Davis: Penalties for cheating should always be tougher than for not meeting a goal

Laurence Léveillé | Staff Writer

Michelle Kanaar | Staff Photographer
Erroll B. Davis Jr., superintendent of Atlanta Public Schools, delivers Thursday’s morning lecture in the Amphitheater. As soon as Davis was appointed interim superintendent in 2011, he was given the responsibility of dealing with a widespread cheating scandal involving teachers and administrators.

When the report of a cheating scandal in the Atlanta Public Schools District was released, Erroll B. Davis Jr. viewed the scandal as a failure in leadership.

Two investigators had looked into the extensive amount of cheating on standardized testing in the school district. Their 800-page report was released in June 2011, just days after Davis became interim superintendent.

APS became home to the largest cheating scandal in United States history, Davis said.

He shared the story about the scandal unfolding, his views on what caused it, and what the community is now doing, during Thursday’s morning lecture in the Amphitheater as part of Week Seven, themed “The Ethics of Cheating.”

When the report came out, the school district already faced probation, because its school board was dysfunctional. During his first week, Davis had to read the full report and provide a summary and analysis for an emergency board meeting, he said.

A total of 178 employees in 44 of the 100 schools had either cheated or permitted and observed cheating on standardized tests in 2009, Davis said.

Some community leaders and parents believed the cheating was part of a political issue, he said.

“And my position was very simple,” he said. “When the ex-attorney general of the state and the ex-district attorney put forth some rather compelling evidence, don’t fight it.”

In response, Davis removed all principals who had led or participated in cheating, as well as those who had failed to see it under their watch, he said.

“As I told the team, when I walked in the door the first day, I said to them, ‘I don’t know how to phrase this any more delicately, but happiness is not my goal,’” he said.

One principal approached Davis to ask him why he was being removed, as the principal had neither cheated nor was aware cheating had occurred within his school. Though the principal was exonerated, Davis told him he “massively failed in (his) duty of care.”

More than half the principals were removed from the district, but Davis realized he had no academic leadership for the school year, which would begin the first week of August. It was a time when people stepped up, and the school was able to open for the first day, he said.

“We had a lot of glitches,” Davis said. “We put what little managerial bench strength we had — we put it in the schools.”

There were contrasting views on why the cheating scandal occurred. The investigators thought it was due to a culture of fear and intimidation within the school system that pressured employees to cheat, but Davis believed it was due to a failure in leadership.

“All failures are failures of leadership,” Davis said. “It is a leader’s responsibility to alter futures but to manage the risks of doing it.”

Leaders define ethical, financial and operational boundaries for their employees. Employees should be told to be creative and productive within those boundaries. When the boundaries are crossed, leaders must take action, Davis said.

“The penalty for cheating should always be seen as more severe, more predictable and more swift-coming than any consequence for not meeting a goal or objective,” he said.

Those boundaries were weakly enforced at APS, and the district had a culture of “lack of consequence,” Davis said. That made room for cheating.

The district’s feedback mechanisms, such as evaluations, control systems and ongoing interventions, were either weak or nonexistent, he said.

“When you give people freedom to act and you demand outcomes, you will get those outcomes,” Davis said. “Some will be real, some were not.”

Cheating was unnecessary in the district, as there were enough teachers to raise the district’s progress on standardized testing despite its poor leadership and environment, Davis said.

For successful leadership, he said, it is necessary to balance between altering futures and managing risks in bold and innovative ways.

Thirteen months later, 125 of the 178 employees have either resigned or retired, Davis said. Twelve educators were fired, 12 were reinstated due to insufficient evidence and about 25 cases remain unsolved. The district attorney believes federal charges will be filed, Davis said.

Because of employees’ actions, children were denied what they needed, and leaders, administration members and teachers who were not involved were wounded, he said.

Despite the scandal, the district has seen positive changes in the past year.

“We also spent the year implementing a set of recommendations to drive some very deep and cultural change throughout the organization,” Davis said.

Because the students who cheated had high scores, they were ineligible for the remediation classes they needed. They were enrolled in remediation programs held before, during and after school and on Saturdays, he said.

Ethics advocates were appointed to each school building. Employees are now also required to participate in an online ethics certification program.

Some employees seemed to push back against that program, until Davis sent about 200 letters saying they would be fired if they did not complete it, he said.

“Again, it was a culture where people did what they wanted to do,” Davis said, “and we were trying to change that.”

