Today’s NYT story on cheating seemed to really lack some larger context.
Cheating is an issue, yes. But, in most fields professionals have results they’re held accountable for and not everyone succumbs to fraud or cheating. So Why? What are the lessons from other industries and fields? In terms of our field, what do the overwhelming majority of teachers who don’t cheat teach us? And is cheating a function of the tests or does it, like low-test scores, drill and kill practices etc…speak more to the lack of capacity in the field to deliver powerful instruction? Similarly, in the vast majority of places where the tests are not that demanding* and the only stakes attached to the tests are for the teachers should parents be outraged that adults are doing this?
My sense is that while hardly epidemic this is a bigger issue than people think, there is an incentive to sweep it under the rug and it’s hard to prove. As a state board member I had to sort through a few of these and it’s always messy and there rarely is a smoking gun. That said, shame on us if this becomes another reason to believe that education is so exceptional that accountability doesn’t apply (or isn’t needed) or that getting a handle on this has to be another three-ring circus.
Perhaps technology will save us…or I guess not reading the Wash Post today…more on that later.
*Remember, these are the same tests that are apparently too easy and basic!
12 Replies to “Cheated!”
Imagine a business where employees are asked to buy into a high pressure system of working to support their boss who they like. They don’t want to let the boss down or let her look bad in the company of other bosses. Over a period of several years, pressure is ratcheted up progressively and they realize that the goals are not within their reach. The rewards they receive grow progressively further apart.
Every time they get together with the boss, she gives them an emotion-laden speech about how she is depending on them even though she knows from talking to her fellow bosses that a too-high percentage of businesses like hers all over the nation will fail to make the cut.
What do they do? They cheat. (Did you watch Fargo? That was floor plan fraud.) It’s not an insignificant issue in sales. Cheating happens constantly and often larceny is involved.
Slowly, the culture of automobile sales is changing. It has been over twenty years since it began. Dishonesty in commissioned sales can only be balanced by choosing employees that have empathy for customers and are not desperate for money. Go figure.
But, in most fields professionals have results they’re held accountable for and not everyone succumbs to fraud or cheating. So Why? What are the lessons from other industries and fields?
Two other “professional” fields that I’m familiar with are law and medicine. I would be shocked if the rate of cheating by lawyers is not orders of magnitude higher than that for teachers. How do lawyers cheat? Billable hours. At many big law firms the numbers of billable hours reported by associates has no semblance to reality. In fact, at most law firms it is probably more often the case than not that most of the time that associates spend surfing to ESPN or ebay or texting on the cell phones gets billed to some client.
As for medicine? My wife is a physician so I hear about this all the time. The government recently estimated that the costs to the taxpayer due to medicare fraud is in the neighborhood of $60 billion. That’s right $60 billion. And that is just medicare. There’s probably similar amounts of fraud going on with medicaid and private insurance. Who signs off on every case of medicare or other insurance fraud? That’s right, a doctor. Add to that all the tens of billions of dollars of unnecessary billing by the medical community that doesn’t quite reach the legal definition of fraud and we’re starting to talk about serious money.
Oh, but it’s much more fun to wring our hands about the extremely tiny percentage of teachers who have been caught cheating on standardized tests.
The difference between education and most other industries is that there’s no watchdog in education with an incentive to hold people honest. In most industries, cheating occurs at the expense of the customer, the boss, the owner, or the company. All of these have an incentive to root out cheating — but in education, nobody close to the action really does.
Teachers and principals have no incentive. Clever cheating makes them look good. Ditto district and state superintendants. Parents might have an incentive, but I don’t think many of them put a lot of stock in standardized tests anyway. If they like the teachers and principal at their kid’s school, and a little cheating keeps the school off the NCLB hitlist and maybe earns the school a little reward, what incentive do they have to rock the boat?
The news media might have incentive to ferret out cheating, because it makes great copy. But the media are generally the last to know about cheating when it goes on. They only find out when a district or state admin decides to crack down, which, as noted, they generally have little reason to do. The silent message is: “Go ahead and cheat. But be smart about it, and don’t get caught.”
Before I make my points about cheating on standardized tests I want to say that, contrary to the opinions of many, it is not that difficult to evaluate a teacher. As a reading specialist and master teacher, I had many opportunities to evaluate other teachers. In the fall, I’d sit with each child in a particular class and find his instructional level in reading and writing. Throughout the year I’d assess the child’s progress and in the spring I’d look at the progress the child made over the course of the year. Some teachers had many students who made phenomenal gains, while others had students who made modest gains, or (rarely) no gains at all. Another way to gauge progress was to look at student compositions throughout the year. I could tell a great deal about student growth by looking at their written work. When choosing a school for my own sons, I’d go to Open Houses and look at the student portfolios in the prospective schools. You can tell a lot by examining student work over time.
