Kids, don't cheat. Leave it to Teacher

Some kids' reading and math scores are going up, but it's because some of their teachers and school principals are cheating for them, and for their own benefit.
Some kids' reading and math scores are going up, but it's because some of their teachers and school principals are cheating for them, and for their own benefit.

Well, the inevitable has happened and the New York Times is reporting it, even tickling readers with the promise of a series of stories on the subject. Under heavy pressure to raise student reading and math scores, teachers and principals are doing just that, raising kids' scores — by cheating. They're sneaking looks at the test booklets, whispering suggestions over the kids' shoulders during exams, and changing wrong answers to right with eraser and No. 2 pencil behind closed doors in the principal's office.

It's being done to give the appearance that schools are making "adequate yearly progress" toward goals set by former President Bush's No Child Left Behind Act, thus burnishing principal and teacher reputations. And it's being done under the pressure of reforms advocated by President Obama and Arne Duncan, his secretary of education. They and others in the forefront of today's reform movement want student test scores increasingly to be part of teacher evaluations and the basis for teacher pay, teacher cash bonuses, or bonuses for schools where the money is to be shared.

The Times' story by Trip Gabriel last Friday (June 11) recounted cheating by principals and teachers in several states including Texas, Georgia, Virginia, and Massachusetts. And, of course, Gabriel pointed out that such cheating involves relatively few teachers, 1 to 3 percent, according to experts he talked to, though a higher estimate of 4 to 5 percent came from a 1990s study of the consequences of high-stakes testing in Chicago schools by Steven D. Levitt, the Freakonomics author. (At the higher level, that's one teacher in every school.)

Thus we can expect quibbling over the amount of cheating, in which reformers will be forced to say the benefits of new teacher-pay systems outweigh the moral hazard. It's a slippery slope, though, because there's no way to enter the argument without implicitly recognizing that tying teacher and school administrator rewards to kids' reading and math scores carries with it the perverse incentive to cheat.

Sadly, when teachers and school leaders cheat, the kids lose. They're passed up the grades before really acquiring grade-level reading skills. (Admittedly, though, because the present system requires only grade-to-grade improvement rather than grade-level mastery, this happens already as a matter of course.)

At any rate, given the momentum behind the reformers' insistence that paying teachers based at least in part on their students' test scores is the way to improve teaching, we can be sure that the perverse incentive contained in the proposal will be blithely ignored. In a different world, it might be considered a fatal flaw.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Dick Lilly

Dick Lilly

Dick Lilly is a former Seattle Times reporter who covered Seattle neighborhoods, City Hall and public schools during 14-years with the paper.