07/28/2011 10:07 am ET | Updated Sep 27, 2011

There Is No Cheating "Crisis"

Like others, I'm a big fan of education writer Dana Goldstein (and love the line in her latest piece about the current mood of "brutal optimism" about testing). But the piece in Slate -- about how "a growing spate of evidence from around the country suggests that the most egregious practices in Atlanta... are part of a national, and indeed a historic trend... bolstered by No Child Left Behind's emphasis on pressuring educators to produce spectacular test results" -- seems overheated in its claims and makes several questionable connections.

Goldstein presents no real evidence that there is a cheating crisis going on in America, greatly overstates NCLB's real-world threat to educators, and seems to presume that educators are both unable to resist everyday temptations and shouldn't be included among those who should be held accountable for their actions. To all of this and more, I protest.  

No doubt, we've seen a slew of cheating scandals lately, the details of which -- test-fixing parties and high-level coverups in Atlanta, for example -- are infuriating to all. We should all be concerned about the integrity of the system and the ways in which we try and make schools and teachers more accountable for their results. I share her concern about the overuse of test results, especially in areas like individual value-added ratings for classroom teachers.

But Goldstein musters no real evidence beyond a handful of newspaper articles that cheating is dramatically on the rise, proportionally, or is particularly problematic in education as opposed to many other fields that involve testing. Cheating incidents are like shark sightings and crime reports; they are amplified by the media (which loves "trends") and are easily influenced by changes in definitions and reporting requirements.  At least some of the current cheating "trend" is the result of media outlets furiously imitating USA Today and the Washington Post.  It's ironic that the Goldstein piece is published in Slate, whose media columnist regularly debunks fake media trends.

Second, Goldstein substantially overemphasizes NCLB's influence and suggests a causal relationship between cheating and the law that isn't backed up by any real evidence. The creaky law's sanctions are notoriously weak -- a toothless transfer requirement, a watered-down after-school tutoring requirement and a hodge-podge of school improvement efforts that weren't even implemented in most parts of the country. Relatively few kids, teachers and schools have had their fates upended by NCLB (though many may have been told that is the case, and the Obama program called SIG has increased the number of closures and restaffing in recent years). The only real consequence of NCLB is an easily-dismissed annual rating that isn't even required to be displayed on the front door. 

Most troubling to me is Goldstein and others' suggestion that teachers and educators are somehow helpless to resist the notion of cheating and by extension shouldn't be held accountable for their actions. The world is full of opportunities to cheat -- on taxes, in sports, at the checkout register, on payroll day -- and yet in most of these situations, our notions of individual will and accountability remain. If testing and federal accountability systems were as bad -- as powerful, as destructive, as immoral -- as Goldstein suggests, then I hope we'd have had annual protests nationally and widespread refusals by teachers to administer the tests (or by administrators to collect them) rather than a decade of going along with a corrupt system.  But that's not what's happened, according to Goldstein. She seems to suggest that if someone tells educators to cheat, they will do so, out of concern for bringing shame on their school or to keep their jobs.  I just don't think that's true.

Yes, there's some cheating in education.  Yes it should be addressed.  But the most pernicious forms of cheating are systematic efforts in which schools and districts manipulate subgroup sizes and enrollment dates or states and elected officials and reform advocates cherry-pick data to give the impression. And we should neither overestimate accountability-based laws like NCLB nor ignore educators' roles in implementing them. Whatever has or hasn't happened over the past decade under NCLB implicates nearly everyone in education, including teachers.