Monday, August 8, 2011

Cheating Teachers: A Crucible of Character

At the end of Arthur Miller's The Crucible, John Proctor refuses to nail his verbal confession that he's guilty of witchcraft to the church door. When questioned about his refusal, he shouts: 

"Because it is my name! Because I cannot have another in my life! Because I lie and sign myself to lies! Because I am not worth the dust on the feet of them that hang! How may I live without my name? I have given you my soul; leave me my name!" 

Those educators involved in the litany of cheating scandals have blackened the name of our profession. They have sold the soul of teaching, and now many defend their failure of character and refuse to own their choice to cheat. Their refusal to do the honorable thing and resign testifies to their poor character. 

As have many teachers, I have followed the Atlanta testing scandal and have given it much thought. Similar cheating scandals have occurred in Washington D.C. during Michelle Rhea's tenure, in Baltimore, in Philadelphia, in New Jersey, and in New York. And these are the ones we know about. I wouldn't be surprised to learn standardized test cheating is both systemic and epidemic. 

The rationalizing, the efforts, however well-intended,  to explain how and why cheating occurs bothers me. 

Writing about the Atlanta scandal, Maureen Downey says this on the ajc blog: 

"I think some of their motivation was less self-serving; they wanted to fulfill Dr. Hall’s vision that low-income children from single parent homes and tough neighborhoods could and would succeed at levels comparable to suburban Atlanta peers and that such performance could be achieved system-wide by adopting best practices and by working harder and smarter.

The APS teachers, principals and administrators wanted to prove that the faith of the Broad and Gates foundations and the Chamber of Commerce in the district was not misplaced and that APS could rewrite the script of urban education in America and provide a happy, or at least a happier, ending for its students."

Is Ms. Downey really saying educators cheated for the students? 

Vicky Davis, writer of the Cool Cat Teacher Blog, is quoted in the Huff Post as explaining teacher's cheating:

"[Teachers'] funding and their lives and their money is based on that. When the stakes are extremely high and it's very competitive but you add in the fact that the teachers feel that they don't have control over the results, some will cheat."

As an article in Education Week notes, many see these cheating scandals as a byproduct of our testing culture and cite them in calling for an end to testing:

 “If the stakes are so high that the teachers don’t even believe the measurement itself, they’re going to try to cheat," says Yang Zhao.

Nationwide teachers have questioned the educational benefit of high-stakes testing. This lack of faith in the
tests doesn't create a cause-effect scenario in which all teachers will cheat on the them. That's because the vast majority of teachers possess honorable character that prevents them from cheating. 

Rather than attempting to explain the why behind the cheating scandals, educators should acknowledge that  the decision to cheat constitutes a test of character. Those who cheat fail the character test, their students, and their profession.  They have nailed their name to the door and they need to leave the profession on their own. If they choose not to leave, educators throughout the country should call for their dismissal and the revocation of their licenses as loudly as we call for an ending to high-stakes testing. 


  1. First, I want to applaud you for speaking your mind, when you know that this is a contentious and controversial topic. Your post reminds me of a discussion we had last night after my daughter and I watched a rerun (I think) of 60 minutes on the way in which US mortgage companies used high school students and other non-bank employees to sign the bank manager's name on mortgage documents. Basically, they were forging signatures, but because they were told it was all 'above board,' and because they needed the $10.00 per hour pay, they did it. My daughter felt that while it was wrong to forge signatures, the employees could not be blamed. They were misinformed, under-informed; they needed money. I, on the other hand, feel that they knew it was wrong, and therefore shouldn't have done it. They knew in their gut. My daughter pointed out that it was easy for me to disregard the employee's needs given the fact that I earn a good living.

    Still, it seems to me that teachers need to band together in ways other than rationalizing the cheating; they need other means of fighting for an end to bubble tests and an end to the disparity in educational opportunities for students.

  2. While I feel much sympathy for the teachers embroiled in this inexplicable mess, I am also worried about how we stand in front of our classes with our integrity intact. We all know that the testing does the opposite of its purpose, but cheating will never solve the problem. How could it? How can we invoke the character in our kids if we forget our own? I do not suggest to have an answer, it is too complicated a puzzle for me. I do know that my students need to know I support them but not at the expense of my own values. I just finished my terracing of A Man for All Seasons for class. Can you tell?

  3. Right on, Glenda. Circumstances created environments where the pressure to cheat was greater, but every individual makes his or her own choice. The system can be criticized and scrutinized but not blamed for individual lapses in judgement and integrity.

    (I've never previously noticed the phonetic similarities between TEACH and CHEAT.)

  4. Once, through a miscommunication with my admin, I was given the AP Literature exam booklets a full two days before the students were to write them. I didn't peek, though the thought did occur to me. In the circumstances of the teachers mentioned above... I don't know. I kind of agree with your quote from Education Week: if I don't believe in the value of the measurement, why would I adhere to its rules? Complicity can also damage one's integrity, can't it?

  5. I don't believe in the value of the measurement and have argued against the claimed merits of over-reliance on standardized tests since I was in high school, first in a competitive speech, but even so, I would never cheat. Because I don't value high-stakes tests, I also refuse to teach to them.

  6. I agree. We try to convey the importance of academic integrity to our students at every opportunity. As professionals, we should practice what we preach. Blaming the circumstances for individual decisions is an easy out.