Atlanta Pubic School Scandal: We are all guilty!


The APS cheating scandal, and it seems that people are picking sides, or trying to carefully land somewhere in the middle of two very bad positions. But as a concerned educator I really feel that we should all be sent to jail. And this is not necessarily for this particular incident; but rather, for how we allow the public schools in many places in this nation to destroy the creativity talents, gifts and smartness of millions of children of color, on a daily basis. The Atlanta Public School System (APSS) scandal is unfortunately only a symptom of a disease that permeates our national landscape; and putting 9, 15 or 25 people in jail won’t cure it. The core affliction here is: low expectations, a cross cultural permeating cultural belief (with or without standardized testing) that Black students just “can’t cut it”. It can be loud as this ugly APSS event, or as subtle as the call to “modify” admissions exams and standards for the sake of equity (i.e. the annual exercise to change NYC’s specialized H.S. entrance exam process). These liberal expressions of concern sound good, but end up not doing any good, because they never force us to truly solve the problem of students receiving a poor and inadequate education that does not prepare them to be competitive.

This APSS scandal, and the follow-up unreality show trial (“We will show citizens that we care about the Black children in Atlanta!”) is an all-sides” tragedy; meaning, there are no winners; and there can be no celebrations. In all of the adult characters, there are no absolute villains and no absolute hero’s; it is only left for the children to play the part of absolute victims. The well-meant argument on the part of some who are sympathetic to the inappropriate sentences the shameless “educators” received; should be aware that in this particular area the Judge’s comments are correct; “this is not a victimless crime”. As educators we know that we work with opportunity windows for learning; and if that window is missed or closed; it is very difficult to give a student a rewind on a lost learning experience. Education is built on a sequential-prerequisite system (what you learn today determines what you can, and will learn the next day, next week year, etc.); if a student is improperly moved forward to new work, without having acquired the necessary concepts and skills to do that work; they will continue to “fail forward” (fall further behind as they move up in grade). In layman’s terms: if you don’t master the fundamental algorithms (processes-procedures) of arithmetic, you will be unable to master the algorithms (processes-procedures) of algebra; if you don’t learn how to read in elementary school; you will be unable to analyze, deconstruct and converse with literature in middle and high school. This is the cause of a type of “anger” high school educators will often see displayed, as students come into a full recognition and understanding, that they have received an inferior K-8 education; and that many of their peers, unlike them, are much more prepared to do high school work.

Now people want to lay the blame for this tragedy at the feet of “standardized testing”; but that is an exercise in political opportunism; meaning you could have, legitimate or not so legitimate disagreement with the use (really the misuse, but that is another essay) of Standardized exams. Thus the APSS scandal provides you with a convenient case study as to why these exams should be dramatically reduced or abolished. The truth is that millions of students take exams all over this nation; and I would hypothesize that the educators who are responsible for these students don’t cheat for them. I am not a theologian but: “The temptation made me sin”, or in this case: “the test made me do it”; does not seem to be an affirmation that would lead one to the road of redemption and truth.
The discussion about the amount, applicability, usefulness of standardized exams is a very reasonable and necessary debate, unfortunately it is presently being conducted and led by those who know very little about the science of testing (psychometrics), or how a standardized assessment is, and should be a tool to obtain diagnostic information about student learning; and a method to inform and transform instructional practice. To those who have just arrived on the: “We are not using standardized exams properly in public education” bandwagon, welcome. But you only needed to ask any principal, who could have told you that doing something like comparing the exam scores of two fourth grade cohorts from different years was a piece of useless information; that the exam scores on high school exams are useful only when a focused deconstructed analysis (not news headlines) is used; For example seeing a trend in a history exam where students know the content but are not explaining it well on the essay. In this type of situation the school must design a strong: “nailing the essay” writing strategy for the upcoming cohort planning to take the exam; or to prepare the tested students for their next history exam. Most educators know that the way standardized exams are used by the public/politicians/news media is silly. In truth, a “school’s scores” (a not so interesting, and not very useful bit of information) could go up, or down based on factors that have nothing to do with what the school is, or is not doing; and more importantly how students are (individually or as a group) performing in that particular school. Determining if students are making progress requires a much more complex analysis; that includes standardized test scores as one of many variables. Then it is also true that when applying the designation of “effective” and “less than effective” to schools, it requires an even more robust system of analysis to be useful to both educators and the public. Students that are presently being defined as “high performing”; may in fact be underperforming; and schools that are presently designated as “effective”; may in fact be less than effective. The “year to year” comparison of different cohorts of students, was in fact a political, and not educational metric. It is a form of intellectual laziness that no effective classroom teacher would tolerate. The objective here was to make a political case for the “corporatization” of public education; to move money and jobs (in a slumping economy) from the public, to the private sector; thus the need for the failing public schools narrative; which has led to the de-professionalization of the profession; with disastrous outcomes, in particular for our most vulnerable students; who are the primary targets for the badly conceived, and misnamed “reform movement”. Further, this faux accountability system gave birth to the faux “achievement gap” narrative (which is really a school resources, quality teacher-administrator, parent attitude, information and parent access to resources, gap); which of course generated its own industry of equipment, materials, books, and of course: “expert consultants”. The “Why Black kids can’t learn” business is an ever-expanding financial opportunity; as school systems create the very problems that they must then spend huge amounts of money to fix. The tragic costly trick that public education has played on the public is that we know (we have enough information) how to educate Black children, and have simply chosen not to do so.

