THE BLOG
07/12/2011 09:51 am ET Updated Sep 11, 2011

What Do We Do With The Cheaters?

Right now, I feel the need to vent, even though my rant might not move the ball forward. Next week I will pose the important question "Where do we go from here?" regarding the widespread cheating in Atlanta and apparently in a lot of other places as well, but that can wait.

I recall hearing former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright telling an audience of young girls that a special place in Hell was set aside for successful women who refused to help other women succeed.

An even hotter spot should be reserved for those adults who knowingly cheat children out of a decent education and lie to them about their achievements.

The cheaters in Atlanta, D.C., Philadelphia, Houston, Baltimore and elsewhere took advantage of the neediest and most vulnerable children and changed their scores so it would appear they had mastered material, when they in fact had not. They weren't thinking about the kids, of course, but only about themselves and the appearance of success.

Kids were numbers, nothing more, nothing less.

The scale of unethical behavior in Atlanta is staggering: According to the report from the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, of the 56 schools investigated, 44 cheated; so did 38 principals and 178 teachers (about 80 of whom have already confessed). But the lack of integrity did not start at the school level, and it appears to the investigators that the rot went all the way to the top, to Superintendent Beverly Hall. The report says that she either knew or should have known, but the culture of the system she created put public praise of her leadership above integrity and ethics. In her regime, the report says, a culture of fear, intimidation and retaliation ruled, and any teacher who tried to blow the whistle was punished.

Dr. Hall, who was the National Superintendent of the Year in 2009 -- the highest honor given by the American Association of School Administrators -- has resigned. She has apologized without admitting any wrongdoing.

Maybe she should do a Reggie Bush and give back that award, just as the former USC running back returned the Heisman Trophy -- a few steps ahead of NCAA investigators.

The investigation focused on one school year, 2008-09, but the cheating must have started years earlier. It simply could not have grown so massive in just one year or two.

The report says that 'thousands' of children were affected but gets no more specific than that. Suppose that only 10% of students were affected; that's about 5,000 kids. But the cheating went on for a few years, perhaps since 2001 or 2002, meaning that the cheaters stole a lot of years of opportunity from a lot of children.

And they are not just cheaters. They are also thieves.

Why did it continue undetected for so long? Probably because everyone wanted to believe in the remarkable success of low-income minority children. Closing the achievement gap has been education's holy grail for many years, and now it's happening right here in Atlanta. Who would want to pour cold water on that?

Any skepticism would likely have been met by skillful playing of the race card: "What, you don't believe that poor African-American children can learn? Would you question the results if the children were white and middle class?" Michelle Rhee used that approach when people questioned the remarkable progress in Washington, D.C. and it worked there.

I told you what I think should happen to the guilty parties, and Georgia law actually provides for penalties of up to 10 years imprisonment for some offenses. But what will happen? The last cheating incident in Atlanta, about 10 years ago, produced two convictions but gentle slaps on the wrist: 40 hours of 'community service' in a soup kitchen, two years of probation and a fine of $1000 -- the total punishment for the two offenders! That was quite a deterrent, wasn't it?

(Ironic, isn't it, that some of these adult thieves were responsible for making sure that students did not cheat.)

Officials from Education Secretary Arne Duncan on down are talking about 'technical fixes' and 'better referees' and closer monitoring to prevent this from happening again, but the horse is out of the barn here. And as long as test scores rule, cheating and other attempts to beat the system will continue.

And cheaters will find a way. Count on it, even if Atlanta's cheaters go to jail, because, if the system is going to punish or even fire teachers and principals and administrators for students' poor test scores, some are going to be tempted to get those scores up, by hook or by crook.

One does not have to be a skeptic or cynic to expect more cheating stories to emerge.

But what about the kids, the real victims? There's no mulligan in life, and those 4th graders who didn't master math or language arts are now 5th graders.

What should be done for them? How do we pay back the debt we owe them? I encourage you to comment here.

As always, remember that John's book The Influence of Teachers is for sale at Amazon.