The Untold Story of the Nation’s Biggest School Cheating Scandal (1/3)

April 18, 2019

Authors Shani Robinson and Anna Simonton say the Atlanta school cheating scandal resulted in black educators being scapegoated for the failures of policymakers

Authors Shani Robinson and Anna Simonton say the Atlanta school cheating scandal resulted in black educators being scapegoated for the failures of policymakers



The Untold Story of the Nation's Biggest School Cheating Scandal (1/3)

Story Transcript

JAISAL NOOR: Welcome to The Real News. I’m Jaisal Noor in Baltimore.

LESTER HOLT: Good evening.There’s no harder lesson than the one taught today to eight Atlanta educators by an angry judge after they were convicted on charges typically reserved for mobsters.

SCOTT PELLEY: Their crime was a conspiracy to fake test scores to make themselves and their schools look successful.

MICHAEL BOWERS: And I think it’s fair to call it a true mess. It’s about the children, and these are the most vulnerable children in the state of Georgia, and it truly is heartbreaking when you consider that these children were robbed of an education.

JAISAL NOOR: Eight Black educators, convicted in one of the longest, most high-profile court cases dealing with alleged cheating on standardized tests. Their crime, conspiring to change their students’ answers. The case was sensationalized by the media. First, they were convicted in the court of public opinion and then sentenced to lengthy prison terms. Well a new book offers an insider’s account of the trial and casts doubt on the entire narrative put forth by prosecutors and often echoed by the press. It offers badly-needed contextualization of the social and economic policies that concentrated racialized poverty in inner cities. It also examines the role the so-called “education reform movement,” backed by powerful corporate and real estate interests, played in creating the conditions where the cheating scandal unfolded. The book is called None of the Above: The Untold Story of the Atlanta Public Schools Cheating Scandal, Corporate Greed, and the Criminalization of Educators by Shani Robinson and Anna Simonton, who are both joining us in studio. Thank you for joining us.

SHANI ROBINSON: Thank you for having us.

ANNA SIMONTON: Yeah. Thank you so much.

JAISAL NOOR: Shani Robinson is an alumni of Tennessee State University and an advocate for troubled youth and their families. She taught in the Atlanta Public Schools for three years. She’s one of the educators convicted in this scandal and is appealing her conviction. Anna Simonton is an educator for Scalawag Magazine, Co-founder of Press On, a new media collective dedicated to strengthening and expanding movement journalism in the South, and she’s a graduate of Atlanta Public Schools. I appreciate you both joining us in the studio today. So let’s start off by why you decided to write this book. You’re currently appealing your case. Are you putting yourself at risk? This book is a devastating account and you go after this whole system that set up this process. You don’t hold back it seems on anything.

SHANI ROBINSON: Absolutely. I may be putting myself at risk, but telling this story, telling the truth, is so much more important to me. I actually wrote this book for my son, Amari. I was pregnant with him during the entire eight-month trial. It was the longest criminal trial in Georgia history. And so, it actually started off as a journal that I was writing to him because I knew that once he got older, he was going to have some questions. As I began writing and connecting the dots and putting the pieces together, I said this book is bigger than me. This is really about the intentional destruction of public education in this country. Once I realized that I wanted to take the book to the next level, I teamed up with Anna. It’s been an amazing journey with her as we pull back the layers because the phrase “cheating the children” was used so many times during our trial in regards to me and my co-defendants. In the book, we’re asking the question, who should really be held accountable for cheating these children because they have been harmed in so many different ways. Their communities have been under attack for decades. They are privatizing their schools and now they’re criminalizing their educators.

JAISAL NOOR: Anna, so you’re a journalist. Talk about how you got involved. I know a lot of this book deals with media critique, as well. Did you add your perspective there, as well?

ANNA SIMONTON: Yeah. This was near to my heart not only because I came up through Atlanta Public Schools, but because my middle school counselor was actually convicted in this case, as well. I was a freelance journalist working in Atlanta, covering some education issues, but I didn’t cover the trial. It was sort of in and out of the public dialogue because it dragged on for so long. The moment when people really sat up and paid attention, including myself, was when the convictions were handed down and these harsh sentences were meted out. I just felt devastated to see all Black educators, my middle school counselor, facing the sentence for tests that I had to take when I was a student, that I felt had very little to do with whether or not we were actually being educated. And so, it was just an honor when Shani reached out to me because it gave me an opportunity to try to do something about a really messed up situation.

JAISAL NOOR: And so, you start the book off by talking about Teach for America and you’re an alumni with Teach for America.

SHANI ROBINSON: I am.

JAISAL NOOR: You start there and that’s a path to get into the corporate education reform movement, the neoliberal education– there’s a lot of names for it– but it’s backed by powerful interests, backed by corporate interests that want to shape education. In Teach for America, you’re putting teachers into classrooms that have very little training, a few months of training, and you’re putting them in the classrooms that have the highest need. So start there and how that unravels this bigger picture.

