To Cheat Or Not To Cheat

08/04/2011 11:30 am ET | Updated Oct 04, 2011

Some people are habitual cheaters. They cheat all the time, on anything. Taxes, husbands, card games. Some people would never contemplate the notion. I'd venture to say that many of us human beings, though, when faced with a real and significant threat, might just weigh the odds.

As a group, I think that teachers involved in the grade-altering and testing scandals now being reported in nine states fall into the last category. Change an answer,
or 17 answers, on a standardized test, or risk unsatisfactory evaluations and job loss. Who would ever find out? The kid's life will be exactly the same. He is already so far behind. I need my health plan.

I am a teacher, and my assistant principal ordered me to cheat, after five weeks in front of a classroom. I refused, and endured a year of ostracism, fraudulent evaluations, defamation by district legal personnel and all sorts of other code-breaking shenanigans. I am told that most other people would have changed the 60's to 70's in the grade book and gone home.

Here is why they would do that: when someone's income and reputation is tied to something he cannot control -- in this case, the uncertain performance of another person -- he might do what he needs to do to protect himself from unfair blame, even if it means he has to lie. If teachers weren't blamed, fired or paid less than they already are paid when kids don't do so well, they would have nothing to cheat about. Kids would know where they really stood. Maybe they'd work a little harder. Maybe not.

If non-educators continue to treat students like widgets and teachers like factory robots, measuring success by how many shoddy units get sold to Wal-Mart, we'll have cheating scandals in all 50 states, if we don't already. After a few days in an urban middle school, it was pretty clear to me, a novice and by no means a wizard, why these kids are failing. It was also pretty obvious how they need to be taught ... with full regard for their life experiences. And how they need to be measured ... by progress, not by test scores. Then, if a teacher can show that he has moved a child forward, even just slightly, he, too, is a success. There are just too many factors that affect a child's ability to make huge leaps, and teachers should not be accountable for them, or punished for them.

One of my seventh graders couldn't keep her head off the desk after lunch. When she could, she'd start up with the other kids, either swat them or flirt, whichever the mood. Turns out, Maria* slept on a couch in her grandmother's apartment with five kids, all half-siblings, same mom, five different dads. One got a child support cash card from her father and didn't share. The mom, who was in jail, left money for the kids, but Grandma spent it on herself and her boyfriend, and the boyfriend's brother and girlfriend, all of whom lived in the apartment. Maria cooked for the kids, every night, went shopping at the market. Her life hindered her learning. Should I lose my job for this? Should I lose my job if another mother didn't have the money for pre-natal care? If kids move homes three times in a month? If parents can't speak English?

In my class, I didn't follow any curriculum but my own. My principal gave me one task: get these kids to pass the standardized writing test. These were ESL students designated as having "Limited English Proficiency." They had failing grades in many of their classes, and had all failed state reading and writing tests in previous years. Some wanted to do well, some didn't care. In Texas, at the end of a first-year teacher's maiden voyage, her principal can recommend that she graduate from a probationary to a standard teaching certificate. My principal provided letters of recommendation to my colleagues a month before the test scores came back. For me, he waited.

Of my 29 students, 26 passed. Three earned "Commended" status. Six earned essay scores of "3" out of a possible "4." Six who passed the writing test failed the math and reading exams. The results of my Limited English students exceeded those of the grade in entirety, including average and higher-performing students. An hour after the grades were posted, I received my letter of recommendation.

In the end, the district renewed my contract because my kids passed the test, and passing the test is the mark of an effective teacher. But yesterday, I received a phone call from my principal, who said that he wanted to read a letter from the Human Resources Department. Sensing thrill in his voice, I asked him if he could email it instead. Along with 798 other teachers, I had been "released from my current assignment." I can apply for one of the district's 21 available jobs, none of which I am currently certified to carry out, or I will be placed somewhere, to do some thing, don't know what. Maybe a supply room. I was hired this way last summer, brought in from the outside after the unassigned-but-contracted were squeezed out. So sneaky.

During the last week of school, there was an awards ceremony in the auditorium. All of the teachers got together in their teams, prepared speeches and handed out certificates on the stage. I hadn't been informed of the event or asked to participate, so we had our own presentation in our portable classroom. I took photos. We had cupcakes. The omission was not lost on my students.

"Why didn't you give out any awards?" one asked. I told him that I would have loved to, but hadn't been invited, and was taken off of a team.

His response put a pithy cap on the year: "Isn't that cheating?"

*Name changed.