His bosses had no trouble dismissing Ryan Abbott’s report of cheating on standardized tests in an Atlanta school. They simply cast him in a self-fulfilling role, Abbott says: “disgruntled teacher.”
Abbott was already on probation, after four years at Benteen Elementary. His students had not posted the big increases in test scores seen in other classrooms. Yet he had the audacity to level charges against a popular colleague. After word of Abbott’s allegations spread through the school, Benteen’s principal opened an ethics case — against him.
“It’s put me in a very difficult spot,” said Abbott, whose job security remains tenuous even though state authorities corroborated his claims of cheating at Benteen. “It’s a tough place to be.”
Abbott’s experience illustrates the perils that befall Atlanta Public Schools teachers who report cheating or other wrongdoing, an investigation by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution shows.
The newspaper reviewed reports of the school district’s internal investigations and spoke with more than a dozen current and former Atlanta educators. The documents and the interviews describe a culture that punishes employees who report wrongdoing and rewards those who keep silent. Some whistle-blowers end up under scrutiny themselves. Others are subjected to questions about their mental health. Some lose their jobs.
The prospect of even the most subtle forms of reprisal not only discourages teachers from reporting impropriety, educators say, it makes them more susceptible to pressure to cheat on such assessments as the Criterion-Referenced Competency Test.
Not one educator confessed during the school district’s initial inquiry into widespread cheating on the 2009 CRCT. Now, under threat of criminal prosecution if they lie to state agents investigating the cheating scandal, numerous Atlanta educators have acknowledged witnessing or participating in irregularities.
“It’s just this thing that everyone knows is going on but nobody says anything,” said former teacher Sidnye Fells, who alleged that administrators at Dobbs Elementary cheated. “It’s the elephant in the room. If you say anything, you lose your job.”
One day during her five years at Dobbs, Fells said, an administrator pushing a cartload of papers stopped at her room after students had left, handed over their CRCT answer sheets and books containing the test questions, and told her to “check for stray marks.”
Teachers aren’t supposed to be left alone with test papers — much less test papers and an eraser. So Fells assumed the administrator was encouraging her to correct wrong answers. She says she made no changes.
Fells later reported other testing irregularities, but state investigators found no probable cause to sanction the administrator she named. Fells resigned from the Atlanta schools in 2008 after a dispute with the district over sick leave.
The district says it has adopted “strict policies prohibiting any form of retaliation” against whistle-blowers. A statement released Friday said Superintendent Beverly Hall “strongly believes it is important to maintain an open and retaliation-free workplace culture.”
In Atlanta, as in other Georgia school districts, teachers have little job security. Even those with tenure work under year-to-year contracts, and they have no collective bargaining rights. Younger teachers, in particular, say that if they run afoul of administrators, they risk being “non-renewed.”
Teachers also can be kept in line with the threat of being placed on a “professional development plan,” a form of probation that may lead to firing. At one Atlanta school, according to public records, the principal told her faculty that if test scores didn’t increase, she would be placed on a professional development plan — and if she was, each of them would be, too. Teachers in at least two other schools have complained of similar threats.
Georgia law, including a statute preventing punishment of certain whistle-blowers, offers no special protection for teachers who report wrongdoing, said Gary Walker, deputy executive secretary for the Professional Standards Commission, the state agency that licenses and disciplines teachers.
Walker said he tells potential whistle-blowers: “If they retaliate, we can’t promise we can take care of it for you.”
Retribution typically manifests itself in unfair performance evaluations, Walker said, but is “awfully hard to prove.” A teacher’s only recourse is an appeal to the local, then state, board of education, a time-consuming and, with legal fees, expensive proposition.
On a few occasions, Walker has helped find new jobs for educators who stepped forward to expose wrongdoing.
“Sometimes,” he said, “it’s better to move on.”
Abbott didn’t set out to become a whistle-blower, exactly. In the spring of 2010, he was discussing test-taking strategies with his fourth-grade class. Twelve students had had the same teacher for third grade — Sheila Evans, a Benteen veteran — and they didn’t like Abbott’s tips for improving their scores.
“Ms. Evans gave us answers last year,” one student said, according to records of the district’s internal investigation, which cited interviews with Abbott and students.
“Yes, she did,” others added.
Students told Abbott that Evans whispered answers to some pupils. When a proctor stepped out, they said, Evans gave answers to the entire class.
“It’s too bad Ms. Evans isn’t here,” a student said. “She’ll help us.”
The students sensed trouble.
“Please, Mr. Abbott, don’t tell anybody,” one student said, according to records.
Abbott considered Evans a role model. “There’s so much pressure from the top,” he said recently. “I don’t think she would have done that willfully on her own.”
But if he said nothing and his students’ CRCT scores dropped, he would have been blamed, he said. So he filed a complaint with the Professional Standards Commission.
Evans declined to be interviewed last week. She recently filed a lawsuit against the school district related to the cheating investigation, in which she denied Abbott’s charges and described them as “false and self-serving.”
