The Atlanta Scandal: When Teachers are Disempowered & Abused

Jul 11, 2011 by

by Erich Martel
DCPS Social Studies Teacher

The Atlanta Scandal: Teaching in “A Culture of Fear, Intimidation and Retaliation”

by Erich Martel

DCPS Social Studies Teacher

The 800-page Investigation Report on the Atlanta Public Schools (APS) cheating scandal involving 178 named school-based principals, teachers and other staff links the collapse of institutional integrity to a culture of fear, intimidation and retaliation.” Although that culture can be found in many private and charter schools, it is a major ingredient in the growing trend of top-down, privately-funded, “turn-around” “reforms” that view 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 Atlanta’s in our nation’s public schools.

The Atlanta Investigation Report is an anthology of teacher disempowerment and its consequences. It shows what happens when educational policy makers grant broad areas of authority to celebrity or savior superintendents, and then, self-satisfied with their “reform,” abdicate their oversight responsibilities, so they can bask in the glow of their creation.

When people (teachers) are disempowered, they feel vulnerable and alone in the face of authority. While each person is ultimately responsible for having made a bad choice, the Investigation Report makes clear that principals share responsibility for the actions of teachers under their supervision. In schools where it could not be established that the principal ordered or directly facilitated cheating, but that evidence confirmed s/he knew about it OR had not followed protocols that, if followed, would have made her/him aware of it, the investigators considered her/him “responsible.” A typical “Analysis of the Evidence” (that concludes the Report on each school) 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 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 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008 and 2009 CRCT to the Georgia Department of Education.”

The enormity and scope of the scandal is shocking. Having blown the whistle on altered student records, social graduation and abusive treatment of teachers by principals at two DC high schools, experience tells me that few teachers voluntarily cheated. 90 of the 107 teachers named in the Report (table, last page) were in schools where the principal was also accused. The Report documents that some teachers did report cheating and the pressure to cheat; however, with all oversight bodies capable of intervening asleep or in thrall to their celebrity superintendent, teachers who performed their civic responsibilities were ignored and, thus allowed to be terminated:

Throughout this investigation numerous teachers told us they raised concerns about cheating and other misconduct to their principal or SRT 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: 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 dilemma of a warped choice that was really no choice at all: “Should I report it and risk retaliation and empty promises of corrective action or just keep quiet – while it eats away at me, inside?”

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?

Note: The school board, it did not protect integrity. Under either governance form, school board or mayor, too much arbitrary authority over appropriated funds and employees is given to superintendents, who operate behind closed doors, ignore transparency laws and, in turn, are sealed off from public scrutiny by a largely fawning media that extols their “leadership” and exempts improper and even illegal policies and practices from critical review – until it’s too late.

– 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 governance bodies would be wise to take some advice from James Madison and stop empowering superintendents as if they were angels (Federalist 51)

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

The APS investigation mentions two names with connections to DCPS:

– APS General Counsel Veleter Mazyck(former DCPS General Counsel, c. 2000-2004)

– Educational ConsultantDouglas B. Reeves, Ph.D., one of two consultants hired by Supt. Hall

APS General Counsel Veleter Mazyck

Under “Findings: Veleter Mazyck” (volume 3, p. 408 of the Investigation Report):

As General Counsel for APS, Ms. Mazyck’s conduct raised the following concerns.

She attempted to manipulate and influence the outcome of the investigation into potential cheating at Deerwood Academy in 2008. When questioned about the Deerwood Academy investigation and other matters, she provided less than candid responses.”

Ms. Hawkins, a principal filed a complaint about an assistant superintendent. She informed “Veleter Mazyck, APS General Counsel, expressing her fear of retaliation …. Mazyck assured Hawkins that steps had been taken to protect her from retribution. (Ex. l3) However, within hours of Hawkins’ interview, [Ass’t Supt.] Cotman appeared at her school for a ‘site visit,’ which ultimately culminated in a demotion.” (Link to a controversial personnel case, Winder v. Erste, et al., which mentions Ms. Mazyck, when she was DCPS General Counsel)

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

Douglas Reeves, PhD

In November 2009, APS Supt. Hall announced that “two top educational experts have agreed to examine ‘outlier’ test scores identified in recent analyses of state standardized test scores.”

