A Business Idea for Anyone Who Wants It

Shortly after Brian Jacob and I did our research on teachers who cheat, we thought about starting a company that would provide cheating detection services to schools systems. What I quickly discovered, however, was that there were few things in the world that school systems wanted less than to catch teachers who cheat — suffice it to say that school districts have few incentives to self-police. As such, we quickly abandoned the idea.

Maybe now it’s time for someone else to give it a shot. With No Child Left Behind and other policies making standardized test scores more and more important, the incentives to cheat are growing rapidly. The New York Times recently ran an article by Ford Fessenden describing gross instances of cheating that were missed by school districts until whistleblowers came forward. There is little question that cheating is still widespread — which, given cheating’s low likelihood of detection, should come as no surprise.

Are school districts more likely today to be receptive to an outsider selling cheating detection services than they were back when we first thought about doing it? Definitely not. What programs like No Child Left Behind have changed, however, is the stake that higher levels of government have in getting rid of cheating. State and federal governments are now allocating large amounts of money based on test scores. They don’t want to be in the business of generously rewarding cheaters. Relative to the money at stake, the costs of detecting cheaters is trivial — maybe a nickel per student per year, which seems like a small price to pay. Unlike individual school districts, state governments care about catching cheaters — or at least, they should.

I know of only one company that is currently in the business: a test security firm called Caveon. Perhaps there are others. It seems like the market should be big enough to support competition.

If anyone is interested, the algorithms we used are fully described in our paper in the Quarterly Journal of Economics. Feel free to use them. In return, all we ask is that you let us know how it goes (and maybe share some data with us down the road).


Given that No Child Left Behind links federal money to test score performance, there is a public interest in having the problem of cheating classrooms resolved. It would seem logical to create a federal grant to fund test accountability.


No Child Left Behind (except the smart ones) is destroying America by removing critical thinking from the classroom. Now teachers simply have kids memorize a few facts to pass a test so they get a bonus. We don't need to make it more efficient we need to find a way to get rid of it.


There should be a nation-wide classification standard. A school / school district system that actively attempts to catch cheaters via the algorithms is stamped with "Teaching Integrity Approved" or something a little bit more eloquent.

That way, colleges or anyone else who cares about the integrity of the test-scores can see where students come from. As a result, parents would yell and kick at schools for not implementing it since it helps boosts a school's reputation and thus the student's.

Michael Buck, Teacher, Mississippi Delta

I'm not sure that paying for such information would be beneficial for a school system in the long run. The big question is, even if a school were able to identify cheaters, what would they be able to do? If they fire them, then they have to replace them. And given the teacher shortage in some areas, that can be incredibly difficult. The current school I teach at is short over a dozen teachers. From a state perspective, identifying cheating schools would mean what? More financial sanctions and possibly a state take-over of the school. Both of these options appear to be just as detrimental to the students as investing the money to prevent cheating. I don't know alot about state takeover or how it works, but even if the state does take over, they still have to supply the school with teachers that are able to teach effectively. If they just hire all of the same teachers over again, they'd achieve the status quo.

Too, increasing the level of accountability has been known to contribute to the negative animosities that are already present in schools, where administrators often times make public the test statistics of teachers as a negative consequence for bad scores. This is done because there are likely only a few ways to motivate teachers to raise student test scores. There is not a high supply of teachers and there is an incredibly high demand, which means that having a bad teacher in a classroom is much better than having no teacher at all.

With the money that schools or states might spend to hold schools accountable, these schools could use the money to invest in more positive consequences such as teacher success incentives, and programs that actually prepare the students for the tests, so that school districts don't need to think about cheating. I guess the problem with giving more money to teachers who have students who perform well on tests is that it would provide a higher incentive for teachers to cheat so that they can get a pay raise.



Is it a given that high stakes testing is here to stay? How likely is it that the next president will push for a change in the law? It would be quite a shock to have the majority of your business legislated away. Like GeologyRocks, I hope that's the case.


@GeoRocks: And critical thinking is a capacity that the current administration is interested in cultivating among the polity...?


Strangely enough, there is a growing demand for plagiarism detection software/services (TurnItIn, CrossRef, etc.) by high schools and colleges. Students are obliged to turn in essays / term papers in readable form, which are forwarded to the service, which scans them for plagiarized passages - comparing them to existing sources and all previously submitted papers.

I had heard of one legal challenge brewing - students paid to get their papers copyrighted, and are suing the service for using their material.

Katie B.

