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Educators in Atlanta cheating scandal told quit or be fired

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By David Beasley

ATLANTA (Reuters) - Dozens of Atlanta public school educators accused of cheating on standardized testing have until Wednesday to resign or be fired, local school officials said on Monday.

The city's interim school superintendent has given educators a three-day window starting on Monday to resign and avoid termination proceedings that will begin Thursday, Atlanta Public Schools spokesman Keith Bromery told Reuters.

A state report issued earlier this month identified 178 teachers and principals who cheated on state standardized testing in 2009 as a way to inflate student scores.

By resigning, those educators can avoid having a termination on their records, Bromery said. If they choose not to resign and are fired, they are entitled to appeal the decision and have a hearing.

Prosecutors in three Atlanta-area counties are weighing whether to file criminal charges against the teachers and principals.

The school system's actions against the educators are unrelated to any criminal proceedings, Bromery said.

"This has solely to do with their status as an Atlanta Public Schools employee," he said. "It does not have anything to do with any further prosecution."

The Georgia Association of Educators (GAE) is advising its members who have been accused in the scandal not to resign, said Michael McGonigle, legal services director for the advocacy group.

"I think the school district is moving much too quickly," he said. "It simply took the investigation's report at face value," he added, referring to the state report.

The GAE will provide legal representation to any member who wants to appeal a termination, he said.

"We think it's worth the fight," McGonigle said.

CONSPIRACY OF SILENCE?

The cheating discovered in 2009, found in 44 of the 56 Atlanta public schools examined, was prompted primarily by pressure to meet targets in a data-driven environment, according to a statement released by Georgia Governor Nathan Deal's office earlier this month.

"A culture of fear, intimidation and retaliation existed in Atlanta Public Schools, which created a conspiracy of silence," the state report concluded.

The 2009 cheating was said to include teachers erasing incorrect answers on state standardized tests.

Eighty-two teachers and principals have confessed to the cheating, according to the state report. Six principals refused to answer questions.

The report concluded that there was a "major failure of leadership throughout Atlanta Public Schools with regard to the ethical administration" of the 2009 standardized exams known as the Criterion-Referenced Competency Tests.

Cheating occurred as early as 2001 and warnings several years ago of misconduct were ignored, the report said.

Amid the investigation, Beverly Hall stepped down last month after nearly 12 years as superintendent of the Atlanta Public Schools.

She had been named National Superintendent of the Year by the American Association of School Administrators in 2009, the same year the state contends widespread cheating took place.

The Atlanta school district has an enrollment of about 48,000 students and is smaller than many of the surrounding suburban school districts.

Hall's attorney has denied that the former superintendent knew in 2009 that widespread cheating had occurred.

(Editing by Colleen Jenkins and Peter Bohan)