Analysis of the Atlanta Public School Cheating Scandal: A Culture of Coercion

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The Atlanta schools cheating scandal has reached an ignoble end with a number of teachers and school administrators sentenced to prison terms and/or large fines.  It would seem that the culprits have received their just rewards; however, a closer examination of the affair suggests something much larger and more insidious in our well-intended but uninformed legislative mandates. These educational policies get translated into cultural practices that often have the clear goal of changing human behavior; however, it is almost never the case that the science of behavior is considered when establishing public policy in education.

This episode is a tragedy for the students, their parents, the school district, and the taxpayers of Atlanta.  Sadly, this is not an isolated incident of manipulating results—in this case, test scores—for personal gain.  Similar scandals have occurred in 39 different states and Washington, D.C.  However, the stakes and the punishment escalated in Georgia.  In an unprecedented move, the prosecutors in Atlanta charged the educators under Georgia's "Racketeering Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act." Many escaped this final and very public judgment by resigning or being fired earlier in the investigation. Of the approximately 179 teachers and administrators who participated in some manner, three were sentenced to seven years in prison, two for two years, and two to jail for one year (these sentences were amended in various ways, including less time in jail). Others received lighter sentences and will serve the community and pay fines. The clear message is “these educators did wrong—and this behavior has got to stop.” 

The Unintended Consequences of No Child Left Behind

The obvious question that emerges from this episode is, “How did it happen?” The cheating has its roots in the contingencies of No Child Left Behind (NCLB).  NCLB began during the Bush administration (2001).  Two key features of the legislation were that schools were to use evidence-based instructional practices to improve educational and behavioral outcomes for students.  A second key piece of the legislation was that all students were to be proficient by 2014 and schools had to demonstrate that they were making Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) toward the 2014 goal (No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, Pub. L. No. 107-110, 115 Stat. 1425 (2001).  To put teeth in the legislation, accountability measures added an increasing level of punitive consequences for schools that failed to make progress over succeeding years. Included in that punitive approach, teachers were assessed with “value-added” measures to estimate their contributions to student success. In addition, there were efforts to measure effective principals and administrators.  All decisions about educators’ performance were based on the annual, high-stakes tests that all schools were required to administer starting in the third grade.  There were no measures of how teachers taught or what they taught.  Improved scores on the high-stakes tests were the “coin of the realm.”  The implication was clear—do whatever it takes to raise scores, because if scores don’t improve, negative consequences for educators will follow.  If we have learned anything as behavioral scientists it is necessary to measure both outcomes and the processes that resulted in the outcomes.  Emphasis just on outcomes is only half of the story.

In this context, the potential for the cheating was clear from the beginning. Based on what we (behavioral scientists) know about consequences and their effects, cheating seemed inevitable given the contingencies in NCLB. The gauntlet was thrown and people behaved in predictable ways to gain the positive and secure outcomes that were promised and to avoid the equally predictable negative consequences. It was highly predictive as well that the ways in which measures and accountability were designed ensured that the system would depend too much on aversive control, that is threat and fear to get results—“do it or else.”  A careful examination of the conditions that led dedicated teachers, principals, and administrators to conspire to fake the data are instructive for future policy initiatives. Obviously, lawmakers had either no knowledge of and/or gave no consideration to the science of behavior—the science that informs us how behavior patterns are acquired and maintained. Otherwise, the contingencies would have been arranged very differently. 

Vested Interests

Not only did the contingencies embedded within the policies of NCLB result in unintended consequences, other vested interests existed that placed high value on high test scores without concern for how the scores were achieved, even when the results seemed too good to be true. The Chamber of Commerce had something to gain by taking the extraordinary test results at face value and used them to attract new business to Atlanta.  When the governor first wanted to examine the scores in more detail, a few members of the Chamber were reported to have discouraged a closer look.  When the poorer sections of Atlanta outperformed the wealthier sections, there was something to be gained as well. Everyone wanted the scores to be right. No one wanted to discover that these amazing scores were falsified.

The lessons of Atlanta are particularly poignant ones about what happens when politicians and the leaders who head the educational systems of our country design-in hard-to-reach goals without understanding that learning and goal attainment occur through deliberate and daily practice while using shaping strategies that provide positive reinforcement for student progression toward those same goals.  Instead they build in systems based on threat and fear (negative consequences).  In this case, punishment and coercion was implied through threat of job loss or public shaming of teachers if they were unsuccessful at reaching targets.  The board of education provided large rewards for achieving high scores (up to $500,000 in annual compensation for the superintendent).  The superintendent had a full-time private limo. It is unclear beyond compensation to what extent the board formally approved or monitored the various perks she received. There were other benefits for achieving high test scores including recognition by the White House and celebrity in the local community.  These immediate and certain consequences for high or low test scores provide powerful predictors of how people behave.  

Where had all the children gone?

One school reported such significant gains that it lost about $700,000 in federal funds, because the scores implied that federal assistance for special programs was no longer needed. Later, the vast majority of these supposedly well-performing students were found to be far below grade level.  The depth of betrayal by the community is hard to fathom.

Another element of tragic loss was the years of mastery taken away from the children. If simple tools of establishing individual baselines followed by daily practice and recognition for gains— small steps—had been implemented, results could not have been masked so easily, and the children could have had a very good chance to succeed. When the score became the primary marker, the focus on individual student progress dropped off the table.  

