already doing that.  I myself think that the example of Asian kids is a separate phenomenon from our own native-born poor kids (white, Hispanic, or black).



Wascatlady
Wascatlady

@OriginalProf @Wascatlady @eulb You are right. I was including that in the wherewithal.  


It is obviously more than just lack of money that seems to be an impediment. I think there are intertwining factors of lack of money, lack of aspiration, lack of inspiration, lack of perspiration.

eulb
eulb

@OriginalProf 

"My comment about considering all the factors was addressed to popacorn, please note."

You're right.  I was not paying attention.  Sorry. 

eulb
eulb

Can anything be done to turn the situation around?  The status quo is not acceptable, but the great minds in this blog have not offered a practical remedy.  My weak mind hasn't come up with one, either. If you've cooked up a plan, Wascatlady, I'm willing to read it.

JBBrown1968
JBBrown1968

@eulb @popacorn


Popcorn is a confused Demokrat.........don't mess up it's world with questions or facts. 

popacorn
popacorn

@OriginalProf

How do we know that 'communal expectations' aren't inherent? If you were held to an impossible to achieve standard, wouldn't you be mad?

popacorn
popacorn

@Wascatlady @OriginalProf @eulb

'Lack of aspiration, lack of inspiration, lack of perspiration'.

Perhaps is takes intelligence to realize that delayed gratification and aspiration, inspiration, and perspiration are needed to survive and succeed. Because you may have these qualities, it may be hard to understand how everyone can't have these qualities, or even comprehend these qualities. 

JBBrown1968
JBBrown1968

Public school teachers should riot and burn down schools.......you people are crazy! This is the never ending  nut show! 

eulb
eulb

# 1 I agree with everything MD wrote in her article.

#2 The judge did something that I predicted he would not do.  So I'm here to eat my words about that.

Judge Baxter urged the convicted teachers and administrators to fulfill their community service requirement by participating in the Atlanta Redemption Academy -- essentially tutoring the very students whom they harmed.  I don't understand how Paul Howard could so vigorously prosecute these individuals ,and then turn around and  set up an organization that reunites  the defendants with their victims.  And I don't understand how the judge could condone it. 


But the DA and the  judge did exactly that.  So I'm here to eat my words.

 I'm truly hoping for a good outcome for the students and their tutors.  They need it.  And if any student or young adult does succeed, all of us will be better off.  So I hope the DA and judge's decisions bear good fruit.

OriginalProf
OriginalProf

@eulb 

Something I don't quite understand.  The community service requirement need only be met if the convicted are found guilty, but if they are appealing the sentence then it doesn't go into effect yet. Could the judge have re-sentenced them in the hope/expectation that they would drop any appeals?

eulb
eulb

@OriginalProf @eulb I wondered that, too, at first.  But now I think he resentenced them for the reasons he stated.  And also to ensure that his sentences would be upheld on appeal.  I don't think he expects anyone to drop their appeals. 

eulb
eulb

@OriginalProf But this judge already made me eat my words once.  So I may be wrong this time, too, and you may be 100% right.

jerryeads
jerryeads

My guess is that the politicos will continue to con a stupendously gullible public into "it's all the schools' fault" so they can continue to cut funding for schools, ignore social programs and still  line the pockets of their favorite campaign pocket packing high rollers with said gullible public's tax dollars. The only result of such policy is the creation of more Cotmans, Davis-Williams and Pitts.

Perhaps said resentenced individuals were found guilty when they simply did not comprehend what was going on - SO: they are either guilty or inconceivably stupid. In either case I pity the folks who have to put up with them for "community service." With any luck they'll refuse while awaiting their appeals. The last thing we need  is letting any of them anywhere near kids.

I'm pretty sure the right wingers who confuse themselves with being conservative have by now disowned David Brooks - yet again he's written a thoughtful essay for the New York Times noting that while our enormous sums put into helping the less fortunate have had some positive impact, we need to do better. The right wingers are correct that it 'doesn't just take more money." But it ain't free. Preventing our society from reaching Mad Max finality will take both sane funding AND sane thinking. I haven't seen a lot of either in this state for quite a while.

popacorn
popacorn

@jerryeads

'they are either guilty or inconceivably stupid.'

All of the above.

eulb
eulb

@jerryeads 

" The last thing we need  is letting any of them anywhere near kids."

I agree.  

There are LOTS of community service projects that don't involve contact with kids.  These defendants need to learn a new trade anyway.  Their teaching/administration careers are over.


