The Atlanta Public School system has recently become an example of what can go wrong if you have a failure of leadership. The story is one of improper strategic goals, rewarding the wrong behavior, punishing the correct behavior, human resources setting the wrong example and “the leader” more interested in personal success than the success of the organization. In case you have not been paying attention to national news stories, national newspapers, TV, radio or late-night comedians let me tell you the story.
The Atlanta Journal Constitution started the entire process by uncovering potential cheating around some remarkable academic progress that was being reported by the school system. The superintendent had set the goal of improving academic performance, specifically in the Criterion-Referenced Competency Tests. Under her leadership schools started to show some remarkable improvement, especially in some of the poorer neighborhoods. The school system started to win awards and the superintendent herself won accolades and national attention. But people were sceptical, so investigations were started and these investigations began to encover cheating in connection with the tests. Evidence was found of erasures on the tests that were not in character with how a student might erase a wrong answer. Stories started to surface of improper help from teachers to answer the tests correctly. So with these results the looking got deeper and deeper. The questions got harder and harder ultimately culminating in a report released by the Office of the Governor of Georgia. The picture was not pretty. What it showed was:
- A culture of cheating encouraged from the top
- Rewards for cheating including bonuses for principles with “excellent” testing improvement
- Threats of job action for not cheating. Teachers reported intimidation if they did not participate.
- Unethical behavior on the part of human resources, general counsel, management, principals and teachers. This included lying and destruction of official paperwork.
- Some teachers and principals would hold “erasure parties” during which they would wear gloves to avoid leaving fingerprints on the tests.
There are several reasons this failure of the school system occurred and it can be experienced by any organization. These reasons include:
- Setting unreasonable goals. (Improved performance that could not be reasonably obtained. And once obtained must be perpetuated.)
- Rewarding the wrong behavior. (Public acclaim, plaques, and money became more important than student improvement.)
- Ignoring reports of wrong doing and punishing the whistleblowers. (Threats of job action to “correct” behavior.)
- Participating in illegal behavior. (Deleting computer files and emails and destroying paper files and test copies.)
The ultimate outcome of the investigation showed cheating and unethical behavior on the part of 178 educators and found cheating in 44 of 56 schools. There was a failure of leadership from the superintendent on down. Particularly distressing was the wrongdoing the chief human resources officer is accused of , such as destroying documents of early reports of wrongdoing and withholding information to investigators. While the superintendent gained fame and principles got bonuses the students lost, especially those students who actually needed help. One such student, who had “passed with high marks” the reading test, could not in fact, read. But due to his results he received no help.
It is a sad story that has several HR lessons. These include:
- You get the behavior you reward
- You can change behavior through punishment
- Ethics must come from the top
- The organization fails if the leader becomes more important than the organization.
It will be awhile before the system, the city, the business community and the students recover. I will keep you up to date.