Former DC Whistleblower Principal Adell Cothorne on the Atlanta Verdict (Sentencing)
On April 3, 2015, I posted former DC principal Adell Cothorne’s reaction to the conviction of 11 educators in what has come to be commonly known as the Atlanta cheating scandal.
Cothorne was the whistleblower principal employed under former DC chancellor Michelle Rhee. Cothorne walked in on teachers altering student test scores.
In this post, Cothorne responds to the news of the sentencing.
On April 14, 2015, Judge Jerry Baxter sentenced eight Atlanta educators to a range of one to seven years in jail. Two educators also implicated in the case, agreed to a plea deal and received more merciful sentences. The details of this case have been discussed ad nauseam on social media and both local and national news outlets. Many have weighed in, expressing their disgust that school teachers could be sent to jail simply for “erasing answers”; while murderers are allowed to roam free.
There are three salient points I would like to address regarding the Atlanta sentencings.
The act of erasing students’ answers on test sheets has far reaching negative effects that the general public does not consider.
As a former administrator who had to deal with staff members erasing student answers in order to create the illusion of continuous student achievement, I know first-hand the far reaching effect this practice has on but the community as a whole. You see, I witnessed a lack of teaching during my tenure as a District of Columbia principal. Yes, some of my teaching staff were ill-equipped to teach students. They simply lacked the pedagogical approaches to implement effective instruction. I supervised another, much smaller, group of teachers who taught stellar lessons and genuinely cared for their students’ success. Then, there were those teachers who were able to teach adequately. Yet, they chose to literally not teach because they knew that the end result would be a picture of improved student achievement due to practices that were going on behind closed doors after school hours (erasing answers from wrong to right).
So, when people make the argument these educators in Atlanta should not face jail time, I cringe. When others make the argument that killers are allowed to walk free, while these educators face time in prison, I cringe even more. First of all, comparing what a killer does and what these educators perpetrated is like comparing elephants to apples. Yes, elephants and apples are both living things. That is about where the similarities begin and end. Just as murder and erasing student answers from wrong to right are both crimes; that too is where the similarities begin and end.
Please do not think I am downplaying someone who murders another human being. That is a dastardly act which I believe requires punishment. However, these Atlanta educators robbed thousands of children of opportunity– the very same opportunity that these same educators were afforded – a sound education which allowed them to attend college and beyond. A sound education that allowed them to create a comfortable life for their families. A sound education that allowed them to have choices.
Let me ask you, what choices does a 15-year-old growing up in the inner city with a functional first-grade reading level have?
Numerous people have focused on the injustice in Atlanta. However, I have yet to hear the groundswell of outrage over the students who were affected by the erasures. Where is the outcry of injustice for them?
Someone recently asked me what I thought would be a just consequence for the Atlanta educators. I said I would like to see them suffer the same fate they bestowed upon the students. Forget jail time. In my opinion, that’s the easy way out. These educators have college degrees and know how to navigate life in the professional realm. Some will even serve their time and have the opportunity to profit from their experience with the case, either from books and/or speaking engagements. Financial devastation is what these educators should experience. No pension. No access to jobs making $40,000 or more. No ability to network and build relationships in order to benefit monetarily. No, I think their choices should be restricted to jobs at Wal-Mart or McDonald’s. After all, that’s pretty much the choices given to the students who were robbed of a solid education.
There were MANY who were culpable in the endeavor of fraudulent student achievement.
Another argument I have heard over and over again is that the Atlanta educators were not alone in their wrongdoing. I agree. There are plenty of people who should be indicted for the high-stakes testing environment which has forced the hand of some. Sure, there is documentation of politicians putting forth and supporting education efforts that hugely benefit corporations. And even though these relationships may not be direct violations of the law, they definitely raise eyebrows.
We know that the old adage , “If you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours,” is still alive and well. Does anyone not think it strange that David Coleman, one of the architects of Common Core, sits on the board of Michelle Rhee’s Students First organization? Don’t see why that’s a problem? Well, here’s why. Rhee was used as a catalyst during her tenure as DC schools chancellor to prove that value added measurement (VAM) works for rating classroom teachers. Why is this important to Common Core standards? If these folks can prove that having “high standards” increases student achievement in an urban school district (enter the test-erasing folks), then they have more states willing to take on the standards.
Once states have adopted both the standards and the VAM model, then those desiring to end teaching as a profession can lower the hammer and say, “Oh these kids aren’t learning. Let’s get rid of the teacher (bye, bye pension) and let’s call in the charter schools to save the day!” It’s a win-win for the private business sector. They (the privileged One Percent) get to save money by reducing the number of people who receive pensions and by running the charter school system that is devouring some communities (just think of New Orleans). Sound a bit Machiavellian or Orwellian? Yes, but true, nonetheless.
So. Should the people who created the conditions conducive to cheating scandals share a cell with the Atlanta educators? Absolutely! Yet here’s the caveat – people like Michelle Rhee (and let us not forget her husband Kevin Johnson) have money and high connections. They can make very serious problems disappear. When people like Rhee “carries someone’s water,” those people get to call in favors not accessible to the average citizen.
Until members of the Black and Brown community unite in a strategic, meaningful, sustained way – we will continue to see atrocities perpetrated against our own.
Many are familiar with the Tuskegee Experiment which lasted from 1932 to 1972. Other are less familiar with the story of Henrietta Lacks. Ms. Lacks was a Black woman whose cells were used for experiments for decades – initially by doctors at Johns Hopkins Hospital and eventually by doctors internationally. All of this took place (hospitals receiving untold amounts of money because of the use of Ms. Lacks’ cells for research) while her family lived in abject poverty. More recently, there is the case of Johns Hopkins physicians using inner city Black and Brown children for lead poisoning research (unbeknownst to the children or their families).
I highlight these situations to drive home the point of Black and Brown residents of the inner city becoming knowledgeable about decisions impacting their lives in a detrimental manner. When I hear that Al Sharpton and Marc Morial (former New Orleans mayor and current president and CEO of the National Urban League) support the implementation of Common Core standards, I simply hang my head in disgust. But once again, I get it. I’m pretty sure these situations go back to the “You scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours” mantra.
Therefore, inner city residents of color cannot look to contemporary leaders to solve their woes. There must be a grassroots movement that takes hold and involves more than getting t-shirts printed to wear while we march for a day.
I am so passionate about what is happening in education (especially urban education) because I was that little Black girl with a teenage mother and a substance-addicted father sitting in the seat of poverty. I couldn’t sing or dribble a basketball. But, I could study. I had teachers who cared about my academic success. These teachers were allowed to implement strategies which supported by learning style. They did not have the fear of high-stakes testing haunting them at every turn.
It was because of my strong, urban, public education that I was able to attend and graduate from college. Because of my strong, urban, public education, I was able to complete advanced studies at Johns Hopkins University. Because of my strong, urban, public education, I am currently completing work on my doctorate. Because of my strong, urban, public education, I was able to have an abundance of choices in life.
I simply want every child to have an abundance of choices.
Former principal, DC Public Schools
Schneider is a southern Louisiana native, career teacher, trained researcher, and author of the ed reform whistle blower, A Chronicle of Echoes: Who’s Who In the Implosion of American Public Education.
She also has her second book available on pre-order, Common Core Dilemma: Who Owns Our Schools?, due for publication June 12, 2015.