Friday, July 29, 2011

Why Teachers Cheat

 Many city school districts have come under suspicion lately for cheating on standardized tests, including my own fair city of Philadelphia. After the release of a recent report, over 89 schools in Pennsylvania are being investigated due to (1) “improbable gains” in test scores over the years, and (2) highly suspicious numbers of wrong answers on individual tests being erased and changed to the correct answers. My anecdotal experience talking to teachers, administrators, and students, completely corroborates this finding.

The Philadelphia School Notebook recently published this article, revealing the motivations behind cheating for one district teacher:

Confessions of a Cheating Teacher

In the article, the teacher speculates (quite accurately, in my opinion) why teachers are tempted to cheat, despite the high risk that is involved. She recounts the pressure that is involved in the high-stakes-testing climate of current educational reform. For those of you who are unfamiliar with No Child Left Behind, here's some background: Under NCLB, enacted in 2001 under President Bush, schools face pressure to meet what is called “Adequate Yearly Progress” (AYP), which is measured by progress on standardized tests. If a school fails to meet AYP, schools may face severe consequences, including loss of funding and fundamental restructuring-- which often means changes in management and staff-- or even school closings. Put differently, teachers are aware that there is a very-real risk of losing their jobs if students do not perform well enough on standardized tests.

I believe that this standardized test climate has hugely detrimental effects on curriculum, instruction, learning, school climate, self-esteem, and school function (for an excellent recent article, click here). All of this will be subject for a later post (or posts). For now, I mean to point out, as the “confessing teacher” notes, that there is a tremendous amount of pressure on administrators and teachers to perform well on these tests (see here)

However, there is something more note-worthy in the account of the “confessing teacher,” which I believe sheds light on the problem of teacher-cheating in our school districts. While this educator acknowledges that many teachers have an incentive to cheat due to the intimidation of NCLB, she states that this was not her reason for helping her students cheat. The article reveals:

But she was adamant that she did not care about boosting test scores. Instead, she described her cheating as an act of self-styled subversion, motivated by loyalty to her students.

I wanted them to succeed, because I believe their continued failure on these terrible tests crushes their spirit,” she said.

This teacher felt that in the current standardized-test environment her students were “being set up to fail,” and confessed that, “I never believed for a minute that we would make AYP, no matter what I did." (although, important to note, this was not because of low expectations for her students, but due to a sincere belief that the tests were biased and that the flawed school system left her students ill-prepared to take them).

What is revelatory, I believe, is the connection she makes between this and her feelings on school reform efforts, in general:

She also disliked what she saw as the school’s penchant for embracing fads rather than sticking to a consistent educational plan. At one point, it was graphic organizers. More recently, it was computer-assisted test preparation programs.

During her last year at the school, she said, administrators started pulling students out of her English classes without warning to cram last-minute test-taking strategies.

They think there’s a magic bullet," she said.

This is no new criticism among teachers in urban environments. School reform fads-- “magic bullets”--come and go at breathtaking speed. Before the kinks can be worked out in one plan, a new one is adopted. School vouchers. Community schools. Vocational schools. Charter schools. After-school programs. Block scheduling. Whole-language instruction. Corrective Reading. These fads take on different levels of focus: on parental involvement, on curriculum, on community integration, on teacher performance.

At their root, these fads are the product of political decisions about what goes on inside the classroom without the input of those who actually work there. Currently, teaching to standardized tests and using assessment is in vogue.  This is the “magic bullet” du jour.

So imagine this: You have been a teacher in an urban district for over a decade. You have seen multiple educational trends come and go with no real impact on student performance. All of a sudden, you are told to scrap everything and focus only on standardized test-preparation. You do so to the extent you can. You administer the test, but really only as a “wink-wink” to your principal who is “wink-winking” to the district, which is “wink-winking” to legislators. Everyone is doing what they're supposed to be doing. At the end of the day, you (along with your principal, the district, and everyone else along the food chain) know that this, like every other fad, will not work, but that's okay because, in the middle of all that winking, maybe you fit in some real teaching.

This is the situation in which many urban educators find themselves, which brings me back to the subject of cheating. I think the underlying motivation to cheat-- or perhaps better put, the lack of incentive to not cheat--- for the “confessing teacher” might be more common that she, herself, admits. It is the motivation of one who has seen educational trends come and go, and has become desensitized to them. It is a feeling of apathy-- not towards students, but towards half-baked educational reform efforts. The cheating teacher knew her school would not meet AYP, so why not cheat if it meant she could instill some confidence in her student and perhaps even create learning opportunities out of the testing process, itself?

This is the conundrum we face. The current system is designed so that cheating is almost inevitable. On the one hand, there are teachers who have an incentive to cheat because they're terrified of losing their jobs (threatened under the sanctions of NCLB). On the other hand, as explicated above, there are teachers who see standardized testing as a fad that can provide no substantial benefit to their students, and, therefore, have no disincentive to cheat if it means their classrooms can continue to run with minimal interference.

If we truly desire a system of accountability, we need to develop some measure of assessment that does not create perverse incentives to cheat. This system also need to be designed by those who will be administering them so that (1) it will function in practice and not become another passing trend and (2) there is incentive to willingly, actively, and honestly participate by teachers and other school professionals. Until then, I predict the problem of cheating is here to stay.


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