Astonishment Over Atlanta Public Schools: “No exceptions. No excuses.” The Seven Signs in Action

The Barometer isn’t often taken aback by scandals, but Atlanta has succeeded in offering a real head-turner when it comes to ethical collapse. Lost in the Casey Anthony hoopla, the story is that the Atlanta Public School (APS) system is in a heap of trouble. The trouble? Teachers and administrators cheating to get the kind of test scores that brought APS national acclaim. A special investigation conducted by the governor’s office concludes that the cheating has gone on for at least a decade and involved 178 APS employees, including 38 principals, and 44 of 56 schools investigated. How they cheated is as amazing as how the culture was able to keep it going for so long. The teachers changed answers with gloves on (no fingerprints wanted), gave students the answers, and were rewarded for doing so. Teachers with low scores were forced to sit under tables in meetings. And those who dared asked why they were changing students’ answers were terminated, transferred, or investigated.

The Seven Signs of Ethical Collapse are evident from the beginning of the investigation report. How did they do it for so long? Culture of fear. The report concludes, “A culture of fear, intimidation and retaliation spread throughout the district,” and the investigators also noted that Dr. Beverly Hall, then superintendent of APS had a motto “No exceptions. No excuses.” What happened if they missed numbers? “If principals did not meet targets within three years, they will be replaced and l Will find someone who will meet targets.” During her tenure Dr. Hall did indeed root out and replace, fully 90% of the district’s principals.

And fear went right down through to the principals who put the same fear into their teachers with bizarre conduct in meetings, along the lines of the Kozlowski terror reign at Tyco. An example from the report: “Many principals humiliated teachers in front of their peers for failing to meet
targets. For example, at Fain Elementary School, the principal forced a teacher to crawl under a table in a faculty meeting because that teacher’s students’ test scores were low.”

What drove teachers and principals to cheat? Focus was entirely on the numbers. The investigators wrote, “. . . the administration put unreasonable pressure on teachers and principals to achieve targets;” Worse, no one cared if the numbers were real — they just needed numbers. From the report, “APS became such a ‘data-driven’ system, with unreasonable and excessive pressure to meet targets, that Beverly Hall and her senior cabinet lost sight of conducting tests with integrity.” Oh, and they were rewarded with bonuses when they achieved those numbers and humiliated when they missed.

There was also the iconic superintendent, Beverly Hall, who had a national presence because of her district’s amazing scores. No one dare question such an achiever. The report noted, “Hall became a subject of adoration and made herself the focus rather than the children. Her image became more important than reality.” Dr. Hall also neglected the key work of an administrator — MBWA — management by walking around. She spent little time in the trenches, the schools and classrooms. Rather, as the report indicates, “[She] preferred to spend her time networking with philanthropic and business leaders rather than walking the halls of her schools.”

So engrained in teachers and principals was this culture of cheating that when the governor’s investigation began, one district leader held a meeting that began with all teachers and principals being given a paper with “Go to Hell” written at the top. They were then told to vent their frustrations on the paper by writing to the governor or anyone else involved in questioning APS test scores. They had created a perfect sandbox for cheating. Those who raised questions within the district about the cheating were the problem, not the cheating itself.

Once they started, there was no way out. Akin to the use of accounting sleights-of-hand to meet earnings numbers for one quarter, the next quarter means more manipulation. So it was in Atlanta, once you cheated to get results, you only had to cheat more to increase the results because the students were simply not improving. These investigators, bless their hearts, as they say in the South, saw it all and summed it up beautifully:

“The monetary bonus for meeting targets provided little incentive to cheat. But fear of termination and public ridicule in faculty and principals meetings drove numerous educators to cross ethical lines. Further, because targets rose annually, teachers found it increasingly difficult to achieve them. After a few years of increases, teachers found the targets unattainable and resorted to cheating. Multiple years of test misconduct in the district compounded the level of cheating that was required annually to not only match the prior year’s false scores but also to surpass them. The gap between where the students were academically and the targets they were trying to reach grew larger. The cumulative effect of cheating over a decade on the CRCT made meeting targets more difficult with each passing year. To maintain the gains of the past years while achieving the target of the current year required more cheating than in prior years. Once cheating started it became a house of cards that collapsed upon itself.”