Educators in this country can't agree on anything: school uniforms, how to teach history, evolution vs. creationism, etc. However I'm going to have to add a caveat to my earlier statement because as far as I know, there is a single concept that all the educators I've ever interacted with agree on: No Child Left Behind is ruining American schools.

Is it just me, or would it make more sense to give more money to the schools with the lower test scores? Don't they need it more? Not that throwing money at it will solve everything- but it's a useful tool.

David Robinson

"Is it just me, or would it make more sense to give more money to the schools with the lower test scores?"

I'm as against NCLB as you are, but this idea makes even less sense. Rewarding schools for low test grades- and regardless of what you call it, it is still, financially, a reward- in its best case would lead to the administration showing complete apathy as to whether teachers were teaching well or not, and in the worst case, would simply lead to the administration encouraging "reverse" cheating.

Imagine a world where when a business gets fewer customers, they make more money. What would America look like today? Bad ideas would be rewarded, good ideas would be punished...

Adam S

“Is it just me, or would it make more sense to give more money to the schools with the lower test scores?”

While I don't agree with the above statement, the opposite giving taking away money from low performing schools doesn't not make any sense either. The point we need to make sure we understand is that education is not a business. The purpose of education is education not a product. So if the school is not performing we need to work to get it performing. That will take some money. But it will also take good staff, good policy and appropriate rewards.

My wife is a teacher in Cobb County GA, a district that just removed their financial incentive to teach in high risk or high poverty schools. The financial incentive was low $1000-3000 depending on experience and time in the schools, but it was cut as a way to save money. The problem with this is that my wife spent most of the money on supplies for her classroom. Her school often doesn't have enough paper to print out student work. The students don't have pencils and basic supplies. All types of expenses that just are not required for richer schools. Both because the students don't need the basic supplies and because parents at richer school support things like PTA and other fund raising organizations that give additional money to the schools for discretionary spending.

Solving education requires several things that we just don't have in the US. First, there has to be a commitment to educating all students, no matter what their background. Right now, explaining that we need more money to educate poor students doesn't get very far. Second we need real accountability that is national and open. Third, we need to recruit good staff and pay them appropriately, not just teachers, but administrators, policy makers and researchers. Fourth, we need experimentation. This may be the most important thing that we do not have. There is no way to figure out if a solution will work unless we try it and because we have human subjects that are children it is likely that there will never be real experimentation.


Luke Neff

No Child Left Behind is like turning a Van Gogh or Monet into a four color paint-by-number drawing. (I'm mainly addressing the phenomenon which is ridiculous in my school and nationwide: teaching to the test rather than actually teaching.) There are some good things about it: the people that use it are going to get something that looks like an education (just like they'd get something that looks somewhat like a Van Gogh - especially if seen from far away while squinting). It is also good because there are very few people actually capable of being a good teacher on their own (or making a decent painting on their own). The world is not full of John Taylor Gatto Jr.'s. Actually, strike that. The world is full of them, but the private sector pays better and is better respected. No teacher who is actually gifted enough to do well on their own, without the paint by number system, is going to sign up to teach thankless students (and a thankless society) for 35,000 when they could be making twice that with their talent. This isn't Harry Potter - our most gifted aren't working at Hogwarts like Dumbledore. They're working at the Ministry of Magic because it pays better and is more respected. No offense to the teachers at my school, but most of them are not teachers - they aren't uniquely talented to be a teacher... what they are able to do is pass standardized tests and get others to pass standardized tests, which isn't teaching, that's programming... and it's a ridiculous waste of money to pay people to stop teachers from cheating. Where the money should go: increasing teacher salaries (and therefore competition for spots & increased respect level) and reducing class sizes (fewer students = more individual instruction & inspiration).



For most teachers I don't think there is much room to give more of themselves to their students. Also, with so much student tracking and such a variety of school conditions, I don't think there is a particularly straight-forward relationship between teacher effort and improved test scores. Supposing I'm wrong on both of those points, there still seems to be little personal incentive (coming from programs like NCLB) for teachers to increase their effort.

james lankford

i wonder how many of these teachers practiced for their drivers license test by doing creative driving? Or did they instead just memorize facts that were on the exam and practice driving according to the test?


"While I don't agree with the above statement, the opposite giving taking away money from low performing schools doesn't not make any sense either. The point we need to make sure we understand is that education is not a business. The purpose of education is education not a product."


Education is a service product, with a measurable result. Ex: medical school.

If under-performing schools CLOSED for lack of funds, and the students moved to higher performing schools, their educations would improve, and the school would have an incentive to cater to the new students' special needs. After all, the high performing school wants to remain high performing.

