Teachers Who Cheat & Why They Do It

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The whole country has been watching the shameful activities that have been going on in Atlanta, GA, for weeks now and my point in today’s posting isn’t to repeat what’s already been said ad nauseam about the Atlanta achievement score cheating scandal. My point today is to acknowledge the reality that people from all walks of life cheat and that public education is not exempt from this sordid side of human nature.

That’s not anything I haven’t said before, but I’m hoping that the enormity of what has been identified in Atlanta thanks to tenacious investigative journalism will help drive this point home for the people who have heard me over the years but didn’t really believe that things can get that bad, much less on such a huge scale. In a way, I feel kind of vindicated, though this is totally the kind of thing about which I wish I could be proven wrong. The world would be a much better place if I was just a hysterical nut-ball falsely accusing the sky of falling instead of the truth being what it really is.

And, the truth is that there are lots of teachers who cheat. Granted, I don’t think they make up the majority of teachers. Even in Atlanta Public Schools, which is a huge school district with thousands of employees, it was only about 250 educators who were implicated in the achievement score fraud, which dates back to at least 2001.

I have no way of knowing if everybody who did wrong actually got caught, but the fact that the former superintendent, who garnered many accolades over the years for alleged improvements reflected by the District’s achievement scores, didn’t look that deeply into how the scores had been improved suggests that people all the way up the food chain probably knew what was going on and turned a blind eye.

According to State investigators, she and her cronies cultivated an internal district culture of “intimidation and humiliation” that stressed delivering scores administrators wanted to see without regard for accuracy and tied teacher pay to student test scores as an alleged performance-based pay scenario. This evidently created a situation in which teachers were financially motivated to produce fraudulent student test scores.

I find it interesting that a newspaper reporter managed to figure all of this out through tedious investigation, but where was the monitoring and oversight by the District and the State of Georgia to verify the accuracy of the scores in the first place? How did it come to pass that the alleged checks and balances that were supposed to be in place to prevent this sort of thing were so inadequate that the Georgia Department of Education failed to notice what was going on until a newspaper reporter pointed it out? And, how many other districts in Georgia were getting away with the same thing during the same period of time?

I find it hard to believe that not one of the 250 or so criminals caught defrauding the public about student performance in Atlanta didn’t blab about what they were doing with friends and colleagues in other districts in Georgia. People so brash as to host “changing parties” at their houses (where teachers would get together and alter students’ test answers) aren’t exactly discrete.

People who think they’re getting away with something are rarely able to keep it to themselves. They usually have to brag to someone. Or complain. I don’t doubt that some of the people involved in the score changes thought it was a regrettable necessity in light of the allegedly unrealistic expectations being placed on them by No Child Left Behind.

Whether NCLB places unrealistic expectations on our public schools or not, lying and cheating is not how responsible adults deal with administrative challenges. We’re not talking about civil disobedience in the face of human rights issues; we’re talking about differences of opinion over how a public entity holds itself accountable. These teachers weren’t holding a sit-in to protest the policies with which they disagreed; they were defrauding the public.

From my perspective within the realm of special education, where parents are routinely falsely accused of trying to game the system to achieve allegedly unfair advantages for their children with handicapping conditions, the argument that teachers must game the system to circumvent the expectations of NCLB comes as a real slap in the face. Responsible adults deal with unfair legislation by working to have it changed, not by misrepresenting student achievement to the federal government, parents, and the tax-paying public.

In special education, when students engage in inappropriate behaviors in the school setting, it’s often the case that these children lack perspective-taking abilities. That is, they do not comprehend the impact of their behavior on others. They are often egocentric (self-centered) and are only thinking about what immediate benefits they can gain for themselves in the short-term without thought as to the consequences of their actions on themselves in the long-run or anyone else ever at all. They may learn that if they do certain things, other people will immediately respond in a particular kind of way, which gives them the instant gratification/short-term benefit they’re seeking; but the big picture is totally lost on them.

Those of us in special education with intact integrity who work with students who display these kinds of behaviors know that an appropriate behavior intervention plan will target the development of their perspective-taking abilities. Social skills groups, group therapy, and in vivo 1:1 coaching in natural settings are all ways that this can be targeted.

But, what do we do when the problem behaviors are not coming from the students but from the staff? Does the HR department within a school district need to utilize the services of the special ed department’s behaviorists to address the problem behaviors displayed by personnel? As more and more school districts adopt school-wide positive behavioral supports for all students, do these plans need to include how to handle employee misconduct?

