Wrongdoing in Atlanta schools’ cheating scandal has lessons

Ethics @ Work: In the late 1990s, students in the Atlanta school system were performing very badly.

empty classroom school_311 (photo credit: Thinkstock/Imagebank)
empty classroom school_311
(photo credit: Thinkstock/Imagebank)
The recent cheating scandal in the Atlanta, Georgia, school system has many instructive elements for business ethics in general and for Israel in particular.
In the late 1990s, students in the Atlanta school system were performing very badly.
Fewer than 40 percent of students graduated, and standardized test scores were very low compared to national averages. In 1999, the school system brought in a new superintendent, Beverly Hall, who had an impressive record of turning around troubled school districts. Hall began an energetic effort to transform the school system.
Her belief in the potential of all students led her to demand improvements in even the weakest schools, and her desire for accountability led to increasing reliance on standardized test scores.
The results were dramatic: Over the next decade, test scores and graduation rates improved dramatically, and the success of the school system brought in over a $100 million in scholarship money and made huge investments in new schools. In 2009, Hall was named national superintendent of the year.
But some suspected that the results were too good to be true. A local newspaper, the Atlanta Journal Constitution undertook an investigation and found evidence of cheating. The State of Georgia, to its great credit, took the allegations seriously and launched a major investigation. Ultimately, hard evidence of cheating was found.
Dozens of teachers admitted altering test results and at least 178 (about 5% of the total number of Atlanta teachers) have been asked to resign due to persuasive evidence of misconduct. When 2010 exams were administered under much closer scrutiny, results dropped dramatically.
The main lesson is the role of pressure in incentivizing wrongdoing. Studies show that most people are quite reluctant to engage in fraud or cheating; only under unusual pressure will they do so. The New York Times reported that Hall’s worthy goal was “to create a culture that demanded achievement, based on her core belief that every child – no matter his or her life circumstances – can learn enough to meet certain standards.” But many claim she took this belief to an extreme: that it “was so unbending that people would rather erase wrong scores – and reap the financial and workplace perks associated with improved test scores – than tell her children could not pass.”
A common denominator of innumerable ethics scandals is a new, dynamic and demanding boss who refuses to take no for an answer. Of course, this approach is also the common denominator of innumerable success stories, underlining the need for finding the way to be demanding without encouraging wrongdoing.
Another element here is the success of two accountability mechanisms that do not always function well: the press and the political system. Local newspapers function as both watchdog and cheerleader, but sometimes being cheerleader is the path of least resistance. It is easy to make readers feel good, applaud the achievements of the schools and above all the school children, while ignoring unproven suspicions of cheating.
The Atlanta Journal Constitution deserves credit for its investigative journalism. The political system has an equally problematic dynamic. When the Atlanta schools look good, the governor and the state government also look good. When a state investigation makes the schools look bad, they get credit for the investigation, but it may – unfairly – leave their image ultimately more tarnished than before. Add to this that an investigation of this scope requires immense resources, and we begin to see the extent to which the responsible reaction of Georgia’s state institutions cannot be taken for granted.
I have the feeling that these lessons should be studied in Israel. Recently a troubled school district near Haifa improved its students’ results in the matriculation exams (bagrut) from about 35% (way below average) to over 70% (way above average) in only two years. Newspapers were filled with glowing reports of this school’s success and adulatory interviews with school officials explaining how the improvement was attained.
It may well be that these reports are justified, but such a large and sudden improvement should automatically raise suspicions. That doesn’t mean that the improvement should automatically raise a presumption of wrongdoing, but it does mean that the press’s role as watchdog should obligate it to ask some hard questions and snoop around a bit; for example, it could examine if the independently administered psychometric tests showed a parallel improvement.
I do not see any evidence that this was done. Likewise, one would expect the Education Ministry to take a careful look at the exams. (Of course the possibility exists that this was done and everything was found to be on the up and up.) In general, in Israel, as elsewhere in the world, there is political pressure to incentivize schools and teachers based on test scores. Putting aside the educational considerations for and against this approach, policy makers must carefully look at the possible incentives for wrongdoing involved. Unethical behavior is harmful always and everywhere, but the negative example in the school system is particularly pernicious.
Even gifted and well-meaning managers can unwittingly create fertile ground for misconduct. To discover and root out such misconduct it is critical that the press and government institutions take their oversight responsibilities seriously.
Asher Meir is research director at the Business Ethics Center of Jerusalem, an independent institute in the Jerusalem College of Technology (Machon Lev).