Michelle Wetzler

Obviously this application wouldn't fix our education system, but it makes sense that detecting cheaters would be valuable to society as a whole; we have to make the best out of the system we have until a better solution comes along. I think the real question is if there is a way to capitalize on the value added by punishing cheaters.

To the person who said that detecting cheaters would only cause more problems for the school because they'd have to find replacements, I don't think that's a fair assumption. You also have the option of punishing the teachers (although firing them is a pretty good punishment). Just because they cheated doesn't mean they aren't valuable to the school. They're underpaid and undervalued and playing the game just like everyone else. Increasing the chances of detection changes the game such that they'll probably try to increase scores a different way - either by cheating better or, hopefully, teaching better.


elle krewer

The example of medical students being a "service product" comparable to the student graduating from a typical U.S. high school is ridiculous. Medical students are chosen from the elite graduates of colleges, and these students do not usually come from socioeconomically disadvantaged high schools, that are multi-lingual, multi-racial, and taught by overburdened and underpaid teachers. These teachers positions are threatened yearly by federal and state mandates requiring them to fill their students' minds with knowledge that the students may or may not be willing or able to spew forth on their tests.


I'm surprised you didn't ridicule to entire testing program NCLB entails. You can no more test every child without severely affecting the whole process, than you could serve a patient by measuring every blood cell in his whole body. Using grades given to pupils by teacher, front line testing specialists, and have principals confirming they were doing this competently the state and federal government could easily do spot testing. The tests could be unexpected and varied, and even fairly frequent. Two or three students would report to the testing office every week or two. Teachers' grades and the test results would be expected show a statistically significant agreement, again determined by good statistics.


My mom is a third grade teacher and I sent a link to this article to her. Here is her reply:

Yes I've heard of this being a problem-some entire districts have reputations for this. I've suspected certain teachers of "helping" students and that makes the rest of us look like crap. There was a second grade teacher at Lee who did that and then we got the grief because the scores went down in third grade. When I first came to Stevenson there was a teacher who padded her reading benchmarks and then [teaching partner] and I would get her kids and then be questioned about why our kids didn't pass any with us. So finally the third time this happened we just went to [principal] and showed him all the evidence--erased answers from tests, wrong scoring, etc. We felt bad for being the whistle blowers but it just wasn't right. Besides misleading parents that their child was functioning at a level different than where they really were, it made [teaching partner] and I look like we weren't doing our job. As far as the state testing, now we always have a proctor in our rooms so if there's ever a question about scores, we have a witness. I like that better since I know I can never be suspected of anything--not that my kids get exceptionally high scores to raise any eyebrows. Anyway, I'm curious about this program mentioned in the article and how it works.



Focusing on problems never resolves the problem and typically makes the problem worse. Determining the core of the problem seems to be a good place to start. Teachers should not be allowed tenure. Tenure allows underperforming "do nothings" to criple the system. Accountability is imparative for any productive system to work. Unfortunately (for the most part) the profession seems to attract people trying to get to tenure so they can coast the rest of the way to retirement Anyone that says teachers are underpaid doesn't understand the value in teachers pension plan or the value in their benefits package. Of course there are examples of teachers in certain parts of the country with a terrible wage. There are also MANY places in the country that teachers can make a great living and as well as have garranteed pensions. If you a teacher and want to make more....MOVE. Not an easy solution but privatizing the education system seems to be a better direction to move towards rather then trying to fix the broken system we currently have that has kids graduating that can't read.



Unfortunately, people conflate many separate things when talking about NCLB, which is a slogan appended to the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the legislation that embodies the federal government's involvement in education. Many state standardized tests pre-date "NCLB," and many were developed by extremely good educators for the reasonably purpose of assessing how well kids are progressing toward mastery of some reasonable standards. What the Bush administration did with NCLB was to mandate universal testing 3-8 and to put into place penalties essentially aimed at branding public education a failure so as to push toward privatization. Simple. And consistent with everything else they do, including starting a war which is more privatized than any previous American war, so as to profit the oil and arms businesses. Simple. The next administration (pray it's not another corporate puppet) should disentangle these things: We as a society do need to assess what's going on in our public education efforts, but not to wreck them, rather, to know where additional resources and new approaches are most needed. Simple. Like everything else, it does come down to good versus evil. Sure, Bush et al are most certainly evil, but there's no need to dismantle the good work that honestly concerned educators have done in creating standards and metrics just because that movement was coopted by the evil goal of dismantling public education.