Americans can’t afford to miss an important story unfolding in Atlanta that involves teachers and testing, cheating and justice -- with a dash of mercy.
Incredibly, the media isn’t paying attention. This story is about education. And, it may be that, these days, that topic isn’t considered sexy or sensational enough to be newsworthy. Let’s hope that’s not the case.
President Obama offers another theory. Speaking at Georgetown University this week on the subject of poverty, Obama raised an important point: Are Americans becoming disconnected from most public commodities — including the public schools?
“What’s happened in our economy is that those who are doing better and better -- more skilled, more educated, luckier, having greater advantages -- are withdrawing from sort of the commons -- kids start going to private schools…” the president said. “An anti-government ideology then disinvests from those common goods and those things that draw us together. And that, in part, contributes to the fact that there’s less opportunity for our kids, all of our kids.”
Maybe reporters don’t care enough about the victims in the Atlanta story — African-American students from disadvantaged backgrounds. Or maybe they’re uncomfortable with the fact that the villains are teachers and administrators who were convicted of corruption and conspiracy under laws intended to crack down on mobsters and drug traffickers. Or maybe they don’t know how to handle the fact that the guilty parties were also African-American.
The educators’ goal was not to directly line their pockets but to boost students’ test scores — and then line their pockets. They got their payoff through bonuses tied to student performance. In the era of high-stakes testing, which holds schools accountable for the performance of students, if students do well academically, then educators do well financially.
According to a state investigation, 178 educators in at least 44 schools tried to ensure that students did really well on tests — by cheating. As early as 2005, educators either gave answers to students or changed answers on tests after they were turned in. Teachers received bonuses if their students performed well on standardized tests, and were threatened with demotion or even dismissal if their schools did not meet progress objectives. Other teachers who tried to report the cheating were threatened with retaliation. Investigators accused school administrators of creating a “culture of fear, intimidation and retaliation,” and of using data as an “abusive and cruel weapon” to get the intended results by any means necessary.
The tests aren’t to blame, any more than you blame the horse for a fixed race. The blame belongs to the teachers and administrators who had so little faith in their product that they thought cheating was the only way to collect bonuses and save their jobs.
Recently, eight of these educators — all of whom were African-Americans who were teaching in low-income schools — received stiff sentences that included prison time. Three former top administrators — Tamara Cotman, Sharon Davis-Williams and Michael Pitts — were sentenced to seven years in prison, with 13 years’ probation. And five teachers got one- to two-year prison terms. Those who were willing to admit guilt, take responsibility for their actions, apologize to the community, and waive their right to appeal were offered leniency. Only two of them took that deal. Eight others refused it, insisting they will appeal. The final educator, who was also convicted but recently gave birth, is scheduled to be sentenced in August.
Fulton County Superior Court Judge Jerry W. Baxter was not playing around. What galled him, he said at sentencing, was that most of those convicted refused to take responsibility.
This should enrage us all. The educators have their apologists who insist that the penalties were too severe, that black educators were targeted, and that educators don't belong behind bars.
Recently, Baxter cut the prison sentences for Cotman, Davis-Williams, and Pitts. They won’t have to spend 7 years in prison after all, only 3 years. But they will also have to pay a $10,000 fine and perform 2000 hours of community service. Baxter said that he was not comfortable with the harsher sentences he initially doled out and so he wanted to “modify the sentence so I can live with it.”
I approved of the harsher sentences. As the ring leaders of this criminal conspiracy, these three deserved stiff punishment. They were playing with children’s lives. In fact, they are guilty of theft. They stole something precious from these kids, who are also African-American: Their futures.
The story reads like a movie script, except that most studios would probably pass on the concept because it’s hard to imagine that something like this would ever happen. But it did happen, in Atlanta. And maybe something similar is happening right now, in a school district near you.
Ruben Navarrette is a columnist for the Daily Beast. He also writes a nationally syndicated column for the Washington Post Writers Group. He is author of "A Darker Shade of Crimson: Odyssey of a Harvard Chicano" (Bantam 1994).