Former Teacher Blames Education Policymakers For Atlanta Cheating Scandal | WYPR

Former Teacher Blames Education Policymakers For Atlanta Cheating Scandal

Feb 16, 2019
Originally published on February 17, 2019 4:54 am

In 2015, a verdict was delivered on the cheating scandal in Atlanta Public Schools.

A 2011 Georgia state report found unethical behavior in the school system, including teachers and principals changing wrong answers on standardized tests. Two years later, a grand jury indicted the Atlanta school superintendent and 34 other educators. Some agreed to lesser charges; 12 eventually went to trial, and all but one of them were found guilty of racketeering in 2015 — a felony charge often used to prosecute the mafia.

Shani Robinson was one of those found guilty, but has continued to maintain her innocence. In an interview, she says she could not take a plea deal, even though she was pregnant during the trial (and gave birth shortly after it).

"Because I know that I'm on the right side of justice," Robinson says. "And I even get emotional talking about it. But the thought of being blamed for something that I did not do is horrifying. ... Here I was facing 25 years in prison for something that I didn't do, and I felt like if I was on the right side of justice, that one day I would be vindicated. That was the moment that I decided that I would never take a plea deal."

She is free now, pending appeal, and in the meantime has made her case in a new book, written with Anna Simonton. It's called None of the Above: The Untold Story of the Atlanta Public Schools Cheating Scandal, Corporate Greed, and the Criminalization of Educators.


Interview Highlights

On why she wrote the book

I wrote this book for my son. It started off as a journal and I wanted him to know the truth about what actually happened to me when he got older. And I also wrote this book to set the record straight, and to ask the question: Who should really be held accountable for cheating the children? Our children have been cheated by those who have willfully torn apart black communities through displacement and gentrification, underfunded and privatized public schools, and then have criminalized black educators for a dysfunctional system that was designed to fail. ... I feel like this case is extremely important because public education is under attack, as we've seen in places where teachers are striking, and the cheating scandal was used to portray public education as a failure and justify privatizing schools. And so many people are resisting that right now. And so we believe that, you know, winning the freedom of Atlanta teachers will be a win for educators everywhere.

On why this scandal may have emerged in the first place

Robinson: Well, that's a good question, because when you think about cheating on standardized tests, this is something that was happening over the entire country. Over 40 states have had cheating allegations — 14 of those states, it's been known to be widespread cheating. In Washington, D.C. there were 103 schools that were flagged for high levels of suspiciously high test scores. And so to think that what happened in Atlanta was, you know, like an anomaly — you know, that was the biggest thing: Why were the educators in Atlanta charged with racketeering when this was happening over the entire country? And in the book we outline Atlanta's history of displacement and the destruction of black communities. And I think the criminalization of black educators was the next legacy in that history.

Martin: But why? I mean, what's your argument for why this happened in this place at this time? I mean, Atlanta has an African-American mayor, the DA is African-American, the two prosecutors are African-American — I mean, what would be their motive?

Robinson: You know, I don't have the answer to that, you know. I don't.

Martin: But you seem to think race played a role.

Robinson: I absolutely think race played a role. ... There were some white educators who were implicated in that GBI [Georgia Bureau of Investigation] report, and none of them were indicted. And I can't help to think that if it was 35 white educators, that it would have gotten to this point where they were charged with racketeering.

On why some of the accused educators entered guilty pleas

You know, there were some people who testified during the trial that they only took a plea deal because they were stressed out from the entire ordeal. And some people, you know, they actually blamed it on No Child Left Behind, that they don't want their schools to close — because under the No Child Left Behind Act, after a certain number of years, they could close your school, they could turn it into a charter school or could be taken over by the state. And so I was facing 25 years in prison; there were some people who were facing 40 years in prison. And so we had that option, of facing decades in prison, or doing community service saying that we're guilty, you know, and maybe paying a fine. And so that was a tough decision to make: Having to spend decades in prison or just say that you're guilty.

On if anybody is guilty here, in light of public test score analysis

Absolutely. Absolutely. The education officials and policymakers that have pushed high-stakes testing — that is who has cheated these children. That is who is guilty. Which is why you have all of these states that have had high levels of erasures, and no one has done anything about it.

Liz Baker, Gemma Watters and Denise Couture produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Patrick Jarenwattananon adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We're going to return now to a story you may remember from a few years back - a cheating scandal in the Atlanta public school system. Prosecutors charged that teachers and administrators conspired to change incorrect answers to inflate scores on high-stakes standardized tests. A grand jury indicted the Atlanta school superintendent and 34 other educators. Twelve went to trial. And, in 2015, all but one of them were found guilty of racketeering, a charge often used to prosecute mafia figures. And, in some ways, they were treated as such. Most were led out of court in handcuffs. One of those convicted, Shani Robinson, is free now, pending appeal.

She continues to maintain her innocence and is making her case to the public in a new book. It's called "None Of The Above: The Untold Story Of The Atlanta Public School's Cheating Scandal, Corporate Greed, And The Criminalization Of Educators." Shani Robinson told me one reason she wrote the book was for her son.

