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The Atlanta Cheating Scandal's Tough Lessons for Business Leaders

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

City business leaders were too quickly dazzled by Atlanta’s superintendent. Here’s how to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past.

As details of the Atlanta Public Schools (APS) cheating scandal continue to emerge, the city’s business leadership has come under fire for its unabashed support of former Superintendent Beverly Hall. The tough truth is that Atlanta’s business community is partly to blame, as it ignored one of the cardinal rules of true partnerships: effective ones are two-way streets. City business leaders ended up working for, not with, the city’s school district leadership.

Too often, local businesses wanting to get involved in their K-12 education systems fall into this trap. Eager to be seen as “partners,” they donate dollars first and ask questions later. But to be effective, business leaders must recognize that partnering with school districts or policy makers doesn’t simply mean carrying their water. It means asking tough questions and insisting on certain end results or operational targets in exchange for support.

In Atlanta, it seems that the business community was a little too eager to do Superintendent Beverly Hall’s bidding. Dazzled by her corporate background and emphasis on “data-driven decision-making,” prominent leaders lined up to give her their support. They backed Hall when some criticized her lavish bonuses in 2006, and they defended her again when articles in local newspapers raised questions about the sudden gains APS students were making in standardized tests. We now know that business, along with the rest of Atlanta, was taken for a ten-year ride.

It is crucial for the business community to remember that much of its influence rests on its credibility.

A bit of context may be helpful for those who haven’t followed the saga. In February 2010, concerns arose when a state analysis found suspicious erasure patterns in standardized tests from 58 of Atlanta’s public schools. The ensuing investigation lasted over a year. Last month, the results of the probe were finally released, revealing widespread and systematic cheating by 178 teachers and principals in 44 Atlanta public schools. Some of those caught in the investigation blamed the district leadership, namely Beverly Hall—who was named 2009 National Superintendent of the Year by the American Association of School Administrators—for creating a “culture of fear, intimidation and retaliation,” which led them to fudge test scores. Hall left the district after her contract expired in late June.

Given our own deep interest in encouraging business leaders to play a smart and constructive role in K-12 schooling, we think that two important lessons deserve to be flagged. First, it is crucial for the business community to remember that much of its influence rests on its credibility. As a seasoned legislative staffer who champions business involvement in education told us, “It makes a difference when a business person …[tells us], ‘I don’t care what your [standardized test] scores or your [reports] say, the kids who come to work for us can’t read.’” This valuable reality check was compromised in Atlanta when the business community threw its influence behind Superintendent Hall regardless of results, just because, as one local paper reported, she was “fluent in the language of corporate America.”

Too often, local businesses are eager to be seen as partners; they donate dollars first and ask questions later.

When discussing effective business-education partnerships, the usual presumption is that education leaders are being scrupulous and forthright with their data. The Atlanta scandal shows that business leaders supporting local school systems would be wise to follow President Reagan’s advice and “trust, but verify.” The APS debacle underscores the fact that, for many years, communities have been taking school testing results at face value. Of all people, business leaders should be interested in the mechanisms behind the results—and in ensuring that these processes are reliable. Coca-Cola, for example, does not rely solely on vendor reports; rather, it employs protocols and audits to keep the books in order. By flagging potentially problematic practices, such as teachers being allowed to hold on to their students’ standardized tests for days before sending them in, business leaders can help educators guard against scandals like the one that has rocked APS.

That being said, it’s a lot easier for business to maintain credibility and keep a watchful eye on educational leaders if they actually know their stuff. When it comes to municipal zoning or state tax policy, business leaders know that effective advocacy requires a grasp of the particulars, compelling data, political muscle, and strong working relationships. Yet those same leaders sometimes treat K–12 schooling like a hobby, relying on homilies, good intentions, and an inexperienced staff. Equipped with expertise and a dab of skepticism, business leaders can avoid being sold a false bill of goods by educational leaders—even by those who know to say exactly the words business leaders want to hear.

Co-authors Frederick M. Hess, the director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, and researcher Whitney Downs have just published “Partnership Is a Two-Way Street: What It Takes for Business to Help Drive School Reform.”

FURTHER READING: Hess writes on education policy in “Quality Control in K-12 Digital Learning: Three (Imperfect) Approaches,” “State Education Agencies as Agents of Change,” “Lessons for a Biz Community Ready to Step Up,” and “How to Improve Teacher Quality? Treat Teachers as Individuals.”

Image by Rob Green | Bergman Group

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