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Bowers: APS High School Graduation Rates “May Have Some Fallibility”

Mike Klein

When the Atlanta Public Schools test cheating scandal investigation was released last week one section implied some business community sectors were more interested in protecting the city’s brand than in getting out all the test-cheating facts.  Now the two special prosecutors who ran the investigation are saying the business community has no choice: It must stay involved.

“Just because something has gone wrong does not mean that the business community should back up and get out of the game,” former DeKalb County district attorney Bob Wilson said at a Monday luncheon.  “No.  It means you do what you do with your own business when there’s a setback.  You stay in the game (and) you work harder but do it with your eyes wide open.”

Wilson and former state Attorney General Mike Bowers took no questions last Tuesday when they joined Governor Nathan Deal at a news conference.  On Monday they said more than 183 persons who have been already identified were involved in cheating.  “I will guarantee you there are many more than that because we ran into a wall of silence,” said Bowers, “a wall of silence that grew out of an atmosphere of fear and retaliation.  That’s all you can call it.”

The test cheating scandal was launched by former Governor Sonny Perdue last August to investigate 2009 state competency tests given in Atlanta elementary and middle public schools.  There was no high school component, but during questions Monday a Rotary Club guest inquired about possible problems inside city high schools.

“There were things that came to our attention that gave us some concerns, yes,” Bowers said. “The high school graduation rates may have some fallibility.”  Atlanta public high schools posted a 39 percent graduation rate in spring 2002, according to state Department of Education data.  Three years later in 2005 the city claimed a 71.7 percentage rate.  It was 66.3 percent in 2010.

Erroll Davis, the former University System chancellor who has a one-year assignment to clean up Atlanta public schools, said Monday that graduation rate calculations “are works of art, quite frankly.  They keep changing processes and numbers,” Davis told the Rotary luncheon.  “I believe the state will be adopting a new standard and everybody’s graduation rate will be lower.”

Monday evening the Atlanta Public Schools board of education was scheduled to take action on 183 named APS educators in the Bowers-Wilson report.  Davis has said they will not be allowed to return to classrooms.  “They have forfeited the right to be in front of children,” Davis said.

District attorneys in Fulton, DeKalb and Douglas county district attorneys are making decisions on criminal charges.  Bowers said investigators conducted 2,100 interviews, including some people more than once.  “You never get the required information in the first interview,” he said. Several hundred subpoenas were issued and more than 800,000 documents reviewed.

“What caused it?”  Wilson rhetorically asked.  “We originally went in wondering how much the (salary) bonus incentives played in this process and we determined in the end, relatively little.”

Wilson added, “The pressure to keep one’s job, the pressure not to be publicly humiliated (at) teachers’ or principals’ meetings, the pressure to not be put on a professional development plan as if it were a weapon vs. an instructional tool weighed immensely heavy in the process and was without question, the overriding factor.”

Davis stepped into the frying pan, knowing full well what to expect, when he became Atlanta schools interim superintendent on July 1, just one day after his University system retirement.  A newly reconstituted city schools board gave him a one-year contract after the cheating report.

Davis has begun to dismantle the administration of retired superintendent Beverly Hall, who was blamed in the Bowers-Wilson report for creating a culture that led to classroom corruption.  On the elementary and middle school tests, that included teachers voicing answers, pointing out the answers, seeing the tests and then teaching the answers and allowing more than allotted time.  Hall and others from her administration could face criminal charges.

“Leadership is accountable,” Davis said.  “All problems are leadership problems.  All problems are management problems and that is where we will solve them.”  Atlanta year-round schools reopen this week and all public schools resume session next month.

(Mike Klein is Editor at the Georgia Public Policy Foundation)

July 11, 2011 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Duped by Beverly Hall, Business Leaders Tried to Protect Atlanta “Brand”

Mike Klein

The next sound that you hear from the Atlanta Public Schools cheating scandal will likely be, “Do you swear to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth?”

Last August the Atlanta Public Schools Blue Ribbon Commission of very high profile corporate executives released its report that found no evidence of systemic cheating on 2009 school year state competency tests.  Now we know better and the story being told is absolutely repulsive.

Lacking subpoena powers, two companies hired to create the investigatory work produced a 22-page report that substantially failed to answer questions that include:  What did Beverly Hall know and when did she know it?  Perhaps it was always too much to expect that a Blue Ribbon Commission created by the APS Board would conclude that the superintendent and officials close to her office had roles in a test cheating scandal that has showered disgrace on Atlanta.

