Can 'take-no-prisoners' superintendent save scandal-plagued Atlanta schools?

Atlanta's new interim superintendent has given new powers to whistleblowers and is eyeing bonus policies that rewarded high test scores.

Bob Andres / Atlanta Journal & Constitution / AP
Gov. Nathan Deal (R) of Georgia discusses the findings of the special investigation into alleged cheating on test scores in the Atlanta Public School System, July 5 in Atlanta. Deal said 44 of the 56 schools investigated took part in cheating. Investigators found that 178 teachers and principals cheated. Of those, 82 confessed to the misconduct.

In the wake of its massive cheating scandal, the Atlantic Public School district is trying to move forward on more solid ground. Among its first steps: new whistleblower procedures and ways to monitor unusually high test-score increases.

Brand-new interim Superintendent Erroll Davis Jr. announced his preliminary plan yesterday, saying more details will come after he’s had a chance to thoroughly review the 800-plus page state report that implicated district leaders and 178 educators in the manipulation of state tests.

“I believe that we must change the culture of the organization. We have to move to a more open, more transparent, and more empowering culture,” Mr. Davis said at Thursday’s board meeting.

The board has suspended its search for a new permanent superintendent, giving Davis 12 months to effect that kind of cultural transformation.

That was a wise move because Davis’s business background and “straight-ahead, take-no-prisoners approach may be what is needed” in the short term, says Mark Musick, an Atlanta resident and president emeritus of the Southern Regional Education Board.

Davis is the former president and CEO of the multi-billion-dollar Alliant Energy Corporation.

Systemic changes at Atlanta Public Schools

Mr. Musick says he was particularly disturbed by the district’s handling of whistleblower allegations internally, instead of through a body that reports directly to the board. He hopes school districts across country are now checking their whistleblower policies.

As a corrective, Davis announced that the Office of Internal Resolution, which handles such complaints, will no longer be part of the Human Resources Department, but will move to Internal Audits, which reports directly to the Atlanta Board of Education.

Prior to Tuesday’s state report on cheating in Atlanta, the district had already set up a 24-hour hotline for people to report testing improprieties. It had also increased security for testing materials.

Davis also announced that “trigger points” will be set up for automatic investigations of schools whose scores increase by a larger-than-normal percentage.

Musick has a background in educational testing and worked at one point with the nonprofit Great Schools Atlanta. He says he began to have concerns with Superintendent Beverly Hall because “I had pointed out [test gains, saying,] this seems unbelievable, this seems too good to be true. And she was never interested in pursuing – with me or apparently with anyone else – [that] maybe we need to look further about that.”

Ms. Hall’s bonuses were tied in part to gains in test scores.

Such bonuses – for schools, teachers, and leaders – are among the policies Davis is reviewing, says Atlanta schools public information officer Keith Bromery.

Students whose scores were affected in the cheating scandal will be given as much remedial help as needed, Davis said.

The system has about 3,000 teachers and 6,000 employees overall. They will all be required to have annual ethics training.

Twelve principals had already been reassigned before the state report, because of apparent improprieties. But as some students prepare to start back at their year-round schools next week, many anticipate Davis starting actions against a number of educators at Monday’s board meeting.

Although Davis identified the need for a culture shift, he noted that “the vast majority of our principals, teachers, and staff are dedicated, honest, and hard-working people who always have the best interests of children in mind.”

That sentiment was echoed by US Education Secretary Arne Duncan in an interview with 11Alive News television in Atlanta. But, he, too, said deep problems need to be addressed in the city.

“What was so disappointing for me here: it was not an isolated individual or two. This was clearly systemic – this was clearly a part of the culture in Atlanta. That simply can't happen. That is absolutely inexcusable,” said Secretary Duncan.

Cheating investigations elsewhere

As Atlanta deals with the fallout from the state report, another Georgia school district is still under a cloud of suspicion. Gov. Nathan Deal said earlier in the week that the investigation into Dougherty County Schools was ending, but he reversed the decision Thursday, citing “grave concerns” raised by investigators.

The Dougherty district has been open and cooperative every step of the way, and officials “feel confident we will be exonerated,” says spokesman R.D. Harter.

That district does not tie bonuses to test scores, Mr. Harter notes.

Last year officials changed the locks to ensure that there were only two keys for each school’s “security room,” where testing material is held. Not even custodians have a master key, Harder says. And every year, the testing evaluation coordinator trains staff to remind them of the security procedures.

Because the state audit of test scores only looked for wrong answers that had been erased and changed to right answers, Harder says, it’s difficult to know if cheating took place. Those kinds of erasures should be compared with erasures that were changed to other incorrect answers, or correct answers changed to incorrect answers, he says, since some students make a lot of changes or get to the end and realize many of their rows were accidentally misaligned.

Test scores in the nation’s capital are also under suspicion. USA Today reported an unusually high number of erasures on tests between 2008 and 2010 in 100 District of Columbia schools. This week the US Department of Education joined an investigation.

Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.

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