What little I know about community service, I learned from APS!  Did you know that APS students must complete 75 hours of community service before graduating?  http://www.atlanta.k12.ga.us/domain/3463

My student completed that requirement.  I made sure his community service hours were spent in locations where he would NOT be working alongside convicted felons and possibly influenced by them.  Atlanta's convicted administrators and teachers are not eligible to work in those settings.

MaryElizabethSings
MaryElizabethSings

"I worry that attributing poor student performance to test tampering promotes a simplistic remedy: Make it harder for educators to cheat and punish them severely when they do. It does not address the core issue of how to advance children who arrive at school far behind advantaged peers whose parents have already invested immense resources into developing their 5-year-old’s critical thinking and problem-solving abilities."

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


The above statement is Maureen Downey's, and I want to compliment her substantive insight.


I also want to compliment the grace in Judge Baxter's spirit which allowed him to rethink his original sentences and to take the necessary steps to mitigate the harsher and out-of-proportion sentences he had earlier handed down.


A few further thoughts on what would help improve whole neighborhoods, and thereby improve school performance of students living in those neighborhoods:


As Americans, we had wanted to help those who were products of Jim Crow and other reasons for poverty in our nation during the social change period of the 1960s. Then, we collectively took our eyes off of our common social inequities in the beginning of the 1970s and placed America's soul upon the accruing of personal wealth and power, which created self-serving greed.  Today's Americans are products of that shift in our collective consciousness.  We must pick up where we left off in the late 1960s and return to America's destiny of helping all rise (of all races and classes).We must do this not in a spirit of judgment or competition, but in a spirit of love and care for all humanity, starting with America's poorest and most disenfranchised.  We are all one, under God. What happens to one, will eventually happen to all. We are all simply human beings; none of us are gods. 

grumpster
grumpster

I've thought a lot about this case. Frankly, I see nothing to be gained by sending these teachers to prison except maybe the satisfaction of the lust for vengeance.

I have a few alternative ideas for sentencing.

1. Require these educators to perform community service in a prison - specifically, teaching literacy skills to inmates.

2. Community service again, but in the communites they failed. Maybe mentoring kids through the GED process.

3. If incarceration is necessary, make it home incarceration. At least that way, they pay for their own room and board.

I'm certain the creative folks on this blog could come up with some suitable alternative punishments for these folks that will make use of the educator's talents and will not add to our already overcrowded jails.

Ideas, anyone? Adult literacy? Mentoring? Surely there's more.

bu2
bu2

@grumpster 

Keep them in jail for 7 years and make them teach the inmates.


But then these 3 were administrators.  We don't know that they have any teaching ability.

Astropig
Astropig

@class80olddog @grumpster


"There is such a thing as setting a tone for future perpetrators."


Amen.There is now a precedent and society has drawn a bright line against this sort of lawbreaking. Don't like testing? Don't think it's fair? Great- change the system. But cheating on such a grand scale will have consequences.


And I too,believe that there is "nothing to be gained" by these sentences. But justice is not about gaining anything. It is designed to punish people found guilty under the law of crimes. Society "gains" by having a deterrent in place to prevent a recurrence of said behavior. I honestly believe that that will be the case here.No teacher or administrator will be tempted anytime soon to take the chance on prison time for the likes of Beverly Hall or Tamara Cotman. They'll move on to another system.

bu2
bu2

@Astropig @class80olddog @grumpster 

I've stated this before, but a prosecutor told me people have 3 theories on punishment.  I'm guessing grumpster is a "rehabilitation" type.  Sounds like I have some allies in the "deterrence" philosophy.  And then there are those who believe in "retribution."

class80olddog
class80olddog

@grumpster  "Frankly, I see nothing to be gained by sending these teachers to prison except maybe the satisfaction of the lust for vengeance. "


You could say the exact same thing about a burglar.  The burglary has already been committed, nothing can change that.  Why put that poor burglar in jail, just give him a suspended sentence.


There is such a thing as setting a tone for future perpetrators.

Astropig
Astropig

@Quidocetdiscit @bu2 @Astropig @class80olddog @grumpster


Then convince Joe Q that you're not. Stop blaming Mr. Public for your bad professional image and start treating the taxpayers like they are your allies and not your nemesis.


Hard as it is to believe,this entire APS cheating scandal has tarnished the public's perception of education and educators. Astonishing,I know,but true. The idiotic defense offered up for this by some educators and their media apologists have only diminished their standing in the eyes of a lot of people that I have spoken with. 


I should charge you for this advice,but I'm feeling feisty,so I'll give it to you free!

