It was rather shocking last week to see 11 Atlanta school teachers being hauled off to jail — facing sentences of up to 20 years — for their involvement in a nationally publicized cheating scandal.

Most of us, I’m sure, feel teachers cheating to help raise students’ test scores is an abysmal act that surely merits more than having to write “I will not cheat on standardized tests” 10,000 times on the white board, but it was hard to imagine them actually being prosecuted and going to jail. After all, it’s only a little cheating on some goofy tests that don’t really seem to measure a whole lot other than how ready the kids are to take a particular test, right?

The more I thought about it though, the more I can see where the state was right to go after this particular group of “educators” criminally. If you’re sending your child to school to learn, and the kid is being passed through and helped on his standardized tests, you’re being ripped off.

I’m sure the argument might be that most of the people being ripped off couldn’t give a rip about their kids’ education in the first place, which is why those particular kids needed all the help. And there is something to that argument. Teachers can’t do it all. If Johnny’s mom and pop don’t care what he’s doing or aren’t around to make sure he completes and understands his homework, it certainly makes the teachers’ jobs all the harder.

But, and it’s a big but, I cannot lie, that’s no excuse for educators abandoning their prime directive and bumping up scores and passing students so they can then bask in the glory and financial incentives that walk hand-in-hand with perceived success. Thus a fraud is being perpetrated upon any community where this type of activity is either promoted or tolerated.

So how is it a fraud? First, of course, there is the faith of the parents who do care and have gone to pains to make sure their kids get into a “good school.” That’s no easy thing. They go to bed and night at least feeling like they’ve given their children a shot at a good education because they’re told their school is one of the best in the district. Only maybe it’s not. Maybe the principal or some of the other top brass are fooling around with the numbers because it helps their careers if scores look good when the reality is perhaps otherwise.

And there are other things most of us probably don’t think about. What’s one of the main determiners of property values? Good schools. People pay far more for homes in “good” school districts than in poor ones. Taxes are levied based upon those property values as well. So what happens to the value of your home when its discovered the great elementary school down the street is actually not so great? You’re out real money.

So maybe it wasn’t so harsh after all for those Atlanta educators to have the book thrown at them. It would be surprising if the vast majority of their colleagues who work hard and stay within the rules would have much sympathy for them.

The situation in Atlanta may be unsettling to some, but what should be more upsetting is to be in a community where no one cares enough about cheating to actually investigate it properly. After stories came out in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution revealing the cheating problem in Atlanta, and also pointing out potential cheating issues in other districts around the country — including the Mobile County Public School System — Georgia’s governor took action. That action let to the arrest and conviction of those cheating educators. The investigation determined cheating was going on at 44 schools and nearly 180 educators were involved system-wide.

We can’t say there’s been that kind of interest in our own school district. Most media around here have done stories on cheating in the MCPSS. Lagniappe was the first to do an exposé on what was happening here. We talked to lots of teachers who confirmed over and over efforts to pump up the scores. It’s hard to say the school system and Superintendent Martha Peek have done a tremendous amount about the matter, though.

Yes, a couple of people have been fired. Others were transferred. But Superintendent Peek has generally brushed the whole thing off as if it wasn’t really happening and most of the complaints were from disgruntled employees.

I first heard about these allegations several years ago from a friend and former MCPSS employee. She had started teaching and would come back and tell me the most horrific stories about cheating and test changing parties. When she complained to the system, she became a pariah. But everything she ever told me was verified by the school system, although the perpetrators received little punishment.

The test cheating scandals, I hope, are a thing of the past as schools are moving away from them for several reasons. The pressure to cheat is one of the more prominent of those. But it’s still hard to take the school system seriously after having watched the lackadaisical way in which they dealt with the cheating issues.

It appears now we’re moving towards graduation rates as the benchmark for determining success. Low and behold, MCPSS is suddenly blasting off in terms of graduation. Just six years ago MCPSS had a 55-percent graduation rate. Last year it was 82 percent — up a full seven points from the previous year.

That’s terrific — as long as it’s real. I have no reason other than common sense to be skeptical of that vast an improvement in such a short time. But maybe the system’s leaders have learned a lesson from the cheating scandals and we really are suddenly graduating 82 percent of our students with the reading, writing and math skills expected of high school graduates.

That kind of success would certainly be a great thing for this community as long as it’s achieved in the classrooms and not the backrooms.


In the ultimate irony, upwardly-mobile families flee Baldwin County for the better school system to the west after a failed tax referendum.

In the ultimate irony, upwardly-mobile families flee Baldwin County for the better school system to the west after a failed tax referendum.