Walmart is Hiring: How High Stakes Testing Corrupted Administrators, Pressured Teachers

 and Won Beverly Hall $600,000 and a Trip to Hawaii

By Jane Weinkrantz

8/30/11

     Really, if I had wanted to dream up an incident that would illustrate the many flaws in the conventional wisdom of the educational reform of the last decade, I couldn’t have done better than Atlanta ’s standardized testing cheating scandal. The events that transpired demonstrate perfectly the problems with our current high-stakes testing culture and its related myths.

    Myth # 1: No Child Left Behind will expose schools that are not making Annual Yearly Progress and lead to their improvement or closing.  In fact, the pressure of NCLB is what fostered the widespread cheating practices that occurred in Atlanta schools and it is what led journalists to investigate. Atlanta Journal Constitution reporter Heather Vogell first became suspicious three years ago when she noticed how many schools had gone from not meeting AYP in the spring to meeting it in the summer.  Vogell told The Huffington Post, “We saw there were a lot more schools that met AYP than we had expected. It was a larger shift…We were poking around. We saw some schools that had very hard to believe gains, just looking with the naked eye.” Ultimately, it was Vogell’s reporting that led then- Governor Sonny Perdue to appoint a special investigator whose work resulted in a 413- page report, chronicling a deeply corrupted school district. Without the pressure of NCLB to improve or shut down, would 78.6% of Atlanta public schools been implicated in a cheating scandal? Principal Rogers of Usher/Collier Heights Elementary School denies having made the statement that seems to sum up the district -wide conspiracy, “If Johnny can’t read, he’d better be able to read on test day.”  

    Myth #2: Teachers and their unions are self-serving, self-preserving and can’t be trusted. Unions hurt the profession. Once Heather Vogell began writing about the improbable test results, she realized her hunch was correct. “I started getting calls from Atlanta teachers, people talking about cheating going on, or having tried to report cheating,” she told The Huffington Post which reported. “The curious thing, Vogell recalls, is that her story was about school districts throughout the state of Georgia , but all the teachers that called were from Atlanta .” However, the teachers who called were taking big risks. According to article “…whistleblowers faced more consternation than cheaters… “

    In fact, the first group to blow the whistle with Superintendent Beverly Hall, back in 2006, was the Atlanta teachers’ union. (“Cracking a System in Which Test Scores Were for Changing,” by Michael Winerip, The New York Times, 7/18/11 ).  Obviously, the union was trying to protect its members from the very situation that they currently face. If anything, I wish the Atlanta teachers’ union had been more assertive in shielding their members from what the Governor Nathan Deal’s office described as “ a culture of fear, intimidation and retaliation.” According to The New York Times, “At Parks Middle School, teachers who refused to join ‘changing parties’ that were organized by the principal, Christopher Waller, to doctor answer sheets were isolated or let go.”   Parks possesses the distinction of having Georgia ’s highest erasure rate. Its math scores jumped from 24% proficiency to 86% in one year.

    At Fain Elementary, Principal Marcus Stallworth told the teachers they should use “whatever means necessary to ensure students passed the CRCT.” CBS Atlanta’s coverage of the scandal includes this unfathomable nugget about the school: ”State investigators said at Fain Elementary, the principal forced a teacher to crawl under a table in a faculty meeting because that teacher’s test scores were low.” I feel pretty confident that no member of a strong union such as the PCT could be bullied into crawling under the table or doctoring standardized tests in order to escape crawling under the table.

    Myth #3: A strong and dynamic superintendent can lead an urban district out of a cycle of failure, no matter how many children are impoverished, homeless, drug-addicted, gang-involved, abused, disabled or unable to speak English.  In a city in which 317,000 impoverished families are eligible for the National School Lunch Program, Superintendent Beverly Hall did lead Atlanta schools out of failure---on paper, anyway. She just did it by encouraging cheating and firing those who wouldn’t comply.  The New York Times reports that, “It is now clear that for years Dr. Hall headed a school system rife with cheating and either didn’t notice as she maintains, or covered it up as investigators suspect. During that time, she was named superintendent of the year by two national organizations, and praised by the secretary of education himself---for her rigorous use of test data as an evaluation tool.”

    The following are some examples of how she evaluated those working for her. The investigative report describes the case of “Michael Milstead, who upon beginning his tenure as principal of Harper Archer Middle School , noticed an incredible gap between the students’ elementary school scores and the scores they were achieving at his school. After he raised the issue of inflated scores at a May 2008 meeting, an education official confronted him---and he was soon told his services were no longer needed.”

