Justice — at least in the narrow legal sense — will remain permanently suspended in the case of former Atlanta School Superintendent Beverly Hall, who died Monday of breast cancer at age 68. And I’m not quite sure what to say about it all.
Somewhere along the line, the story of Hall’s life — a poor childhood in Jamaica, a gritty march to success through hard work and intelligence, a rise to stardom in a national education-reform movement, and then a stunning, tragic and all-too deserved fall — somewhere along the line it turned into a complex and quite public morality play that must forever lack a closing scene.
It doesn’t help matters that some of Hall’s subordinates are still being judged in an ongoing trial from hell, and may end up paying a heavy price for their surrender to what appears to have been an inherently corrupting system. Hall, the person who designed and controlled that system, never appeared a minute in that courtroom, and frankly I’m not certain that jurors can fully understand the environment that she created without having witnessed her presence. Context is everything in the type of decisions that they will soon be asked to render.
Rather than rail on the dead, however, I’ve decided to take the unusual step of rerunning a piece from April 2013, written right after Hall’s indictment and before her diagnosis with terminal cancer. The details and testimony that have since emerged in court have bolstered rather than challenged its conclusions, including the important observation that the blame does not halt with Hall herself, but can and should be traced further up the rungs of power.
“If you know about lying and cheating, and you are afraid (of blowing the whistle), I really have to question your character. You’re covering up (for) the liars and cheaters…. When you cover it up, you are as much liable as the person who is doing it, in my humble opinion…. How can I even have some sympathy for people who have no courage when children are being hurt, and the system is being hurt?”
— Atlanta Superintendent Beverly Hall
in a 2010 interview
It is impossible to reconcile the aggrieved, passionate frustration expressed by Beverly Hall in the 2010 interview cited above with Hall’s actions as described in the 90-page indictment issued this week by a Fulton County grand jury.
The Hall described in the indictment, like the Hall in an earlier report by state investigators, not only turned a blind eye to repeated, documented allegations of cheating. If the facts as alleged in the indictment are true, Hall took an active, knowing role in suppressing evidence of cheating, and took an active, knowing role in protecting those who perpetrated it.
I’ll leave it to the justice system to decide whether Hall acted criminally, but at the very least, and to use her own terms, she lacked the character to even entertain the notion that her proud accomplishments might be tainted. When evidence arose, she refused to see it, and she refused to let others see it as well. By every definition that matters, she covered it up.
In addition, Hall created the system in question. She exerted the pressure, brooked no excuses and demanded that the numbers be made, handing out lucrative awards to those who achieved them and harsh penalties to those who did not. She also failed to establish safeguards against the temptation to cheat that such a harsh system will inevitably create.
However, if we fault her for those things, honesty requires that we ask a second question that perhaps strikes closer to home. If we judge Hall harshly for the system that she created, are we willing to do the same as we move even higher up the chain of command?
After all, Hall and other education leaders operate within a structure of reward and punishment every bit as real as that within APS. And as The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and other media outlets have reported, similar cheating problems have popped up in school districts around the country. Most have occurred in poverty-stricken districts where the educational challenges can be overwhelming, the pressure to improve is immense and the needle is very hard to move.
Hall did not enact the federal No Child Left Behind policy mandating a strict regimen of testing, including a menu of rewards for success and harsh punishment for failure. She did not wave hundreds of millions of dollars in private foundation money in front of school districts to encourage them to hire, fire, promote and pay almost exclusively on the basis of standardized testing. Hall didn’t treat academic progress as an economic development tool too useful to Atlanta’s “brand” to be questioned, as some in the business community did. Like her APS underlings, Hall merely responded, somewhat rationally, to a system that was designed by others and that demanded results too good to be true too quickly.
That is an underappreciated aspect of this tragedy. By other standards, including untainted National Assessment of Educational Progress testing, Atlanta public schools did make measurable, sustained progress during the Hall era. But in an environment that demands a scale of improvement that only charlatans can deliver, it wasn’t enough.