Trigger points were also set for automatic investigations to respond to rapid increases in test scores from year to year, he said. It serves as a risk management tool that allows the administration to see what was done and whether it can be used throughout the district.

During the past year, the district has become more transparent. Community forums for discussion have stepped up, and there is now someone who writes on Twitter what Davis is doing throughout the day, he said.

“The whispers in the dark are more and more becoming constructive conversations in the light,” Davis said, “and I’m really proud of that.”

Conversations about ethics have allowed for changes and a focus on providing academic equity for all the students in the district.

“We’ve launched a holistic attack to reorganize our entire system to change the way we deliver educational services to over 50,000 students, over 100 schools, to make sure everybody has the same opportunity,” Davis said.

The district refocused on its real job: to educate children with honor and integrity, Davis said. An educator should understand that excellence is a standard, not just a goal or an aspiration.

Educators face tremendous odds, Davis said, and there are challenges that must be overcome as a system and as a nation. Davis reminds APS teachers not to feel sorry for themselves, but for those who will not participate in the district’s turnaround.

“My hope is that this country will glean some invaluable lessons from our very painful journey,” Davis said, “but it’s been wonderful and very productive, and it’s an ongoing journey.”


Editor’s note: This Q&A has been edited for clarity. 

Q: Errol, I’m wondering if you go back to the beginning of this, you talk about board dysfunction, what your sense is for the possibility of that being improved as well, and is there a model some place, both in terms of how the boards might be improved but in terms of what you’re doing within the school system that can be transferred to other systems?

A: So, you want me to bash my board in public (laughs)? Seriously, most school boards are elected, and I learned a long time ago, in a democracy, you get the government that you deserve. I’m in a somewhat unique position. I don’t have career aspirations. I also was charged — very strangely — by Sachs to help the board. So, I worked for it, but yet I was supposed to give it guidance. Most people come to the board not very well trained in governance, not knowing what they should do, but certainly with good intentions — they want to help. What you have to do with the board is make it clear what you expect from them and to tell them — in my case, for example — I’ve managed companies and organizations all over the world: from China to Australia to New Zealand to here. I really don’t need help running the day-to-day operations. I really don’t. I want you to focus on policy. I want to know what direction you want to go, and I will help you by putting together a strategic plan with some options in it — narrow ones, of course — for you to choose from. Other than that, I want to talk about education and policy and direction at the board meetings, and not school bus routes and things of that nature. I can’t say that I’ve been 100 percent successful. I sort of crave the New York City model now, where they’ve done away with the school boards, but I don’t have as much money as Michael Bloomberg, either. Again, boards have to be better trained, but we all have to be better trained. It’s a tough job. It’s a thankless job. They’ve got these kamikaze parents on them night and day, and they feel compelled to give them answers instantly, and sometimes they get frustrated when I don’t share the same sense of urgency.

Q: What was the role of the teachers’ union during the time that cheating was occurring and after the cheating came to light?