SHANI ROBINSON: I wanted him to know the truth about what actually happened to me when he got older. And I also wrote this book to set the record straight and to ask the question - who should really be held accountable for cheating the children? Our children have been cheated by those who have willfully torn apart black communities through displacement and gentrification, underfunded and privatized public schools and, then, have criminalized black educators for a dysfunctional system that was designed to fail.

MARTIN: So let me...

ROBINSON: And I feel like this...

MARTIN: OK. Go ahead. I'm sorry. Go ahead.

ROBINSON: I was going to say I feel like this case is extremely important because public education is under attack, as we've seen, in places where teachers are striking. And the cheating scandal was used to portray public education as a failure and justify privatizing schools. And so many people are resisting that right now. And so we believe that, you know, winning the freedom of Atlanta teachers will be a win for educators everywhere.

MARTIN: So let me be very clear. You say you never erased test scores. Is that - that's...

ROBINSON: Correct.

MARTIN: You never erased test scores. You never participated in any coordinated effort to erase and improve test scores.

ROBINSON: That is correct. And I can go into the day in question, how I was dragged into the scandal, you know, if you'd like. But, no. I never erased any answers...

MARTIN: And are you saying that that never happened?

ROBINSON: ...On any of my students' test.

MARTIN: But you're saying that never happened at all? Are you just saying you did not participate in that?

ROBINSON: I'm saying I did not participate in that.

MARTIN: You were very critical of most of the entities who were involved with this whole situation. You feel that the media was biased. You feel that the courts were very biased. You feel that the judge gave, you know, biased instructions to the jury, that he gave biased and, in fact, incorrect instructions to the jury. So you document all this. But how did this start to begin with? I mean, this trial was lengthy, expensive and embarrassing. And I think that it is fair to say that, you know, most cities don't like negative attention being drawn to them. And we know that Atlanta particularly did not appreciate this negative attention being drawn to them. So what's your theory about why all this happened to begin with?

ROBINSON: Well, that's a good question because when you think about cheating on standardized tests, this is something that was happening over the entire country. Over 40 states have had cheating allegations. In Washington, D.C., there were 103 schools that were flagged for high levels of suspiciously high test scores. And so to think that what happened in Atlanta was, you know, like, an anomaly, you know, that was the biggest thing. Why were the educators in Atlanta charged with racketeering when this was happening over the entire country? And, in the book, we outline Atlanta's history of displacement and the destruction of black communities. And I think the criminalization of black educators was the next legacy in that history.

MARTIN: What's your argument for why this happened in this place at this time? I mean, Atlanta has an African-American mayor. The DA is African-American. The two prosecutors are African-American. I mean, what would be their motive?

ROBINSON: You know, I don't have the answer to that, you know? I don't.

MARTIN: But you seem to think race played a role.

ROBINSON: I absolutely think race played a role.

MARTIN: OK. What role do you think it played?

ROBINSON: There were some white educators who were implicated in that GBI report, and none of them were indicted. And I can't help to think that if it was 35 white educators that it would have gotten to this point where they were charged with racketeering.

MARTIN: Why do you think it is that almost two dozen - what was it? - 21 of the educators who were accused entered guilty pleas?

ROBINSON: You know, there were some people who testified during the trial that they only took a plea deal because they were stressed out from the entire ordeal. And some people - you know, they actually blamed it on No Child Left Behind, that they didn't want their schools to close because, under the No Child Left Behind Act, after a certain number of years, they could close your school. They could turn it into a charter school, or it could be taken over by the state.

And so I was facing 25 years in prison. There were some people who were facing 40 years in prison. And so we had that option of facing decades in prison or doing community service, saying that we're guilty, you know, and maybe paying a fine. And so that was a tough decision to make, having to spend decades in prison or just say that you're guilty.

MARTIN: But you chose not to. And that's one of the things that I think stands out about your book of the - all the people who are accused. And I do want to mention that, to this day, you have refused, despite the fact that you were pregnant at the time, the entire time of the trial, that your child was born just days after the trial concluded - you have, to this day, refused to apologize or admit guilt because you said that you weren't guilty. And I have to, you know, ask. Like, what is it that gives you such strong conviction that this is what you have to do?

ROBINSON: Because I know that I'm on the right side of justice. And I even get emotional talking about it, but the thought of being blamed for something that I did not do is horrifying.

MARTIN: Take your time.

ROBINSON: Here I was facing 25 years in prison for something that I didn't do. And I felt like if I was on the right side of justice that, one day, I would be vindicated. That was the moment that I decided I would never take a plea deal.

MARTIN: I mean, do you think anybody is guilty here? I mean, the fact of the matter is that the test scores are published every year in Atlanta, as they are in a lot of cities. And people looking at them thought that there were anomalies. They thought that there were swings in test scores that were not explained by kind of the normal variation that one sees. Do you think that anybody is guilty here? Was anybody cheating?

ROBINSON: Absolutely, absolutely. The education officials and policymakers that have pushed high-stakes testing - that is who has cheated these children. That is who is guilty, which is why you have all of these states that have had high levels of erasures. And no one has done anything about it.

MARTIN: That is Shani Robinson. Her book, "None Of The Above: The Untold Story Of The Atlanta Public Schools Cheating Scandal, Corporate Greed, And The Criminalization Of Educators," is out now. Her co-author is Anna Simonton. Shani Robinson, thanks so much for talking to us.

ROBINSON: Thank you so much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.