In a previous post [“Atlanta, we have a problem”] I asked readers to consider the facts about the cheating scandal that led to criminal convictions for a network of Atlanta teachers and administrators. This post is part two of a three part look at the scandal.


We still don’t have the story right about Atlanta. We’re still hearing all the wrong questions. What if the convicted educators were white? Why were they charged under racketeering laws? Why fault them for succumbing to crazy expectations in a test-obsessed education culture?

Maybe a study (summarized by APS here) that shows a disproportionate impact on black students will get us back on track. It says “while 75% of APS students are black, 98% of the students identified as having the largest number of erasures on their answer documents (10 or more) are black.”

That’s what this case is about. Let’s focus people.

The impact on math for students in 1st and 2nd grade are consistent with having a novice teacher rather than one with 5 or more years experience. For reading, arguably the most important discipline because it is foundational for all others, the story is worse.

The study says:

[b]eing cheated had negative consequences for later student performance… The estimated impacts are in the range of one‐fourth to one‐half of the average annual achievement gain for a middle school student. This is equivalent to one to two times the difference between having a rookie teacher and one with 5 or more years of experience in a single year…

So why aren’t we focusing on the kids here who lost ground academically and the impact on their lives rather than the plight of the well-paid, educated people charged with cheating them?

Why are we ignoring what Judge Jerry Baxter said during the sentencing hearings: “There are victims that are in the jail that I have sentenced…there’s some of them that were the most vulnerable children in our city and they were shortchanged, they were passed on, and now unfortunately they’re in the prison system. And that’s the tragedy of all tragedies.

I think I know why.

Students are “Dumb as hell”

Maybe we think too poorly of the victims. They are poor. They are black. That in itself tells a thousand stories that could be tagged under the category of “belief gap.”

Shayla Smith, a math teacher accused of cheating provides the most elegant example. She reportedly told one of her APS colleagues “I had to give your students the answers to the questions because they’re dumb as hell.”

To her credit she came clean once busted. She admitted she was wrong. She accepted responsibility and apologized to her victims, saying:

My actions were not only improper, they do not reflect my true heart. And for this I apologize. To every child that has been affected I apologize. I recognize as a teacher I have a voice and with that voice the power to influence.

Contrition earned her leniency from the court. Probation, community service, and a fine. People of good faith should consider that a fair outcome.

Still, let’s be clear about the reason social media was abuzz with pictures of other “educators” being lead away from the courts with stiffer sentences. Unlike Ms. Smith they refused responsibility even after thousands of our hours of investigations, a tower of evidence, and direct testimony from credible colleagues.

En route to smacking them with outlandish sentences – 7 to 20 years prison time – Judge Baxter said their stubbornness, not the court, condemned them.

“people will tell you I bend over backwards when people take responsibility to try and give them a [fair] shake. But the reality is if you don’t accept responsibility and there is not recognition of harm then a lot of times you get what you deserve.”

Watching video of the sentencing hearings it’s apparent that the accused were gambling. They risked jail time against the chance to maintain their standing, and to defend their future right to appeal convictions in the remote chance that their professional credentials might earn a living. Watch for yourself and tell me if I’m wrong. Then, watch what eight of them said about rejecting a last minute plea deal that would have spared them jail time (and saved us all the embarrassing theater).

One of them, Michael Pitts, a former top APS district leader was indignant. “[Y]ou got fine educators here,” he said about the felons standing with him.

Then he cautioned us about the the educators who testified against him, saying:

[t]he educators who are back in the schools who cheated and came here [to court] and told everything and came and said we made them cheat because they were scared of us and all that, they’re back there teaching your kids. Be afraid. Be very afraid.

No remorse. No contrition. No surrender, no retreat. Just contemptuousness for accountability, and an insufferable level of middle-class privilege.

If that’s not enough, Christopher Waller is an even better example of the self-preserving, delusional, and detached privilege that saturates this scandal. He was the principal from Parks Middle School who accepted a plea that let him walk with community service, a fine, and probation. Since, he written a book called “Cheating but not Cheated” (this might be the very definition of too soon).

In the book he says:

I want to clarify the difference between cheating and cheating children. One of the major media frenzies out of this scandal was that children were cheated. After working at the school for more than five years and seeing the means of the students and the families in the Parks Middle School community, I highly took offense to that, so I wanted to take a moment to reflect on why I know children at Parks Middle School were not cheated. Cheating did take place at Parks Middle School, but our children were not cheated.

Are we really this lost? Are we so off track with racial politics that we can’t call out obvious middle class absurdities like these even when our children are hurt? Have we forgotten that many of history’s frauds and atrocities committed against our humanity were done with the the help of a select cohort of our own people?

Where was all this outrage when Kelley Williams-Bolar caught a case and did jail time for “stealing” a public education by enrolling her child in a high performing school district where she didn’t live? Where was the anger when Tanya McDowell was charged by police with “stealing” over $15,000 in educational services in Connecticut, or when Yolanda Hill faced criminal charges for enrolling her children in a suburban New York school district to get them a better education?

Where is the outrage now as more than 100 parents have received criminal summons in Louisiana because their children have missed school?

Why have the cases of these black women and their children failed to inflame mass sympathies and backlash?

Why are the people speaking up for the APS middle-class felons silent when public education criminalizes the poor?

Do we think so little of our children that we choose to stand up for those that consider them “dumb as hell” and too disposable to teach, rather than the kids themselves who we know to be infinite with potential and worthy of better?

Here’s what I know: tomorrow black and brown people, mostly poor, will be ushered through countless court rooms with routine efficiency. The book will be thrown at them. Many of them will be charged with survival crimes, which is one consistent byproduct of failing public schools, low expectations for high opportunity youth, and class loyalties that disfavor the poor in our “justice” system.

Most of the accused will stand alone.

They will not have their tough sentences reduced as a result of respectable blacks and their allies boiling over with classist heat. Unlike the educators who abused power and position; abused their colleagues; lowered public esteem for a critical institution; and hurt children in the process; they will not benefit from the complex, ironic, and cruel double standard marking contrasts between bad actors with advanced educations, and those poor souls robbed of the same.

Former Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young will probably not come to tell their judges and prosecutors “I’ve never understood putting brilliant people in jail” as he did for the APS educators.

The daughter of American civil rights icon Dr. Martin Luther King will not be there to offer help as she did here.

The black, brown, and poor defendants in court tomorrow will most certainly not get the bougie break.


Atlanta Cheating Scandal Impact

Chris Stewart is the Chief Executive Officer of Education Post, a media project of the Results in Education Foundation. He is a lifelong activist and 20-year supporter of nonprofit and education-related causes. Stewart has served as the director of outreach and external affairs for Education Post, the executive director of the African American Leadership Forum (AALF), and an elected member of the Minneapolis Public Schools Board of Education.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here