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.

About Joanne

Comments

  1. Didn’t some smart guy once say something about the soft bigotry of low expectations? Who was that, again?

  2. Silly me; I thought the purpose of education was to widen students’ horizons. What happened to the “There’s no frigate like a book, To take us lands away” philosophy? I find it downright insulting to suggest that I can’t learn about anything outside of my immediate surroundings and circumstances. If that’s the operating assumption, then why should we have schools?

  3. @momof4: Exactly. Failure to lift up one’s eyes and look beyond is not education, it’s navel gazing.

  4. I notice that you ignored the issue of the cultural insensitivity of the tests Joanne and focused on how the teacher “helped” the students. While I’ll agree that it sounds like the help she gave is inappropriate, it is similarly inappropriate to set students tests that are designed for a completely different culture in mind.

    If you don’t think culture is important, try this exercise. Download a state exam for a different part of the country, and count how many cultural references they include.

  5. If the teacher didn’t teach her charges about these other “cultures,” then she failed them as a teacher, and compounded her shortcomings by coaching her charges on that test regarding the material.

    It not inherently “inappropriate to set students tests that are designed for a completely different culture in mind;” it is only inappropriate if the teacher didn’t teach in the first place. Hence the remarks about the nature of education – learning something that is beyond your ken, and expanding your horizons.

  6. supersub says:

    Isnt the point of a reading passage on an exam to test the ability of students to acquire and use new information? If the passage is about something that they are already familiar with, it tests their content knowledge and not their reading ability. That being said, I have seen plenty of passages with inappropriately high reading levels.

  7. Cranberry says:

    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.”

    That view, however, was met with charges of racism, according to her account.
    She described a schism between some White teachers and the school’s largely African-American administration. 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.”

    (insert sarcastic tone) Why would the administrators think that this teacher had inappropriately low expectations for her students? (sarc. off)

    The point of a reading assessment is to confirm students can comprehend written passages. If the students can only understand objects they have personally experienced, there’s something very wrong with the instruction. Most children have no experience with pirates, for example, yet we should expect high school students to understand Peter Pan, or Treasure Island.

  8. “It’s all for the kids!”

    Yes, because we all know that the best outcome for the kids is to get good grades and graduate without learning a damned thing.

    Pathetic and immoral. Child abuse.

  9. So, the Core Knowledge people are wrong? It is all skills and no content that builds reading ability?

  10. Richard Cook says:

    David Wees:

    What does that really have to do with anything?

  11. David: If, by “cultural sensitivity”, you mean that city kids shouldn’t be expected to know about gardens or regattas, I call BS. I remember the flap about regattas on the SAT analogies, as if only rich kids who belonged to yacht clubs could know about regattas – I read about them. I’ve never seen the Grand Canyon, a desert, a rain forest, the animals of sub-Saharan Africa, a Japanese Garden, Venice, the Winter Palace, the Pyramids or whales, but I’ve managed to learn what they all look like and something about all of them. With not only books, but DVDs and internet resources, there’s no excuse for pretending that kids can’t learn about things outside of their neighborhood. Particularly in cities, libraries, gardens, museums and other educational resources are both close and free.

  12. Cranberry says:

    So, the Core Knowledge people are wrong? It is all skills and no content that builds reading ability?

    The Core Knowledge curriculum doesn’t posit that students only learn from life experience. I’m fairly sure they don’t arrange trips to East Asia and Japan to understand geography and history. (http://www.coreknowledge.org/k-8-sequence-details)

    This teacher justifies cheating by 1) everyone else was doing it, and 2) the kids would certainly fail. As she benefits directly from higher test scores, I take leave to doubt her ethics and morality. If her 11th grade students can’t understand a reading passage about gardens, how low does she think their reading ability is? How did they get that way, if it’s true? What were they doing in the classrooms for 11 years?

    Perhaps the black administrators’ assessment of her attitudes towards her students have some merit. I can’t imagine anyone would argue that white or asian suburban students couldn’t understand a reading passage about large city matters, such as water and sewer authorities.

