At long last, APS cheating trial begins

The long-awaited APS cheating trial begins tomorrow. As AJC court reporter Bill Rankin reported in the Sunday

 The Atlanta Public Schools test cheating case goes to trial on Monday --- an extraordinary prosecution of 12 defendants, ranging from administrators to classroom teachers, all in the same courtroom at the same time.

The sheer logistics of the case are almost overwhelming: a dozen defendants, each with or his or her own defense teams, the six-member prosecution team, a pool of 400 prospective jurors, intense public interest, as much as two weeks just for jury selection and at least three months for the entire trial.

And looming over it all, the missing lead defendant: former Superintendent Beverly Hall, who was either the prime mover in the cheating conspiracy or the victim of a prosecution witch hunt. She is receiving treatment for Stage IV breast cancer and is too gravely ill to stand trial. also provided an update on the other educators caught up in the cheating scandal:

A third of the 185 teachers, administrators and other Atlanta Public Schools employees implicated in a 2011 test-cheating investigation have been sanctioned by the state commission that polices teacher ethics, according to records obtained by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Two others have died and 33 have been cleared.

That leaves 89 cases pending. In most of them, the Georgia Professional Standards Commission, which oversees educator licensing, voted for sanctions but the educators appealed and are awaiting hearings.

The initial state investigation swept up some educators who had not committed crimes or violated teacher ethics rules, said Michael Kramer, a lawyer who represented educators implicated in the 2011 investigation, which was commissioned by the governor's office. He expects many of the educators with pending cases to get no, or significantly reduced, sanctions.

"It's like a big fishing net,” he said of the 2011 investigation. "You're going to catch a lot of innocent people you didn't intend to."

Lawyer Quinton Washington represented two teachers the state commission cleared and APS ultimately reinstated. Even though his clients are back in the classroom, the accusations took their toll, he said. "Their concern was that this would follow them for the rest of their teaching careers," he said. Even today, "If you Google their names, you will see they were accused of cheating in more instances than you will see they were exonerated of cheating."

 The New Yorker recently looked at Parks Middle School, one of the schools identified in the original AJC investigation as having improbable score increases on the Criterion-Referenced Competency Tests.

In a detailed piece, reporter Rachel Aviv traces the fall of promising young Parks math teacher Damany Lewis. She paints a sympathetic portrait of Lewis and his dedication to his Parks students.  (The magazine story is great. Anyone interested in the motivations of teachers who cheated ought to read it.)

Aviv writes of Lewis: 

He told students to dump their laundry into the back of his pickup truck, so that he could wash it for them, and encouraged them to sleep at his house when their mothers were absent or high. (Few had fathers in their lives.) He became the football coach, and if practice ran late he dropped students off at their homes. Several ended up calling him Dad. He told them, “I don’t know how you feel about me, but I, at least, feel like I made it. If you want to know if you can make it, look at me.”

Under pressure from charismatic Parks principal Christopher Waller, Lewis cheated and became the first teacher fired by APS as a result. (Waller pleaded guilty to a single felony charge and was sentenced to five years' probation, ordered to perform 1,000 hours of community service and required to pay $50,000 in restitution, fines and court costs.)

The New Yorker recounted what Lewis said at his APS termination hearing:

 He didn’t speak at length until his closing statement, at which point he stood up and began reading, through tears, from a long speech that he had written about his eleven years at Parks. He described how Parks had made incremental progress each year, but its test scores “cast a cloud of doubt over whether Parks Middle School even deserved to exist at all.” Soon, data became the “underlying force behind everything we did.” He described the resilience of the students, who were “down but never out, losing but never lost.” He told the panel, “You may wonder why I haven’t resigned. It’s because the morality that resides within me are the same morals I taught my students for years; that is, whenever you are persecuted or face challenges or circumstances rise against you, you must see things through to the end.”

Lewis made an interesting about-face in his view of Beverly Hall:

For years, Lewis had assumed that Hall instructed  people to cheat, but now he began to wonder if she’d been so idealistic that she didn’t understand the environment she had created and, when it became clear, didn’t want to undermine her cause—the idea that educational reform could swiftly lift children out of poverty—by acknowledging the evidence that was in front of her. Lewis said, “I know that sometimes when you’re in the fight, and you’re swinging, you want to win so badly that you don’t recognize where your blows land.”




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