Business Casual: After The Fall

Everybody was ready for a good success story when Atlanta Public Schools started rolling out impressive statistics over the last few years – much-improved test scores, higher graduation rates.

It was a regular feel-good fest. Children rising to their potential, bolstered by motivated teachers, engaged administrators, involved community supporters, effective leadership: a perfect storm of timing and action and circumstances. Except that it was all an illusion. The reality was rampant cheating by those in charge.

Children were betrayed by people entrusted with their care; teachers and administrators – not all of them, but more than just a few bad apples – were motivated solely by a desire to hold on to their jobs; and leadership either kept its head buried in the sand or was so colossally incompetent one has to wonder how the individuals found their way to work each day with shoes tied and teeth brushed.

The Atlanta school cheating scandal and its aftermath are unprecedented. The very idea of teachers holding a test-altering party at someone’s house and sending out for pizza is chilling.

And then there are those public school supporters left with egg on their faces: the business community, personified by the Metro Atlanta Chamber, which has certainly taken its lumps for its long-standing support of former APS Superintendent Beverly Hall, and a lot of ordinary citizens who were simply cheering what looked like good news.

The two men who headed the far-reaching investigation of the cheating, former Attorney General Mike Bowers and former DeKalb Dis-trict Attorney Bob Wilson, characterized the business community as having been duped by Hall.

Apparently business leaders were taken in by a glib snake oil saleswoman spouting “education-ese” and dispensing happy numbers while she schmoozed and smiled and made everyone feel ownership of her solution to a tough problem. Maybe nobody looked closely enough at the numbers or asked the now-obvious questions. Maybe everyone was too hungry for good news, too invested in having something go right in a system that had many years of things going wrong.

Perhaps these same leaders were too anxious to “do something” to fix the problem and save some face when they formed the blue-ribbon commission that first studied the cheating allegations. In hindsight, members were clearly in over their heads – no legal authority, no subpoena power. But it’s fair to say no one, at that point, outside the system had any idea how far-reaching the scandal was. Did anybody actually think the all-but-dysfunctional Atlanta School Board might conduct an effective investigation?

Fortunately, former Gov. Sonny Perdue decided to launch a state-level investigation and chose to head it up with two heavy-hitters who were able to produce the 800-page report that sent shock waves throughout Atlanta and became national news.

The fallout from the scandal is long-term, as is the damage – potentially a generation of children deprived of a good education. There is work to be done. The interim APS superintendent, former Chancellor Erroll Davis, seems to be the leader who can do it.

I hope that Metro Atlanta’s business leaders won’t back away entirely from supporting and encouraging public schools in general and Superintendent Davis in particular. Education is too important not to involve them. They have skin in the game. They need a good, strong public education system as badly as any other group of citizens, for their own children and for the children of people they employ.

Business people have money, time and clout that can be used to good advantage. The community needs them to be engaged in every aspect of public education from voting in school board elections to serving on committees to raising funds to spending money at the lemonade stand at their neighborhood school’s fall carnival.

Given all the federal-level pressure on schools to perform and raise their numbers, it’s naïve to think that the kind of cheating we saw on Atlanta tests isn’t going on in other parts of the country. Maybe our business leaders can set an effective example for those in other places who may face similar troubles. Let them be part of the solution.

Categories: Business Casual