Atlanta merges best, worst high schools

Atlanta has merged its highest-performing high school with one of its lowest-performing schools, reports Molly Bloom for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Dr. Thomas Gosha teaches his world geometry class at Early College High School At Carver on Wednesday, Jan. 20. Atlanta school superintendent Meria Carstarphen has combined one of the worst high schools in the city with the very best one. If Carver School of Technology doesn’t improve this year, it could be eligible for state takeover under Gov. Deal’s Opportunity School District plan, if voters authorize it in November. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

Dr. Thomas Gosha teaches world geography at Early College High School. Photo: Hyosub Shin, AJC.com

In 2005, Carver High was split into an Early College school for motivated achievers and several open-enrollment schools, including Carver School of Technology, an F school at risk of takeover by the state.

“They’ve gotten rid of their top performing school by combining it with the lowest performing school,” says Sandra Bethea, who chose Early College High for her daughter two years ago. “They’ve set the school up for failure.”

There are more fights, she said. Her daughter’s teachers spend more time disciplining students and less time teaching. School staff have less time for extra help. And her daughter spent the first semester her English class reviewing last year’s material, so School of Technology students could catch up.

Suspension rates are down and attendance rates are up for School of Technology students this fall, writes Bloom. “Significantly fewer fights were reported.” But suspensions are up for Early College students and “three fights were reported, compared to none reported last fall.”

Early College students meet most high school requirements in their first two years, then take college classes at Georgia State University or Atlanta Metropolitan State College as juniors and seniors.

Low-income charter kids earn higher scores

In Atlanta, Baltimore, Chicago, and Miami-Dade County, low-income charter students scored significantly higher than low-income students in district-run schools on the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP), notes Education Reform Now.

The difference of 10 scale score points in reading translates roughly into one year’s worth of learning.

On the NAEP math exam, low-income charter students averaged 8 scale score points higher, nearly a year’s worth of learning, compared to low-income students in district-run schools.

Atlanta’s cheated students wait for help

When former Atlanta administrators and teachers were convicted in a districtwide cheating conspiracy, prosecutors promised to help their students by offering tutoring, GED classes or job training. But, six months later, the promised Atlanta Redemption Academy is “on hold,” report Molly Bloom and Rhonda Cook in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Atlanta Public Schools plans a separate program to help children affected by cheating, but it won’t start till January at the earliest.

Parents charge “Atlanta is cheating its children,” writes Bloom and Cook.

“When are they going to come back to help the children?” asked Vanessa Haynes, whose daughter testified her fourth grade teacher told students to erase and correct answers on the tests.

Her daughter needs help in reading and math, said Haynes. “Go back and teach these children what you failed to teach them in the first place. Make it right.”

Atlanta cheaters will do hard time

Former Atlanta educators convicted in the cheating scandal will spend years in prison.

Judge Jerry Baxter gave longer sentences than the prosecution requested to defendants who refused to plead guilty and apologize. Three top administrators will serve seven years in prison.

“I think there were hundreds, thousands of children who were harmed,” the judge said. “That’s what gets lost in all of this.”

A state investigation found that as far back as 2005, educators fed answers to students or erased and changed answers on tests after they were turned in. Evidence of cheating was found in 44 schools with nearly 180 educators involved, and teachers who tried to report it were threatened with retaliation.

Former Superintendent Beverly Hall was charged, but was too sick to go to trial. She died a month ago of breast cancer.

I’m surprised at the long sentences.

Why they cheated

Christopher Waller, the principal of Parks, was lauded in Atlanta, and became a minor celebrity of the school-reform movement.

A former math teacher at a high-poverty Atlanta middle school explains why the principal and teachers cheated in a sympathetic New Yorker profile.

Students who’d passed a competency test in fifth grade arrived at Parks Middle School with first-grade reading levels. The elementary schools were cheating, Principal Christopher Waller concluded. And his supervisors didn’t care.

Waller recruited Damany Lewis to lead a team of teachers willing to change wrong answers. He told them the school would close if it didn’t meet Superintendent Beverly Hall’s unreachable targets.

During testing week, after students had completed the day’s section, Waller distracted the testing coördinator, Alfred Kiel, by taking him out for leisurely lunches in downtown Atlanta. On their way, Waller called the reading coördinator to let her know that it was safe to enter Kiel’s office. She then paged up to six teachers and told them to report to the room. While their students were at recess, the teachers erased wrong answers and filled in the right ones. Lewis took photographs of the office with his cell phone so that he could make sure he left every object, even the pencils on Kiel’s desk, exactly as he’d found them.

As the school’s scores soared, it was lauded for its success, attributed to a “relentless focus on data.” Waller was lauded for his success.

In the spring of 2008, Parks’s scores were almost as high as those of a middle school in Inman Park, a gentrified neighborhood with yoga studios, bike paths, and million-dollar houses. Waller thought the results seemed obviously false, and he called his supervisor, Michael Pitts, to warn him.

Nothing happened. Year after year, improbable numbers were accepted as valid. Complaints were ignored.