It seems only fair to use the same approaches with staff that we seek to use with students. The research shows that punishment is less likely to change inappropriate behavior than reinforcing the use of appropriate behaviors. Why should staff be dealt with punitively when students are supposedly being provided with positive behavioral supports? That’s presuming, of course, that the staff who are engaging in inappropriate behaviors are not the ones responsible for implementing the positive behavioral interventions with the students. That would be tragically ironic and, yet, I’m sure that somewhere in public education this is going on.

It’s easy for people to become polarized around issues like this. People in these days of information overload have a tendency to want complex issues rendered down to something short enough to Tweet. Less is more under certain circumstances, but broad over-generalizations make for dangerous public policy-making and the value of public input is undermined when the public is making its arguments in the form of easily digestible sound bites that fail to capture all the critical elements of the issue being addressed.

Things are never so simple as a sound bite or a Tweet. Granted, it’s a plain fact that screwing little kids out of their right to an appropriate education is just plain wrong, regardless of the justifications offered. But, how people arrive at the point where they’re screwing little kids out of an appropriate education is usually a pretty complicated path and I believe it starts with our institutions of higher learning that train people to work in public education.

I have recently returned to college get my master’s degree in educational psychology. I got my bachelor’s in psychology in 1995 with an emphasis on learning processes and memory. Now that I am back in classes for an advanced degree, I’m surrounded by other grad students who are just starting out and haven’t yet really done that much work in public education, if they’ve done any at all. And no one at the university level is teaching them anything about what really goes on or how to deal with it.

This is where the problem first starts. Students are afraid of pissing off their instructors for fear of compromising their grades which becomes the fear of pissing off the administration for fear of losing their paychecks once they begin working in public education. Universities tend to elevate professors to a higher status than the students, vesting them with an outrageous degree of authority over students while relieving them from much of any kind of accountability for their student’s actual learning. Granted, the professors I’ve had so far have been amazing, so I realize that this is a broad over-generalization up to a point, but not by much.

The point is that the professors are being paid to educate the students, making the students the ones who should be going in with expectations of the professors to deliver on what they’re being paid to do. Professors are in the service of their students in the university setting just as teachers are in the service of their students in the K-12 setting.

It is the responsibility of any education department within a university to prepare its students for the real world and our universities often fall very short of the mark in this regard. When an education department fails to make real-world realities part of the required instruction, the professors have no guidance as to what they’re supposed to tell the students about what goes on in the real world, so they don’t tell them anything. Plus, if the professors are isolated in a university setting talking about the theories of learning and instruction, everything presented is unrealistically idyllic and pie-in-the-sky compared to what really goes on in the field.

University students preparing for careers in special education are provided with guidance regarding best practices as well as the latest research in child development theory and scientifically researched instructional strategies, but when they go out into the field and actually try to implement programming according to how they’ve been taught to teach, they are discouraged by district policies and internal cultures for which they have not been prepared to respond. To me, this is simply an unfathomable way to do business and there is no sound reason to keep perpetuating such a broken system.

It seems to me that everyone working on any kind of credential program should be required to take a course that focuses on the legal requirements of the IDEA and Section 504, not the least of which should be the federal protections available to educators who stand up and demand the resources they need to comply with the letter of the law, and that this content should be part of a mandatory in-service held by every local education agency in the nation. Further, if the teachers’ unions really want to do something useful, they should be well-versed in these requirements, as well.

People do stupid things because they can’t come up with a better plan to meet their needs. That’s a lay-person’s interpretation of a basic tenet of Applied Behavioral Analysis, but it’s a fairly accurate summation.

Teachers cheat when they lack the skills to find another solution and think there’s no other way to get the monkeys off their backs. Or, they cheat because it’s the fastest way to get the monkey’s off their backs, they don’t give a rat’s ass if there’s another solution, and they think they’ll never get caught. Or, they cheat because they think it’s a short-term solution that they don’t intend to continue once they figure out a better plan that becomes too comfortable of a routine after a while. Or, they have personal issues with boundaries and think they have no choice when being pressured by higher-ups.

The only thing I can say to anyone in education who is being faced with pressure to do something unethical is: “For God’s sake, grow a set, will ya?” The only reason that this kind of crap goes on is because people willingly participate in it.

Did people in Atlanta get fired for refusing to participate in the scam? Yes. But, did they ultimately get their comeuppance? Absolutely! And, do they have grounds for suit against the District for wrongful termination? I can’t imagine how they couldn’t. The real people in Atlanta with actionable claims against the District, however, are the students with poor academic skills whose needs were obscured by the fraud, and if a class action law suit on behalf of Atlanta’s low-performing students doesn’t come out of this, I’d be shocked.

Click here to download the podcast version of this article.

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