Lying and cheating and stealing, oh my!


I learned about half-truths like semi-boneless hams in advertising copywriting classes and later, when actually writing ads about semi-boneless hams. It never bothered me to take part in this modest deception because the claims have to be somewhat accurate. In other words, you cannot describe the product as a pig if it’s a goat.

However, a group of Atlanta school officials recently were accused of a trifecta of abominations — lying, cheating and stealing — that make ad copywriters look like saints. After more than three years of investigations, Georgia says the school system’s test answers were altered, and backed up its claims with confessions and dramatic increases in scores.

Rumors of widespread cheating in the school system had persisted for years, which led then Gov. Sonny Perdue to appoint two special prosecutors in 2010 to investigate. This March, charges were filed against 35 educators including a former district superintendent.

I first heard about this story about eight years ago from a recent college grad teaching at an Atlanta public school courtesy of the Teach for America program. He didn’t have the faculty’s paid bonus incentive to improve test scores, but he did say he heard some teachers were changing students’ answers. It took two more years and a little pressure from a special prosecutor for one elementary school teacher, Jackie Parks, to confess that she and six other teachers replaced wrong answers with correct ones during test week. Eventually, she and those teachers wore wires to record meetings with other teachers and principals.

Likely because the Atlanta area was suffering from high unemployment and one of the highest home foreclosure rates in the nation, local business leaders told the governor they didn’t want the investigations, according to one report. The governor says he warned them that they would suffer the consequences of an uneducated workforce and went forward with his plan. Last year, the state’s embarrassment increased when the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools threatened DeKalb County — Georgia’s second largest school system — with losing its accreditation.

Taking nothing away from the cheating scandals, the long-term effects of the Atlanta area’s school system failings pale in comparison to financial shenanigans by major companies like Enron and individuals like Bernie Madoff,  whose levels of fraud and corruption are legendary. Even today, JP Morgan is under investigation by eight federal agencies, including the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, which recently published a report accusing it of mismanaging risk and misleading investors, among other charges. You have to wonder when business will learn the lessons from past mistakes.

One person to admire in all this is Ms. Parks, whose actions showed she learned her lesson. She told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that she didn’t say anything for so long because she feared for her job, but once the special prosecutor showed up, she wanted to clear her conscience.

Maybe the good folks at JP Morgan would benefit from going back to school for a while. I can recommend a good teacher.

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Derek Prall

Derek Prall is a professional journalist who has held numerous positions with a variety of print and online publications including The Public Manager magazine and the New Jersey Herald. He is a 2008...

Jason Axelrod

Jason Axelrod is an award-winning journalist who has reported for The Seattle Times, The Arizona Republic, the Phoenix Business Journal and Mother Nature Network, among other outlets. Jason...
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