The Blue Ribbon Commission report stated:  “The investigative team did not find any data or other evidence, nor were there qualified allegations made, that there was any district-wide or centrally coordinated effort to manipulate the 2009 CRCT scores and outcomes of students in the 58 APS schools.”

The Key Findings section continued, “There were no self-admissions by any central office staff, district office staff or school staff of any wrongdoing in connection with the 2009 CRCT.  The investigative team did not uncover any other direct evidence of test irregularities in the form of video or audio recordings or similar evidence.”

Beverly Hall, Former Atlanta Public Schools Superintendent

To be fair, Caveon Test Security and KPMG investigators had no authority to compel anyone to answer questions.  They could not subpoena cell phone records, administer polygraph tests or initiate legal action.  Their report referred 108 educators for further investigation by APS which did no such thing.  APS sent the names on down the road to the Professional Standards Commission.  Superintendent Hall said the report was “vindication” that there was no widespread cheating scandal.

The Blue Ribbon Commission process itself was further flawed.  Caveon and KPMG conducted 292 interviews with APS central office, district level and school level staff.  One hundred thirty interviews were conducted with an APS observer present, monitoring the discussion.  APS tried to discredit test erasure analysis from the Governor’s Office of Student Achievement.  Also, the Commission investigators did not have access to the 2009 school tests erasure analysis.

A Blue Ribbon Commission of leading executives would have a lot to fear from such a report.  It would not serve the business community well to have Atlanta schools in screaming headlines such as this on Tuesday from CNN:  “Dozens of Atlanta Educators Falsified Tests.”  Or this on Thursday from USA Today:  “Atlanta Joins Growing List of School Exam Scandals.”  You cannot sell corporate relocation to a city whose education system is suspect.

Governor Nathan Deal released a very different report Tuesday, one of 428 pages.  Well down inside those hundreds of pages is a section labeled The Business Community.  It states:

Governor Nathan Deal Announces Results of Atlanta Public Schools Test Cheating Investigation

“Dr. Hall had the support of community leaders after becoming superintendent.  She courted philanthropic and business leaders rather than spend her days in the schools, working the ‘trenches’ and speaking one-on-one with teachers to know what was happening in her district.

“In many ways, the community was duped by Dr. Hall.  While the district had rampant cheating, community leaders were unaware of the misconduct in the district.  She abused the trust they placed in her.  Hall became a subject of adoration and made herself the focus rather than the children.  Her image became more important than reality.

“What began as a minor cheating scandal at Deerwood Academy, led to an investigation by a then-obscure state agency, headed by a former elementary school teacher.  This was the first CRCT cheating by APS uncovered by a governmental agency, the Governor’s Office of Student Achievement.   Questions began about Dr. Hall’s leadership.

“When the 2009 results were published, they were startling.  Governor (Sonny) Perdue ordered an erasure analysis.  There were concerns that the high scores were the result of cheating.

“Many of Dr. Hall’s supporters defended her and the district.  The possibility of a negative reflection on the Atlanta ‘brand’ caused some to protect Dr. Hall and attack the messengers.  Image was more important than the truth.”

There was also reference made that the Blue Ribbon Commission report should be “finessed” past then Governor Purdue.  The business section concludes, “Somewhere in the process the truth got lost, and so did the children.”

In the report released this week, special prosecutors and the Georgia Bureau of Investigation identified 178 principals and other educators who confessed or allegedly participated in the testing scandal.  Cheating was confirmed in 44 of 56 investigated schools.  Thirty-eight principals were responsible for or directly involved in cheating.  The report concluded Hall knew or should have known, implying that it was impossible to have not known.

The highly compensated Hall retired last week, ending a 12-year tenure during which she became celebrated for learning improvements that are now suspected to be a fraud.  Hall was paid $425,173 last year in salary, bonus and travel reimbursement.  Her bonus was tied in part to student achievement.  Hall earned $399,545 in 2009 and $355,993 in 2008.  Late Wednesday afternoon Hall’s attorney said she didn’t know anything about cheating.

This will be interesting to watch when folks are under oath.

(Mike Klein is Editor at the Georgia Public Policy Foundation)

July 7, 2011 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment