A jury has been chosen in an extremely rare criminal cheating prosecution against Atlanta educators, and it all started with a local reporter who noticed “miraculous” test scores.
Prosecutors are using a law originally enacted to go after mobsters to accuse former principals, teachers, and administrators of trying to boost their bonuses by conspiring to artificially raise kids’ test scores. While only 12 ex-educators are on trial in Atlanta, dozens of teachers and administrators were initially charged and many have since pleaded guilty in exchange for their cooperation.
The dozen on trial could get up to 20 years in prison, and they might never have been prosecuted if it weren’t for a pair of ambitious reporters at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution (AJC).
Back in 2008, Heather Vogell, now a reporter for ProPublica, noticed unusual gains at some schools on a standardized test called the Criterion-Referenced Competency Test (CRCT). As she explained to the Huffington Post, the gains seemed unbelievable even to the naked eye.
The article she ended up publishing in December 2008 with computer-assisted reporting specialist John Perry is alarming. That initial article looked at unlikely gains at several schools, including Atherton Elementary School, where nearly 88% of the kids were living in poverty as of 2010. Half of the school’s 5th graders had failed the CRCT in the spring of 2008. The 32 kids were all forced to retake the test. Every single one of them passed, and 26 scored at the highest level, Vogell and Perry wrote. More from that article:
A miracle occurred at Atherton Elementary this summer, if its standardized maths test scores are to be believed …
No other Georgia fifth grade pulled off such a feat in the past three years. It was, as one researcher put it, as extraordinary as a snowstorm in July. In Atlanta.
Of course, Atherton was only a small part of the story. Vogell told HuffPost that the story prompted a number of teachers to contact her about rampant cheating at Atlanta’s schools under the leadership of Superintendent Beverly Hall, who was indicted along with dozens of others. The AJC kept digging into the story.
Meanwhile, the state of Georgia conducted its own investigation, which in 2011 uncovered cheating at 44 schools that involved at least 178 educators, according to The New York Times. That investigation relied largely on a third-grade teacher named Jackie Parks, who admitted to state investigator Richard Hyde that she had sat with six teachers in a windowless room to change test answers the week of state testing.
Parks agreed to wear a wire to school and record her fellow teachers.
“During his 35 years as a Georgia state investigator, Richard Hyde has persuaded all sorts of criminals — corrupt judges, drug dealers, money launderers, racketeers — to turn state’s evidence, but until Jackie Parks, he had never tried to flip an elementary school teacher,” The Times reported in March 2013. “It worked.”
The current trial is expected to take months, and the potentially high penalties against a group of 12 African-American defendants who served mostly lower-income students has drawn some criticism.
“This is a witch hunt against black teachers,” the Rev. Timothy McDonald III told the Los Angeles Times.
“Yes, there should be some punishment — suspensions, fines, even loss of jobs — but 35 years in jail? The community did not ask for this kind of prosecution.”
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