Parks attracted so many visitors who were eager to understand the school’s turnaround that teachers had to come up with ways to explain it. At Waller’s direction, they began maintaining what they called “standard-based mastery folders,” an index of all the objectives that each student needed to grasp in order to comprehend a given lesson. Lewis, who was taking night classes at the School of Education at Clark Atlanta University, wrote his master’s thesis on the technique. “It was a wonderful system,” he said. “But we only put it in place to hide the fact that we were cheating.”

Believing the tests weren’t valid, teachers saw cheating as a “victimless crime.”

Cheating is not a big deal

The Atlanta cheating indictments — from the former superintendent down to principals and teachers — have brought calls to eliminate test-based accountability measures. If there’s no incentive to cheat, there’ll be no cheating, the argument goes.  Minimizing cheating shouldn’t be the top priority, argues Jonathan Chait in New York Magazine.

Incentivizing any field increases the impetus to cheat.

. . . If Major League Baseball instituted tenure, and maybe used tee-ball rules where you can’t keep score and everybody gets a chance to hit, it could stamp out steroid use.

Students have been cheating on tests forever — massive, systematic cheating, you could say. Why? Because they have an incentive to do well. Give teachers and administrators an incentive for their students to do well, and more of them will cheat.

Standardized test scores “account for no more than half of the criteria” for evaluating teachers in any state, Chait writes. Classroom evaluations and other factors count for the rest.

 States use complex models to measure how much a class increased its performance from the beginning to the end of the school year, accounting for socioeconomic conditions and other factors.

“There’s a useful debate to be had over how to design the criteria for measuring effective teachers,” he writes, but minimizing cheating is not the top priority. “The top priority should be teaching students better.”

The Atlanta scandal wasn’t about teachers cheating to look better. It was about administrators pressuring teachers to make low-performing schools look better. That’s true in Philadelphia’s cheating scandal too.

If reform fails . . .

If education reform fails, what will happen? Two Washington Post op-eds preview the future, writes Eduwonk.

Michael Gerson lauds the spread of choice and increasing chances that it could happen at scale.  On the same page Eugene Robinson announces that Atlanta shows the folly of incentives linked to testing.

Both show what’s likely if reform efforts collapse, writes Eduwonk.  ”

It’s not a return to the old days of benign neglect where the money flowed pretty freely and consequences were scarce.”

 Instead, he predicts more choice, less accountability and limited funding.

Choice without accountability is not

the “formula for widespread improvement,” he writes.

Ex-superintendent indicted for Atlanta cheating

Former Atlanta Superintendent Beverly Hall and 34 others were indicted Friday on charges they conspired to cheat on standardized tests from at least 2005 to 2010, reports the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, which conducted the investigation that revealed widespread cheating.

Further, the grand jury charged, Hall, several top aides, principals and teachers engaged in the scheme for their own financial gain. And with investigators closing in, the jury said, Hall and others lied to cover up their crimes.

. . . Pressuring subordinates to produce targeted scores, the indictment said, “created an environment where achieving the desired end result was more important than the students’ education.”

“This is nothing but pervasive and rank thuggery,” said Richard Hyde, one of the special investigators.

The indictment served as a resounding refutation of Hall’s assertions that Atlanta had found the secret formula that had long eluded educators elsewhere: how to get strong performances from poor, mostly minority students in decaying urban schools. For her efforts, Hall was named the national superintendent of the year in 2009.

Hall collected more than $225,000 in bonuses in 2007 to 2009 by certifying test scores “which she knew were false,” the grand jury found. Her base salary exceeded $300,000 by 2009.

Armed guard disarms school shooter

An Atlanta middle-school student shot a classmate yesterday in the school courtyard. An armed security guard — an off-duty police officer — took the gun away. The 14-year-old victim has been discharged from the hospital.

Ida Price MIddle School students must walk through a metal detector to enter the school. It’s not clear how the shooter got the gun into the school.

An armed police officer and an unarmed guard will be stationed at every elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut, if the school board can persuade the local police to provide the manpower.

After the Dec. 14 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School, some parents who attended the school board meeting asked for  two armed guards at each school. “The only thing that stopped that guy that day was when the two Newtown police burst in the building,” said parent Donna Lorenz.

Why cheat? Kids were ‘dumb as hell’

Atlanta math teacher Shayla Smith gave students test answers because they were “dumb as hell,” according to a former colleague who testified at her hearing. The former fifth-grade teacher denied cheating, but the tribunal recommended her firing, reports the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

The teacher, Schajuan Jones, taught 4th grade across the hall from Smith, and said she overheared Smith talking in the hallway with a teacher whose students she had overseen during testing.

“The words were, ‘I had to give your kids, or your students, the answers because they’re dumb as hell,'” Jones said.

The tribunal was considering testimony of cheating in 2010. The year before a state analysis found what was described as a practically impossible frequency of changes from wrong to right in tests proctored by Smith.

A student also testified Smith had pointed to the right answers.

Of nearly 180 Atlanta Public School educators accused of cheating in a state investigation, the district has reported outcomes for 164: 110 have resigned or retired, reports the newspaper. Seventeen were fired after going before the tribunal, 16 were reinstated and 21 tribunals are pending.