Case | HBS Case Collection | December 2013 (Revised February 2014)

Atlanta Schools: Measures to Improve Performance

by Robert Simons and Natalie Kindred

Abstract

The widespread cheating scandal that rocked the Atlanta public school system in 2010 and 2011 illustrates how high-stakes performance pressure, without sufficient risk controls, can drive dangerous behavior. After becoming superintendent of the low-income and academically struggling Atlanta, Georgia school system in 1999, Beverly Hall implemented new measurement systems—many of them derived from business best practices—to motivate and evaluate the performance of teachers and principals. Educators whose students performed well on standardized tests received bonuses and public recognition; educators whose students fell short received reprimands, warnings, and eventually termination. With so much riding on "meeting the numbers," teachers and principals began taking drastic steps, including collaborating to change students' test answers while intimidating colleagues who threatened to expose the deception. As Atlanta students' (fabricated) test scores soared, leaders in business and politics praised Beverly Hall's data-driven approach for transforming a lagging school system into a model of success. More than a decade into Hall's tenure, multiple investigations finally exposed the scandal in Atlanta—and its terrible impact on the district's students. (For instructors who want to inject some extra energy, and fun, in the classroom, this case study provides material for students to stage skits in front of the class to illustrate how and why the cheating occurred.)

Keywords: Atlanta; education; test; testing; standardized test; standardized testing; No Child Left Behind; NCLB; Cheating; Performance Pressure; measurement; incentives; Atlanta Public Schools; leadership; ethics; Management; Leadership; Ethics; Performance; Performance Evaluation; Performance Expectations; Risk Management; Education; Education Industry; United States; Georgia (state, US); Atlanta;

Citation:

Simons, Robert, and Natalie Kindred. "Atlanta Schools: Measures to Improve Performance." Harvard Business School Case 114-001, December 2013. (Revised February 2014.)