Atlanta Cheating Scandal: A Question of Character


When my son was growing up, we spent a lot of time grappling with issues of character. This is an essential exercise in the development of all children, but I think it is particularly important when you have a smart, talented, athletic boy on your hands—a boy who, one day, might find himself with the power and opportunity to influence others. How do you treat people?… How do you deal with adversity?… How do you get beyond disappointment?…What if something or someone was being unfair to you? That last one was real big with my son—the boy was quick to label a situation or a teacher “unfair,” as if they all woke up every morning with the intent of cooking up new ways to screw him. I felt like I was constantly working overtime to get him to understand that there was no “fairness” judge standing by to insure that every situation, every result, would always be fair to him. As he got older, we began to turn the question inward, to get him to see that when he didn’t give 100 percent, when he cheated, when he took shortcuts, he was not being fair to himself and would only make things harder for himself in the long run. That was an important lesson I prayed he would internalize before he went off to college and to that big bad world out there—when you cheated yourself, ultimately you would live to regret it. He is now in his second year of college, where he has decided to major in Engineering, one of the toughest majors at his school. From all indications, that lesson about not cheating yourself seems to have been permanently stamped on his brain.

These memories have been bouncing around in my head lately as I pondered the gruesomeness of the Atlanta test cheating scandal. As I read through the report produced by the state investigators, I was numbed by the horrible things that these teachers and principals did to these Atlanta schoolchildren, acts that could ultimately be as damaging and long-lasting as molestation or physical abuse. It may take many years of work to unravel the lessons that have been indelibly stamped on the brains of these Atlanta kids.

The huge cheating scandal, the largest in the nation’s history, involved 178 educators at 44 schools—almost half of the 100 schools in the Atlanta system—and all indications are it had been going on for a decade. The Fulton County District Attorney is in the midst of a criminal probe that may result in criminal charges filed against many of the educators—maybe even former Superintendent Beverly Hall, though she has denied any involvement in or knowledge of the cheating. At least 41 of the 178 educators, including 13 principals, voluntarily resigned their positions and disciplinary procedures have begun against the others. And just this past weekend, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported that state investigators looking into cheating allegations in Dougherty County told the paper they had gotten 10 Dougherty educators to confess to changing student answers on the CRCT and giving students the correct answers during the testing. Dougherty, whose largest city is Albany, is 180 miles south of Atlanta and is 67 percent black.

The news reports that came out over the summer concerning Atlanta schools focused on allegations such as the teachers held erasing parties, where they would gather after school hours with stacks of student answer sheets and change wrong answers to correct ones. In one well-reported case, they even got together at a teacher’s home in Douglasville. That was horrendous enough, but it still felt a small step removed from the child—an enormous disservice was done to him, but he might not even be aware of it as he blithely moved on to the next grade and took his improved test scores with him. But I was disturbed to discover that was just a small part of the picture. There were many cases where the students were directly involved in the cheating.

According to the report, some teachers seated students in a way that allowed lower-performing students to cheat off higher-performing students. Teachers in first and second grade—who have to read the test questions to students—used voice inflection to signal the correct answer. Teachers sometimes pointed to the correct answer while standing at students’ desks. Teachers gave the answers aloud to students and sometimes allowed students to go back and change answers from the previous day. Investigators said in some cases students would request to be assigned to a certain teacher because that teacher was known to cheat. Some teachers allowed the students to change the previous day’s answers after discussing the correct answers. Teachers looked ahead with the students to discuss the next day’s questions. In one classroom a child sat under his desk and refused to take the test—and this child passed. One fifth-grade student noticed his answers were different than the day before, but when he brought this to his teacher’s attention she simply told him she would take care of it. In the report, many teachers commented that they noticed over the years that some students couldn’t read at grade level, but still had high standardized test scores—leading the teachers to conclude that rampant cheating must be going on.

Yes, of course these actions no doubt were a predictable outcome in an education system that has become single-mindedly focused on standardized tests to the detriment of actual learning. I get that. But I still found this story astonishingly sad.

For a parent sitting at home, fretting about his child’s character, knowing that such educators are out there, working amongst our children, is scary, horrendous, tragic. In Atlanta and likely in other school systems, a generation of children was guided by teachers and principals who taught them the best way to get through challenging situations was to cheat. Every time I think about that, my head starts getting hot, the hairs rise on the back of my neck. All at once, I want to find these teachers and administrators and commit some type of violence—and then lay down and have a long cry about the vicious disrespect, disregard and hatred these mostly black children unknowingly faced on a daily basis when they walked into their school buildings and stared up into the faces of teachers who, in most cases, looked just like them.

Every Atlanta public school child who walks across a graduation stage for the next half decade carries a taint with him. Every teacher and administrator whose paycheck says “Atlanta Public Schools” has a question mark over her head. It is unconscionable, disgusting.

As a new school year gets into gear, each of us should take this occasion to wrap our children in a tight embrace and pray that they should forever be spared from the uncaring, vile, child-hating teachers of this world. Amen.

Nick Chiles is a New York Times bestselling author and former award-winning education reporter.

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Denene Millner

Mom. NY Times bestselling author. Pop culture ninja. Unapologetic lover of shoes, bacon and babies. Nice with the verbs. Founder of the top black parenting website, MyBrownBaby.


