Massive Teacher Cheating Scandal Erupts in Atlanta


An investigation into Atlanta’s public school system has uncovered evidence that teachers and principals have been secretly erasing and correcting answers on students’ tests for as long as a decade. A state investigation found that 178 educators at 44 of the district’s 56 schools engaged in cheating. The report is a huge blow to an urban school district that for years was hailed as one of the country’s most successful due to increased student performance.
From the Atlanta Journal-Constitution:

Superintendent Beverly Hall and her top aides ignored, buried, destroyed or altered complaints about misconduct, claimed ignorance of wrongdoing and accused naysayers of failing to believe in poor children’s ability to learn.

For years — as long as a decade — this was how the Atlanta school district produced gains on state curriculum tests. The scores soared so dramatically they brought national acclaim to Hall and the district, according to an investigative report released Tuesday by Gov. Nathan Deal.

In the report, the governor’s special investigators describe an enterprise where unethical — and potentially illegal — behavior pierced every level of the bureaucracy, allowing district staff to reap praise and sometimes bonuses by misleading the children, parents and community they served.

The report accuses top district officials of wrongdoing that could lead to criminal charges in some cases.

A local TV station has posted the entire report on its website, which includes the following nugget:

Among the other findings, the report stated that the changing of answers was often done at weekend gatherings, or so-called erasure parties. The report stated that children were denied special-educational assistance because their falsely reported CRCT scores were too high, and during testing, teachers pointed to the correct answer while standing at students’ desks.

This is the second teacher scandal to erupt in a large metro area this year. In March, a USA Today investigation found evidence of teacher cheating among some of D.C.’s highest-performing public schools. Teacher cheating is a subject we’re pretty familiar with at Freakonomics. Levitt and Brian Jacob investigated teacher cheating in Chicago schools. Their findings were detailed in Chapter 1 of Freakonomics. Since Chicago schools would destroy the physical tests shortly after they were taken, Levitt and Jacob had to come up with their own method of detecting cheating, rather than use erasure analysis. So they developed new tools for identifying strings of unlikely answers. Read the full version of their paper here. It would be interesting to see what Levitt and Jacob’s methods would turn up when applied to Atlanta’s decade of altered tests, which fortunately for investigators, remained intact.

Jake Walsh

The Atlanta investigation began in '06, not long after Freakonomics was published. Was the book responsible for the increase in this type of investigation?

Ms. Angela

This disgraceful and unethical behavior is not only cheating the students of receiving a free appropriate public education, but tarnishes the educational system as a whole. I believe in passionate good old fashioned teaching...there are several of us educators left in this wonderful country who do care about our students and the future of our country. I urge all parents, community, and media to try to focus on positively embracing the "good" qualities that are still present in today's public schools. However, state mandated tests have robbed each state of funding that is deserved by our communities to educate our children. The pressure is so overwhelming placed on public schools to perform on state mandated standardized tests. Cheating is not the answer to the problem, in addition, good educators wish we could take those underpriviledged students home and feed, nurture, and give them the care each student deserves from a "Home". When the homes are a supportive and productive environment for students, the negative spotlight will no longer shine on public schools.



It's easy to point to the misaligned "incentives" that drive teachers to cheat for their students. It's harder to recognize that the "incentives" should be a secondary debate to the fact that we have very poor ways to measure and police student success. We have the means (technology) to keep track of student's performances year after year so that top level educators can drill down and focus on individual students from a holistic perspective, but I'm willing to bet that the bureaucratic mess of the administration that runs schools can't understand that their top level policy neglects to ask the question of whether their measuring stick is even valid. Teachers, it seems, practice based on anecdotes. Have you ever read a research on classroom teaching? It's just full of subjective observations. Anyways, I don't come from the teaching world and I may be making some gross generalizations. Imagine, though, a system where your academic performance is recorded by your teachers and passed on to inform other educators and future teachers about your needs. It records the amount of homework you do, the presentations you accomplish, the extracuricular work you do, not to mention the classroom tests and quizzes, the notes to the parent teacher conferences, etc. If you want to measure the effectiveness of teachers (and teaching as well as learning), you need better information - information that is already available to most teachers - information that could have been recorded, except that everyone is too busy relying on anecdotes to prescribe policy. The only thing we ever record are the results and we never inquire about recording the process that achieved the results. No, instead, we just use anecdotes to fill those gaps. That is poor policy.



Heavy incentives to hit a quota will always lead to cheating. It is human nature.

In the case of Atlanta we should ask ourselves: Is the population of cheating students able to achieve the higher test scores given the learning style and classroom environment they are being exposed to?

There is a strong correlation between IQ and a student's performance in school.

There is much research that shows children with IQ below 100 need a different way to learn than students with IQs above 100.

There is also an added dimension of student behavior. Low performing classes often have frequent student disruptions (students jumping about, talking over the teacher, not following teacher instructions). A weak principal who doesn't back a teacher regarding disruptive students will cause an entire class to fail.

What I'm getting at is we need to manage the behavior of the students (get rid of disruption) and manage the behavior of the teacher (make sure teacher are using the correct learning styles and tools for the IQ levels of the classed being taught).

We need to provide incentives for the proper behaviors in class - this will yield;d results and higher test scores.

Putting into place what I have just said is no guarantor of success. The attitudes and behaviors of the students and parents out of schools is the Ugly Truth: Do they value education?