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Atlanta Cheating Scandal Makes a Mockery of Educator Ethics

Was the Atlanta Cheating Episode a Victimless Crime?

The Atlanta public school cheating scandal illustrates the deplorable behavior of some educators and administrators who use pressure to increase test scores as a defense to cheating, fail to consider the consequences of their actions, and have no sense about the way school children can be harmed.

The scandal originally broke back in 2009, when the Atlanta Journal-Constitution published an analysis of various schools’ test scores that showed unlikely gains or losses from one year to the next. The irregularities led to an inquiry by the Georgia Bureau of Investigation and teachers and administrators were accused of manipulating and inflating the test scores of students at struggling schools. Twelve were brought up on racketeering charges and eleven were found guilty.

After The Atlanta Journal-Constitution found evidence of cheating in 2008, civic and business leaders were more worried about protecting the city's reputation than the future of its children. It took a governor and a local prosecutor to follow through with independent investigations.

Last Wednesday Fulton County Superior Court Judge Jerry Baxter Eleven sentenced eleven Atlanta educators who were convicted in the public school cheating scandal that rocked the state, but the real fireworks started at the sentencing, when a straight-talking, no-nonsense Judge Baxter decided to speak his mind.

When it came to sentencing, Judge Baxter had been trending towards leniency, allowing the defendants to avoid the possible 20-year sentence that comes with a racketeering charge through plea deals. But when the educators were less than forthcoming with their admissions of guilt during court proceedings on April 14, Judge Baxter pretty much lost it. He sentenced the educators to a seven years in prison and 13 years of probation. He has since backed off from what some view as harsh sentences and agreed to a re-sentencing hearing on April 30.

The Judge's words illustrate the ethical consequences of the Atlanta teachers' actions. “This was not a victimless crime,” he said, exasperated, explaining that thousands of children were cheated out of an education by those in the courtroom. “These stories are incredible,” he added. “These kids can’t read.” Some of those children, devoid of options, had surely turned to crime. “There are victims that are in the jail,” he said, “that I have sentenced.”

The facts of the scandal are appalling from an ethical perspective. For educators to be involved in facilitating cheating to get student test scores up, smacks of everything that is wrong in public school education. According to the original indictment and a state investigation, teachers held cheating “parties” to erase and change answers on state-mandated tests. One principal wore gloves to guard against leaving fingerprints. Teachers who failed to meet testing goals were fired. So were whistle-blowers. Teachers who succeeded garnered financial rewards. The indicted school superintendent, who has denied wrongdoing, pocketed $580,000 in bonuses for her achievements.

Some have blamed the test itself for promoting an atmosphere of cheating and even rewarding of such behavior. These folks claim there are unintended consequences of our test-crazed policies. Others believe sanctioning cheating on tests is not a reflection of our testing culture but, instead, it shows what dishonest people do when bonuses are at stake and they're afraid they won't get them: They cheat.

There's plenty to debate about high-stakes testing: Is it the best way to measure student learning? Does it spur teaching to the test at the expense of more useful education? How much of a role should it play in teacher evaluations? But cheating has no place in that discussion. Combining the two diminishes any honest debate about testing, excuses dishonest acts, obstructs efforts to prevent cheating and magnifies cheating into a false "everybody's doing it" problem. The statistics do not support this position.

The proper response to cheating is to ensure that it doesn't occur. This isn't complicated: Use independent monitors. Limit access to tests before and after they are given. Bar teachers from monitoring their own classrooms. Also needed: city and civic leaders who step up when confronted with allegations of cheating — the opposite of what happened in Atlanta. In this regard Judge Baxter’s outrage is completely defensible.

Blog posted by Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage on April 22, 2015. Dr. Mintz is a professor in the Orfalea College of Business at Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo. He also blogs at