Say it ain’t so, Beverly — because misusing data cheats our students


Widespread cheating occurred in the Atlanta school system.  Principals and teachers changed students’ answers on tests, so that their schools’ overall performance would look better.  Some whistleblowers claim that the district terminated them for their honesty.

It’s shocking. The misbehavior of school district staff lasted probably ten years. Cheating occurred in 44 of 56 schools examined by investigators, who identified 178 teachers and principals as participants in the cheating.

As the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported: “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.”

These school district employees did not just cheat the system, in a misguided effort to artificially create a good image or to earn a higher bonus. They cheated the children.

A great disappointment. I had admired the Atlanta superintendent, Beverly Hall; in fact, I visited her district and spoke with her personally. She expressed an outcomes-oriented approach. She believed that all staff, from the superintendent, to the classroom teacher, to the cafeteria aide and the bus driver, must understand the part they play in the education of a child, in order for the whole system to be effective.

Described in the New York Times as, a “Jamaican-born graduate of Fordham University’s doctoral program, who began teaching in some of New York’s toughest classrooms”, she established a presence in Atlanta as a “forceful, erudite and data-driven superintendent”.

Beverly Hall stressed the importance of using data. She emphasized focusing on objective measures of whether students can read and write. Yet, for whatever reason, she drifted. The investigators concluded: “What has become clear through our investigation is that ultimately, the data, and meeting ‘targets’ by whatever means necessary, became more important than true academic progress.”

Beverly Hall lost sight of the mission of the public schools. She failed as a leader.  She left her post under a cloud of suspicion, if not in disgrace, in a city that, at one time according to the Times, “considered her a savior”.

However, I strongly caution against misinterpreting the events in Atlanta and concluding that we should not strive to achieve clearly defined outcomes and/or that we should not measure academic performance accurately and objectively.  When new test scores appear each year, controversy frequently erupts over whether and how to use the scores (e.g., whether underperforming schools should be publicly identified, whether No Child Left Behind offers an effective approach, etc.) We can’t let these controversies over the use of data obscure the fact that we need good data in order to improve the lives of our children.

Making organizations effective, transforming them to increase their impact, stimulating innovation – all these require good, sound data.  Assisting a child to do better academically, improving the performance of a school, eliminating the achievement gap in an entire community – these all require good, sound data too.

But data simply offer a tool. Like any tool, data (including academic test measures) can be used wisely and appropriately, or ignorantly and inappropriately. Sound data are one, but only one, necessary ingredient in the success of schools and other organizations.

I know a fourth-grade teacher in an urban school district who, on the first day of class each year, had many students arrive who could perform only at a first or second grade level. By the end of the year, she could bring some of them all the way up to fourth-grade achievement standards, but some only to second or third grade standards.  Was she rewarded for all of those she advanced, or only for those who rose to fourth-grade standards?  Unfortunately, the latter – which was very discouraging for someone with a dedication to teaching, along with the energy and competence to teach well. However, we can’t blame academic testing.  The problem is not that the school district tested and measured performance; the problem is that district administrators often lack the wisdom and ingenuity to create a system that uses data wisely and that rewards teachers for fostering academic success, not just for the extent to which they elevate test scores to some unrealistic threshold.

The Atlanta Public Schools lacked genuine leadership.  The Atlanta Public Schools used data inappropriately.  Again from the report:  “Data can be properly used as a tool to assess academic progress. But data can also be used as an abusive and cruel weapon to embarrass and punish classroom teachers and principals or as a pretext to termination. After hundreds of interviews, it has become clear that Dr. Hall and her staff used data as a way to exert oppressive pressure to meet targets.”

“This unfortunate incident highlights the need for transparency and accountability throughout our education system,” stated Secretary of Education Arne Duncan.  “Having good information to measure student progress is an absolute bedrock requirement in ensuring that schools are preparing our children for success.”

With sound information about children’s academic progress, along with information about other aspects of their lives, we can empower school staff; we can empower parents; we can empower communities. We can stimulate creativity as teams of staff seek to improve outcomes over time and as they receive positive reinforcement for innovations that increase success.  We can raise awareness in our communities about what needs to be done, and provide a yardstick to understand our progress in improving the education of our precious, young, community members.

Geoffrey Canada, a pioneer in educational reform and someone I have also spoken with personally on a few occasions, has stated in various ways that, when he attends a presentation on the effectiveness of an educational program, “the longer it takes them to get to the data, the worse I know the story will be”. He understands the importance of good measurement, but he creates at the Harlem Children’s Zone a culture in which measurement occurs to inform, to simulate new ideas for increasing the rate of success, and to praise accomplishments.

At Wilder Research, we enjoy empowering communities, empowering schools, empowering organizations – to achieve all that they can imagine, and more, through the effective use of sound research and high quality data.  We live in an information world; let’s treat information as we would any valuable resource and use it wisely and appropriately to improve our quality of life.