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Seven Atlanta educators step down as cheating scandal unfolds

By Vivian Kuo, CNN
  • The school superintendent gave 178 educators an ultimatum: quit or be fired
  • The educators have been implicated in a standardized-test cheating scandal
  • By the Wednesday deadline, two resigned and five took retirement
  • The status of the 171 others remains unclear

Atlanta (CNN) -- Seven Atlanta educators have stepped down after being issued an ultimatum to quit or be fired.

They were among 178 Atlanta Public Schools employees, including 38 principals, whose jobs are on the line after allegedly being involved in a widespread standardized-test cheating scandal that has spanned 44 schools. Atlanta Public Schools Interim Superintendent Erroll B. Davis Jr. issued the edict last week, giving those implicated until Wednesday to resign or face termination proceedings.

According to a release from Atlanta Public Schools Wednesday, two teachers resigned, while another four teachers and one principal went into retirement.

"I don't know that there was any surprise here," Keith Bromery, director of media relations for the school system said, when asked whether there was any expectation of a mass exodus when the ultimatum was made. "They can actually resign at any time, past today. But this is the [three-day] window that we would allow to have them resign without getting a termination letter."

It's still unclear as to the status of the remaining 171 employees, who were listed on a report conducted by state investigators as having confessed to or having been implicated in testing improprieties regarding standardized competency exams.

"Even though the superintendent has said those named on the report would never be put in front of the kids again, the decision hasn't been made yet," Bromery said. "They may be reassigned or put on administrative leave."

Termination proceedings, once underway, will not necessarily be swift.

The school district must first send a notice of termination called a charge letter, documenting the list of evidence or witnesses for which the employee is getting dismissed for. The employee is entitled to counsel at a hearing over his or her issue. A tribunal will then render the decision whether to terminate but that still needs to be reaffirmed by the superintendent and school board.

The 171 individuals still left in consideration will be dealt with one by one, contingent on the availability of the information investigators who compiled the report, Bromery said.

"We'll need all of their background information -- logs, video or whatever they have in evidence -- in moving forward with the terminations. It isn't a blanket sort of thing, we have to take it on an individual, case-by-case basis."

The Atlanta schools cheating scandal has caught the attention of federal officials.

"We've been in conversation with the inspector general about these cheating scandals and I believe they are looking at them," U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said earlier this week.

Duncan spoke with Superintendent Davis at length about the cheating revelations, and current response plans, Bromery said.

"They (federal officials) have been very helpful in providing advice and counsel as our schools go through this," he said.

The Department of Education has the power to withhold or add preconditions on federal funding provided to states if it believes efforts to rectify corruption aren't enough. So far, no federal investigation of Atlanta Public Schools has been launched, but officials say they are weighing several options to support state-led measures to protect against cheating.

Earlier this month, investigators revealed the systematic falsification of standardized test results, concluding that dozens of teachers and administrators in 44 of 56 schools examined were involved. In total, Atlanta Public Schools has 104 schools in its district.

Last week, Davis replaced four area superintendents and a school principal. He told CNN then that the system had failed children and "we can't allow that to happen, and we can't allow anyone who was involved with that remain in our system."

The school board has given Davis approval to mandate ethics training for employees and provide remedial help to perhaps thousands of Atlanta Public Schools students who may have improperly advanced because of the cheating.

"We will identify those children, and we will make the requisite investments to remediate the wrongs that were done against them," Davis said.

Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal said prosecutors will decide whether to bring criminal charges against those involved. The state investigation confirmed widespread cheating in city schools dating as far back as 2001, and said 82 employees acknowledged involvement.

Investigators said the educators implicated were either directly involved in erasing wrong answers on a standardized test, or they knew or should have known what was going on.

Six principals declined to answer investigators' questions and invoked their Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination, Deal said.

The state's report indicated there was a climate of cheating and a performance-at-all-costs atmosphere during the tenure of previous Superintendent Beverly Hall. Hall has denied the allegation.

Davis said there had been "a culture of fear and intimidation" that needed to be changed.

"People felt that it was easier to cheat than to miss their goals and objectives," he said. But he also agreed with board members who said it was important to remember that many Atlanta teachers did their jobs well.

"There were so many teachers who have not made ethical compromises who were doing wonderful things on a daily basis," Davis said.

The cheating was brought to light after the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported about unusual test-score gains at some schools. Investigators discovered a pattern of incorrect test answers being erased and replaced with correct answers.

In a bid to increase stability as it seeks to overcome the scandal and receive full reaccreditation, the board extended Davis' contract through June 2012. He recently retired as chancellor of the University System of Georgia