Rock Center | November 28, 2011
BRIAN WILLIAMS: There is an epidemic of cheating in this nation's schools. The most recent evidence, 20 students on Long Island here in New York were charged with hiring stand-ins to take their SATs for them. There is a huge cheating scandal in Atlanta as well; but, as we said, this one's on the grown-ups, the adults and administrators. They're accused of cheating on tests in about half of the 100 schools in that system. This is being called the largest cheating scandal in American history , in fact, and Harry Smith went there to find out how it is so many adults are flunking the test.
HARRY SMITH reporting: For most of the last decade, the city of Atlanta thought it had solved one of its biggest problems.
Unidentified Woman #1: What question should we ask ourselves?
SMITH: In a stunning and celebrated reversal, the long-struggling school system was finally making the grade.
Mr. KATIM EL: No, I get it. I get it.
SMITH: Katim El served on the school board for eight years. As scores started to go up in the Atlanta school system , what was your thought?
Mr. EL: Hm . I think, much like everyone else in the city, I wanted to believe that Atlanta was defying the odds.
SMITH: And much of the credit for defying those odds went to Dr. Beverly Hall , named the 2009 National School Superintendent of the Year. What kind of shape were the schools in when you got here?
Dr. BEVERLY HALL: I found that there were a lot of low expectations for the children and for the success of the school district , and so there was a need for a complete transformation.
SMITH: Year after year, that transformation took place. And the proof? Rising math and reading scores in grades one through eight. But with the scores came warnings, red flags that the scores on standardized tests were too good to be true .
Mr. EL: I was sort of being pulled into the corners by teachers and administrators who were trying to tell me that things that were going on in the system weren't as they seemed. And, you know, because I wanted to believe that we were on the right track and we were doing the right things, I dismissed it.
SMITH: Those concerns were not dismissed by the Atlanta Journal Constitution , which raised lots of questions about the surprising test results.
Mr. BOB WILSON: There was a school where in the math tests one year they're 830th out of 1200 in the state of Georgia ...
Mr. WILSON: ...the next year they're first. And that gets ignored?
SMITH: Bob Wilson is a former DeKalb County district attorney, Mike Bowers a former state attorney general . In August of 2010 , Governor Sonny Perdue appointed them to a team of special investigators and, early on, they visited a school where a teacher confessed.
Mr. MIKE BOWERS: She said there was cheating . It had been going on since '01. She spilled the beans, and she laid it all out.
SMITH: And what that teacher laid out was this: It wasn't the students that were cheating , it was the teachers , it was the principals. And one of the ways they cheated was by using a number 2 pencil , especially the eraser.
Mr. BOWERS: There were parties at which teachers would get together on the weekends, when these tests were supposed to be in a secure location, and they would get together and change answers.
Mr. WILSON: No question...
SMITH: Hang on one second.
Mr. WILSON: OK.
SMITH: Like get together -- teachers would get together at a colleague's house.
Mr. BOWERS: At someone's home.
Mr. BOWERS: Someone's home, yes.
SMITH: Right. And they would literally sit there together and change answers on these tests?
Mr. BOWERS: Yes.
Mr. WILSON: Yes.
SMITH: On the tests, taken by first through eighth graders, there was an astounding number of wrong to right erasures on student answer sheets, statistically impossible to achieve without help. The governor's investigators ultimately found 178 teachers and principals had cheated in 44 different schools across the Atlanta system. The sense in this community now...
Dr. HALL: Mm-hmm.
SMITH: ...is Dr. Hall knew about this stuff and her number one priority was to sweep it under the carpet and protect her image.
Dr. HALL: I did not know. And if I ever knew, it would have been dealt with.
SMITH: But the governor's investigators concluded that Dr. Hall either knew or should have known about cheating . Investigators say she created the pressure from the top to push the schools and help herself.
Mr. WILSON: And it brought a lot of praise to the system, the scores did; and it brought a lot of praise to Dr. Hall . Unfortunately, it was on false numbers.
SMITH: And it wasn't just erasing that raised the numbers. Investigators also heard how principals ordered teachers to lead students to the right answers, using verbal cues or visual prompts.
Ms. TONETTE HUNTER: Just point. You know, you ain't -- we ain't got to talk, just point.
SMITH: Tonette Hunter was a teaching assistant at Scott Elementary School . You don't have to say anything, just...
Ms. HUNTER: Just point to the right answer. Just point to the right answer. And at that point I asked her, 'How is this going to help the kids?' And she told me I was stepping over my boundary and I need to think about my check and my salary.
