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Accountability Opinion

Cheating Scandal Newsflash: Teachers Aren’t Plaster Saints!

By Rick Hess — August 22, 2011 3 min read
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As I noted last Thursday, I’m fairly confident that isolated cheating scandals will eventually snowball. After all, I’m a pretty bleak person, and yet even I’ve been surprised to learn just how incredibly lax test security was in cities like Atlanta, Philadelphia, and DC--even as we amped up the significance of testing for teachers and school leaders. Seems to me that through all this there’s been a bizarre tendency to assume that educators are human enough to respond to incentives but angelic enough that they won’t cheat or cut corners, even when given manifold opportunities to do so. The result, I’m afraid, is going to be a slow-building wave, the same pattern we saw with baseball’s steroid troubles or banking’s mortgage lending debacle.

First, it is true that a bevy of teachers and principals behaved immorally and unacceptably. In doing so, they were much like mortgage lenders, circa 2005, who misled clients or falsified mortgage applications, or WorldCom, Tyco, or Enron executives, circa 1999, who cooked their books. But, it is also true that these teachers, like those mortgage lenders or executives, operated in systems which allowed and rewarded cheating--and where supervisory pressures encouraged malfeasance. Ambitious financial reforms like Sarbanes-Oxley and Frank-Dodd were adopted (for good and ill) in an attempt to change the practices that made cheating and fabricating a sensible path to professional success.

I’m sure some employees at Countrywide didn’t misbehave, and we know that many baseball players didn’t use steroids during the “steroid era,” but there were huge professional rewards for those who did cheat. And this meant enormous pressures on those who played by the rules to find a way to produce results as impressive as those of the cheaters. This doesn’t excuse cheating, but it recognizes that weak monitoring combined with pressure to deliver measured results (whether those are mortgage originations, home runs, or test scores) can encourage mere mortals to cheat.

Second, the same reformers who champion accountability because they think a romantic faith in educators’ good works is a mistake have apparently been shocked to find out that they can’t blindly trust how educators will respond to high-stakes testing. Would-be reformers are now harrumphing about educators’ moral turpitude. Uhh, guys, if you had this much faith in educators in the first place, if you trusted them to always do the right thing by kids regardless of external pressures, you probably wouldn’t have had to mess with accountability or incentives.

Third, I’ve been asked whether my stance excuses the moral culpability of the cheaters. Nope, they’re culpable as hell. Indeed, the fact that so many educators turn to cheating so quickly would seem to blow a pretty substantial hole in the NEA-AFT line that teachers only want what’s best for kids. So much for the myth that teachers and school leaders are so passionate about their work that they’re immune to worldly pressures. Turns out that they will respond to pressures, threats to job security, and to monetary incentives--giving lie to union claims that these things won’t motivate educators or impact what they do. Indeed, those who imagine I’m saying that testing is bad because cheating occurred are missing my point. I’m all for testing and sensible test-based accountability. It’s just got to be smart. The very fact that teachers and school leaders cheated makes clear why we can’t rely on blind faith in their efforts.

Finally, my friend Mike Goldstein, founder of Boston’s terrific MATCH School, points out that, “Cheating on ‘normal’ tests and quizzes and homework assignments happens in almost every school in [the U.S.] every day--yet none of these same educators propose eliminating those.” Mike’s exactly right. Teachers understand the value of these assessments, and also that they create a natural temptation for students to cheat.

The response is not to abolish the assessments or to bemoan human nature, but to try to devise assessments that measure real learning and to administer them in ways that minimize temptation and discourage malfeasance. That’s where it appears we have come up surprisingly, and remarkably, short. Has all of the vapid sentiment poured forth regarding teachers, teaching, and the rest really made it that hard to remember that educators are people, with all the usual virtues and foibles?

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.