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Why Organizational Misconduct Happens: A Look at the Atlanta Cheating Scandal

What do the Atlanta test-score scandal and the British tabloid phone-hacking scandal have in common?

Both cases are widely publicized instances of wrongdoing, appearing to emanate from the top of the organization, and pressing downward. We know that some individuals were involved in the transgressions, but not others.

Under these circumstances, it’s not surprising that public anger is directed at individuals who have engaged in misconduct. There is a tendency to attribute their bad behavior to fundamental flaws in their character: they lack integrity, they are immoral, and they’re just plain bad people. In contrast, those who did not break the rules were moral, upstanding, and professional.

But to cast these scandals in this way is to miss the forest for the trees. Although it may be satisfying to blame the individuals involved, doing so frames the problem as one of individual personality and moral character, ignoring a critical fact: These are examples of organizational misconduct—when individuals acting in their organizational roles violate internal or external rules, regulations or laws in furtherance of organizational goals. A bookkeeper embezzling from a school district wouldn’t be classified as organizational misconduct because the embezzlement doesn’t advance the district’s goals. In contrast, when several airlines conspired a few years ago to fix the price of passenger and cargo fuel surcharges, the fact that doing so boosted their profits made the behavior organizational misconduct.

Organizational misconduct is one of the features of what my colleague Diane Vaughan has referred to as the “dark side” of organizations, which includes accidents and disasters. Vaughan—as well as Greve, Palmer & Pozner (2010), three other scholars who study organizational misconduct—has suggested some ideas that can be helpful in making sense of the Atlanta scandal. The first is that all organizations, public and private, are vulnerable to organizational misconduct, because they are competing for the scarce resources they need to survive. Public institutions, such as large urban school systems, must appear to be effective and efficient, or risk losing their franchise, particularly in the face of threats of privatization or receivership. Even organizations that we might judge successful may turn to misconduct to maintain their market position.

Second, within an organization, the key trigger for misconduct is often a gap between the organization’s goals and the legitimate means available for achieving them. These goals may be set by the organization’s leadership, or they may be imposed by the external regulatory environment of the organization. Reports on the Atlanta case have suggested that the notion of data-driven decision-making grew extreme, with powerful organizational leaders tying rewards and punishments to unrealistic expectations about the performance of schools on state assessments. Adequate Yearly Progress targets for No Child Left Behind are an example of external performance pressures: no one in Atlanta, or anywhere else for that matter, knew what technical means would produce 100 percent student proficiency by the year 2014, or how to achieve the intermediate milestones that would result in the achievement of that goal.

Third, the line separating right from wrong may not be as obvious on the inside of an organization as it may appear on the outside, and there may in fact be some uncertainty about which behaviors are acceptable and which are not. This point may be difficult to grasp at first glance: Surely everyone knows that cheating is wrong! But in an organization that places great importance on students getting answers right on standardized tests, many behaviors may be deemed legitimate. Teaching test-taking skills, reviewing past exam questions, drilling students on similar test items, or suggesting to children that they reconsider an answer all might be behaviors about which teachers and administrators are ambivalent.

That ambivalence can raise questions about where to draw the line. Cognitively, the move to erasing wrong answers and bubbling in correct ones may be incremental rather than a huge leap. Moreover, changing test answers may be perceived by those doing so as a victimless crime, because the tests at issue were high-stakes for teachers and administrators but not for students themselves. (Whether changing answers really is victimless is debatable, as students and their families in Atlanta received distorted information about academic performance, and may not have received the support services that might have otherwise been provided. The point is simply that participants in the cheating scandal might have neutralized any potential feelings of guilt by framing their actions as a victimless offense.)

Fourth and finally, the risk of organizational misconduct (as well as accidents and disasters) may be greatest in organizations that are set up in a way that compartmentalizes knowledge about tasks and goals. Vaughan refers to this as “structural secrecy,” and she suggests that the segmentation of information and functions within complex organizations can make it easier to conceal misconduct—and harder to detect it. Within a school system, if accountability and assessment are organizationally separated from teaching and learning, no one might recognize discrepancies between achievement measures and what is realistic given what we know about the capacity of teaching to improve student learning. A more integrated organizational form might have greater capacity for detecting cheating, and thus root it out before it mushrooms to the level of a scandal.

The facts of the Atlanta case are shocking: weekend parties to erase students’ wrong answers and replace them with right ones; teachers pointing to correct answers when standing next to students’ desks; seating low-performing students next to high-performing students so the former could copy the latter’s responses; and teachers changing their voice inflections while reading questions aloud to signal correct answers to students. Principals and teachers made very serious mistakes. But I doubt seriously that the offending individuals went into education with the intent of flouting basic rules of professional conduct. Make no mistake: under the “right” organizational conditions, this could happen anywhere.

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Aaron Pallas

Aaron Pallas is Professor of Sociology and Education at Teachers College, Columbia University.  He has also taught at Johns Hopkins University, Michigan State Uni...