Why Teachers Cheat

The indictment last week of 35 teachers and administrators in Atlanta for manipulating test scores is just the latest chapter in that city's long festering "teacher cheating" scandal. In turn, Atlanta is just one of many cities where evidence has surfaced that educators fudged testing data.

Perhaps the best way to think of these cheating scandals is that they are the result of a natural experiment: What happens when you change incentives so that low test numbers translate into pain and high test numbers translate into rewards? 

Effectively, this is the experiment that policymakers created when they enacted No Child Left Behind, as well as various state-level education reforms, starting in the early 2000s. 

No Child Left Behind ushered in an era of high-stakes standardized tests where low-performing schools and their administrators faced negative repercussions and high-performing schools and their administrations received significant rewards, including cash bonuses. The specific mix of carrots and sticks vary from state to state. Conservative Georgia has favored performance pay more than other states -- and harsher sticks. 

No Child Left Behind was enacted in 2001 but didn't take effect until 2003. According to a long New York Times piece over the weekend, cheating on test scores began around 2004. As the Times explained: "Teachers and principals whose students had high test scores received tenure and thousands of dollars in performance bonuses. Otherwise, as one teacher explained, it was 'low score out the door.'"

Atlanta's former school chief, Beverly Hall -- who was allegedly at the center of the cheating scandal -- was rewarded with $500,000 in extra performance pay as test scores rose in the city. Meanwhile, some 90 percent of the city's principals were fired by Hall during her decade in Atlanta because their schools under-performed. 

This situation was a classic recipe for cheating, as I described in my book The Cheating Culture: Impose new metrics that bestow cash rewards for winners and give the boot to losers -- or even those who are merely ordinary performers. 

Is it any wonder that a state investigation of the Atlanta cheating scandal implicated 178 teachers and principals? When that many cheaters are involved, we're not talking about a few bad apples; we're talking about a rotten system.

Or as I have written, No Child Left Behind might more aptly be called No Teacher Left Honest.

And lest you think teachers and administrators are uniquely tempted to cheat, consider how any number of other groups have responded to similar carrot-and-stick metric systems.

The billable hour system in law produces chronic cheating and overbilling, with yet another overbilling scandal now unfolding involving the world's largest law firm, DLA Piper. 

New York City's police department is under fire for an alleged arrest quota system that some officers said led to groundless busts. Of course, parts of the NYPD have earlier faced criticism for manipulating crime data to make the city seem safer than it is -- a close mirror of the teacher testing scandals. 

And, of course, we have seen countless corporate scandals in the past 15 years as public companies have sought to please Wall Street and boost stock values by cooking the books to manipulate their earnings reports. 

Metrics are a useful, and even crucial, way to track progress toward meeting goals. And rewarding high performers while penalzing low performers makes sense in a variety of settings.

But an over-focus on quantitiave performance measurements tends  to invite cheating, especially when coupled with fat carrots and harsh sticks. 

It might seem like the wave of cheating scandals involving teachers and administrators is finally abating. But with more states putting in place accountability metrics and various forms of "merit pay" tied to test scores, there's a good chance that such cheating will get worse in the future, not better.