Thursday, Mar. 31, 2011
Cheating in school became education topic number one this week, except this time it wasn't students cheating on tests — it was adults cheating for them. As part of a series, USA Today published an article strongly suggesting that teachers or administrators goosed student test score gains at an elementary and middle school in Washington, D.C. Since it was a school former D.C. chancellor Michelle Rhee had singled out for praise, the news created yet another battleground for Rhee combatants. The distraction is too bad because the focus on cheating offers — pardon the cliché — a teachable moment for parents and policymakers.
Even assuming that teachers and administrators at the school at the center of this week's controversy didn't do anything improper, too much cheating by adults does go on in too many schools around the country. When I was a state board of education member in Virginia, "testing irregularities" (a delightfully dry bureaucratic term for suspected manipulation) were not an every day occurrence but were not rare either. And before you rush to blame No Child Left Behind, the problems predate that law. (See 11 educational activists for 2011.)
Teachers and administrators can cheat in gentle ways, such as indicating an answer or encouraging a student to really look at a question again, or through more aggressive steps, such as stealing copies of tests in advance or changing student answers after they've finished their work. This kind of cheating is notoriously hard to investigate. Even when the statistical data points to some kind of fraud — for instance, test score gains that cannot be explained by actions teachers took in the classroom during the school year — it's difficult to prove that cheating occurred unless someone involved admits to it.
Critics of today's push for greater accountability are quick to argue that cheating is the inevitable byproduct of any high-stakes system. That's ridiculous. While cheaters are a fact of life there are numerous professions with high-stakes consequences for performance where cheating is not rampant. Besides, that argument insults teachers by implying that they can't achieve challenging goals without cheating. (See if Fenty's loss in D.C. is a blow to education reform.)
What various cheating scandals do tell us is that while we have many outstanding teachers and schools delivering powerful instruction, too many cannot. We know from research — as well as experience and common sense — that the best way to help students perform well on standardized tests is not to drill them (and certainly not to cheat) but rather to actually teach them. A study in Chicago, for instance, found that students who were given challenging instruction requiring critical thinking and problem solving out-performed students given lower-quality instruction on the commercially available tests the city was using at the time. Real teaching is like a well-rounded breakfast, it sustains you. Drilling and test prep is the same as eating a doughnut: Works for a bit but you're hungry again before long. After all, what most assessments are testing is the ability of students to encounter and master material that is unfamiliar in its specifics but similar to what they've been taught. So the takeaway for parents is straightforward: With good teaching, the tests take care of themselves. When teachers or schools obsess over tests, parents should be concerned — not about the test, but about the school. (Comment on this story.)
For policymakers, the takeaway is more complicated. We've increased the demands on schools and teachers over the past two decades. Given the poor outcomes from too many of our schools, it's the right thing to do. Unfortunately, while demanding more, policymakers have not taken enough steps to support teachers and school administrators in this work. Teacher training remains largely ineffective, scant attention is paid to selection and hiring decisions, and ongoing professional development for teachers is abysmal. Meanwhile, low-performing teachers and administrators are rarely helped or removed from the classroom and over-inflated teacher evaluation ratings mask the scale of the problem. (See how to fix teacher tenure without a pass-fail grade.)
Those two issues — supporting educators and holding them more accountable — are the contentious poles in the education debate today. Too many advocates, however, focus one strategy or the other. But these are not competing choices — we must do both. And until we do, expect more cheating. Not because it's inherent with an accountability system, but rather because it's what will continue to happen when some people are asked to do a job they're simply not prepared for. When students cheat we tell them that there are no shortcuts. It's an admonition the adults in charge should heed as well.