One was Dr. Andrew Porter, a psychometrician and Dean of the University Of Pennsylvania Graduate School Of Education.

Douglas Reeves is one of the leading professional development consultants whose “Leadership and Learning Center” conducts workshops all over the country on a wide range of management strategies and instructional practices currently in vogue, such as “high expectations,” “focused curriculum,” “formative assessment,” “credit recovery,” etc.

Reeves agreed to “visit classrooms, talk with teachers and administrators and review data … to determine what factors impact student achievement.”

He is of interest to DCPS teachers, because the current DCPS “Teaching and Learning Framework” and the IMPACT teacher evaluation system both list Reeves’ “Unpacking the Standards” on its list of un-annotated and undated sources (IMPACT guidebook, p. 8). In 2005, DCPS used the “unpacking the standards” process to introduce the new standards, which many teachers viewed as a waste of time, making a relatively simple process unnecessarily confusing.

Given Reeves’ national and, more importantly, DCPS influence, I was curious to read his Atlanta site visit report (Exhibits to Reports, pp. 311-320; 724-733) and compare it to Andrew Porter’s. I was also curious to see how he would meet Superintendent Hall’s charge, “

Because data alone does (sic) not tell the full story, we will have reports from both the statistical and classroom perspectives. We want to know if the large gains or declines in student testing are a result of factors not considered in recent news reports.”

(Exhibits, p. 310 / 723)

It also struck me as interesting that Supt. Hall was suddenly taking a U-turn away from “Data drives (sic) everything” to subjective “classroom perspectives” factors. Since most teachers in Washington, D.C. are now evaluated on nine subjective criteria in five unannounced 30-minute observations, including some criteria that he promotes, I was curious to see what Douglas Reeves came up with.

Comments on Reeves’ Report to Supt Hall:

As the author of a reported 20 educational books and promoted as an educational expert, Reeve’s 9 pp report is an embarrassing and shockingly unprofessional puff piece.

More than half of his 9 pp report consists of discussion of educational policies, practices and theories without making any reference to Atlanta schools. He claims to have visited 13 APS schools, including 8 in one day!) in three days (the Report says two days and that he spent only 30-45 minutes in each school)! He does not report how long he was in each school: time in/time out

He cites no schools, no grade levels, no classrooms, no learning activities and no instruction or other activities. The only comparative data he cites is a middle school football team that had an undefeated season after winning “only a couple of games in the previous year.”

He claims to have “noticed”:

– “formative assessment – along with other demonstrably effective interventions”

– “two important trends with regard to the issue of test preparation:

– “Teachers and administrators did seek an explicit link between curriculum and assessment”

– “They insured that students were instructed about the content required by the State of Georgia and also knew the format of the tests.”

Comment: He describes no formative assessment that he noticed. That should not be difficult, since he holds workshops on “formative assessments.”

He says he “observed test preparation techniques,” but did “not observe … any behavior or attitudes that suggested inappropriate test preparation or the willingness to cross ethical lines to achieve improved student performance.”


1. This is a diversion. The reported cheating happened during the test administration.

2. He didn’t observe classes, according to the Investigation Report.

3. There is little doubt that the schools he visited prepared for his arrival?

4. How did he manage to visit 8 schools in one day in a strange city? Did APS provide him with a driver? He should have reported this.

He provides no itinerary, cites no grade levels, describes no individual classrooms, no teaching or learning activities and gives no indication of having actually observed or spoken with any teachers. The only performance he cites is a middle school football team that had an undefeated season after winning “only a couple of games in the previous year.”

[In] the APS schools I visited … there was a consistent – even relentless – theme of high expectations and hard work for both students and adults.”

In schools I visited, [there was] evidence of student work and other data posted on the walls so that teachers and students could use information about student performance … to improve teaching and learning.”

Not all of [the schools] use the data in the thoughtful, constructive, informed and specific way that I observed in the schools that I visited.”

