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Culture of Corruption: Report Finds Widespread Teacher Cheating, Intimidation in Atlanta Schools

"Teachers and principals erased and corrected mistakes on students’ answer sheets."

A year-long investigation first orchestrated by former Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue (R) and now released by current Gov. Nathan Deal (R) has unearthed cheating and unethical behavior across every level of the 55,000-student Atlanta Public School System. The Atlanta Journal Constitution reports:

"Teachers and principals erased and corrected mistakes on students’ answer sheets.

Area superintendents silenced whistle-blowers and rewarded subordinates who met academic goals by any means possible.

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."

The 800-page report was released to the Associated Press Tuesday through an open records request. Superintendent Hall was awarded the national Superintendent of the Year award in 2009, and through her attorney she "steadfastly denies" that she knew or should have known of any allegedly widespread cheating. The State begs to differ.

"Dr. Hall and her administration emphasized test results and public praise to the exclusion of integrity and ethics," the report states. "Dr. Hall either knew or should have known cheating and other misconduct was occurring in the APS system."

The yearlong investigation confirms rumblings for weeks that educators at nearly four dozen Atlanta elementary and middle schools cheated on standardized tests by helping students or changing the answers once exams were handed in. Some teachers held "changing" parties at their homes to fix student answers.

The investigators also found a "culture of fear, intimidation and retaliation" in the school district over the cheating allegations, which led to educators lying about the cheating or destroying documents to cover it up, according to the report. School officials had "warnings" as early as 2005 that there was cheating on standardized tests, but those signals were ignored, according to the report.

Gov. Deal emphasized that the biggest losers in the scandal are not political pundits or high-level educators, but the mostly African-American and economically disadvantaged students that make up one of the state's largest school districts.

"Nothing is more important to the future of our state than ensuring that today's students receive a first class education and integrity in testing is a necessary piece of that equation," Deal said. "When educators have failed to uphold the public trust and students are harmed in the process, there will be consequences."

The 178 teachers and principals determined to have cheated will be referred to the state Professional Standards Commission, which licenses teachers in Georgia, to determine whether they should have their licenses suspended or revoked, Deal said. More than 80 of the accused have already confessed guilt. The district has 6,000 employees, half of them teachers.

NPR reported that the school board's chairwoman, Brenda Muhammad, appeared stunned and shaken as she left a private meeting with Georgia's governor just before his public announcement.

Christian Science Monitor reports on the fallout from community leaders:

"It 'confirms our worst fears,' says Mayor Kasim Reed. 'There is no doubt that systemic cheating occurred on a widespread basis in the school system.'The news is 'absolutely devastating,' said Brenda Muhammad, chairwoman of the Atlanta school board. 'It’s our children. You just don’t cheat children.'

Some things that gave the cheating away:

"Investigations by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution (AJC) and state investigators found a pattern consistent with other cheating scandals: a spike in test scores in one critical grade would be followed by an equally dramatic drop the next year. A USA Today investigation in March found that erasure data in six states and the District of Columbia showed these "abnormal patterns," according to testing expert Thomas Haladyna at Arizona State University."

So why would the district take such risks and systematically "cook the books" year after year? The AJC gives three key reasons: unrealistic test-score goals set by the district, a culture of pressure and retaliation, and the leadership style of Dr. Hall emphasizing test results and public praise at the expense of ethics.

“'In many ways, the community was duped by Dr. Hall,' the report said. 'While the district had rampant cheating, community leaders were unaware of the misconduct in the district. She abused the trust they placed in her.

'Hall became a subject of adoration and made herself the focus rather than the children,' the investigators wrote. 'Her image became more important than reality.'

The ordeal is already being consider as one the biggest education scandals in recent memory. While school's out, Atlanta educators are in for a hot summer.

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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