It’s So, Joe

Two strands of school maladministration converge in the scandal of cheating within the Atlanta city schools. One is the inexorable effect of Campbell’s Law of corrupting influence, given the district’s use of test scores to make “consequential decisions,” as Professor Campbell called them. (The other I will deal with below.)

Of corruption two kinds have been found. The obvious one is evidence that many schools in Atlanta altered their students’ answer sheets, sometimes in ways that would be ludicrous if they were not criminal. Stephen Jay Gould once said, “If the data seem to good to be true, it’s because they probably are,” but we wouldn’t have had to take Gould at Harvard to be suspicious when a class goes from a 24% proficiency rate to 86% in one year. Also, these same data enabled Atlanta’s superintendent “to collect $600,000 in performance bonuses over 10 years to supplement her $400,000 annual salary,” which suggests another kind of corruption. An investigation reported that one middle school took reprisals against teachers who did not participate in “changing parties” where wrong answers were erased and right answers replaced them.

But another strand in the administration of the Atlanta schools needs mention too. I am not quite sure what to call it, but after describing a couple of circumstances of the superintendent’s leadership, I will try and supply a label. It entailed the elevation of Herself and, under her administration, the belittling of “noncompliant” teachers.

The superintendent would have annual gatherings at the Georgia Dome, with seating arranged by school according to the schools’ performance on standardized tests. The “worst” schools’ employees were not allowed to sit on the field but instead had to go to the stands. It is not reported that they had to wear dunce caps, but you get the idea. At one school the “worst” teachers were required by their principal to crawl on all fours under a table. The degradation! They might as well have had to wear signs around their necks saying, “I am a worm, and no man[1].”

By contrast, the “best” schools’ employees at the Georgia Dome had seating reserved for them near The Presence. I use the word advisedly because The Presence was highly insulated at the district offices, where visitors had to use two security cards and get past a receptionist to make a visit, or should I say have an audience? People allowed in The Presence (or near it at the Georgia Dome) might have felt like Louis XIV’s courtiers who had the petites and grandes entrées into the Monarch’s Presence at Versailles, or who were allowed to accompany him to his holiday chateau at Marly[2].

The mixture of such kinds of exaltation and abasement with corruption should be considered “a deed without a name,” but in the best tradition of Educationist Baloney I will call it Stratification Based Records Adjustment Administration.

Name aside, two things here are seriously rotten: one is corruption, and the other is warped professional relationships. Though arrests can, should, and will be made for cheating, I hope that the criminal investigation will be paralleled by an educational investigation into what sounds like a sick organization.

[1] Paul Fussell, the Donald T. Regan Professor Emeritus of English Literature at Penn, has a harsher name for this kind of gratuitous abasement or harassment, which he analyzes in another context in the chapter “Chickenshit, An Anatomy” of his book Wartime.

[2] The King even made abasement a part of the holiday. He would not issue invitations to Marly, but required his courtiers to bow to him in public and ask, “Marly, Sire?” and thus risk the humiliation of a refusal if they were not in his good graces. The King had many such ways of putting people in the doghouse.


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