SMITH: So you didn't cheat?
Ms. HUNTER: No, I didn't cheat. I didn't even...
SMITH: And after complaining to supervisors and getting no response, Tonette Hunter was fired just two days before the end of the school year. The investigators accused Dr. Hall of ruling by fear and intimidation. Under
oath, she told them her philosophy was this: No exceptions and no excuses.
Dr. HALL: I can't imagine where the fear and intimidation came from. It certainly was -- did not come from the top. I just, you know, I just can't see where adults would be able to use that as an excuse.
SMITH: Dr. Hall put in place a program of academic targets, new standards her schools had to meet. If they met the targets, school employees got bonuses, amounts of $50 to $2,000. Dr. Hall herself earned more than $580,000 in bonuses during her 12 years in the Atlanta school system .
Mr. WILSON: And she put those targets out there for these schools, 'You either meet those targets or I'll find somebody who will.'
Mr. BOWERS: This is a comparison...
SMITH: Once the investigators described the full scope of the cheating , it was all too much for Katim El , who at one point was chairman of the Atlanta School board. So in July, in a very public and emotional speech, El resigned.
Mr. EL: I failed to protect thousands of children ...
SMITH: I saw a tape of your speech when you resigned from the school board , and one of the things you said was, 'I failed to protect thousands of children , children who come from homes like mine.'
Mr. EL: That's when it really starts to get hard. And to know that I was a part of a board that looked the other way; and we got what we got, and that's a widespread cheating scandal in the school system . It just absolutely just, just, just -- yeah.
SMITH: During his resignation, El singled out a particular parent, a PTA mom who consistently demanded answers from administrators and teachers about what was going on in the Atlanta schools.
Mr. EL: And I just hope that this board and everyone else heard her.
SMITH: So who was in this school then?
Ms. SHAWNNA HAYES-TAVARES: My son. My son who's...
SMITH: That parent is Shawnna Hayes-Tavares . She graduated from Atlanta public schools , as did one of her daughters. Her three other children were at schools where investigators say cheating occurred. You categorize what happened in the schools here as criminal. What did you call it?
Ms. HAYES-TAVARES: The worst case of black on black crime that I've ever seen. Because the majority of the students were black, the majority of the teachers , the majority of administrators, the majority of the board members . This investigation just made it clear who was doing it.
SMITH: How did you explain this to your own children ?
Ms. HAYES-TAVARES: What I tried to do is to let my children know that they were OK, that they fine, that these were adult issues, that it had nothing to do with them. They do their best, they study hard, they work hard, you know, and that it didn't have anything to do with their intelligence.
SMITH: At the end of the day , they basically say the responsibility for this is yours. Do you accept that responsibility?
Dr. HALL: I accept the responsibility for not anticipating that we needed more security and more protocols. But, ultimately, the person who cheated is the person who is responsible for their actions.
SMITH: When you look at what happened in the Atlanta schools, who deserves the blame?
Mr. EL: We all do. And I ask myself, how could we all be so complicit to this? How could we all sort of take part in short-changing so many children , and for no one, no one, no one wants to take the responsibility? I just can't understand it.
WILLIAMS: And, Harry Smith , when you widen out from Atlanta , for as bad as this is, and this slimes everybody that comes near it, guilty or innocent, this is also going on in a lot of other places.
SMITH: That's one of the reasons we picked Atlanta because they did this painstaking search through the school system to root out this crime. But the fact is, is this is going on in dozens of school districts all of the -- all over the country, even as we speak .
WILLIAMS: Is one of the markers of our age -- speaking to one of the questions you asked -- is one of the markers of our age going to be the scarcity of people willing to say...
SMITH: ' The buck stops here .'
WILLIAMS: ...'I got this one. It's on me.'
WILLIAMS: Just, 'This was on my watch, it's on me.'
SMITH: I wonder sometimes if, in Beverly Hall 's case, she did a remarkable job in many ways of turning around the schools. Some of the standardized tests , the grades hold up. Things improved in a lot of different ways. But there was a cancer there. She had the opportunity to really root it out and get rid of it, and somehow it slipped past her.
WILLIAMS: And she had the opportunity to answer that question differently as well.
WILLIAMS: Harry Smith , thank you, as always.
SMITH: Always a pleasure.
WILLIAMS: You can find out more of our reporting on the depths of the investigation into this scandal and how they went at it. It's on our website, rockcenternbc.com. Up next