  1. This is a horrible revelation and it’s part of the reason I left teaching and am homeschooling my daughter. But I think, and you grazed over it slightly, that these teachers were probably honest, caring educators when they began but somewhere along the lines their bosses/principals suggested (in a “I’m not telling you to cheat, but do what ever it takes to get those scores up because your job is on the line” sort of way) that they get those scores up. That it was 178 educators within this district tells me that this was a planned system set up and endorsed by a higher up (and no I am not buying that the superintendent did not know) and now that the fit hit the shan the blame will never find its way to the top.

    I have said for years and will continue to scream it from the rooftops honesty and integrity cannot exist in a system that was built on BS. Honesty is firm and integrity is unwavering, but BS is weak. When you try to build on it, it sinks… There needs to be a social revolution that begins with removing politics and capitalism from education. The goal should be to EDUCATE not to create cheap labor to run the capitalist machine.

  2. I’m afraid that Chicago has pockets of this occurrence. My sons have been in private school all of these years. Public schools are broken all over the country for the same reasons, and at the core of failure is integrity and character within the system.

  3. I lived in Atlanta for 20 years. My children attended schools in the APS school district for a total of one school year and one marking period. They mostly went to private schools and one charter school ( I homeschooled too). The reason we chose the path that we did was because after trying out Kindergarten in APS we discovered that excellence was frowned upon. Excellence is one of the words that the superintendent used a lot to describe APS. However, if they viewed it anywhere many people worked on many different levels to stamp it out. Places have a culture and a way of doing things. Atlanta is one of those places that actually has a culture of cheating, trying to get over, and not being totally on board. If you love Atlanta, please don’t be mad at me for saying this. I had a lot of time to study the place I called home for 2 decades. I am 100% sure of what I am saying. This scandal is just not that surprising to me. It is also very evident that many children in Atlanta were not being taught much of value for many many years. The CRCT struck fear in the hearts of many when it came along because the realization of the subpar education in Atlanta was destined to be revealed. This scandal is actually a blessing to the children because the city will now have to hire someone to really really educate these babies.

  4. Please understand, this post was not meant to be an indictment of all public schools and all public school teachers. If this is your takeaway, please know that this was not my intent. All three of my children have attended public schools at some point in their educational careers, and for the most part I have been fairly satisfied with the results. That’s not to say that constant vigilance isn’t required, but I believe constant vigilance is necessary even when your kids attend some fancy private schools—because there are damaging and long-lasting lessons to be learned in those expensive, cloistered halls also (and I speak from experience here, too). I believe that the public school system is deeply troubled, as is the society that created and (sometimes, but not really) supports it, but the system also contains many wonderful gems. It can’t be abandoned and it can’t be disregarded, attacked and dishonored in one fell swoop, as @KristinaBrooke has done. Public schools are a grand, equalizing, egalitarian experiment that is still a work in progress. We have to fight for, with, and in support of our school systems, just as we fight for our kids.

    • Let me clarify: I do believe that the PS system contains many gems; I worked for one. But I also think that the system itself needs to be overhauled in an effort to keep things like this from happening and even more so in an effort to stop attracting people who are not on the up and up.

      I homeschool for a variety of reasons and left teaching for many more but I believed that homeschooling could provide my daughter with the best education possible.

  5. Jacqueline Lewis

    My husband and I have been here for three almost four years, and are very troubled by how the public schools in such a large state is waring. We have tried two school districts and have had to resort to homeschooling. It’s a travesty that the culture here is not of excellence. Now in saying that, my youngest son has been blessed with a very good teacher, but because of the culture the good teachers are either leaving, or just not being encouraged to do better. With the new information about the high-school cheating scandal coming forth, it really seems that Georgia will continue to lag behind in education. If the people aren’t educated then jobs cannot be created. The worst part about this is the children, poor, and middle-class aren’t getting the education they deserve because of us (adults). It’s our responsibility to show forth good character, and to teach our childen that hard work, will win at the end not cheating. In the city in which we came from (CT) parents were so involved, it doesn’t seem that way here, which again shows that we are expecting someone else to teach our children, and what they are teaching is cheating is better than hard work. Shame…

  6. You know, I have always questioned whether cheating on the standardized tests were or are limited to Fulton County. The one year I had my daughter in public elementary school, in the suburbs, happened to be the third grade, with a mandatory pass of the CRCT. My daughter had a reading problem which wasn’t severe enough in the school’s eyes for a reading specialist but which kept her performing below grade level the entire year. She was refused any support and indeed the guidance counselor suggested she may have had an attention problem. I had allready decided to pull her at the end of the year when her teacher told me she was failing the third grade. And then….viola! she passed the CRCT, a test she came home crying about because she could barely read it, and was promoted to the next grade. Fulton county’s scanddal and what it did to these children is shocking, and I believe we as parents need to keep tuned in to make sure it in turn doesn’t happen to our own.

  7. Just a few years ago, back in the ’90s, Atlanta Public Schools was one of the best around…sad to witness what has happened…

  8. While I don’t believe that the teachers who did the cheating are “uncaring, vile, child-hating teachers”, I do agree with the ultimate determination that this is a question of character. While I understand that situations can influence people’s behavior, no one and nothing can MAKE you do anything. We live in a society where doing well, being “successful”, is hailed as the end-all-be-all, where the ends justify the means. If it’s not teachers cheating in urban schools, then it’s the parents doing the homework and projects in the suburban schools. I strive to instill in my children that “success” means NOTHING, and character means EVERYTHING. Cuz’ you can’t take none of that “success” with you…

  9. We are all guilty! We have allowed our society to only count winning! Not growth, progress or character. Yes I want my son to exceed and excel, but more than that I just want him to grow up to be a good, happy black man. Isn’t that “winning!”

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