Davis: Wanted: Professional skepticism — and persistent hope — to overcome school cheating crisis

Guest Column by Erroll B. Davis Jr.

In organizations across all sectors, demands for transparency and scrutiny of internal operations have reached new heights. As a result, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics forecasts a positive job outlook for auditors and other specialists charged with rooting out fraud and protecting organizational integrity. One recent job profile listed “professional skepticism” as a qualification for becoming an internal auditor.

While I am not an internal auditor by training or practice, professional skepticism is certainly a trait that has served me well as the new superintendent of Atlanta Public Schools (APS). However, persistent hope has served me even better. During my lecture today, I wish to tell the story of what happened when special investigators determined that Atlanta educators cheated on state tests. More importantly, I want to share our community’s collective work to ensure that cheating never happens again in Atlanta’s schools.

July 5, 2011 — my second day on the job and fifth day of experience in K-12 education — is the day the governor of Georgia publicly outlined the findings of his special investigation. It cited 178 APS employees in 44 schools as having committed wrongdoing on the state’s Criterion-Referenced Competency Test in 2009 and, in some cases, previous years. Investigators based their conclusions on a combination of evidence: a high number of wrong-to-right erasures on student answer sheets, witness statements, and confessions of test improprieties by both teachers and principals.

Reactions to the report were as deep and diverse as Atlanta’s history. For parents, the cheating scandal added insult to injury, because only months earlier, school board dysfunction had led to the placement of APS high schools on accredited probation. Upon the announcement of the governor’s investigative findings, thousands of teachers also expressed their grief and anger. Some community leaders called for compassion for the accused, while other leaders were outraged and called for criminal indictments, particularly of the previous administration. Day after day, media coverage grew at an exponential pace. Our hometown newspapers, CNN and other news outlets turned their full attention to APS. Al Jazeera network ran at least one known story. “The biggest cheating scandal in U.S. history” was the headline stamped on Atlanta’s schools and wired across the world.

My position was resolute: People who knowingly cheat children should not be in front of children ever again. Leaders who allowed cheating to occur on their watch were to be removed as well. Immediately, I accepted the report findings and presented a set of recommendations that were approved by the school board. Chief among the recommendations was the removal of more than 100 teachers from the classroom. I also removed approximately 40 principals and the four regional administrators, who functioned as area superintendents.

By law, educators are entitled to a hearing, which meant they could be removed from their positions but not removed from the payroll. The wheels of justice turned painfully and expensively slowly, as the school system’s hearings were delayed while the district attorney collected and reviewed evidence for potential criminal charges.

As with any crisis, questions evolved from what happened to why it happened. The special investigative report offered an answer: A culture of fear and intimidation led to cheating in Atlanta’s schools. In other words, people were pressured to perform and, instead, cheated. That is the one investigative finding with which I took great public exception.

While I do not know what makes people cheat, I do not believe pressure to perform is a compelling reason. In my experiences as a corporate CEO, university chancellor and trained engineer, I have been under tremendous pressure to perform at high levels, and I have expected — oftentimes demanded — high performance from others. Guiding my colleagues and me has been a moral compass, which all human beings possess.

I ascribe the cheating to a failure of leadership. A leader’s responsibility is to alter the future while managing the risk. Leaders define the financial, operational and ethical boundaries in which employees function. When those boundaries are crossed, leaders make sure the transgressor is dealt with quickly. In any arena — from education to athletics — the penalty for cheating or crossing an ethical boundary must be far worse than the consequences for not meeting a goal or objective. Performance boundaries were neither established nor enforced adequately in Atlanta Public Schools.

Professional skepticism aside, the community of Atlanta has coalesced around restoring honor and integrity to our school system. Amid impassioned public forums, we have spent the past year implementing the remaining recommendations to begin to drive deep and enduring cultural change throughout our organization:

• We launched an academic remediation program for students who were denied support because their test scores were artificially inflated.

• We developed a comprehensive ethics program, which mandated that every employee participate in annual ethics training as a condition of employment.

• We deconstructed the office that handled employee investigations and gave it more autonomy and a direct line of accountability to the Atlanta Board of Education.

• We set trigger points that will result in automatic investigations of schools whose test scores show larger-than-normal year-by-year changes.

• We continued to strengthen test security measures (e.g., locked safe rooms, tighter chains-of-custody, clearer test protocols, etc.) to prevent improprieties and tampering.

• We surveyed employees to obtain a pulse check on the culture and climate in schools and offices.

Out of crises come strength, clarity and opportunity. Our school system is becoming a more transparent organization, with social media (Facebook and Twitter) and face-to-face community forums serving as trusted forms of public engagement in Atlanta. Throughout this past year, we have had open and frequent conversations about ethics that have led to open and frequent conversations about academic equity and excellence. As a result of those conversations, we have launched a holistic attack to reorganize our entire system and to change the delivery of education services to our 50,000 students throughout almost 100 schools.

As of today, 125 of the 178 implicated employees have resigned or retired. Through our hearing process, 12 educators were terminated, 12 were reinstated due to insufficient evidence and one was exonerated. The approximately 25 remaining people were removed from the payroll pending the outcome of their hearings. Moreover, the district attorney continues to review cases for potential criminal charges.

The community of Atlanta is ready to put this sad episode behind us. The travesty of the cheating scandal is its impact on children who were initially denied additional learning support they may have needed. The other travesty is the pall that has been cast over the truly wonderful teachers, academic leaders and support personnel who make up the more than 95 percent of our workforce that was not implicated.

More than 3,000 APS teachers accept their profession as a calling and understand that teaching is the most impactful job in the world. I have nothing but admiration for them. And while the professional skeptic in me has instituted measures to prevent and punish cheating, I am still a father and a grandfather. Therefore, I wake up every morning with the persistent hope that our children will succeed when the adults around them work hard. No one has to cheat for them.