Disgraced Atlanta Superintendent Dies

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Blake Neff Reporter
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Beverly Hall, the disgraced former superintendent of Atlanta’s public schools, died of breast cancer on Monday at 68, unpunished but nonetheless an emblem of the consequences of valuing test scores more than students.

Had Hall died six years ago, she would have been lionized as a heroic, innovative educator who sharply raised student achievement in a poor, minority-heavy district. Instead, she dies discredited, exposed as the educator who oversaw the largest school cheating scandal in a generation, and made millions off of taxpayers in the process.

Hall rose up from a poor childhood in Jamaica, and in 1999 she took over the long-struggling Atlanta Public Schools and engineered what appeared to be a rapid turnaround built on the tough motto of “no exceptions, no excuses.” She directly tied educators’ job security to standardized test scores, telling principles that if they didn’t meet progress goals within a few years, they would be fired without mercy. Principles, in turn, put tremendous pressure on individual teachers.

The tough approach seemed to work. Test scores surged rapidly, turning Hall into a national hero for education reformers. Hall touted her success as vindication for the country’s poor, “debunking the American algorithm that socio-economics predicts academic success.”

Hall profited handsomely from this apparent success. Her base salary of almost $300,000 was one of the country’s highest, and she also collected over a half-million in bonuses based on the rapidly rising test scores. She cultivated the air of a head of state, employing a full-time bodyguard, carrying a large retinue of retainers when she moved about and requiring most district employees to receive special permission merely to visit the floor housing her office.

In 2009, her career peaked when she was named National Superintendent of the Year by the American Association of School Administrators, the top prize in her field. Just months after her career hit its apex, however, it all came crashing down.

A devastating investigation by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution discovered highly suspicious fluctuations in the city’s test scores, coupled with unreasonably rapid growth. The paper’s investigation led to a state inquiry, which found that Hall’s success was actually based on a “culture of fear” that promoted widespread, systematic cheating on state tests. Dozens of teachers and administrators collaborated to change incorrect answers on tests, allow blatant testing irregularities to give students a leg up, and punish potential whistleblowers. Sometimes, teachers even gathered together for “cheating parties” where they would eat fish and grits while fixing students’ mistakes. (RELATED: Atlanta Cheating Scandal Goes To Court)

Hall first tried to blame the cheating on isolated actors, and then as evidence mounted, tried to claim the conspiracy developed entirely without her knowledge. Investigators, and later prosecutors, placed her at the center of the conspiracy, and said that if she didn’t know about the cheating, she should have, as she routinely dismissed damning evidence of cheating at individual schools.

In 2013, Hall was indicted on racketeering charges that, had she lived, could have sent her to prison for more than 40 years.

Ultimately, Hall’s premature death will save her from a final, public verdict on her personal culpability. Many of her colleagues aren’t so lucky: Twelve Atlanta school employees are currently in the middle of a trial that could send them to prison for years, and another 20 have already struck plea deals to avoid jail time. Nearly 200 employees lost their jobs thanks to the scandal (Hall herself resigned in 2011).

Caught in the crossfire are thousands of Atlanta students, who had their educational wellbeing sacrificed to the greater goal of hitting testing thresholds.

Ultimately, Hall’s downfall will serve for years as an example about the worst habits encouraged by the country’s embrace of high-stakes standardized tests as a means to improve educational outcomes. More broadly, it stands as a warning of the price to be paid when ethics and diligence take a backseat to zeal and ambition. RIP.

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Blake Neff