School & District Management

Confession of a Cheating Teacher

By Benjamin Herold — July 29, 2011 9 min read
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She said she knows she’s a good teacher.

But she still helped her students cheat.

“What I did was wrong, but I don’t feel guilty about it,” said a veteran Philadelphia English teacher who shared her story with the Notebook/NewsWorks.

During a series of recent interviews, the teacher said she regularly provided prohibited assistance on the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA) exams to 11th graders at a city neighborhood high school. At various times, she said, she gave the students definitions for unfamiliar words, discussed with students reading passages they didn’t understand, and commented on their writing samples.

On a few occasions, she said, she even pointed them to the correct answers on difficult questions.

“They’d have a hard time, and I’d break it down for them,” said the teacher matter-of-factly.

Such actions are possible grounds for termination. As a result, the Notebook/NewsWorks agreed to protect her identity.

The teacher came forward following the recent publication of a 2009 report that identified dozens of schools across Pennsylvania and Philadelphia that had statistically suspicious test results. Though her school was not among those flagged, she claims that adult cheating there was “rampant.”

The Notebook/NewsWorks is also withholding the name of her former school, because the details of her account have been only partially corroborated.

But her story seems worth telling.

During multiple conversations with the Notebook/NewsWorks, both on the phone and in person, the teacher provided a detailed, consistent account of her own actions to abet cheating. Her compelling personal testimonial highlighted frequently shared concerns about the conditions that high-stakes testing have created in urban public schools. The Notebook and NewsWorks believe that her confession sheds important light on the recent spate of cheating scandals across the country.

In the last two years alone, 22 states and the District of Columbia have had confirmed cases of cheating, according to Robert Schaeffer, Public Education Director of FairTest, a nonprofit critical of the “misuses and flaws” associated with standardized tests.

Almost always, says Schaeffer, those involved say they broke the rules because they felt pressured to generate unrealistic test score gains and avoid sanctions under the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

“That’s the background against which teachers and principals cross the line,” he said.

This teacher, a middle-aged white woman who grew up in the Philadelphia suburbs, told a story of tangled motivations and constant stress. At the end of it all, she said, she had trouble recognizing herself.

The intense pressure from administrators to raise scores at her former school did indeed contribute to her cheating, she claimed:

“It’s easy to lose your moral compass when you are constantly being bullied.”

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.

Whatever the teacher’s reasons, School District of Philadelphia officials say such actions are unacceptable.

“In the end, the children are the ones who suffer from an adult’s poor judgment, regardless of the motive,” said district spokesperson Elizabeth Childs.

‘I Wanted to Be There for Them’

At the beginning of PSSA testing each year, the teacher recalled, things weren’t so bad.

Administrators would convene pep rallies and distribute candy as incentives. Teachers would visit classrooms to check in on the students they taught. Some students would place a photo of their own children on their desk for inspiration.

“The first day, they would be really energetic,” she said. “But by the third day, kids would be putting their heads down, or just not coming.”

Pennsylvania’s annual testing regimen is a grind. Spread out over weeks, the tests involve six sections, which are scheduled to take approximately eight hours to complete.

The teacher found it painful to watch her students grow discouraged and disengaged as the tests dragged on.

“A lot of people understand how these tests deprive [students] of a real education,” she said. “But I also think that there’s a whole self-esteem side that people aren’t talking about.”

Almost all of her students were poor and African American. Most, she said, came into 11th grade reading far below grade level and dealing with challenging personal circumstances.

“It was absolutely amazing what was going on in their lives,” she said.

The teacher also felt that standardized tests like the PSSA, particularly the reading passages, were biased against her students.

One year, she recalls, most of the passages on the reading exam were about gardens.

“I was like, ‘What the [heck]?’” she said. “This is so unfair. It doesn’t have anything to do with my children’s lives.”

Regardless, the teacher said, administrators constantly pushed teachers to encourage students to buy into the importance of the tests.

She resisted.

Because her students were so unprepared and the tests so unfair, she believed the whole endeavor was a farce. Given that, she viewed encouraging her students to take the tests seriously as a betrayal of their trust.

That view, however, was met with charges of racism, according to her account.

She described a schism between some White teachers and the school’s largely African-American administration. The administrators, she said, mistook her stance that her students were being set up to fail for a belief that they were incapable of succeeding:

“They really believed we didn’t care about the kids, which is ridiculous.”

In retrospect, she wishes she had found a way to meaningfully address her students’ deep-seated academic deficiencies and the troubling school culture created by high-stakes testing.

