Rachel Aviv: A Middle-School Cheating Scandal Raises Questions About No Child Left Behind
Writing for The New Yorker, Rachel Aviv profiles some of the teachers and principals caught up in Atlanta’s standardized cheating scandal. Focusing on Parks Middle School, which is located in a “rough” section of the city, her article portrays a school community that was, inch-by-inch, improving, but not improving fast enough to earn adequate performance test scores.
Not wanting to demoralize their already struggling and academically insecure students, some of the staff chose to doctor the students’ test papers, giving them just enough of an edge to pass the tests mandated by No Child Left Behind and the state Board of Education.
After a few months, Christopher Waller, a Methodist pastor who had worked in public schools for nine years, became the new leader of Parks. Waller was burly and freckled, and, at thirty-one, he was the youngest principal in the district. After a week of introductory meetings, he saw that the district prioritized testing results more than any other place he’d ever worked did. “All decisions have to be made by data—you have to be baptized in it,” he told me. “I lived it, slept it, ate it.”
He held a meeting with the faculty and explained that teachers needed to use data to drive every aspect of instruction. [Math teacher Damany] Lewis raised his hand and said, “I need to be excused from this meeting.” He left the room. Another administrator followed him into the hallway and tried to appease him, but he told her, “You all come in here trying to change every goddam thing we’ve been doing for years. We’ve been making step-by-step progress, and it’s working.”
The next day, Lewis said that Waller asked him to come to his office. “I hear you’re the man around here,” he told Lewis. At that point, Lewis was the football, soccer, and softball coach, the athletic director, and the founder of the chess club. As they talked, Lewis found himself impressed by Waller’s intellect and social awareness. When Waller asked him what changes he should make, Lewis told him to bide his time. “It’s like if you get a new stepmom in the house,” he said. “If she immediately comes in and changes everything, she’ll be hated forever.”
Every fall, the district held a convocation ceremony, which was usually in the Georgia Dome, where the Atlanta Falcons play. Schools that met their performance targets were seated on the field, while schools that fell short were relegated to the bleachers. Teachers spoke nervously all year about whether they would “make the floor.” At Waller’s first convocation, in 2005, he was humiliated by his seat in the bleachers. “It’s almost like having leprosy in the Bible,” he told me. “No one wants to associate with failure.”