Abbott had expected his allegations to be kept quiet while they were under investigation. But within days of his filing the complaint, he said, everyone at Benteen seemed to know what he had done.
At Humphries Elementary, Lillian Lockhart kept a secret for almost a year.
Then last March, the principal gathered the Humphries faculty to talk about a district-wide investigation of cheating on the 2009 CRCT. State officials had found a statistically improbable number of wrong-to-right erasures on test papers from nearly half of Humphries’ classrooms.
When the faculty meeting ended, Lockhart finally told the principal she had witnessed another teacher cheating on the CRCT in 2009.
Lockhart’s disclosure, however, set in motion a series of events that cleared her colleague while raising questions about her own veracity.
The school district already had created a commission to investigate systemic cheating. But rather than refer Lockhart’s allegation to that panel, district officials hired a lawyer to look into the matter as an individual occurrence.
Lockhart told the lawyer, Penn Payne, that she was observing a fourth-grade science test when another teacher came in. The teacher, Lockhart said, gestured to the students, holding up one or two fingers, and walked between rows of desks mouthing answers.
According to the report Payne later prepared, the other teacher acknowledged entering the classroom, but only to show “moral support.”
“None of the children asked her questions, and she does not remember saying anything to them,” Payne wrote. “She does remember that she had to wake up two students because she did not want them to salivate on their answer sheets.”
Noting that no other adult was present to corroborate the allegation, Payne concluded Lockhart didn’t witness what she thought she had seen.
Payne went on: “Clearly, Ms. Lockhart saw or heard something that upset her on that day. While I would not say that Ms. Lockhart is not credible, or that she deliberately made up a story, I believe she has an over-active imagination and created in her own mind a scenario of improper behavior.”
Lockhart, who still teaches at Humphries, did not respond to a request for an interview.
Payne declined to be interviewed, saying by e-mail that her reports “speak for themselves.” She said she neither suppresses allegations nor punishes accusers. But she said she is wary of “second- or third-hand information” and “maliciously untrue” gossip.
“Many witnesses are willing to be interviewed,” Payne wrote in the e-mail, “but the real question is whether they are telling me the truth.”
Complaints about retaliation against Atlanta educators who pointed out problems have circulated for years. As high-stakes testing set ever-higher goals, some school employees say, district officials became more aggressive in trying to discredit whistle-blowers.
A teacher at Douglass High who twice reported testing irregularities lost his job even after a state investigator warned the district not to punish him.
Gautam Saha first reported that one day in September 2004, an assistant principal ordered him to return state graduation tests to his students so they could keep working after time expired. The state reprimanded the assistant principal. Saha was found to be the victim of “retaliatory mistreatment” by administrators, his lawyer said in a letter to the district.
In his second complaint, Saha said a student told him that during the graduation test, a counselor had allowed other students to grab her paper and pass it around the room. The student, whose mother taught at Douglass, retracted her statement to Saha. Nevertheless, state officials corroborated the irregularities and reprimanded the counselor.
By then, however, the school district had acted on its own — against Saha.
The district filed a complaint with the state licensing agency claiming Saha had made up the allegation against the counselor. In 2005, officials refused to renew Saha’s teaching contract — in effect, firing him.
The state agency cleared Saha, who taught in Gwinnett County after leaving Atlanta and now works for a university. Saha settled a legal claim against the Atlanta district, but he and his lawyer declined to discuss the case, citing a confidentiality agreement.
Like Saha, Paul Landerman found himself under investigation after reporting cheating overseen by another educator.
Landerman, who taught Japanese at Carver Early College High, called the state Department of Education in March 2008 after he said he saw 45 to 50 students seated at long tables in a testing room assisting each other, erasing and correcting answers — with another teacher present.
State officials passed the complaint to the district, and its investigators marked the allegation unsubstantiated. The reason: Other educators denied it happened and Landerman could not identify each student he saw cheating.
“They said, ‘If you can’t name the students, there is not a case,’” Landerman said.
The district instead focused on Landerman’s decision to bypass his principal, with whom he had a history of conflict.
In an e-mail to a staff member, the district official then in charge of internal investigations outlined the final report on Landerman’s complaint. The report, she wrote, should stress that investigators found no testing violations.
But, she added, “I recommend adding a finding that the wrongdoing occurred when Mr. Landerman failed to properly report his observations of testing violations” — the violations she said didn’t occur. She suggested a reprimand.
Landerman left the district in May 2008. He has sought other teaching jobs, but is unemployed.
'ATMOSPHERE OF FEAR'
From the time he started at Benteen, Ryan Abbott said, he sensed “an atmosphere of fear.”
He said an administrator, who has since retired, threatened teachers that if they didn’t raise CRCT scores, she would find reasons to have their teaching licenses revoked.
It was in that environment that Abbott came forward last spring with the stories his students had told him about their cheating the previous year.