Instead, she cheated.

As the testing sessions dragged on, she said, some students—those who hadn’t already given up, or grown “sullen,” or just started filling in random bubbles—would request help.

More often than not, she obliged.

“Kids would ask questions, and I would answer them,” she said.

For example, a student might ask what the word “amphibious” means.

Sometimes, she would give the student the definition. Other times, she would point to the place in the text where it was explained. On rare occasions, she would just direct the student to the correct response.

Part of her just wanted to keep her students engaged. Part of her wanted to transform the drudgery of test-taking into a learning opportunity—if nothing else, they might learn a new word. And part of her wanted to undermine the whole testing enterprise.

“I never went to any student who didn’t call me to help them cheat,” said the teacher. “But if somebody asked me a question, I wasn’t willing to say, ‘Just do your best.’ They were my students, and I wanted to be there for them.”

‘A Pattern of Intimidation’

The teacher still works in the district, now an entire year removed from the neighborhood high school where she taught for over a decade.

But it doesn’t take much to bring back what she describes as the trauma of her final years there.

A big problem, she said, was a revolving door of principals and vice principals, each of whom seemed to be more of a “bully” than the last.

Invariably, she maintains, teachers were the target: “I felt under siege.”

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.

Underlying it all, the teacher believes, was a mandate to bring test scores up and meet the school’s federal Adequate Yearly Progress performance targets.

“The prevailing message was, ‘We have to make AYP this year, or they’re going to shut our school down and you’re all going to lose your jobs.’ At every professional development [session], that’s what we discussed.”

In response, adult cheating was “widespread” and “constant,” she claimed:

“Math teachers were sitting down in the seat next to the children, with a pencil, actually working out problems with them. I saw that many times.”

By her account, administrators regularly saw such incidents and said nothing.

More damningly, in her mind, the school’s testing coordinator would use test makeup days to round up children who had started taking the exams, but hadn’t finished. The students would be brought to a room and made to complete sections they had begun days earlier—a clear violation of testing protocol.

The Notebook/NewsWorks spoke with another current district employee who was at the same school in 2009 and confirmed parts of her account, including the claim that multiple teachers provided prohibited help to students during the test.

Spokesperson Childs said that the district hopes it employees report any cheating in a timely manner to facilitate effective investigations.

“We entrust the care of our young people to our principals and teachers, and the overwhelming majority of them are hardworking professionals who take on that task with fidelity,” said Childs.

The teacher who spoke with the Notebook/NewsWorks believes that most of those who cheated at her school did so to boost scores and protect their jobs.

But she is adamant that this was not her own motivation.

“I never believed for a minute that we would make AYP, no matter what I did,” she said flatly.

So why compromise her integrity and risk so much?

“When you’re in a place where there’s a pattern of intimidation, you lose sight of what is important,” the teacher concluded. “I was someone I didn’t recognize by the end of my time there.”

Cheating Hard to Prove

Finally, the teacher believes, the realities of life in struggling inner city schools are starting to be made public.

“The fact that there is cheating on these tests is really just another layer of deception,” she said, citing underreporting of student truancy and school violence.

But over the past five years, allegations of cheating in the District have proven difficult to substantiate.

According to internal documents first obtained by the Philadelphia Inquirer, the district investigated more than 30 claims of cheating between 2006 and 2010. Many involved allegations of similar testing infractions to those described by the teacher who spoke with the Notebook/NewsWorks—adults alerting students to questions they had answered incorrectly, allowing students to return to sections of the exam they had not previously completed, and the like.

Often, the investigators found partial evidence of infractions, or evidence of testing violations they attributed to ignorance of proper test administration protocols. In only a handful of instances did investigators find substantial evidence of intentional cheating.

District officials said discipline in such instances varied, depending on the situation. They have consistently described their test security protocols as “robust.”

Currently, the district is investigating 28 schools flagged for suspicious results in the 2009 report that first motivated this teacher to come forward. Results of those investigations are supposed to be provided to the Pennsylvania Department of Education sometime in August.

The teacher who shared her story cautions that it can be difficult to understand the decisions made by people—teachers, administrators, students—in “failing” inner city schools in the NCLB era without having first walked in their shoes.

“I thought I was really strong-willed and sure of what was right and wrong,” she said. “My only defense would be that I lost track of what was right because it was so stressful to be there.”

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Republished with permission from The Philadelphia Public School Notebook and NewsWorks. Copyright © 2011 The Philadelphia Public School Notebook and Newsworks.


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