    Principals were pressured to produce better test results and embarrassed if they did not.  According to Winerip, “Investigators described how (Superintendent) Beverly Hall humiliated principals who didn’t reach their targets. Every year she gathered the entire district staff at the Georgia Dome. Those from schools with top scores were seated at the Dome floor; the better the scores, the closer they sat to Dr. Hall. Those with low scores were relegated to sitting in the stands.” 

    Hall has not admitted any wrongdoing, but resigned and vacationed in Hawaii shortly after the investigation’s findings were released. Recently, she contributed an article to Education Week in which she described the gains Atlanta schools made as real, but stated, “There is no excuse for cheating, and I deeply regret that I did not do more to prevent it.” She tacitly places the blame on building administrators and teachers suggesting that since the tests were in schools overnight, “there were clearly opportunities for tampering that should have been prevented and were not.”

    Since educational reformists would prefer to believe that poverty, unstable home lives, disabilities and lack of fluency in English should have no effect on a student’s ability to learn and score well on standardized tests, it was easier for her superiors and professional peers to trust that Hall was the miracle worker she claimed to be.

   Atlanta ’s investigators beg to differ.  Salon.com quotes the report as follows: “Dr. Hall and her administration emphasized test results and public praise to the exclusion of integrity and ethics,” they wrote. “Dr. Hall either knew or should have known cheating and other misconduct was occurring in the APS system.” CBS Atlanta states that investigators believe Hall “should have known principal Christopher Waller was cheating at Parks because once he became principal, the school immediately made dramatic gains on the CRCT and other tests. Instead, APS publicly praised the principal and the school for its achievements.” 

    Myth #3: NCLB will end the “soft bigotry of low expectations.” In fact, one of the effects NCLB had on educators was to make them question their common sense and examine it for prejudice. According to Caroline Hendrie, executive director of the Education Writers Association, “When you have dramatic improvement, people point to that as evidence that this belief system is right. Those who raise questions, there’s this mindset where they’re asked, are you questioning whether disadvantaged kids can achieve at high levels…In and of itself, beyond the mechanistic accountability, it’s a powerful incentive to not be super-aggressive and super-skeptical when there are dramatic leaps.”

    Myth #4: Rewarding teachers and administrators financially for improved test scores will motivate them. The Atlanta cheating scandal illustrates how easily performance bonuses or merit pay could invalidate test scores. Doubtless, one of the incentives for Dr. Hall to create a culture of dishonesty was financial. In her last decade as superintendent, she was awarded over $600,000 in performance bonuses on top of her $400,000 annual salary.  She has not had to return the money; the terms of her contract suggest she will not. Yet, it is Atlanta ’s teachers, with their average salaries of $45,000 or 11.25% of Hall’s (before bonus), who now have to answer for the cheating scandal and may lose their jobs as a result of Hall’s orders. Unlike their boss, they are not vacationing in Hawaii . Hall brings new meaning to the term “laughing all the way to the bank.”

    Myth #5: Teach for America teachers are superior to regularly trained teachers. They bring new enthusiasm to their jobs and, are better for improving education, and, therefore, test results. Actually, three TFA teachers confessed to cheating and others were implicated. This should come as no surprise. Wouldn’t young, inexperienced and undertrained personnel be more vulnerable to professional pressure from administration to do the wrong thing? According to Mikhail Zinshteyn of The Washington Independent, “Teach for America ’s ties to district leadership run deep, and some of its most ardent supporters fared the worst in the report.” As of July 21, 2011 , “quotes from embattled Superintendent Beverly Hall, who brought Teach for America to the city, still adorn the program’s website.”

    Myth #6: Tying teacher evaluations to test scores will provide an accurate picture of which teachers are effective and which are not. In this case, such a practice would have resulted in firing all the honest teachers. According to investigation testimony, at Finch Elementary School , “Principal Paden linked test scores to evaluation, and told Daniel, (a teacher), that she needed better scores to get a better evaluation. Scores were posted at faculty meetings and teachers were singled out in front of their colleagues.” Paden was placed on a professional improvement plan because of her performance. She told teachers “if she was going to be on a PDP, they they should be on one also. Principal Paden made threatening statements like ‘the door swings both ways,” and ‘Walmart is hiring.’” 

    The emphasis on high-stakes tests as the primary factor in teacher evaluation and retention (and merit pay in some states), is still very much part of the current administration’s educational narrative. Yet, Atlanta proves without a doubt that such priorities will inevitably lead to pressure from higher-ups to improve performance “ by any means necessary.” Is there a quicker way to cheat children and disappoint parents than these current educational theories? Daniel Goldstein of Slate.com comments, “When laws incentivize bad behavior, it’s a good time to reconsider policy, not double down on it….the problem isn’t the tests. But the problem is the carrots and sticks tied to them, which put too much emphasis on judging teachers and schools, and not enough on offering kids better instruction.” Indeed.

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