The following writing is excerpted from the beginning pages of my Master's Thesis submitted to the Professors and Administrators of the Harvard Law School and Harvard Kennedy School Joint Degree Program in Law & Government as part of my Integrated Written Work Requirement. Submitted on April 20, 2012, I retain all original rights and privileges. For followup questions or inquiries, email 

Atlanta Public Schools is in the process of adopting more functional administrative policies in response to the system-wide cheating scandal that caused national attention last year.  This research is offered to help the new APS administration fill a potential gap in input from key stakeholders.  It argues that policy solutions must be grounded in Atlanta-specific contexts so that they are sustainable even after administrative leadership changes.  By applying the critical incidents technique to field interviews within a larger reflective practice framework, three key insights emerge about the scandal and potential solutions are proffered to the district.

More after the jump.


By the time the news broke at noon on Tuesday, July 5, 2011, scores of Georgia residents, particularly those in the surrounding counties of metropolitan Atlanta, were concerned (to say the least) about the health of the city’s public education system.  Over 180 educators, including teachers, guidance counselors, school principals, and district leaders, had been accused of falsifying student test results in over half of the schools in the Atlanta Public Schools district.[1]  As the wagons of public outcry figuratively circled around the district, a soap-opera-like scene unfolded: newscasters parked themselves outside of school buildings to barrage administrators on their way to their cars, teachers resigned from their posts, parents took up arms and waited to strike, officials scurried to disassociate themselves with the accusations, and the community froze in shock waiting for the denouement to confirm that their award-winning district could not possibly be this same Atlanta school system on the verge of disgrace.  Within the week, six high-ranking educators were stripped of their duties and some 71,600 articles, blogs, and communication pieces featured stories on the “Atlanta Public Schools Cheating Scandal.”[2]
The clamor and chaos of this past summer was due in part to the release of Georgia Governor Nathan Deal’s Special Investigative Report on the Atlanta Public Schools (“Governor’s Investigative Report”).  For many, the report was the first introduction to what is now referenced as the largest system-wide cheating crisis in U.S. public education.  In its entirety, the report contains approximately 800 briefing pages concluding that employees conspired with one another and executed plans to erase student answers on state testing documents, disseminate test answers to students, and otherwise cheat to improve student performance scores on the Georgia Criterion-Referenced Competency Tests (“CRCTs”) in the 2008-2009 school year.  Gathered from internal documents and interviews with educators, the Governor’s Investigative Report identifies failures in educational leadership at both the district and school levels and links cheating outcomes to dysfunctions in Atlanta Public Schools (“APS”) organizational culture.  Most interestingly for the purposes of this research, the report details how professionals within the district may have adopted practices that prompted people to respond in ways outside the norm of what educators were expected to do. 
Less than a year has passed, and systemic cheating has evolved into a national issue.  About one month ago, the same newspaper that broke the Atlanta story cited almost 200 other school districts across for improbable test score gains based on year-over-year score increases.  Supposedly, schools in several city districts—from St. Louis (Mo.) to Detroit (Mi.), Gary (Ind.) to Mobile (Ala.), Houston and Dallas (Tx.) to New York City (Ny.)—have reported drastic student test score gains.[3]  While improbable student performance on state standardized tests might be explained by ambitious district-wide reforms or targeted achievement initiatives, the overwhelming narrative has been about the possibility of other system-wide cheating scandals.  What other states’ leaders and decision-makers do with these reports is still unfolding, but Georgia leaders, who are still in the process of addressing concerns in the Atlanta system, may be able to offer lessons on how to rebuild, if done properly.

[1] See Associated Press, Urban school students do better in reading, math, Wall Street Journal (Dec. 7, 2011).
[2] See 6 Atlanta school educators removed amid cheating scandal, USA Today (July 12, 2011);, Atlanta Public Schools Cheating Scandal: July 5 - 12, 2011 (last searched on Dec. 7, 2011).
[3] Heather Vogell et al., Cheating our children, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution (March 25, 2012).

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