Thursday, August 04, 2011

The pedagogy of cheating

With all the news about teachers cheating on their students' test, one Philadelphia teacher has decided to go public with how and why she helped her students cheat on the test.
“I wanted them to succeed, because I believe their continued failure on these terrible tests crushes their spirit,” the unidentified teacher told the Notebook.org, a Philadelphia Public School site that serves as an independent voice for parents, educators and students. The teacher says she regularly provided assistance including definitions to unfamiliar words, comments on writing samples during tests, and says that she even discussed reading passages that they didn’t understand.

“They’d have a hard time, and I’d break it down for them,” she said she did it in response to receiving intense pressure from administrators to raise scores at her former school.

In a city made up of 43.2 percent Blacks and with the possibility of schools being shut down and teachers losing their jobs, she says cheating was “widespread” and “constant” amongst almost all of her students who were “poor and African-American.”

“Math teachers were sitting down in the seat next to the children, with a pencil, actually working out problems with them. I saw that many times,” she said.
So fear of consequences for the students who might fail, she considers that it was just fine to help poor and minority students out on the tests. What she doesn't seem to fathom is that the tests are just a diagnostic to figure out if students are learning. If she helps them cheat and get promoted when they haven't mastered math and reading whom is she really helping? It's clear that her real concern is helping the teachers that might lose jobs if failing schools get shut down.

We're seeing more and more stories of teacher cheating scandals in major cities such as Washington, D.C., Atlanta, and Philadelphia. The information was out there because the same machines that read the bubble sheets can also detect erasures and whether there was an inordinate amount of wrong-to-right erasures. These data were available to school leaders in each of these locations, but the school officials seemed to have ignored it until the media started to go public with the story. USA Today had been dogged in pursuing these tales. Here is their story about cheating in Washington schools. Sadly some of the schools that were most touted by Michelle Rhee and other observers for their purported remarkable improvement in test scores were some of the schools with the most suspicious numbers of erasures.

Just this week the results of the 2011 DC tests came out. Performance in the regular public schools was basically flat. The school district touts its improved test security. The Washington Post's main focus in covering the scores was to note that those schools suspected of cheating now, under stricter test security, saw score decline.

That's an important story to note, but there is an equally important story. While the regular public school students were flat, the charter schools are showing steady improvement. And some of the greatest improvement was in schools where great majorities of the students are on free and reduced lunch. They're strongly out-performing the neighboring regular public schools.
There are some interesting comparisons when you get down to the individual school level. Students at Achievement Preparatory Academy PCS in Ward 8, where 87 percent of students are on free or reduced lunch, scored 87 percent proficient in Math and 75 percent in reading. Compare this to Ward 3 schools Murch (86 percent proficient in math and reading), Eaton (73 percent proficient in math and 79 percent proficient in reading), and Stoddert (83 percent proficient in math and 78 percent proficient in reading.)

Similarly, students at Thurgood Marshall Academy (75 percent proficient in Math and 67 percent proficient in reading) and KIPP DC College Prep (92 percent proficient in math and 78 percent proficient in reading), both in Ward 8, outperformed Wilson Senior High School in Ward 3 (52 percent proficient in math, 65 percent proficient in reading.)

At the elementary level Achievement Prep Academy had the highest proficiency in math (86.92 percent) and Two Rivers had the highest proficiency in reading (77.94 percent)
Right now, around 40% of Washington, DC's students attend public charter schools. Charters are working with a wide range of students and many of them have student bodies that largely minority students on free and reduced lunch. And they're achieving great things with those students. They're not taking the attitude of that Philadelphia teacher who thinks that students who are poor and minority should be helped to cheat on exams. Instead they're buckling down and doing the hard, tiring work of actually teaching their students. They're spending long hours with those students. There are no easy, magic lessons to help these children. Other schools should be studying what works at these schools instead of simply cheating to try to emulate those test scores.

Their students are learning another important lesson. Achieving anything worthwhile demands constant effort. Compare that to the lesson or our Philadelphia teacher where her students were taught to give up if something was hard and just cheat.

(Full disclosure: my daughter teaches middle school math at one of those charter schools that saw impressive improvement in student math scores. I know how hard she works. Her students learned fractions instead of cheating.)