Our approach to student assessment is surely in need of correction; but that would first require that the profession takes a professional ethical stand on doing no harm to children in our never-ending desire to make adults happy and financially secure; and as long as we don’t choose to make that decision; those outside of the profession have a legitimate, albeit misinformed, rational to insert themselves into a decision-making role as it relates to standardized assessment. The truth is that over the years, many (Lorraine Monroe, Jamie Escalante, etc.) have proved that (like standardized exams or not) students of color can not only pass standardized exams; but can excel on them. (See Science Skills Center: Assessing Accelerated Science for African-American and Hispanic Students in Elementary and Junior High School; Science Assessment in the Service of Reform; American Association for the Advancement of Science, 1991; Kulm, Gerald, Malcolm, Shirley M.) I have always taken pride and purpose in getting students who society would throw away; to make their way to academic achievement. I have and always will believe that there is nothing wrong, deficient, incapable or lacking in the brains of the children of color. All it takes is for the adults charged with educating those children to believe in their natural ability; and then to work hard taking on all of the barriers and pitfalls that these children face from birth. In my ongoing response to the question I am most asked by aspiring school based leaders: “What are the most important things you learned in your life as an educator?” Well here is one for which I am not proud. And I put it in the form of a question: In many localities in this nation, not just Atlanta; where there is a Black mayor; where the city council, school board, the superintendent’s office, the principalship and the teacher positions are made up of predominantly of African-Americans. With these African-Americans in positions of power, what is preventing the children from excelling academically, let alone just gaining a good basic learning? In many of these places there are not even enough White people to blame for Black student underperformance! If the educators of APSS felt so strongly about students passing exams, or better still actually learning; why did they not make a massive collective commitment to raise the academic achievement of the APS children by: “Any means necessary”? Why did the city not go all out in helping parents (who you don’t have to convince) to be more effective informal educators? Set up weekend school semester brakes-summer, learning academies that focused on: STEM, dance, drama, writing, painting, sculpture, etc.; programs designed to raise student achievement? As a superintendent In CSD 29 Queens NYC we created “Family Nights” at the Museum, and rented busses to take whole families to an informal learning experience. And even if the city did nothing, why didn’t the teachers and administrators of the district proclaim: that because of the importance of our mission; we will not be restricted by any labor contract that would get in the way of our teaching the children! I have seen it happen because I have been fortunate to work in two high schools (SSCHS &Phelps ACE); and in both cases I worked with a racially diverse faculty; and those schools were successful because we all (teachers, support staff and administrators) decided to go above and beyond the written call of duty. Instead of having after-school/weekend “cheating parties”; we held after school and weekend teaching-study parties; many teachers in both schools work with students during their lunch and prep periods; we made the daily school academic program rigorous; which made the standardized exams passable. The guidance–counseling team worked hard to solve the many social-economic-health challenges that students bring with them to school; and that are in danger of getting in the way of learning. The school’s administrators created a school environment where teaching and learning could actually take place. The mission in both schools was that we were going to be competitive, no matter what measuring tool was utilized. As educators we must start with a basic belief in the ability of our students to learn, and to excel in that learning. And that we educators have the power to make that happen.

I suspect that the APS convicted educators; did not believe in the children because of what the children look like; trust me, racism that is self-inflicted, feels no less painful, and can be more destructive because the parents wrongly believe that the “Black Leader”; has their back. The APS perpetrators did not believe that society has unfairly condemn these children from birth to a second class status; and therefore their educators must serve as an educationally empowering counterforce. The convicted APS educators did not understand that because of the children’s skin color; they would need to exercise an extreme commitment, compassion and concern for the educational well-being of these children; and it is for these same reasons that they falsely believed that an American judicial system was not going to mistreat, and over-punish them because of the color of their skin. The convicted educators should receive all of the sympathy they can gather. But one question I have is for those APSS teachers and administrators who did not cheat, or did not get convicted for cheating. Those at work in APSS today, what is it that you believe about the ability of the students to learn; and what are you willing to do about it?


Every day another piece of very bad educational news. And every day I have this terrible growing sense that this idea of education as a spiritual calling; the seeing of education as the single most important transformational empowerment tool for those who are left out, least wanted and last to be served; is dead. We have I fear, entered the age of the professional Black educational entrepreneur/careerist. Or maybe we have always been in it, I just never received the memo. And it’s not like I haven’t been warned: 12 years (a slave to my own naivete?) ago In Albany a very prominent politician once shared an understanding in a way that only a politician could see, and understand the world: “Your problem Michael is that you always champion the causes of people who can’t protect themselves, let alone, protect you”. I heard an early version of this as superintendent of CSD 29 Queens NY. At the time the Southeast Queens school district had the highest concentration of children living in temporary housing in the city. Over the years these students were ignored by the district, “herded” into 3 schools without any additional social support services. In fact those schools were starved (Their PTA’s not being politically connected) for operating funds. Predictably these school were overwhelmed and academically underperforming. There was just no way that these schools, no matter how valiant the staff, could be successful without a strategically funded response to all of the problems and challenges the children faced because of growing up (many for years) in temporary housing. Of course I had to dramatically change that situation(“Trying Conditions For Kids In Shelters” New York Newsday; 3/24/2000). A very astute elected official informed me: “You are doing the right thing, but you should know, the reason those children were ignored and mistreated, is their parents are the least politically active; in fact they don’t even vote!” When you engage in the same action, again and again; it is probably safe to say that these are not mistakes, but instead, those actions reflect core values and principles. I can’t seem to be able to change my approach to education; even when it clearly hurts personally.
Once having lunch with the New York State Commissioner of Education; he ask me: “Who were some of the educators who had the greatest influence on your educational philosophy?” After I named them, he stated an observation that somehow was never apparent to me. “Do you realize that all of the people you named, are people who were controversial and/or got into some kind of (good) trouble?” It was that moment of metacognition (the thinking about one’s own thinking) that good teachers live to see in students. I was amazed at my own thoughts, as I had never seen them in that way. But how could I see them in that context? Starting at the age eighteen I had a well-paying job at the post office that lasted throughout my undergraduate college days; and so leaving and gong into education actually meant I took a drop in pay (not very Ayn Randian of me). And so it was not strange that the educators that most captured my philosophical imagination like: Paulo Freire, Ron Edmunds, Barbara Sizemore, J. Jerome Harris, Lorraine Monroe, Adelaide Sanford, and Asa Hilliard, never seem to have a career enhancement-advancement, money making-plan; in fact, it could in a sense be said that; their rejection of crass opportunism, the urgent desire to speak the truth for those who won’t, or who were unable to speak, did not endear them to the educational disenfranchisement class. It could be said that in their uncompromising passion to truly serve children, they made all of the wrong career/financial enhancing decisions.
I remember a conversation I once had as a NYC principal, with the then supervising superintendent of high schools, John Ferradino. On that day he gave me one the most empowering piece of advice I have ever heard in my life. He said: “You remind me of why I went into education; and for the sake of the children, don’t ever lose that”. And so I receive that blessing; knowing that even dinosaurs can leave powerful, lasting impressions in this world.



We often forget that “public people” are still people. I often wonder how Loretta Lynch feels during these many difficult days (and I often pray for her). After spending so much time in preparation; after playing by all of the rules (they, and not she have set up); after offering a distinguished service record that is rich in excellent expertise; and yet she can’t even get the opportunity to win or lose. This is such a terrible message for our young people; who (of which I am probably the most guilty) are continually encouraged to prepare themselves through education, practiced study, and hard work. This is one of those moments that I am glad I don’t have to go into a school, and explain the Loretta Lynch situation to students; somehow I think that the true but insufficient: “there are unfair and evil people in the world”, would not be enough; students learn (even as we think they are not learning) a great deal through quiet watching and observation. And although I really admire the work and decency of Rachel Maddow; I found it hard to watch last night as this story was being spun, as usual, by the news media as just bad “partisan politics”. I think Ms. Lynch is more than a “pawn”; she is a person with emotions and feelings; and I think that she is in many ways a symbolic expression of the painful history that many who look like her face in this nation; standing at the door fully prepared; while it remains shut… There have been so many for so many years, standing outside of the closed doors of opportunity, unable to walk in…



“We can, whenever and wherever we choose, successfully teach all children whose schooling is of interest to us. We already know more than we need to do that. Whether or not we do it must finally depend on how we feel about the fact that we haven’t so far.” –Ron Edmonds

There are three things I always find interesting in many of these “international school culture comparative studies/papers/articles”. One is (1) the missing commentary on race and national culture; either they touch briefly on it, or in the case of this article, totally ignore this important factor, and the role racial homogeneity (RH) plays in what is expected from each student; and what the adults in that nation, the educational professionals, expect from themselves. I think RH is an important factor, and an essential research variable that must be considered when trying to explain the different outcomes of European and Asian educational systems, when compared to the US system. What this article somehow manages to do, is to talk about national culture, without really talking deeply about national culture!

(In Korea) “…Students are under enormous, unrelenting pressure to perform. Talent is not a consideration — because the culture believes in hard work and diligence above all, there is no excuse for failure. Children study year-round, both in-school and with tutors. If you study hard enough, you can be smart enough…”

(2) There is a great deal of misconceptions (mostly on the US side) as to what is really going on in these “outside of the US” educational systems. This is in part due to the fact that we choose to ignore how the culture of class and race is so central to the operational philosophy of our own school systems that we don’t look for it in other educational systems. This then amounts to a form of not helpful “theoretical cherry picking” without the properly associated historical, political and/or cultural analysis. For example: Looking at other nation’s teacher pay and benefits; and not at their teacher selection and preparation process. How is job retention (tenure) expressed in that nation, and the commitment to continual professionalism? One could focus on the huge (more than the US) amount of “prep-time” granted to Japanese teachers; while at the same time ignoring the much larger class sizes, or the high degree of personal responsibility and pride (for student success) borne by those Japanese teachers expressed in a tremendous form of what we would define as “efficacy”. Even in the area of administration there are some very unaccounted for stark differences in almost every other nation’s school system. In one of two meetings I had with an educational delegation of administrators from People’s Republic of China (PRC). There was not one person from a “Regional Superintendent” (I.e. Guangdong Provence) to a school principal who had not literally moved up the educational professional ladder. I had no words (even though some of them spoke English, and we also had a translator to explain why: someone would “jump in and out” of education for a 3 year stint; or how a principal could supervise (and evaluate) teachers, and have no expertise or experience in teaching. This made no sense to them!

