Why, oh why, would teachers help their students to cheat?

Here’s a depressing story; albeit a fascinating one for those of us interested in adversarial ethics. In Atlanta nearly 100 teachers are suspected of cheating — including erasing and correcting their students’ answers on standardized tests — and in neighboring DeKalb county, highly suspicious tests have been found in 26 schools.

Why are so many teachers in and around Atlanta helping their students to cheat on standardized tests?

The answer is so obvious that this rather long newspaper report doesn’t even bother to connect all the dots. Cutting to the chase: the teachers corrected many of their students’ tests scores because the teachers and schools themselves are now locked in a competition — for funding, and even for their jobs — that is won or lost on the basis of their students’ scores.

If we wanted to look for an example of a deliberately non-adversarial institution, a local school board would traditionally be as good a candidate as any. For as long as anyone can remember, the local authorities were responsible for delivering education to the youths of their municipality or county. They would typically have to follow a state-wide curriculum, but they’d deliver the service in a bureaucratic and mostly non-adversarial way: hire teachers and principals, etc, and try to teach the kids. Teachers’ and schools’ performances would be evaluated in various ways (or not); but they were not literally in competition with each other. The worst teachers were not automatically voted off the island.

But now they are — thanks to the federal No-Child-Left-Behind Act of 2001 (as well as other state and local policies) that punishes teachers and schools whose students do worse on standard tests. (The Act’s name does not officially contain hyphens. But come on: it’s a compound adjective, people!) This was supposed to give teachers and schools an incentive to teach better; but it also incentivizes “correcting” the test papers of weaker students. There’s a decent summary of the pros and cons of the Act here.

Of course, there has always been “cheating” by teachers. E.g., the incompetent and lazy ones have, for generations, cheated kids out of a decent education and a hopeful future. Is the kind of cheating or “gaming” that arises as the institution is made more adversarial worse than the cheating that happened in its non-adversarial era? Are the other “unintended” consequences of teacher and school competition (such as an unwillingness to “waste time” teaching untested things like art and music) worth the intended gains in more “efficient” teaching and learning?

We can’t even begin to answer these questions on the basis of this depressing report on teacher cheating. But it is worth recognizing that the education system is a whole new game now.

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2 responses to “Why, oh why, would teachers help their students to cheat?

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention Why, oh why, would teachers help their students to cheat? | Ethics for Adversaries -- Topsy.com

  2. Véronique Luciani

    It occurred to me while discussing this with friends that maybe competition, which at first glance is what causes this negative incentive to cheat, is not the problem. Competition, in principle, is good. It offers a positive incentive to do better. But when opportunities to cheat exist, then it becomes a problem. Maybe the way in which the competition is run, like the basis on which comparisons are made, is what needs to be reviewed.

    Of course, maybe sometimes competition is simply not the right way to go…

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