Fish Gotta Swim, Teachers Gotta Cheat?

Remember the story about the cheating schoolteachers in Chicago? The theory was that high-stakes testing, by putting more pressure on students to pass, creates a stronger incentive for teachers to not leave those students behind — and that a fraction of those teachers, generally the worse ones, went so far as to cheat on behalf of their students.

Looks like it may have been happening in Springfield, Mass., too. From the Boston Globe:

One staff member at a Springfield charter school told state education investigators he felt so pressured by his principal last spring to improve MCAS scores that, in order to keep his job, he helped one student write an essay for the test.

Another staff member said he was fired after he accused the principal of encouraging cheating, while another staff member observed a colleague pull some students away from watching a movie so they could fix answers on their tests.

(Hat tip: Marc Seiden.)


I have an idea. I don't work in education or anything like that (actually finance!), so I don't really know the best way to evaluate knowledge, but these standardized tests seem pretty decent.

Why not have all the teachers admnister tests to a class outside of their own district? That seems like a pretty easy check on what they're doing.

Just like in classes, you pass your paper back and the kid behind you corrects it. You don't correct your own.


More on this subject, there?s this research published on NBER. It?s called "Rational Ignorance in Education: A Field Experiment in Student Plagiarism". Link here


I am an educator and speaking for most educators, we do not disagree with the idea of accountablitly. The truth is most teachers would welcome it if it was a fair and balanced way of assessing. Apples to apples! You cannot assess one group of students and compare them to the next group of students. Battel has created a way of assessing and predicting scores for future tests for each student. This can show years worth of growth instead of how much more or less they know than the previous year. It is called Value Added. Districts in Ohio didn't buy into it because it proved that students in afluent areas did not show as much growth in urban areas and no one wanted to open that bag of worms! There is a way it to fairly assess and should be implemented but it is not popular!

David L

It all comes back to free markets. Teachers' unions, like all unions, are illegal entities formed for the almost express purpose of collusion--fixing the price of their labor above market value, and keeping teachers from having to compete against each other on the basis of quality of output. The unions are so insanely powerful they can politically impact the standards they are held to. And because the union has the legal resources to strongarm school districts, teachers pretty much have to do something illegal to be fired, unlike every other job where you get fired for underperforming.

As a result, good teachers cannot differentiate themselves and earn their worth, and bad teachers can continue making our students exponentially less internationally competitive without having accountability. People say teachers are the most important job in America; that they don't get paid enough. No--good teachers don't get paid enough. Bad teachers get a free ride.



I guess the moral of the story is that school districts administering these programs should hire independent auditors to assess internal controls and make recommendations as to how they can be improved.

Whether the teachers' unions would fight implementation of these internal controls, and I'm sure they would, is a completely different story.

Yet another argument for school vouchers and free choice.


An independent accountability mechanism is fundamental to any education reform initiative. We as a society need to determine what it is we want our students to learn, develop some objective measures to that end, and then put in place a system to independently and accurately administer those measurements to all our students.

I never understood even as a student why you would have teachers grade or administer their own tests. It would make more sense to have an independent testing system of some kind (particularly in today's digital world) outside of the teacher's and school's purview.

Jim Purdy

The pressure is everywhere, and the ways to cheat are numerous. Some techniques may not be obvious cheating, but administrators and teachers have many ways of subtly manipulating the test results, depending on local policies. In some cases, students may be exempted from testing because English is not their native language, or they may be told to stay home on tests dates.

Unfortunately, these tricks hurt the students who need the help the most, by depriving them of testing diagnoses and identifying subjects where they need help.

Maybe the test results should be kept from the media and the politicians, both of whom misuse the scores to criticize schools with low-income kids. Let's disclosed the scores only to the students, their families, and their teachers. They are the ones who should be using that information. When politicians and the media get involved, the pressure causes abuse.

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"Yet another argument for school vouchers and free choice.Yet another argument for school vouchers and free choice."

Actually, this was a charter school, so everyone who attended pretty much did so by free choice -- and the teacher's union issues don't really apply either.

What I don't get is the fact that teachers are allowed to supervise the tests at all: when I was at high school (in Scotland) an outside invigilator, usually a retired teacher from another school, always conducted tests. I'm always amazed when I hear that tests are performed in the presence of class teachers here...


@Jessica (#3): "The truth is most teachers would welcome it if it was a fair and balanced way of assessing. Apples to apples! You cannot assess one group of students and compare them to the next group of students."

Why not? That's how it works in the real world. My boss doesn't care whether or not I improved, he only cares whether I meet his standards. He doesn't care that I'm better than others in my cohort or demographic, he cares about whether I meet his absolute standards. Students in more challenging learning environments don't need to be deceived and told that their absolute performance doesn't matter.

"This can show years worth of growth instead of how much more or less they know than the previous year."

Isn't measuring how much students know compared to how much they knew the year before the ultimate measure of growth? At least, it's the only one that matters ...