A good principal evaluates a teacher in the way that I have described but there is a problem with it. It’s expensive because it requires a skilled professional to evaluate the progress made by each child. Teachers expect this type of evaluation but few get it. In my 42 years of teaching I was only thoroughly evaluated one time, when I applied to be Mentor Teacher for my district.
What teachers are against is evaluation by a single test because they know there is no test designed to measure the progress of each child in the class while evaluating the competency of the teacher at the same time. Testing experts have repeatedly stated this. Even value-added tests have not been perfected. Standardized tests of all kinds, including the SAT, are highly reflective of the child’s socioeconomic background. In the simplest terms, the advantaged child often scores high on these tests, while the poor child does not. It is the teacher in the impoverished school that is the one who doesn’t want to be judged on tests she has little control over. To my knowledge we don’t hear teachers from Beverly Hills or Scarsdale complaining about these tests. Heck, they make the weakest teacher look like Mr. Escalante.
When faced with this dilemma many teachers and administrators in low-income schools feel they have only one option: drilling the students on the exact test items and so that’s what they do. Desperate people do desperate things. It isn’t right, but neither is evaluating teachers with a test that is not designed for that purpose.
The reporter in the NYT story seemed obssessed in quoting (and reflecting) one very troubling view, which was that somehow the presence of testing and accountability is to be blamed for the cheating.
This is utterly ridiculous.
Can you imagine this attitude being accepted in any other endeavor?
The fact that someone wins at chess caused me to cheat my competitor when he turned his face.
The fact that smoking causes my insurance rates to go up caused me to lie on my application.
The fact that a stunning newspaper story could earn a Pulitzer prize caused me to lie about the facts in the story.
The fact that Enron cheated is reason enough to scrap the free enterprise system.
These arguments are ludicrous, as was the approach of the reporter in the story. Amateur hour in the so-called paper of record.
Andy is right that this is a bigger issue than most people realize. That said, I’m more concerned with lowered cut scores, dumbed down tests, and other state sanctioned cheating that creates an illusion of proficiency where none exists.
Sandy Kress must be living in a delightful world where athletes never dope themselves and people always pay their full share of taxes, drive under the speed limit, and tell the truth on their resume.
Of course high stakes testing creates an environment where there is an incentive to cheat. There is not a direct causal relationship, of course. Not everybody cheats in a high-stakes environment, but some do. And the NY Times article does not imply that they do.
I don’t think Sandy was saying cheating never happens in those areas but rather that it is generally (and rightfully) viewed largely as a failing of the cheater and not the system as a whole. The public demonizes athletes for doping, not the rest of us for demanding excellence from them. Tax cheats go to prison. Speeders get tickets.
I agree with you idea. Your article is well-written.
Jesse has it right.
Some athletes dope. We try to prevent that, not end athletic competition.
Some people do speed. We try to prevent that, not end speeding limits.
Some lie on their resumes. We try to prevent that, not give up on the use of resumes.
Cheating is endemic, and will continue to be practiced and abetted, because for the most part, educators do not place a priority on academic achievement. They think the assessments do not measure anything of import and may therefore be disregarded.
In other fields, professional assessments are considered to be accurate gauges of performance – a lawyer passing the bar, or an accountant getting his CPA, is considered accomplished. The ability to pass those tests is considered a mark of relevant accomplishment and ability.
In education, academic achievement is just one of many things educators want to accomplish, and for many it’s one of the lesser goals. It’s far more important to instill self-esteem, a sense of equity, and other squishy traits.
So these independent academic performance tests, though they measure what the public most wants to see, are simply unimportant annoyances to educators, and their resentmemt allows them to cheat with impunity.
In response to Crimson Avenger, I must beg to disagree with your assessment of “evaluation” tools for lawyers and accountants vs. those for teachers. As a former teacher, I was required to take general and subject matter competence tests (Praxis I and Praxis II), along with a full year of graduate school courses and student teaching in order to receive my license to teach in public schools. I would equate passing these exams and the relevant coursework to an attorney taking the LSAT, or perhaps passing the bar (or graduating from law school). The type of tests to which teachers object are tests of their students’ skills that are not statistically reliable (due to small sample size and other reasons) for the purpose of judging the performance of their teacher.
Studies have shown significant variance in the scores of any given teacher’s students from year to year on these standardized tests. I’ve read that in order for the tests to have any reliability for the purpose of evaluating teacher performance, you have to be able to measure the same teacher teaching the same subject using the same test for about 5 years in a row (which, in my experience, rarely happens). This is why teachers object to the use of these tests… Not because they can’t study and prepare for an exam like the Praxis or the LSAT.