Quidocetdiscit
Quidocetdiscit

@Astropig @Quidocetdiscit @bu2 @class80olddog @grumpster


Astro,


Please do not pretend that this "perception" did not exist before the scandal in Atlanta.  Those of us who teach have been dealing with this attitude for years thanks to ongoing efforts to undermine our profession. 


As for convincing Joe Q Public...why do you think I post on here all the time?  I do not come here to attack people or to treat anyone like a "nemesis".   I come here to "educate" -which is what I do - and to counter the comments by folks who do not understand what is actually going on in schools and classrooms, and thus are easy pray for those who wish to spread misinformation for their own benefit. 

Wascatlady
Wascatlady

@bu2 @grumpster I have seen a person who rose to a principalship be kicked up out of the classroom where she was so dismal.  And of course, as an asst principal and then principal,she could screw up MANY MORE people's lives (children and teachers.)


I have also seen teachers who were stellar in the classroom move up, which was a huge loss to many kids.


Finally, there is a local administrator who has never taught a day in his life.  He is a nice guy, absolutely, but cannot begin to oversee teacher fitness for the job.

Quidocetdiscit
Quidocetdiscit

@bu2 @Astropig @class80olddog @grumpster


"Great- change the system."


And when teachers try, Joe Q Public tends to accuse us of "wanting to keep the status quo" so we can "feed at the trough of public funds" or of "not wanting any accountability" because we are inherently lazy and shiftless....



Astropig
Astropig

@Quidocetdiscit @Astropig @bu2 @class80olddog @grumpster


 " I come here to "educate" -which is what I do - and to counter the comments by folks who do not understand what is actually going on in schools and classrooms, and thus are easy pray for those who wish to spread misinformation for their own benefit."


Wow. That's what I do,too! I educate the uninitiated that what we are doing in education policy needs a change,a different approach.I simply do it with good cheer and the assumption that my reader is a person of good will that wants to look at both sides of the public debate about our public education policy.I don't think that they're ignorant or stupid if they disagree. i'll keep working on them and hopefully,they'll see the light. 


I have to say- some posters (and I guess you're one of them) make my job easy-peazy. When your everyday,working schlub reads the condescension and arrogance of the enlightened savants in the education universe...Well, as I say, it makes it easy to win the hearts and minds of thinking people who are treated respectfully.


And posting an opinion that is the opposite of yours is not an "attack". It's just a different opinion. Maybe you don't expose yourself to differing opinions enough to understand the normal give and take of the arena of ideas,but I do and every day is a new day. It's never personal. Life's too short to be upset all the time! Enjoy the joust!

Jke
Jke

wascatlady--The other option is mandatory sentencing that takes 90% or more of the judge's discretion away. Remember 3 strikes and you're out? And what is capricious in the end result?

Wascatlady
Wascatlady

@Jke I'm not in favor of mandatory sentencing, unless it is for repeat offenders.  My daughter's home was broken into twice by the same teenager, who amassed 73 charges before he was actually kept in jail for a part (less than 20%) a 5 year sentence.  Now, he's back at it.  THAT kind of case should have mandatory sentencing! (and thank you, Dekalb County "justice.")


What I am talking about is giving one sentence at the end of the trial, then, a couple of weeks later, changing it.  What changed?  The crime was the same, the guilt was the same.  It concerns me that rather than the process being well considered and thought out, the punishment is changed on a whim, with no additional evidence, AFTER THE TRIAL IS OVER.


I was disappointed watching the judge's seeming mood swings--quite different from those jurists I have observed.  I began to wonder if he was experiencing low blood sugar or something.  Or perhaps, not so innocuous, that those in power "got to him" after the trial.  Either way, I think it is a TERRIBLE precedent and not an example of blind, fair judgement.

Jke
Jke

@Wascatlady @Jke Judges are people; imperfect and subject to emotional decisions rather than logical ones. Subjectivity, bias, ignorance, self-interest--all the things that make us human--are also characteristics of judges. People change their minds. And having time to reflect, and move away from the emotional moment, they oftern change their mind. So a judge changing his or her mind can be a good thing. And it's a common thing. And apparently in the instant matter it was a good thing, as a more reasonable and just sentence was given. A lot of people won't agree with the sentence, but that's the judge's job and society must accept the judge's role and decision in the process. 

Wascatlady
Wascatlady

@Jke @Wascatlady From what I have read, although it is not unheard of, it rarely happens.


For north of $200,000 plus months and months of only doing that trial, I expect a well reasoned decision rather than an emotional one.

bu2
bu2

@Wascatlady @class80olddog @Jke 

That's an argument for sentencing by juries, 12 people not with any political pressure on them.


But then they don't have the knowledge of what comparable crimes get that a judge does.