A few years ago in this space we posted an entry entitled “The Atlanta School District Scandal.” In it, we explored the reasons why well-meaning public school teachers might get caught up in cheating scandals, focusing on the then-unfolding indictments and arrests in Atlanta.
This post revisits this scandal in light of the recent publication of None of the Above: The Untold Story of the Atlanta Public Schools Cheating Scandal, Corporate Greed, and the Criminalization of Educators. The authors are journalist Anna Simonton and Shani Robinson, one of the teachers who was convicted and is currently appealing that conviction.
In retrospect, it appears that we have no need to correct the original blog post. Clearly, some cheating did go on, both in Atlanta and in some of the more than 40 states where fiddling with standardized tests did occur in efforts to make student performance appear better than it was. Our conclusion that out-sized rewards (e.g., big teacher bonuses) and excessive punishments (e.g, closing down “underperforming” schools) are poor ways to improve student performance in the classroom stands. Extreme incentives often lead folks to rig the system (incentive gaming). Our theories for why good teachers might help their students cheat are also still plausible.
This new book does, however, remind us that facts matter. If we are to fairly judge the morality of others’ actions and make solid moral choices ourselves, our judgments and action decisions must be based on a full and accurate understanding of the facts. It remains true that to assume too much can make an ass out of you and me.
None of the Above has two themes. First, the authors assert that politics and corporate greed have undermined public education in Georgia (and elsewhere) to a disgraceful extent. The book explores how real estate developers, investors in charter schools, the private prison industry and their political allies have done very well at the expense of public school students. The story is interesting, compelling, deeply disturbing, and, of course, one-sided. The authors are making an argument, not hosting a debate.
Equally one-sided is the other half of the book, in which the authors make the case that Shani Robinson is innocent, that many of her co-defendants were also wrongly convicted, that many defendants pled guilty simply because they had been overcharged and faced terrifyingly long sentences should they be convicted and very light punishments should they plead guilty.
This is not the first or the last book you will read written by a criminal defendant who makes the case that he or she is completely innocent and that the prosecutors were unfair, vindictive, and politically-motivated. That said, the book raises legitimate questions that return us to our opening point—facts matters. This book provides a plausible counter-narrative to the prosecutor’s narrative that was largely parroted by the media with seemingly little critical scrutiny.
Importantly, Robinson was a first-grade teacher whose students’ scores on standardized tests did not count toward any official rating of her school. Robinson was not eligible to receive, and did not receive, any bonus stemming from improvement in her students’ scores. Therefore, she had no motive to cheat in order to help her students and her school (altruistic cheating) or herself (self-serving bias).
Recently in this space, we posted “Confessions from a Wall Street Insider: The Real Lessons to Be Learned,” which reviewed a similar self-exonerating book by Michael Kimelman, a Wall Street professional. The case Kimelman built for his innocence contrasted poorly with the specific facts laid out in the published court decisions in his case. Robinson’s argument, we predict, will fare better. This book deserves a close, but not uncritical, reading.
Alan Blinder, “Atlanta Educators Convicted in School Cheating Scandal,” New York Times, April 2, 2015.
Michael Kimelman, Confessions of a Wall Street Insider: A Cautionary Tale of Rats, Feds, and Banksters (2017)
Lesli A. Maxwell, “Atlanta Educators Convicted in Cheating Scandal Prepare for Prison,” Education Week, October 3, 2018.
Corey Mitchell, “A Cheating Scandal Rocked Atlanta’s Schools. Ten Years Later, Efforts to Help Affected Students Fall Short,” Education Week, December 18, 2017.
Shani Robinson & Anna Simonton, None of the Above: The Untold Story of the Atlanta Public Schools Cheating Scandal, Corporate Greed, and the Criminalization of Educators (2019).