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Learning at its Best

Thoughts on Cheating

Don’t tell teachers, “whatever it takes,” and then act surprised when they follow that advice to its logical extreme.  Don’t tell the principal, “you’ll lose your job and we’ll shut down the school if it doesn’t make AYP,” and then act surprised when the leadership finds ways to cheat.

When politicians set ultimatums like job security, institutional safety and student retention on kill-and-drill tests, cheating will occur.  True, the teachers in Atlanta were unethical.  In many cases, their students would have performed well on the tests if the teachers had ignored the pizza parties and pies in the face and simply taught with critical thinking and creativity.  However, a constructivist approach feels very risky when job security is on the line and the entire school culture is pushing teach-to-the-test packets.

Unless students attend Hogwarts, people can’t expect magical results.  Poverty matters.  Learning disabilities matter.  Language acquisition matters. Yet, if magic is what’s required, teachers will find ways to become master illusionists, coerced into cheating through threats and extortion.

The real cheating is the test itself.  It’s large transnational conglomerates who set up “criterion-referenced tests” where each question is re-normed to ensure that fifty percent of the students fail it.

The real cheating is the politician who learns about the tests and declares that 100% of the students will pass every test by 2014.

The real cheating is the media who drools over the words of pseudo-reformers like Rhee and Duncan while ignoring the authentic revolution that is happening among teachers.  I haven’t figured out if the real issue is lazy, sensationalized journalism or an ideological bias.  Either way, I’ve lost any respect I ever had for The New York Times.

The real cheating is the public who thinks Dancing with the Stars is more important than civic participation and thus outsources their voice to the pundits and politicians who feed them outright lies about education.

And the ones who are cheated through this entire process are the students who endure a fear-fueled standardized education at the cost of real learning.


About John Spencer

I teach. I write. I live. I want to do all three authentically.


6 thoughts on “Thoughts on Cheating

  1. What a powerful post. It’s true, we are reaping what we sow.

    Posted by Royan Lee | July 9, 2011, 9:57 am
  2. Thanks for this post. You have described exactly what I was feeling when this story broke. My internal monologue was… of course this is happening, this is happening all over and if you don’t think more of these stories are coming you’re deluding yourself. Now the politicians who openly or underhandedly supported this testing culture will get the two for one of feigning outrage over the situation. I feel genuine outrage, and this is because whether we like it or not the kids are watching us. If adults are able to game the system, not get caught, and get the star sticker our society is in trouble.

    Posted by Christopher Rogers | July 9, 2011, 10:08 am
  3. NIce work, John, in pointing out the obvious to the people who choose to put their heads in the sand when they say, “whatever it takes.” We had a similar situation with cheating in another county in our state a couple of years ago, and heads rolled… but you’re absolutely right in that the ones who are cheated most are the kids who don’t get to learn important stuff deeply and who don’t get to learn how to question and follow those questions through a logical progression.

    Thinking about what kind of learners we want our children to be both in school and out and providing opportunities that support that should be our priority–and the assessments we do should support that as well. Thanks for this post!

    Posted by Paula White | July 9, 2011, 10:48 am
  4. This utterance gives me great hope:

    …the authentic revolution that is happening among teachers.

    I’m also reminded of a design thinking workshop I attended which was facilitated by the masterful. witty, and provocative Lime Design firm. Part of our work involved brainstorming solutions under different sets of constraints. During one exercise, we had to re-imagine parts of school as if magic existed – as if we worked at or attended a school like Hogwarts, so to speak. From there, we had to imagine ways to pull off the ideas we thought of, even without magic.

    How can we use feee ourselves to find solutions and more meaningful, transformative ways to change what we do? To change what we ask kids to do? What is your process of envisioning and enacting, John?


    Posted by Chad Sansing | July 9, 2011, 9:55 pm
  5. Yes John yes. If you ask people to do unreasonable (and essentially devaluing and unethical) things to kids (like judge them based on superficial and meaningless tests)–and when teachers know that doing this will make it impossible for them to do their work well or even adequately–then people will start to game the system because it is essentially already morally corrupted, unethical at its core. NCLB has meant a massive devaluing of the complex, human, spiritual and moral exchange involved in real learning–and the cheating scandal in Atlanta is simply evidence of this.

    I think we are helping here to bring this consciousness to a wider audience. I hope we are.

    Thank you for this post.


    Posted by Kirsten Olson | July 10, 2011, 10:26 am
  6. High-stakes testing is a poison pill sent to the public schools by those who would have them fail. The guaranteed failure to live up to unreachable (and actually harmful) goals of “adequate yearly progress” will give politicians the excuse they need to kill public education.
    Before MCAS (in Massachusetts) we would follow classes through the system using data from national tests (NAEP, California test of Skills, etc) and we would have a pretty good idea of what the students knew when they made it to high school. We planned for high and low achievers.
    Soon MCAS will be an expensive memory, replaced by some unknown batch of numbers from some federal program written by non-educators. Don’t worry, though, your school will fail at some point.

    Posted by Joseph McCauley | July 15, 2011, 5:58 pm

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