Originally posted Thursday, October 11, 2018 by RODNEY HOemail@example.com on his AJC Radio & TV Talk blog
This week, two educators convicted in the Atlanta Public Schools test cheating scandal entered prison.
One of those - Tamara Cotman - is featured in a new documentary called “One Child Left Behind.” The film is going to hit the festival circuit soon before going for broader release, said Jodi Gomes, executive producer.
Cotman was accused of racketeering in 2015 in a case involving teachers and administrators changing students’ answers on tests and receiving bonuses and raises based on bogus results.
She and Angela Williamson fought their convictions but the U.S. Supreme Court last week announced it would not review their case. This was their last legal option.
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In public statements and in the documentary, Cotman insisted she was innocent, that she did nothing wrong, that the prosecution created false evidence against her. She was sentenced to 10 years with 3 years to serve in prison.
Gomes and her co-executive producer Andrew McLemore, who had done a Jacksons mini-series for A&E in 2010, were stupefied by the lengths of the prison sentences given to the educators and decided to explore the case in documentary form.
They interviewed more than 200 people related to the scandal, including 10 of 12 educators who were originally indicted. Six of them appear on camera for the documentary.
“I’ve never seen a case with so much carnage and nobody won,” she said.
Ultimately, the documentarians shed a sympathetic light on the accused who insisted they didn’t do anything wrong. Their lives were ruined, marriages broken, finances destroyed, careers gone. Most of those accused took plea deals and have been able to move on with their lives. These educators took a gamble before a jury and lost.
“Cheating is immoral and wrong,” Gomes said. “Is it criminal? Is it racketeering? What I found was more criminal was the students still being cheated and robbed of an education.”
Gomes said there was plenty of evidence of cheating, that teachers and principals had incentives to ensure test scores were going up, not down. Their jobs and careers were often on the line.
McLemore said he has a brother who is a teacher who watched the documentary and understood the pressures placed on the teachers and their superiors. They spend way too much time, he said, prepping students for tests, which can be demoralizing.
Beverly Hall, the school superintendent who died in 2015, has been painted in the media as the villain in this scandal. The documentary offers two sides of Hall: her kind, supportive side and her harsher “win at any cost” side.
The doc never gets anybody to say that Hall explicitly condoned the cheating. At the same time, it’s impossible to say if she simply turned a blind eye to it.
Gomes noted that there were fundamental racial elements at play. The white Gov. Sonny Perdue used this as an excuse to gain more control over a largely black school system, some alleged in the documentary. Educators in other school districts such as Dougherty County that had evidence of cheating were not punished this way.
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution played a key role in exposing the scandal and Gomes said she has no issue with the press doing its job. (The doc features Heather Vogell, a former AJC reporter who helped break the story a decade ago.) “Effective journalism,” she said, “opened up this can of worms.”
She said this documentary makes it clear that too much testing creates terrible consequences, especially for inner-city kids.
Only one student is featured in the documentary. Gomes said they considered a greater focus on the kids but decided instead to describe how this whole mess happened and how George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind mandates paved the way to cheating nationwide.
“I hope this documentary furthers conversations on how to fix urban education,” Gomes said.