Freaks and Cheats

Fixing the education system.
Sept. 26 2008 10:23 AM

Freaks and Cheats

After my post on cheating went up on Monday, a few readers wrote to remind me of a classic work of cheating economics, " Rotten Apples: An Investigation of the Prevalence and Predictors of Teacher Cheating ," by Harvard economist Brian A. Jacob and Chicago economist Steven D. Levitt, which was prominently featured in Freakonomics , the best-selling book by Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner. According to the original paper's abstract , the authors:

estimate that serious cases of teacher or administrator cheating on standardized tests occur in a minimum of 4-5 percent of elementary school classrooms annually. The observed frequency of cheating appears to respond strongly to relatively minor changes in incentives. 

As Levitt and Dubner reported in Freakonomics, Arne Duncan, the CEO of the Chicago public schools, contacted Levitt and Jacob after their paper was published and asked for their help in catching the cheaters. Duncan and the economists chose 120 classrooms—some classrooms with suspicious results, some regular classrooms as a control—and retested them, but with officials from Duncan's office overseeing the test, rather than the teachers themselves. When the test results came back, the scores from the classrooms with suspicious results had dropped sharply. A dozen teachers were fired, and as Dubner and Levitt write in their book, "The final outcome of the Chicago study is further testament to the power of incentives: the following year, cheating by teachers fell more than 30 percent."

Another reader sent a link to this story , by the New York Sun 's education reporter, Elizabeth Green, about an alleged rash of cheating at P.S. 48 in the Bronx. Green uncovered convincing evidence of a principal who pressured teachers to cheat:

Meanwhile, 11 of 12 P.S. 48 graduates interviewed last week said they were coached during the state tests. They said that teachers would look over their shoulders and instruct them to try again and again until they got answers right. ...

"When I was at 48, I never went to class, and I still passed the test," a seventh-grader said. "If you go to graduation, you pass."

If your paycheck depends on your classroom's test scores, there's always going to be a temptation to cheat. But stopping cheaters doesn't seem like rocket science. As another reader wrote : "One obvious solution is to stop allowing teachers to proctor their own student's tests. You don't let the students grade their own tests because of the temptation to cheat; you shouldn't allow the teachers that temptation either."

Paul Tough is the author of How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character and Whatever It Takes: Geoffrey Canada’s Quest To Change Harlem and America. He is a contributing writer to the New York Times Magazine and a speaker on various topics including education, poverty, parenting, and politics.



Don’t Worry, Obama Isn’t Sending U.S. Troops to Fight ISIS

But the next president might. 

IOS 8 Comes Out Today. Do Not Put It on Your iPhone 4S.

Why Greenland’s “Dark Snow” Should Worry You

How Much Should You Loathe NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell?

Here are the facts.

Three Talented Actresses in Three Terrible New Shows


The Human Need to Find Connections in Everything

It’s the source of creativity and delusions. It can harm us more than it helps us.


More Than Scottish Pride

Scotland’s referendum isn’t about nationalism. It’s about a system that failed, and a new generation looking to take a chance on itself. 

The Ungodly Horror of Having a Bug Crawl Into Your Ear and Scratch Away at Your Eardrum

We Could Fix Climate Change for Free. What Exactly Is Holding Us Back?

  News & Politics
Sept. 17 2014 5:21 PM Don’t Worry, Obama Isn’t Sending U.S. Troops to Fight ISIS But the next president might. 
Business Insider
Sept. 17 2014 1:36 PM Nate Silver Versus Princeton Professor: Who Has the Right Models?
Gentleman Scholar
Sept. 17 2014 5:10 PM Should Men Still Open Doors for Women? Or is it ungentlemanly to do so at all?  
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 17 2014 4:36 PM Is Nonfiction the Patriarch of Literary Genres?
  Slate Plus
Slate Fare
Sept. 17 2014 9:37 AM Is Slate Too Liberal?  A members-only open thread.
Brow Beat
Sept. 17 2014 5:31 PM Did You Catch Walter White’s Blink-and-You’ll-Miss-It Cameo in Godzilla?
Future Tense
Sept. 17 2014 5:26 PM If Fixing Global Warming Is Free, What’s the Holdup?
  Health & Science
Sept. 17 2014 4:49 PM Schooling the Supreme Court on Rap Music Is it art or a true threat of violence?
Sports Nut
Sept. 17 2014 3:51 PM NFL Jerk Watch: Roger Goodell How much should you loathe the pro football commissioner?