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A Scandal of Cheating, and a Fall From Grace, Kim Severson, New York Times, 8 septembre 2011

vendredi 9 septembre 2011, par Bobby

Pour lire cet article sur le site du New York Times

ATLANTA — Sitting in the polished offices of a lawyer who specializes in corporate criminal defense, Beverly L. Hall looked tired.

It is not easy being the pariah of a major American city.

Dr. Hall, once named as the nation’s school superintendent of the year and a veteran of 40 years in tough urban districts including New York and Newark, now stands marked by the biggest standardized test cheating scandal in the country’s history.

As Atlanta tries to sort fact from fiction and get back to the business of educating the 50,000 children in its public schools, Dr. Hall is left to defend her reputation, prepare for any possible legal action and consider whether her philosophy of education and style of leadership brought her to what is the lowest point in her career.

“I will survive this,” said Dr. Hall, 65, in her first public interview since a scathing 800-page report by state investigators outlined a pervasive pattern of cheating at 44 schools and involving 178 educators.

“I feel badly for myself, but I feel just as badly for all the people in this district who are working hard,” she said. “Now everything they read and hear is negative. That is taking a tremendous toll on me.”

From 1999 to June, Dr. Hall was the forceful, erudite and data-driven superintendent of a once-failing urban school district that became a model of improvement.

During her reign, scholarship money delivered to Atlanta students jumped to $129 million from $9 million. Graduation rates, while still not stellar, rose to 66 percent, from 39 percent. Seventy-seven schools were either built or renovated, at a cost of about $1 billion.

Dr. Hall maintains that she never knowingly allowed cheating and does not condone it, but acknowledges that people under her did.

Still, the scope of the report — which she and others argue was overreaching and contained inaccuracies — shocks her.

“I can’t accept that there is a culture of cheating,” she said. “What these 178 are accused of is horrific, but we have over 3,000 teachers.”

The devastating report came in July. Two longtime government lawyers who were asked by the governor to investigate charges that answers had been changed on state standardized tests found that students had sometimes simply been given correct answers. In other cases, they said, staff members erased wrong ones and filled in the right ones. One school held weekend pizza parties to fix tests.

No criminal charges have been filed, but the district is scrambling to respond to two sweeping grand jury subpoenas. It will turn over at least 20 hard drives of information containing communication among school lawyers, board members and staff members, along with scanned records dating back to the 1990s, said Keith Bromery, spokesman for the district.

The report asserted that Dr. Hall, while not tied directly to cheating or the direct target of a subpoena, had to know about it or should have. She tried to contain damaging information, it said, and did not do enough to investigate allegations, especially after 2005 when “clear and significant” warnings were raised.

And she was, investigators and people who worked closely with her said, more interested in adoration than achievement. Some said they believed they would be ostracized if they did not deliver the results Dr. Hall wanted.

Dr. Hall says she tried to create a culture that demanded achievement, based on her core belief that every child — no matter his or her life circumstances — can learn enough to meet certain standards.

But even her supporters say that belief was so unbending that people would rather erase wrong scores — and reap the financial and workplace perks associated with improved test scores — than tell her children could not pass.

Others say she failed to consider the immense social problems facing some Atlanta schoolchildren.

“The problem came when every child was expected to reach an arbitrary standard that didn’t include a consideration of where they are coming from,” said State Representative Kathy Ashe, a Democrat.

All of which leaves Dr. Hall baffled.

“The Beverly Hall as they characterize me is foreign to me,” said the Jamaican-born graduate of Fordham University’s doctoral program, who began teaching in some of New York’s toughest classrooms while Atlanta was still battling to desegregate schools. “This thing of me being autocratic and removed from the schools and whatever whatever is just crazy to me.”

Although she acknowledges that she should have given more attention to testing security procedures and to evidence that cheating might be widespread, she bristles at the suggestion that children should not be held to high standards or that she was intimidating and isolated.

She pointed to a June retreat with principals.

“The principals who were so intimidated and couldn’t reach me gave me three standing ovations,” she said. “I always felt that the principals respected me but also had a real connection to me.”

She remains personally stung by how she is being portrayed by the local news media, especially The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, which began investigating potential cheating in 2008 and has continued to dig deep into Dr. Hall’s performance.

She was taken to task for her car and driver, an Atlanta police officer on the school district payroll who made nearly $100,000 a year, including overtime. (“You can’t get around this system and do what’s asked of you if you are thinking about parking,” Dr. Hall said.)

Her bonuses were also questioned. In addition to a $273,156 annual salary, she made $581,860.82 in bonuses since she began in 1999. They stopped in 2009, Mr. Bromery said.

Investigators are also examining the role that bonuses to staff members whose schools performed well on standardized tests might have played into the cheating — something Dr. Hall dismisses.

“The money was not a lot,” she said. “It’s hard for me to believe for $1,000 or $750 you would cheat.”

As she examines what she might do next, Dr. Hall is contending with the sudden absence of public support in a city that once considered her a savior.

Shirley Franklin, the former mayor of Atlanta, gave her a warning when things began bubbling up six months ago.

“Get prepared,” she said, “because the silence will be deadly.”

Dr. Hall says, “I just didn’t understand that at the time.”

Many in the Atlanta business community who once were her champions have distanced themselves, as predicted, or joined the critics. Some have been more harsh.

“We’ve had long series of unbelievably poor leaders, and we really shouldn’t be too surprised with what we got,” said James B. Miller Jr., chairman of Fidelity Bank in Atlanta. “Anybody who starts acting like they are the emperor is in trouble.”

Still, many here maintain that the reforms are real and worry that the district’s progress will be overshadowed.

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the GE Foundation, which together have pumped more than $50 million into Atlanta schools, will keep financing them, people from both organizations said.

In a coming study based on results of recent National Assessment of Educational Progress scores, Atlanta schools show significant and consistent improvement, said Michael Casserly, executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools, which represents 65 large urban school districts and plans to release its study this fall.

The real legacy of the cheating scandal will probably be that educators and legislators re-examine the emphasis placed on standardized tests, Mr. Casserly said.

And it certainly will make urban administrators reconsider the cost of pushing teachers and students — especially students facing difficult social circumstances — to achieve high test scores.

“History may ultimately be the judge of how that was balanced and ultimately implemented,” Mr. Casserly said. “But I can’t fault her underlying motive to expect more of kids that society had low expectations of.”