A: The teachers’ union, of course, played no role in the cheating. They are compelled because of membership to provide defense costs for their membership. They certainly were appalled. Let me say, I visit with a lot of teachers. No one wants bad teachers removed from the classroom more than good teachers. No one. What they want, however, is a process that doesn’t remove people in an arbitrary and capricious manner that threatens them as well. Having come from the outside, I’m looking at the process of how to remove non-productive teachers, because they do exist. It is an elaborate, yearlong dance now between adults while children are being harmed. It doesn’t take a kid a year to find out they have a not-so-good teacher. It doesn’t take parents a year to do that, but it takes a year — at best — to remove that teacher from the classroom. My view is teachers — we write contracts with them — they have a right of employment. They don’t have a right to a specific job. My view is that people who are not producing should be taken out of their jobs right away. What we have now is we have principals who are ill-equipped to often give the delicate, negative messages. But, even if they are, they get one of three responses. The response you want, of course, is “I hear you. I can make those behavioral modifications. I know some courses I can take. I know some things I can do. I’ll work on it. Come back in a couple of months, take a look, and I think you’ll see some improvement.” We get a little of that, but not nearly enough. We get a lot of the next two responses, which are: “You have no idea what you’re talking about. When’s the last time you were in a classroom? You don’t know what I’m doing. You’re just harassing me, and I’m filing a harassment complaint.” OK. They file it, and it gets dismissed. At the end of the year, they get non-renewed, and now “I’m filing a retaliation complaint.” We get a lot of that. No. 3, which is my favorite, of course, is “Oh my God. I’m stressed. I’m going on FMLA leave immediately next week, and I’ll be on FMLA leave through the second observation period. Therefore, you cannot non-renew me, because you don’t have two observations, so I have another year.” I’ve looked at some of the data. I’ve had people be on FMLA leave two out of three years. I said, “This has to stop.” So, we tightened that up. How do you solve this problem? Well, I’m going to pull them out of the classroom. I’m going to take them to the Teacher Excellence Institute, and they will get an opportunity to demonstrate whether they can teach or not. The question is: Is this a theoretical demonstration? Is it a discussion? Certainly you’re not going to practice on live kids, are you? No. Let’s use a little technology here. Let’s use avatars. It exists. Go out on YouTube and look at teaching avatars. Tom, you have a classroom control problem? I put you in front of this screen. There are these nice-looking avatars out there; I’ve got people behind the screen. It costs me $200 an hour. They’re going to give you classroom control problems. There’s a jury of your peers now looking at you. They have no idea who you are, I don’t get any of this “she doesn’t like me” or “he doesn’t like me” nonsense, and you get a chance to demonstrate your skills. You’re supposed to be skilled. You’re supposed to be highly qualified. So, this is not a learning opportunity. You have to demonstrate. You either do it or you don’t. If you don’t, we give some keys, some clues. Come back in a week or two, and we’ll try this again. If it fails, maybe this isn’t the place for you. You’re out of the classroom. You’re doing no harm. If you do really well, you go back to the classroom, and we talk to the principal, and we say, “We have an issue here, and we don’t think it’s the teacher. We think it might be you.” I’m trying to set this up right now — in conjunction with Georgia State — I have a building. I closed a school, and I’m seizing this building, and I’m going to provide classroom space, because they can also use these avatars as an intermediate step between observation for student teachers and throwing them into the fire. The can go observe. They can go teach the avatars. Then they can go into the fire. I forgot what the original question was, but we’re making progress.

Q: There are — as you might imagine — a lot of questions about standardized tests and what you think about standardized testing in terms of how important it is. There are some long essays about how it’s destructive to creating the best learning environment or developing young learners. (There are) others who take it to the next level of “what will replace No Child Left Behind?” So, standardized testing, the impact on teaching and what’s after No Child Left Behind?

A: Obviously, high-stakes testing has not served us well. We have to know something, and we have to be able to measure that. What we’re moving toward is a standardized curriculum in this country. Some people say, “at last.” We’re moving this year to common core performance standards. We will set standards. We have to be able to measure whether you meet those standards, but it’s not clear to me that everyone meets them on the same day, at the same time, in the same year. You just have to meet them. By the time you get to certain points in your career, we would like you to have mastered certain things. We will be focusing on mastery of standards versus high-stakes standardized testing, which — we all heard the horror stories about teaching to the test. My view is if you learn what you’re supposed to have learned, the test should not be a real issue for you. We’re going to focus on understanding what our standards are and put a rigorous curriculum in place to do that.

Q: There’s a series of questions on the experience of the teachers who cheated. Do you think you understand what motivated the teachers to cheat? And those who knew, but didn’t do anything — how did they justify that behavior? And finally, was there any observable difference in the age of the teachers — in terms of, was this dominated by older teachers, younger teachers, or did age not make a difference?

A: I don’t know that age made a difference. The challenges that were put in front of teachers made the difference. Most of the cheating, unfortunately, occurred in our lower socioeconomic and more barriered communities. The thing that pained me to the core was a statement by a teacher that said, “These kids are too dumb to learn.” And that person is no longer in our employ. Again, this points out the difference, I think, in many ways, between business and education. When I have a truly, truly hard task or job to do in my commercial career, I put my best people on it. My most experienced people. And we tend not to do that: We tend to throw the younger, more energetic, untrained, unknowing people onto our tougher tasks. And we’re trying to change that as well by making sure they’re paired with more seasoned professionals where their enthusiasm can be channeled appropriately. But we don’t, by definition, put our best people on our hardest tasks.

Q: What’s your budgeted cost per student, and how does that amount compare to costs in other school districts with similar student populations? And then, finally, what do you see is the way to fund education at the level in which teachers are paid better than car-washers, for example?