Comment: He describes the challenges facing one school: “In one middle school that I visited, vigorous efforts were under way go reverse an unacceptable state of discipline, achievement and morale.” That was one of the two middle schools he visited: Coan MS (31.4% Wrong to Right Erasures) and Harper-Archer MS (24.1% Wrong to Right Erasures).

Did he not wonder how that school could have achieved high scores in its “unacceptable state”?

Then, he takes a leap of logic: “Based on the practices in these schools, it would have been surprising if test scores had not improved significantly.”

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –


The Investigators visited 56 schools with statistical anomalies. In 44, they concluded that 178 APS educators were involved in cheating to one degree or another. In the remaining 12 schools, where there was evidence of cheating, there was insufficient evidence of who was responsible. Likewise, in many of the 44 schools, many of the reports state that more staff was probably involved, but they deemed the evidence inadequate. The 178 educators fall under the following categories.

Nrs in Schls Nr in Schls Nr of Nr Staff in Schls: Nr Staff in Schls:

Total where Princ where Princ Confes Princ OR Instr Princ OR Instr

School Assignment Nr IS Accused NOTAccused sions Coach Accused Cch NOTAccused

Classroom Teachers – – 107 90 17 74 95 12

Principals – – – 38 [36] [2] 2

Former Principals – – – 2 2 0

Asst Prinpls/Coordinators – 4 4 0

Test Coordinators – – 18 18 0

Support Staff or Proctors 5 5 0

Instructional Coaches – – 4 3 1

TOTALS 178 122/140 18/140 82

This breakdown shows that teachers are more likely to be involved in cheating, if the principal was involved in cheating or another non classroom staff member.

Websites Related to the Atlanta Scandal

On the left side of the NYT page are the links to the reports, one are links to the four Atlanta PS documents

These are the four Atlanta Public School (APS) Investigation Report documents:

Whistle-blowing Reports in the DC Public Schools

1.  2002-03 Contracted Student Records Audit

The 2002-03 “agreed-upon procedures” audit of all DCPS high schools and of Wilson HS 15 seniors in the Class of 2002 I reported as ineligible.  The auditors confirmed that 12 were ineligible and that all high schools maintained student records in a manner that made tampering a likelihood.  The report excluded the possibility of external tampering, i.e. possible tampering was all internal. DCPS continued to deny the report’s conclusion and refused to post it on the DCPS website: (copy & paste)

2.  2006-07 audit of the DC Inspector General of the Wilson HS class of 2006.

420 seniors were listed as graduates on the June 2006 graduation day program, but only 311 were on the list sent to the superintendent. Of the 311 June 2006 graduates, the IG reviewed the records of 93 students I had cited as ineligible for the diploma for reason of missing one or more mandatory credits.

Summary of the 2002 and 2006 exposes in the American Educator quarterly:

Retaliation by the principal of Wilson HS (copy & paste):


3. Credit Recovery & Summer School

How Michelle Rhee increased graduation rates.

Erich Martel: “A for effort shouldn’t count: Just say no to credit recovery.” (Fordham Institute, “Education Gadfly” weekly e-journal): (copy & paste)

4. Facing Retaliation: An Involuntary Transfer

An involuntary transfer from Wilson HS to Phelps HS in August 2010, because of “significant philosophical differences” with the Wilson HS principal

a. Are measures to prevent student cheating “creating an expectation that students will cheat”?

My principal thought so:

b. Transcript of a surprise visit from “Instructional” Superintendent John Davis (note: Always have a witness and take notes!):

Or (generously posted by the parent of a former student):

c. Involuntary Transfer Order:

d. The Involuntary Transfer: Retaliation Denied






iv. Michelle Rhee explains to a teacher why my involuntary transfer was not retaliation:

e. Reporting Problems at Phelps ACE HS

Testimony before the DC City Council on Problems with the Phelps HS Career Tech Program. I also read from two letters from Phelps teachers who resigned (6/16/2011)

My testimony begins at 2:40 (2 hours and 40 minutes into the hearing). Just place the cursor over the tiny sphere below the screen and move it to the right until it shows 2:40. 

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