Confession of a cheating teacher

A Philadelphia teacher explains why she helped students cheat on the state exams: It was for the children, the high school English teacher tells The Notebook/Newsworks.

At various times, she said, she gave the students definitions for unfamiliar words, discussed with students reading passages they didn’t understand, and commented on their writing samples.

On a few occasions, she said, she even pointed them to the correct answers on difficult questions.

The high school was not identified for suspicious test results in a state report, but the teacher  claims that adult cheating there was “rampant.”

Taking eight hours of tests over three days was exhausting and depressing for her students, the teacher says. “There’s a whole self-esteem side that people aren’t talking about.”

Almost all of her students were poor and African American. Most, she said, came into 11th grade reading far below grade level and dealing with challenging personal circumstances.

“It was absolutely amazing what was going on in their lives,” she said.

The teacher also felt that standardized tests like the PSSA, particularly the reading passages, were biased against her students.

One year, she recalls, most of the passages on the reading exam were about gardens.

“I was like, ‘What the [heck]?’” she said. “This is so unfair. It doesn’t have anything to do with my children’s lives.”

The school’s largely African-American administration pushed teachers, mostly white, to encourage students to do well on the tests.

 The administrators, she said, mistook her stance that her students were being set up to fail for a belief that they were incapable of succeeding:

“They really believed we didn’t care about the kids, which is ridiculous.”

OK, she cares about students’ feelings. But she also doesn’t believe they can learn.

The state exam is a low-stakes tests for her students.  They can fail the exam and pass her course, if she sets her expectations low enough. For the administrators and teachers, the school’s failure to make progress has high stakes. Eventually, the school could be required to fire the principal or replace the teaching staff.

If the post-turnaround school has new staff and the same curriculum, it probably will have the same results.

When students enter high school with very poor reading, writing and math skills, they need intensive catch-up help, not faux college-prep classes with very low expectations.  I think many students would be motivated by the chance to qualify for job training programs in 11th and 12th grade or in community college. Academically ambitious students should get genuine college-prep classes: I bet some students are capable of reading about gardens.

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