New Orleans The teaching and testing travesty in Atlanta has been a bitter indictment of almost everything that is off the rails in the US educational system. When mandatory testing becomes the only measurement of teaching and educational standards, and the testing itself is seen as biased, unfair, and unjust, the temptation for administrators to see an unwritten exemption from normal rules and moral hazards is ever present. In Atlanta, in a vast conspiracy, it seems to have been irresistible.
Here’s what interests me though. 35 teachers and administrators were charged initially with two-thirds of them making various deals with prosecutors to cop pleas and put this behind them over the last six years. Others went to trial. Two, including the Superintendent of Atlanta schools, died during this period. Ten or so were convicted. The judge seemed to relent during the sentencing phase and was moved to mercy by the character witnesses and pleas for leniency and ordered both sides to try to make a deal on sentencing. Two people took the deals, which mainly involved suspended sentences, some weekends in jail, and five years’ probation. They also had to apologize to the community and the children for cheating. The rest hunkered down. The judge gave sentences that were harsher than requested by prosecutors involving around seven years for the most part with much of that time suspended. The three highest administrators all rejected the deal and all say they will appeal, so who knows how this will end. The question that intrigued me was, “Why would they not take the deal?”
Based on purely individual self-interest, the deal on surface would seem satisfactory, essentially allowing them all to walk. Why was that not compelling?
Perhaps, I found some clues reading other items in the morning papers. An op-ed in the Times by a couple of professors argued that the way the government could collect more taxes – at least from the little guys owing less than $2500 – was to shame them in the community with their neighbors and friends. Oh, yeah, privacy is a problem, but they argued that privacy is disappearing anyway, so sew a scarlet letter on their chests and cha-ching the money comes rolling in. Shaming seems to not work as well for big scofflaws, but whatever. A columnist was outraged that a woman – a 32 year old blonde teacher that his paper has regularly pictured on the front and every other page of the paper – charged with having sex with a 16-year old student at her school was allowed to plead out to an obscenity charge, get no time, and not be listed as a sex offender. What really ticked him off was that she put a picture of herself on Instagram with a smile saying that was her mood today. She was happy to walk, and who would be surprised that she would feel that way, but the columnist was livid that she didn’t show shame and humiliation and cower into oblivion.
Justice has become irrelevant, and there is no confidence in the judges and courts to deliver it. Comparisons with other sentences for other crimes and criminals has no meaning. Some undefined “community” has to have its public revenge and that trumps all, it would seem.
The teachers that made the deal in Atlanta were willing and able to imagine starting their lives over and making peace with the community in Atlanta or somewhere else. I suspect the ones that couldn’t take the deal felt that they had no future in the shaming community and needed to hold on desperately to their personal communities of other teachers, administrators, friends, and churches where they might find some succor, some understanding, and maybe even the chance of jobs and a future, even if it might mean jail in the future.
The loss of a consensus about the existence of justice destroys all the values of the larger society and leaves people finding and building separate selves and spaces that preserve smaller communities as people abandon larger commitments and communities. Meanwhile support for a “shaming” community rises without any understanding of the tension between retribution and redemption, much less rehabilitation.
How can shaming be a solution in any healthy society?
Buffalo Springfield For What it’s Worth