One of the best ways to celebrate accomplishment is to let the person who did something describe how that good effort came to be. It memorializes the learning and makes the student more alert to just what it took to raise a score from behind to ahead in such significant ways. Others also learn from the telling. Were children ever randomly selected based on high scores to talk about what and how they accomplished so much so quickly? Did their individual accomplishments bring public celebration? Did they get to tell their story in front of their classmates about how they improved so dramatically through diligent practice and repeated trials? Unfortunately, we know why that was not the custom. Rather, it was apparent that the only talking anyone listened to was the numbers. If someone had been looking carefully, they may have determined that something was really off when the subjects of all this attention, the students, were sidelined and silenced.

How did so many conspire to fake the data?

Today many are asking what led a group of educators to cheat.

The variability in value-added contributions by teachers were great and remediation often was mandated; however, with the rapid firing and other strategies used in Atlanta with principals and others that failed, the remediation seemed to be, in essence, do better and get it right this time. It appeared that by having such punitive consequences designed into the system, failure to achieve the desired outcomes was anticipated. It is almost as if the failure would be produced deliberately by some teachers through a lack of effort or desire, not a lack of skill or knowledge of what to do.  However, it was clear from all we have read that the skills needed to be successful were not mandated federally and the states were free to set the policies and curriculum rules that followed. The kind of teaching we are talking about is not the same as the good experience teachers generally bring to the classroom; rather we are suggesting unique skills required to upwardly shape and sustain individual performance on a daily basis. 

Not surprisingly, the schools that had the most difficulty meeting the requirements of NCLB were high poverty, high minority schools in large, urban settings. There are shining examples of good teachers in school systems, many of which were steeped in poverty,  The general assumption is that teachers know how to motivate and should do so, even as principals and superintendents use threat and fear, a highly demotivating strategy. While such coercive systems often tend to encourage happy talk about how good things are as a measure of “team loyalty,” the effects of negative reinforcement (coercion) almost always suppress candor and promote group-speak because of the high levels of fear and intimidation that were clearly present in Atlanta’s educational system. 

The science of behavior and consequence management

In the Atlanta school system case, little evidence exists that employees at any level were systematically taught how to accelerate positive performance through a carefully designed and formal consequence system or instructional system. No recognition existed for teachers who wanted to improve at accelerating the individual learning behavior of their students. That skill was expected, and if it was done, then the teacher was viewed as a good teacher. If it was not, then the teacher was seen as a failure—not someone to help by building the skills needed to work well with individual performers on a daily basis, even though development remediation was mentioned. There is nothing in the core measures of success that indicated that positive methods of accelerating behavior were considered essential, and no indication that teachers who needed help should receive it. Of course, poor-performing teachers are not recognized in celebrations and other events.  And reportedly in articles published in the Atlanta Journal Constitution, teachers with poor-performing students or from poorly performing schools were relegated to sit in the rafters during such ceremonies, while the “high achievers” sat in the front rows near the superintendent.

After a while in Atlanta (and elsewhere) it did not appear to matter if good teaching was actually going on.  The emphasis was on the test results, not on the classroom improvement with individual children measured daily.  If a school failed to make progress for four consecutive years on the standardized tests, draconian measures could be employed such as closing the school and firing the principal and staff.  There were no positive consequences for achieving small steps toward success. The neglect of these small steps stopped what could have been an avalanche of success—at rapidly accelerating rates.  We know that slow-but-steady progress becomes fast and furious when positive consequences are delivered systematically—slow becomes fast in this scenario for all children who are regularly reinforced for accuracy and speed. This is the simple truth of how fluency is shaped in any skill. They leap from sequential ideas and mastery to fluency, combining learning in novel ways. How to learn becomes the valuable lifetime habit they acquire.

Learning now from these lessons

The story that the Atlanta school scandal provides is a lesson about rules and the initially well-intended but slippery slopes of this example of the uses of positive consequences to compel certain outcomes—high test results—and, by sad omission, a lesson about what happens by failing to put systems in place that will attain desired positive academic performance one day and one child at a time. In regard to educational achievement alone, this is a national tragedy about once again failing to understand behavioral consequences and their effects. This is a story of the failure of leaders (federal, state, and local) who wish to reform our systems of education but fail to understand what is already well known about accelerating rates of learning through the science of behavior. There are several, well-documented examples of such achievement where children from varied backgrounds advance two or three grade levels in months, not years, using teaching methods with 20-plus years of data proving their effectiveness (Morningside Academy; The Malcolm X College Project; HeadSpout Early Reading). Included in these methods are teachers who understand motivation, and principals, staff, and superintendents who provide effective instruction and consequences that lead to positive and energetic work at each level to make a difference in the lives of children.

Educators, there is good truth here and no time to wait or waste.  Years of extraordinary, well-documented academic success, all resulting from teaching methods based on the science of behavior, are available for study: Visit these links to Seattle’s Morningside Academy and the Queens, NY, Paideia School. Discover how you can change the destinies of children in Atlanta or anywhere else through behavior-analytic programs, such as these proven, scalable, and powerful strategies for everyone involved in the world of learning. In applying these methods, coercion is eliminated as a motivational tool. These programs use the incredible power of positive reinforcement to accelerate and sustain learning.