For six weeks, the school district took no action. Then it hired Payne, the lawyer who investigated the cheating complaint at Humphries, to look into what happened at Benteen.
Payne found that Evans, the third-grade teacher, “most likely gave some sort of help to students with their answers.”
Evans, Payne reported to the district, went to several students’ homes to ask their parents to sign a document denying she had given test answers.
“Far from corroborating her denial of wrongdoing,” Payne wrote, “Ms. Evans’ actions seem designed to influence, if not coerce, students into saying that she did not help with answers; to influence their parents; and to use the obvious good will that parents showed her to get them to say something about which they could have no first-hand knowledge.”
In court papers, Evans said the students and their parents freely signed written statements of support. Most of the statements, however, had been prepared in advance, and the students and parents filled in blank spaces with their names.
The Professional Standards Commission’s ethics committee recommended in September that Evans be suspended for 90 days. Evans requested a formal hearing, and the punishment is on hold. District officials recently decided on a tougher penalty; they notified Evans they intend to fire her.
Evans’ lawsuit, which seeks to block her firing, said the district’s investigation was “based on faulty and false evidence.” The district, Evans alleged, wants to hold her out as the “face of the Atlanta Public Schools CRCT scandal.”
Evans still teaches at Benteen. So does Abbott. He remains on probation, however, preventing him from transferring to another school.
Last fall, after he discussed the cheating case with a student, records show, principal Diana Quisenberry reported Abbott to the internal investigations office, which looks into ethics violations. Quisenberry declined to comment.
Abbott said professional ethics required him to report what his students told him about cheating. But he said the case may have caused as much anxiety for him as for Evans.
“A lot of my colleagues don’t think very highly of me,” Abbott said. And, he said, “I’m definitely not on the principal’s good side.”
FOR ATLANTA PUBLIC SCHOOLS, A YEAR OF UNRELENTING TURMOIL
School officials already faced two criminal investigations into allegations of widespread cheating on a standardized test in 2009. Two-thirds of Atlanta’s elementary and middle schools posted statistically improbable gains on the test and, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported last month, officials then tried to suppress the mounting scandal.
Last week, more bad news: Citing dysfunction on the city’s school board, an accrediting agency placed the system’s high schools on probation. The board has nine months to fix its problems — while also searching for a new superintendent.
HOW WE GOT THE STORY
This is the latest in a series of articles in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution examining a broad scandal over cheating on standardized tests in the Atlanta Public Schools. Earlier articles reported on the newspaper’s analyses of test scores, on flaws in a district-sponsored investigation of cheating and on officials’ attempts to suppress the scandal. Other articles questioned the district’s claims of an increasing graduation rate and examined Superintendent Beverly Hall’s national image-building efforts.
For this article, reporters reviewed reports of internal investigations by the school district, records of lawsuits against the district filed by current and former teachers, and documents compiled for a state-ordered inquiry into cheating allegations.
Reporters also interviewed numerous current and former Atlanta teachers, many of whom declined to be identified by name because they feared additional retribution from their superiors. In other cases, the AJC based descriptions of specific teachers’ experiences on public records after the educators declined requests for interviews.
THE STORY SO FAR
In October 2009, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported statistically unlikely gains in test scores at some Atlanta schools on the Criterion-Referenced Competency Test in 2008 and 2009.
The Governor’s Office of Student Achievement commissioned an analysis of 2009 CRCTs statewide, which found suspicious erasure marks on thousands of tests from hundreds of classrooms. The results were released in February 2010. Officials flagged 58 Atlanta schools, more than in any other district.
The state Board of Education ordered 35 systems with suspicious erasures to investigate 191 schools statewide. In Atlanta, school officials appointed a panel that became known as the Blue Ribbon Commission to oversee the investigation. That group hired consultants to do a new analysis, which found serious problems at only 12 of the 58 schools. Questions were immediately raised about the approach and thoroughness of Atlanta’s report.
Critics said the consultant had redone the state’s analysis in a way favorable to the school system, rather than trying to determine if cheating was involved and how it occurred. It did little or no investigation of 33 of the schools.
Also, Atlanta Superintendent Beverly Hall referred 108 educators to the state Professional Standards Commission, which licenses teachers, and temporarily reassigned the principals of the 12 schools.
In mid-August, then-Gov. Sonny Perdue appointed special investigators Mike Bowers, a former attorney general, Bob Wilson, a former DeKalb County district attorney, and Richard Hyde, who investigates cases for the Judicial Qualifications Commission, to examine possible cheating in Atlanta and in Dougherty County. The investigation could lead to criminal charges.
The AJC reported in September that federal prosecutors opened a separate criminal investigation, focusing on whether Atlanta school officials had committed fraud by inflating test scores to obtain federal grants.
In December, the AJC reported that school district officials, including Hall, had carried out a broad campaign to suppress mounting allegations of cheating. For months, officials kept secret a consultant’s report that mostly validated the AJC’s initial analysis of testing irregularities.