If there were no American misconceptions concerning other nations school systems; perhaps other critical questions would emerge: If the “highly structured” and “regimented” Korean system, and the more “liberal” Finland (and I want to be careful here, for US “liberalism” cannot be universally applied) both seem to turn out high numbers of high achieving students; why does that occur? And what “qualities” do these two school systems have in common? Contrary to popular belief, most nations (including those “outperforming” the US) do indeed employ a national common core curriculum (an in most cases a national school system); and to some degree or another (some more than others) engage in a rigorous national system of standardized assessment. But our solutions are always simplistic; and thus unproductive: (a) evaluate teachers utilizing standardized exams; or (b) Throw out all standardized exams, as not useful.

“…In Finland, only one in ten applicants to teaching programs is admitted. After a mass closure of 80 percent of teacher colleges in the 1970s, only the best university training programs remained, elevating the status of educators in the country…”

(3) I find it interesting that one nation with one of the highest literacy rates in the world is always omitted from these discussions, and that nation is Barbados. I was able to spend some time observing these very successful schools in Barbados; and in many ways they mirror their “high achieving” European and Asian counterparts (including the benefit of the “RH” factor). Ironically, they do many of the “things” that American educators sight as the “problem” with US education: They test and assess students a great deal. Schools are measured by the number of students who “qualify” for a particular “gate-keeper” exam. They have a common core curriculum, and a national school system. But what I also saw in Barbados (and again missing from this article) that made it work was: first, a national cultural belief that it was worse to be illiterate, then to be poor. Further, the “RH” factor. The teachers taught a student body that looked just like them; and since the teachers felt that they were intelligent, and capable of mastering the work; they simply transferred that expectation onto the students they taught.

Nations that decided (unlike the US model) that their children are as an important national resource, as any the nation produces; and that the education of these children is vital to national security and development of the country; make a national collective decision to make sure that those children are properly educated. The US on the other hand is not fully committed to educating certain classes of children. Now, this has actually worked in the past, as we have been able to fill our talent needs with U.S. White males and foreign nationals. But as the US population profile, and the world shifts dramatically. The world by creating the infrastructure to absorb their own trained professionals particularly in the STEM professions; and inside of America due to the trajectory of demographics that will radically change the majority complexion of our public school population. These “facts on the ground” will doom the present working theory of educating the favored few, at the expense of the many. A prison to pipeline, rather than a STEM pipeline will not sustain the first place skills status of America in the future.

Finally, with many of these educational “miracle” nations, there exist a collective sense and will of responsibility for the academic achievement of that nation’s children; this ‘will” is a responsibility that is shared by the entire nation, community, family, child, and yes the school personnel. Perhaps a good international comparison would be to see how these “Educational Disneylands” of the world do with their “less desirable”, the poor, or emigrant populations. Returning to my PRC delegation; who admitted that there was a tremendous qualitative difference between their rural, and urban school systems; and that (one of the reasons for their visit) they realize that closing that gap is a national priority. The U.S. could actually transform its diverse population into a strong advantage over other “culturally diverse limited” nations. (That’s a topic for another essay!) And with the financial and intellectual resources at her disposal; America could easily produce the largest number of the best students on the planet; but that would mean that the nation saw the success of the students of color as important, and their educational success in the national interest of the country. And until elected officials, educational policy makers, and the educational professional community see these students as their own children; as the caretakers of the nation’s success legacy; the schools won’t improve outside of celebrated and isolated pockets of success.

No nation in the world (including South Africa) faces the unique set of challenges connected to race that you find in the U.S. Our news media can pretend that the Netanyahu “invitation”, and the exchange of stolen spy information between a foreign nation and U.S. elected officials, is just: “partisan politics”; but the world (and many of us in the US) saw it for what it really was, pure racism. And as long as Mr. Obama can sit in the White House, and not be seen as worthy of respect; then the children who look like him, and who sit in US public school classrooms across this nation, don’t have a chance; no matter what international seasoning you bring to the table!