Skip to content

“Freakonomics Radio” and Teachers Who Cheat

October 18, 2011

I was driving to my public library today to return some materials when I just happened to hear a few minutes of “Marketplace” on my local NPR affiliate.  One of my favorite features, “Freakonomics Radio”, came on the air, and wouldn’t you know it, today they were dealing with education – specifically, teachers cheating on standardized tests.  You can see the transcript or listen to the segment at the Marketplace website.  Naturally, I took out my laptop and composed this blog post right away in the library.

There are some fine insights that can be applied to education when we listen to some of the more interesting voices in economics and business.  I’m thinking not only of Freakonomics co-authors Stephen Dubner and Steven Levitt, but also Dan Ariely, Bob Sutton, Dan Pink, and Samuel Culbert.  However, on this occasion, I found Dubner and Levitt a bit off their game, along with host Kai Ryssdal.

What did they get wrong?

DUBNER: “…[T]he fact is if you’re a teacher and all of a sudden there’s a new incentive in place for you to not do poorly in your class, then teachers all of a sudden have the kind of incentive that students used to have. And so there are some teachers — now granted, it’s a very, very small portion of them — who will cheat on behalf of the student. In this case, literally erasing incorrect answers and filling in the correct ones — not necessarily to help the kids, but to help themselves not look like they’re bad performers.”

In this case, I think Dubner is accurate in his descriptions, but implies that he’s identified a singular cause or primary cause for cheating, when in fact I think it’s more complex.  Yes, if your students test scores are going to be used to evaluate your teaching, you have this unfortunate incentive to cheat.  (The only estimate they provide is that when they were able to examine a data set from Chicago years ago, they believed that about 5% of teachers cheated).  However, there are important motivations that are ignored here.  Part of the motivation might be to raise school scores rather than those reflecting on the individual teacher – and not surprisingly, some cheating incidents involve administrators rather than teachers picking up the erasers and #2 pencils.  Another “incentive” is to escape more focus on the tests.  That’s an extension of the school-based idea – you want the school to look good – but the reason to want the school to look good is to increase the odds of a better curriculum and more autonomy in the classroom.

Looking at the system-level motivation rather than the teacher alone, Levitt adds, “With school districts now, I think [they] have an ambivalence towards cheating because they really do want higher test scores and so they often carry out these tests in ways that it’s not hard at all for teachers to cheat. In fact, [it] may be even subtly encouraged.”

So what should be done about cheating on standardized tests?  Here’s where I think Dubner and Levitt missed something very important.

LEVITT: “I think there are two things you can do if you don’t like cheating. One is what Arne did expose [as schools superintendent in Chicago], which is he actually let us really ferret out who the cheaters were and they went to the trouble to hold the hearings and to fire a bunch of teachers. The other option that’s available to policymakers if they really don’t like cheating is just make it harder to cheat. People don’t cheat much on the LSAT or the SAT because the companies that provide those tests spend a lot of money and they make it hard to cheat.”

Really?  Two things we can do? Punish cheaters afterwards, or tighten controls on all the potential teachers – that’s all?

Somehow, Levitt (and presumably, Dubner as well) missed the best option of all: removing the incentives to cheat.  Unfortunately, that would require a much more complex shift in our thinking, rather than technical adjustments.  What if we only used higher quality tests and fewer of them, with greater flexibility, and solely for the purpose of helping students learn?  We could also remove the incentive to cheat by removing the poorly conceived rewards and punishments currently associated with the mediocre crop of standardized tests employed most widely.

Not to hold myself out as a saint or anything, but I’ve never felt even the slightest temptation to cheat on a standardized test my students were taking, though I’ve administered standardized tests every year of my teaching career, usually multiple times per year.  I’d like to think that regardless of the circumstances, I’d be immune to temptation, but that’s easy to say right now because the temptation never arises.  Why?  I’m working in a school and district where the test scores will not be used against us, and certainly not against me personally.  There’s no reward, no punishment.  We just go through the process.

If the era of No Child Left Behind has taught us anything about schools, I hope it’s that the misuse of tests has all sorts of negative consequences.  Let’s hope that in the process of changing course, we can find more thinkers and leaders who are willing to challenge mistaken assumptions about testing as accountability, and its attendant carrots and sticks.

(According their website, Dubner and Levitt addressed the topic of cheating teachers in the original book they wrote.  I read portions of the book but must have missed that part.  I’ll try to find my copy and see if I can find something to add from their book later).

[EDIT: 10/18/11, added] – I found my copy of Freakonomics, and while it certainly provides more technical details and deeper analysis, I would suggest that the authors still miss the potential remedy of removing the incentive to cheat.  Maybe they’re just more realistic than I am about the direction we’re headed in education.  I stubbornly cling to the last bits of my idealism and try to imagine a world where testing and accountability are rarely if ever placed in the same sentence.

[EDIT: 6/4/13] – corrected a misspelled last name.

7 Comments leave one →
  1. October 18, 2011 6:56 pm

    Like you, David, it has never occurred to me to cheat on my students’ tests. However, while they take the tests, I have watched them and wondered: will anyone care that Sara’s mother battled cancer all year long and died last week? or that Damien has been living with relatives (who really don’t like him) because his own parents left the state to find work elsewhere? or that Julia is living in a homeless shelter and rarely finds a quiet place to read or do homework? or that Vivian has missed a quarter of the school year due to diabetes? or that Joey finds solitude at school because his home is a place of violence and anger?

    When will those in power see that one-day, multiple-choice assessments can’t possibly reflect the learning (in the face of monumental challenges) that has gone on all year?

  2. David B. Cohen permalink*
    October 18, 2011 7:17 pm

    I hear you, Laura. On top of that, we know that there are some very poorly designed tests and questions. And we know that language arts standards call primarily for teaching skills that cannot possibly be measured with the current tests.

    On my last blog post, some of the comments branched off to the “Opt-out” movement in testing. It’s easy to see the appeal.

  3. October 18, 2011 7:58 pm

    I can’t imagine cheating on my students’ tests, but if current trends continue, I can definitely imagine focusing my instruction solely on content that will be on those tests. I can also imagine focusing more on those kids who are on the brink of passing, at the expense of those who are well above or well below passing.

    And when you think about, that’s far, far worse than just cheating.

    • October 18, 2011 8:38 pm

      Such a good point, Tom. Just like the doctors who refused to take part in executions of prisoners because it violated their most basic of oaths, let’s all agree to never cheat our students out of the richest, most engaging and challenging curriculum we can offer. We are better than the tests!

  4. October 18, 2011 8:18 pm

    Wow. What a great article and very much on point. I had missed the program so thank you for recapping it for me. Testing is a sore subject at my school because it is a program improvement school. We are 6 miles from an international border and English is a second language for many. We have a little more than 70% on free or reduced lunch; which means parents are either both working, one is working two jobs, or there is the stress of no job. A lot of factors go into whether or not our students do well on the tests. I know this for sure. We are working hard at helping them and we care for kids. “Accountability” isn’t what we need; we need support. How is holding me accountable for factors I cannot control, and I didn’t create, going to help? It just demoralizes you. All of that, without even factoring in the cheating by peers, administrators, etc…

  5. Leslie permalink
    October 21, 2011 8:22 am

    Spot on here, David. While the Freakanomics approach CAN give us fresh insights, I have often felt that Dubner and Levitt were a little too glib about topics about which they know only a little. As a 30 year veteran of the classroom I agree with you … authentic assessments will avoid cheating.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: