None Of The Above: Are There No Good Answers?

By Tommy Housworth, Contributor

Years before “Aunt Becky” and Felicity Huffman were charged in a high profile school bribery case, Atlanta was the focus of an education scandal of its own.  But where many would say the situation Huffman and fellow actress Laurie Loughlin found themselves in was born out of privilege, the circumstances in Atlanta’s test cheating scandal evolved from a history of systemic racial and economic injustices.

That’s the case that educator and author Shani Robinson makes in None of the Above: The Untold Story of the Atlanta Public Schools Cheating Scandal, Corporate Greed, and the Criminalization of Educators.   If it seems a lengthy title, it’s because Robinson covers a lot of ground.  While the cheating scandal – in which 35 educators were accused of changing students’ answers on standardized tests in 2013 –  could be summarized in fewer than the book’s 220 pages, Robinson and co-author Anna Simonton expand the scope of the event, not only providing autobiographical perspective on Robinson, but also reaching back through the history of public education in Georgia and the U.S. to pinpoint how a situation like the APS scandal could manifest in the first place.

If it sounds ambitious, it is.  I was reminded of how much historical ground Ava Duvernay’s masterful 13th documentary covered (slavery, the Black Codes, and Jim Crow laws) to explain the racist engine that drives America’s mass incarceration and school-to-prison pipeline injustices.   As Bob Marley sang in “Buffalo Soldier”, “If you know your history, you know where you’re coming from.”  This is certainly true in mapping the road that led to the circumstances of the APS cheating scandal.

For Robinson, this means reaching back to the inequities that mar the history of public schools in Atlanta and the south, a list that is both long and thought-provoking.  Gentrification, redlining, under-investment in urban schools, the failures of public housing and the cyclical trappings of poverty are all highlighted as parts of the recipe for the testing scandal.

Charter schools, regarded by some as an educational version of ‘white flight’,  and President Bush’s 2001 No Child Left Behind Act come under some of the greatest scrutiny as 21st century plagues on the public school system. Certainly, the pressure on performance that standardized testing has brought into the classroom is something most teachers, parents, and students can relate to, regardless of race or economic status.  The frustration that second semester was spent mostly in preparation for the CRCT (or now, the Milestones) rather than learning critical curriculum in social studies, math, science and other classes has been well documented as an ongoing issue.

Like a societal game of Whack-a-Mole, it appears every time someone in power tried to address and potentially rectify these injustices inherent to the system, other forces within the government and society found a way to circumvent the efforts.

The other story driving None of the Above is the trial of Shani Robinson and her fellow educators, accused of changing answers on the standardized CRCT test forms their students had filled out.  The prosecution claimed that teachers were forced to erase “stray marks” on the tests, which translated into cleaning up incorrect answers.  Thirty five educators were indicted, 34 of which were African-American. The charges focused on racketeering, and were leveled through the RICO Act, a 1970 federal law designed specifically for combating organized crime in America.

Given a total of 178 educators were implicated in correcting test answers, and that the RICO Act was more designed for the likes of John Gotti than Mrs. Crabapple, Robinson makes a strong case for politics playing a huge part in determining who got thrown under the school bus, as it were.

A case could also be made, as Robinson shares her perspective of the eight-month trial, that we’re only getting one side, and the essential telling of this story might be best served by a more objective party.  Certainly, the more personal elements of her story – including the birth of her son as the trial was culminating, an event that postponed her sentencing – adds a human dynamic to the story that would likely be missing in a purely journalistic retelling of the trial.

However, perhaps the bigger lesson to walk away with from this story isn’t about the guilt or innocence of the educators in question, but the broken system itself and the students who suffer from it, be it because of flaws of high-stakes testing, the pressure on teachers to meet district-set targets, or the long history that preceded these issues.

I finished None of the Above feeling, both, upset and somewhat unsatisfied.  Upset that the system was, and remains, broken, and the people who seem to be invested in doing something about it are often the ones most helpless to do so.  The educators who are on the front lines for Atlanta’s (and America’s) children receive less support than they deserve as they walk a tightrope to ensure kids learn, targets are met, and budgets are honored.  However, I wanted more from this book, and I’m not sure it’s Robinson’s fault that something more isn’t there.  Her themes open up a Pandora’s Box of a broken system, and then feed into one defining court case, rather than offering possible solutions to the issues presented.

Perhaps, though, that’s not her job.   Perhaps that’s the job of a lot of people, from politicians and educators at the highest level to engaged parents, teachers, and citizens.  As a culture, we spend a lot of time complaining about all the ills of the education system.  None of the Above shows us plenty of symptoms we should have been treating all along, even if it can’t provide a panacea.  Maybe that’s enough to make readers work to improve our own scores, lest the next generation of kids find they’re out of right answers.