‘Cheat!’ podcast opens with Atlanta schools test cheating scandal

The podcast covers everything from Trump’s golf game to fake art to the Marion Jones doping scandal

Alzo Slade and the producers of the new podcast “Cheat!” had literally hundreds of viable “cheating” scandals to open with on their series focused on people who try to game the system and why they do it.

“If we were in the same place with those same folks around us and those same set of circumstances, would we cheat too?” he asks in the opening episode, available for free on multiple platforms including Apple and Audible.

Their first choice? The Atlanta Public Schools cheating scandal, which takes up the first two episodes, available on Audible for free starting this week.

The scandal, uncovered by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution more than a decade ago, roiled the city and the entire nation. More than 30 former teachers and educators were convicted under racketeering charges, including CEO-like, data-driven former Atlanta Public Schools superintendent Beverly Hall, who died before the trial began. Ten teachers were sentenced to more than 200 years collectively in prison. Two teachers actually served prison time.

Slade, a Vice journalist, stand-up comic and former philosophy teacher, explores the pressures behind why modest-salaried teachers felt the need to erase and change standardized test scores of low-performing students. Their rationales: prevent their schools from potentially being shutting down and the teachers themselves from losing their jobs. George W. Bush’s “No Child Left Behind” standardized test mandates fueled cheating in multiple cities nationwide.

He said he was fascinated by how nuanced this particular scandal became, how this even harmed the students who were promoted to the next grade without having properly earned it.

Teachers would often focus on “teaching to the test” rather than what they personally thought was best for their students, Slade noted.

“I’m not saying this justified changing answers on a child’s test,” he said. “But you have to zoom out and look at the bigger picture.

For instance, Slade noted the massive inequality in the City of Atlanta underpinning the scandal, quoting Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporter Alan Judd, one of the investigative reporters involved in the coverage of the cheating scandal. Slade noted that most of Atlanta Public Schools are packed with poor, segregated Black kids. And when poor-performing schools close down, developers sometimes swoop in and develop that land, fueling the gentrification of said neighborhood, forcing out many of the poor families, he noted.

“Maybe the cheating isn’t the teachers but the system,” Slade said during the second episode.

Credit: Some

Credit: Some

Slade relied heavily on Shani Robinson, a teacher who declared her innocence and was one of the handful of teachers who refused to take a plea deal for cheating. She was charged with one year in prison for allegedly changing first-grade test scores. Her case remains on appeal and has been in limbo for six years, making it difficult for her to get a job. “I have PTSD,” she said on the podcast. “It’s been a nightmare. Some of my colleagues are completely broke. They have been taken out of their homes.”

Slade asked: “Did the punishment really fit the crime?”

Over the next 20 episodes, Slade will tackle a London-based stock trader who caused a U.S. market crash, cheating boxers and the world of fake art, to name a few. He also explores former Pres. Donald Trump’s golf cheating and how that type of behavior is indicative of his entire approach to life on much bigger issues.

“What exactly is cheating?” Slade said. “Some cases are more clear cut than others. We also look at it from the perspective of the cheater. Do they invite empathy or not?”