A: Our cost per student is about $4,000 higher than the state average. Let me be very quick to point out that the state average in Georgia is not something you want to aspire to. But I’ve sort of deconstructed that number, which in total is about $7,000 or $8,000 absolute, per student. But $1,000 of that is due to a legacy pension system which we are saddled with. A thousand is due to the large percentage of title students, so we do get that $1,000 from the federal government. The other $2,000 is due to this fixation and fascination with small neighborhood schools as opposed to concentrating resources to bring more and effective set of services to our students. In addition to the cheating scandal and the board probation, I also had to do a once-every-10-year redistricting as well. And that brought out the kamikaze parents in droves like this — about not closing the local neighborhood school, which had all of 250 kids in it. And so again, we managed to close about — I had recommended 13 — we wound up with seven being closed. But again, we were still able to concentrate some services. To me, the funding (of education) is the least of the issues. The major issue is whether you believe teachers should be funded at this level. People say, “Why can’t we have a system like Finland?” And the people I’m firing say, “You’re trying to fire your way to Finland.” And I’m not. But in Finland, it’s as hard to be a teacher as it is to be a doctor. That’s the challenge. And you have highly motivated, highly regarded people and appropriately compensated as well. And they know that if they want to maintain the status of their profession, they can’t let people fall through the cracks. They can’t let them fail. And they don’t. And they come together for the greater good. They work as teams. And I find too often the concept of a greater good that coalesces people in larger teams and in systems is missing in education in America as well.

Q: There’s an operational question: How were you able to fill the vacancies after the layoffs and the firings?

A: Painfully. We had, as I mentioned, a number of people step up. I used my tried-and-true manager methodology of, “You walk through the door, I have something for you to do right now,” until people stop walking through my doorway. But we had warm bodies, and we had to throw them into the fire. Some rose to the occasion, some didn’t. And again, those who didn’t, I had to move quickly to make sure they weren’t doing further harm. But we certainly depleted whatever bench strength we did have, and that’s part of the challenge now. I feel very good about our budget. We had to cut about $49 million, or $47 million, on a $600 million budget, which is not inconsequential. But in spite of that, we increased the investment and professional development. We put an assistant principal — at least one in every school now — and we’ve ended a lot of the costs that were patronage costs, as far as I was concerned. In terms of — people have always had this contract and do this — whether we needed to do it anymore or not. And I just shut those off. We’re not destitute, we’re not broke. We have about $80 million in the bank right now, but we’re not going to use our savings to balance our annual budgets. It doesn’t make logical sense to do that. Again, we will make one-time investments with our savings, but again, I think that we have the resources to do what we need to get done.

Q: Can you share with us some of your goals and your next steps over the next year? And then a final question: How will you know when you can leave?

A: Let me answer that last one, first. The average tenure of a school superintendent in an urban environment in the United States is 2.9 years. Average. And I bring this up to my board in closed session and I say, “You know, there’s a reason. And it’s not because they’re all dumb or incompetent.” I said, “Because they’re not supported, they’re not given the freedom they need to do things.” We have some things on the drawing board that I think are going to make significant difference. We’re putting in a Pathways program, which will start in the seventh and eighth grade where we have about 50 different career pathways that kids can look at. And one of the reasons I want to put that in place is that we are still stuck in this college-track versus dummy-track train of thought. And it’s stupid. Not everyone has to go to college to make a decent living. I had line technicians working for me that were making over $100,000 a year. But you know what, they had to know math and they had to know physics. And I want to tell these kids in seventh grade, if that’s what you want to do — if you want to go out and be a line technician, it’s a noble calling. It’s a good living, but you’re going to have to take math, you’re going to have to take science. Everything is rigorous now. Everything is rigorous. We’re doing that. And two of the buildings I close, I’m turning into career academies. We’re blessed in Atlanta with a lot of corporate headquarters, and so we’ll put a logistics track in, we’ll put a line technician track in there. But again, all of these things will be rigorous, you’ll be able to move out of the track if you change your mind. You will have not lost a great opportunity, which we’re always afraid of in America — that people won’t have the transferable opportunity. But there are a lot of things we’re putting in place, including the Teacher Excellence Institute, that I see that they’re either so far down the path that it would be hard to derail them. I think it’s probably time for me to go. I just celebrated my 68th birthday, and I should be doing something other than this right now. The Fulton County School District is right next door to us. The superintendent there is the same age as my son. I’ve got a board member who’s 27: I have shoes older than that. So it’s getting to be time.

—Transcribed by Jen Bentley and Grant Engle