Teachers always complain that standardized tests only teach students how to answer questions and don't measure understanding. You know what? Given the choice between measuring understanding and measuring the ability to answer questions correctly, I'd rather students be able to answer questions correctly, even if they might not understand. We're measuring minimum standards, not defining the ideal.

In an ideal world, all math students would understand the mathematical principles that underlie algebra, trigonometry, and calculus. But I at least want them to be able to solve for x, calculate angles, and find the derivative of a function. Understanding will come in time once they can DO the problems. Understanding without the ability to give me the answer is useless. These are grade schoolers. Not Ph.D. level researchers. The answer matters as much and probably more than understanding. We want practical skills more than we want theoretical comprehension.



I have to wonder what movie the students were watching during class time that the teacher interupted to "fix" the test. Perhaps* less movie time, more instruction?

*Which is not to say no education films exist. But if the film was in fact educational, why pull the student away from learning?


Not surprising since Springfield has been bankrupt, been the subject of massive FBI raids on public employees and was in receivorship from 2004 until 2009. A friend there says, "There's only one door in this town and it's marked EXIT." Springfield is a classic example of the intractable problems of corrupt municipal governments in New England cities that only encompass the core while middle class and affluent towns are independent political entities. You end up with a needy population but lack the tax base to provide necessary services, all compounded by centuries of machine politics.


I am appalled at the headline on this post. The implication is that all teachers are guilty of cheating, as it comes as naturally to them as swimming comes to fish. How insulting. Fraud and cheating are serious issues, and those complicit it with it should be disciplined appropriately. But to jump to making such a ridiculous headline, all in the name of being clever and pithy, is irresponsible and insulting.

Gary Selnon

I'm afraid in any market, open or closed, the best teachers will never "earn their worth." Defining a teacher's "worth" is a difficult task. Only teachers (and parents, of course) are tasked with teaching and shaping our children to function positively and effectively in this world. Too many of the rest of us just fiddle around the edges and make multiples of what the best teachers in the best schools receive.

Privatize education, all of it, and let's see if it survives in the marketplace. There the bottom line for shareholders will always be the deciding factor in deciding teacher compensation.. Will the best candidates choose education over law, medicine, nuclear start-up engineering, business, etc. or will they settle for fourth -and-fifth-best money?

Aaron Erickson

Teaching is one of the only occupations where not only do they cheat, they "complain" because they have to cheat!

Teaching to the test is fraud. Everybody tries to be polite about it, but it makes it no less fraud when you teach to the instrument rather than teaching the curriculum.

I have heard it is easier to cure malaria in Africa than fix the public school system. I am starting to believe it.

Adam Shields

I think that most teachers want good evaluation. And most teachers don't (and wouldn't think of cheating). But some will cheat. And it makes it harder on those that don't cheat. One reason that most districts don't have outside auditors is that there is no incentive. If a few teachers cheat there isn't a reason for them to spend the money to eliminate the cheating. It is fairly expensive to have an outside auditing firm or hire proctors for every classroom. And as long as there isn't a financial or other incentive to prevent cheating, there will never be a reason for them to clean up the system.

As to better incentives for the actual teachers, you do need apples to apples systems. Many low income schools have 40 to 50 percent annual mobility rates. To really evaluate fairly you need some stability, and a way to evaluate that takes the mobility of students into account.


Teachers have widely ranging groups of students. Failing students is not allowed so now we fail the teachers. Kent states:
" Why not? That's how it works in the real world. My boss doesn't care whether or not I improved, he only cares whether I meet his standards. He doesn't care that I'm better than others in my cohort or demographic, he cares about whether I meet his absolute standards. Students in more challenging learning environments don't need to be deceived and told that their absolute performance doesn't matter."
In the real world people can be fired. A student who doesn't show up or refuses to pay attention, or give any effort is still the teacher's responsibility. Let the teachers fire students and I guarantee the test scores will rise and parents will freak out.


Exalting any profession, be it teachers, cops, soldiers, etc., is a recipe for trouble.

These are all human beings, subject to the same temptations as the rest of us.


@ Joe (#16) - The school my children attend can and does fire students and it makes a significant difference in student and parent participation.

Political correctness has run amok, and now it is impolitic to keep a student back or expel him. If public schools had the same freedom that private schools do, and if the minimum wage were abolished, there would be significant changes in society. Students who cared would get the attention it takes to improve, and McDonald's would offer an 8-hour employee course titled "How to shower and make change".

Gary Echternacht

I go back to W. Edwards Deming's 14 points with regard to quality in organizations. One of his points was to eliminate numerical goals and work standards (like standardized test scores in education). When such goals and standards are in place, the numbers tend to come through (higher test scores) though the end product (education) is not affected in terms of quality.

Dr. Manak

Hmmm I wonder in what other fields are there are high stakes and high rewards were we might observe cheating.... finance perhaps? selling morgages? CDOs? CEO bonuses? trading? nah! the market must always be right right, our best need all that money to succed - isn't that what the Chicago school says... no it must be just the school teachers who are cheating...