SHANI ROBINSON: Well my mother was actually a second-generation schoolteacher and I can remember helping her tutor some students when I was younger. The passion of teaching has always been there, but I didn’t major in teaching. I didn’t major in elementary education. And so, when a friend of mine called and told me about Teach for America where I would train for five weeks and be put in a classroom, the thought was appealing, that I could do that. At the time, I remember feeling like I was aligned with what they believed in that any child can learn and succeed. But there’s a lot more that goes into that and I think after my experience working in Atlanta Public Schools, it really broadened my horizons as to what all goes into making sure that a child is successful, or gets a good education. I really feel like Teach for America as an organization was kind of co-opted by the corporate education reform movement. The people who join– I think that we have very good intentions, but I was fresh out of college. I didn’t really have a lot of knowledge about education, or politics, and things like that. And so, I have learned more about the role that it has played within the corporate education reform movement.

JAISAL NOOR: Anna, this is just one of these groups that has a disproportionate role on public education policy and debates. Talk more about Teach for America and what it represents.

ANNA SIMONTON: So Teach for America was founded by Wendy Kopp in the late 1980s. She was an Ivy League graduate trying to find her purpose in life, also had not majored in education, but had this idea based on the idea of the PeaceCorps that what if students coming out of these elite colleges could be trained up and put into classrooms? The ideology there is problematic because it’s assuming that just because you have gone to a great school, even if you haven’t been trained in education, just by virtue of your class status really, that you will be effective in educating young children. The children that end up being a part of that program, as you mentioned, are the kids with some of the highest needs because it’s low-income school districts that are hurting for teachers and that start to accept these T.F.A. recruits in the early 90s. Some of the first backers of Teach for America hint at how powerful interests saw the program as serving in their interests. Some of the biggest folks who are part of things like the Business Roundtable, ALEC, these organizations that really drive policy in the United States are throwing down hundreds of thousands of dollars in seed funding to get this thing off the ground. Those are some of the interests that as T.F.A. progresses throughout the years and starts to have more political power, we see those forces shaping education policy more and more.

JAISAL NOOR: I wanted to ask you about the personal toll this took on you. From this book, it seems like you were blessed with a very strong family and support group, but as you said, you were pregnant through this whole process. Your son is now four. You got engaged and married and all this was happening. You had family members fall ill while this all was happening. Talk about what this was like, getting dragged through the criminal justice system like this, and what impact it had.

SHANI ROBINSON: It was like living in a nightmare. Even when I found out that I had been indicted, my husband had actually called me while I was carpooling with one of my co-workers and said, “I just saw your name scroll across the bottom of the news screen. You’ve been charged with racketeering.” So even just hearing the news, I was in a complete state of shock. And then, when he said that I had been charged with racketeering, I really didn’t know what racketeering was, but I knew that was a serious crime dealing with money. And so, I actually never received any money. The racketeering charge was based on the fact that there were some educators who received bonus money for their school meeting the district targets, which were the benchmarks imposed by the Atlanta Public Schools Board and administration. At my school, we’ve never met our targets and I was a first-grade teacher. My test scores did not even count, so I was angry. I was angry that I had been falsely accused. Just to take it back to how I was even dragged into this– in 2009, which was the year in question, I was a first-grade teacher. On the last day of testing for the C.R.C.T., that’s the standardized test that all first through eighth grade students had to take– The Criterion-Referenced Competency Tests. There was an assistant teacher that came to my classroom and told me to meet the testing coordinator in the computer lab to erase doodles and stray marks off of my students’ test booklets. This was actually something that was done every year, so I didn’t suspect anything.

JAISAL NOOR: Because the stray marks might throw off the scanner because if you’re talking about standardized tests and scantrons, you kind of…

SHANI ROBINSON: Right. Then I taught first graders who had to sit for long hours at a time, and they did make little doodles, draw pictures, and had stray remarks. And so, I went to the computer lab. The testing coordinator handed me my test booklets and said to erase the stray marks and to fix any illegible handwriting in the students’ demographic section, so I did all of that. I handed my test booklets back to the testing coordinator and then, I thought that was the end of the story until October of 2010. I got a phone call from a G.B.I. agent and by that time, I had already resigned from teaching. As a Teach for America recruit, we only commit to teaching two years. I actually stayed for three years. And so, I started working for a counseling agency. And so, the G.B.I. agent told me there had been an eraser analysis done across the state and that in my class specifically there were high levels of wrong-to-right erasers. He said can you explain this, and I said, no. He said well, did the principal or did any administrators place any pressure on you to change your students’ answers? And I said, no. Then he put out a pre-written voluntary statement form that was basically saying you don’t have any knowledge about cheating and you didn’t cheat. Then he asked me to sign this form. I didn’t know it at the time, but there were G.B.I. agents that came into the schools and…

JAISAL NOOR: G.B.I. is?

SHANI ROBINSON: Georgia Bureau of Investigation. Teachers were pulled from their classrooms and they were interrogated and like in many of those initial investigations, there were no attorneys present. Here we are signing a form, which later some educators were charged with false statements and writings for signing this form, which is a felony on top of the racketeering. And so, I was facing 25 years in prison. So yes, it was a nightmare.