Teaching in “Culture of Fear, Intimidation and Retaliation”

Jul 29, 2011 by

By Erich Martel

The 800-page Investigation Report on the Atlanta Public Schools (APS) cheating scandal involving 178 named school-based principals, teachers and other staff is a riveting and chilling anthology of the “culture of fear, intimidation and retaliation” that teachers face in schools around the country when they report mismanagement and abusive administrative behavior. The Report repeatedly and concretely ties the years-long continuation of this scandal to this culture. Although it exists in many private and charter schools, in our public schools, it has been encouraged by No Child Left Behind and fueled by the top-down, privately-funded, “turn-around” “reforms” that blame teachers, tenure rights and union protections as the causes of educational malaise.

Until reform truly engages teachers as part of the solution, we can expect more Atlantas in our nation’s public schools. The Atlanta Investigation Report shows what happens when educational policy makers and governance bodies delegate broad areas of authority to celebrity or savior superintendents and then, believing that school improvement means giving their “reform leader” free rein, abdicate their oversight responsibilities.

In many Atlanta schools, teachers were disempowered and left vulnerable in the face of arbitrary and often abusive authority, including threats to their livelihoods. Teachers who cheated under great duress should not face the further injustice of being treated as if their decisions were free and wanton.

In fact, the Investigation Report holds principals to a higher standard of responsibility, including responsibility for the actions of their teachers, if evidence confirms they knew about the cheating OR would have known, had they followed mandatory protocols. The enormity and scope of the scandal is shocking. In 44 of the 56 schools, the principal was held responsible.

A typical “Analysis of the Evidence” following each individual school Report reads:

“It is our conclusion, from the statistical data and the other evidence secured in this investigation, that Principal X failed to properly monitor the 2009 CRCT [Georgia’s Criterion Referenced Competency Test] and adequately supervise testing activities and testing security. This resulted in, and she is responsible for, falsifying, misrepresenting or erroneously reporting the results of the 2009 CRCT to the Georgia Department of Education.”

In fact, 90 (86%) of the 107 teachers named in the Report (see Appendix A) were in schools where the principal was also named. The Report documents that some teachers did report cheating as well as the pressure to cheat. While the oversight bodies capable of intervening were asleep or in thrall to their celebrity superintendent, teachers who took the risk to perform their civic responsibilities were ignored as principals and assistant superintendents responded with threats and termination (see Appendix B):

“Throughout this investigation numerous teachers told us they raised concerns about cheating and other misconduct to their principal or SRT [School Reform Team] Exec Director (Assistant Superintendent) only to end up disciplined or terminated.”

“In sum, a culture of fear, intimidation and retaliation permeated the APS system from the highest ranks down.”

“Almost without exception, teachers and principals said that the single most important factor to this administration is ‘data.’ They said that ‘data is (sic) the driver,’ ‘data drives instruction,’ and ‘the data controls everything.’”

“But data can also be used as an abusive and cruel weapon to embarrass and punish classroom teachers and principals or as a pretext to termination. After hundreds of interviews, it has become clear that [APS Supt] Dr. Hall and her staff used data as a way to exert oppressive pressure to meet targets.”

“As a result of the APS failure to temper its drive for success with ethical guidelines, the message was: ‘Get the scores up by any means necessary;’ in Dr. Hall’s words, ‘No exceptions and no excuses.’”

For many public school teachers, the treatment of teachers in Atlanta is disturbingly familiar (see, for example, Appendix C): Fear, abuse, threats, retaliation, cover-up, nepotism, misappropriated funds, being asked, “Are you a member of my team?” discovering that your grades were arbitrarily changed, and, in each case, facing the anguishing choice that was really no choice at all: “Should I report it and risk retaliation or go along and keep quiet – while it eats away at me?”

For readers who question these experiences, just ask a public school teacher.

Where were Atlanta’s oversight bodies to which teachers should have been able to turn (feel free to substitute your city or town for “Atlanta”)?

– The Atlanta School Board Members? Footnote

– The Atlanta Mayor?

– The Atlanta city Council?

– The Georgia State Superintendent and State Education Agency?

– The U.S. Department of Education?

– The Atlanta media – before 2009?

Those who think our public schools can be improved by weakening teacher tenure and gutting union contracts, so principals can get rid of the bad teachers, need only read about the toxic environments created by unprincipled principals in Atlanta – and which teachers they terminated.

Education policy makers and school governance bodies would be wise to take some advice from James Madison and stop empowering superintendents as if they were angels and begin putting effective checks and remedies in place that are safely accessible to teachers (Federalist 51).

Erich Martel is a social studies teacher in the Washington, DC public school system. He can be reached at ehmartel@starpower.net. This article and its appendices originally appeared in the Nonpartisan Education Review.

Citation: Martel, E. (2011). The Atlanta Scandal: Teaching in “A Culture of Fear, Intimidation and Retaliation”. Nonpartisan Education Review / Essays, 7(7). Retrieved [date] from http://nonpartisaneducation.org/Review/Essays/v7n7.pdf

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