Just like Enron. Just like World Com. Just like the CDO market. We make busines and capitalism the bad guys. Truth is, hubris invades all types of organizations. The Seven Signs exist wherever folks are trying to achieve and lose sight of ethical lines. Even when the work is noble, no one is immune from ethical lapse and collapse. APS is a classic case study for application of the Seven Signs. The tragedy is that no one took a look five years ago when the signs were just as obvious as when the investigators black-helicoptered in. We are glad they got there and found the root cause. Now, if we can just take a look around the country and clean up the other messes.

You can
For the investigation report (all three volumes), go to:

About mmjdiary

Professor Marianne Jennings is an emeritus professor of legal and ethical studies from the W.P. Carey School of Business at Arizona State University, retiring in 2011 after 35 years of teaching undergraduate and graduate courses in ethics and the legal environment of business. During her tenure at ASU, she served as director of the Joan and David Lincoln Center for Applied Ethics from 1995-1999. In 2006, she was appointed faculty director for the W.P. Carey Executive MBA Program. She has done consulting work for businesses and professional groups including AICPA, Boeing, Dial Corporation, Edward Jones, Mattel, Motorola, CFA Institute, Southern California Edison, the Institute of Internal Auditors, AIMR, DuPont, AES, Blue Cross Blue Shield, Motorola, Hy-Vee Foods, IBM, Bell Helicopter, Amgen, Raytheon, and VIAD. The sixth edition of her textbook, Case Studies in Business Ethics, was published in February 2011. The ninth edition of her textbook, Business: lts Legal, Ethical and Global Environment was published in January 2011. The 23rd edition of her book, Business Law: Principles and Cases, will be published in January 2013. The tenth edition of her book, Real Estate Law, will also be published in January 2013. Her book, A Business Tale: A Story of Ethics, Choices, Success, and a Very Large Rabbit, a fable about business ethics, was chosen by Library Journal in 2004 as its business book of the year. A Business Tale was also a finalist for two other literary awards for 2004. In 2000 her book on corporate governance was published by the New York Times MBA Pocket Series. Her book on long-term success, Building a Business Through Good Times and Bad: Lessons from Fifteen Companies, Each With a Century of Dividends, was published in October 2002 and has been used by Booz, Allen, Hamilton for its work on business longevity. Her latest book, The Seven Signs of Ethical Collapse was published by St. Martin’s Press in July 2006 and has been a finalist for two book awards. Her weekly columns are syndicated around the country, and her work has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, the Chicago Tribune, the New York Times, Washington Post, and the Reader's Digest. A collection of her essays, Nobody Fixes Real Carrot Sticks Anymore, first published in 1994 is still being published. She has been a commentator on business issues on All Things Considered for National Public Radio. She has served on four boards of directors, including Arizona Public Service (1987-2000), Zealous Capital Corporation, and the Center for Children with Chronic Illness and Disability at the University of Minnesota. She was appointed to the board of advisors for the Institute of Nuclear Power Operators in 2004 and served on the board of trustees for Think Arizona, a public policy think tank. She has appeared on CNBC, CBS This Morning, the Today Show, and CBS Evening News. In 2010 she was named one of the Top 100 Thought Leaders in Business Ethics by Trust Across America. Her books have been translated into four different languages. She received the British Emerald award for authoring one of their top 50 articles in management publications, chosen from over 15,000 articles. Personal: Married since 1976 to Terry H. Jennings, Maricopa County Attorney’s Office Deputy County Attorney; five children: Sarah, Sam, and John, and the late Claire and Hannah Jennings.
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