    In any case, this scandal, and the Atlanta cheating scandal, are strong arguments for removing test administration from local schools’ control. Teachers and administrators should not be able to improve answers. If the intent is to improve schools, the administrators and teachers whose professional careers would be harmed by bad results should not have control over exams.

    I’d also recommend shortening the exams, and administering them to a random sample of students, rather than the entire school. If the intent is to improve schools, a random sample of students would be better than every single student. Fewer tests to grade would be less expensive. Administering fewer tests would be less disruptive, and would allow the tests to be administered at outside testing centers, out of principals’ reach. If a school’s catastrophic, the random sample’s results will be no better than the entire school’s results.

  13. Deirdre Mundy says:

    As a white suburban Ninth grader, I was expected to understand “Raisin in the Sun” (Projects in Chicago), “The Pearl” (Grinding poverty in Latin America), and “Their Eyes were watching God.” I managed.

    Oh! And the Odyssey, even though I had no experience with Greece, spears, Goddesses, or Cyclops! How unfair…. I should only have had to read books about malls and highways and cul-de-sacs!

  14. There’s a fundamental difference between encoutering pirates, etc. in a book in class/on your own when you can look it up, ask about it, expand your horizons, etc. through reading and seeing it for the first time on a high-stakes test . I’ve taught all those novels, Deidre, and I spend time providing the necessary background information students need to understand them. We look at photos of Eatonville and hurricane footage (we’re in tornado country); we examine northern segregation; we spend time looking at how religious instruction is presented by Homer versus the writers of other moral texts.

    I’m not defending the cheating or the attitude here, just pointing out some inconsistencies in some of the reasoning in response to it. If you have a group of kids with very limited exposure, a test isn’t going to improve that. If the test is meant to indicate that lack, fine, but that’s not what this particular test is supposed to be measuring. The teacher may be smarmy and distasteful, but she’s pointing out some truths.

  15. it is similarly inappropriate to set students tests that are designed for a completely different culture in mind.

    Couldn’t agree more – the tests were designed by a culture that expects kids to learn something and these kids are educated in a culture that expects them to fail. The teacher is the the worst kind of racist.

  16. Mark Roulo says:

    If you have a group of kids with very limited exposure, a test isn’t going to improve that. If the test is meant to indicate that lack, fine, but that’s not what this particular test is supposed to be measuring.

    I don’t think tests are generally expected to *improve* knowledge or exposure in the kids being tested. That isn’t how they work. Tests can indicate a knowledge gap. Improvement comes from doing something with the knowledge gap that the test shows.

    In this particular test, the knowledge gap would be that the 11th grade kids can’t successfully read about gardens … apparently because they haven’t been instructed about gardens (or whatever). If we have this knowledge (from the test), we could, in theory, go about fixing the problem. If the tests are gamed so that the kids appear to be able to do this reading, then there isn’t any information about what to fix.

    Would *this* test be used to actually correct/modify/fix the instruction? I get the impression that most teachers don’t believe that this is how these tests are or will be used. But they certainly were never intended to improve the children’s knowledge or skills directly. The improvement provided by this test, if any, is only going to come indirectly from honest results being used to make changes. Without honest results, the changes aren’t going to happen.

  17. I agree, Mark. The problem is that these kids have a deficit in both reading skills and background knowledge, but the test doesn’t differentiate that — and perhaps it really doesn’t matter.

    As I prepare to spend another year preparing for Yet Another New Test, my hope is that my time isn’t going to be wasted on another set of crap assessments that don’t tell me anything, don’t measure what they purport to measure, or are suddenly used to measure what they’ve never been designed to measure. It’s summer and I’m allowed certain fantasies.

  18. LS: She was talking about 11th-graders. By that point, they have spent almost 12 years in school, which should have expanded their limited outlook. Instead, they have been allowed to do little or nothing and been passed along without learning. It is worse in inner-city schools, but I know HS English teachers in affluent suburbs where non-Honors students refuse to do any work outside of class, are incapable of writing a coherent short paragraph, and cannot comprehend a very straightforward literary text written at about 7th-grade level. BTW, the vast majority of these kids will go to college (no idea how many graduate – school isn’t interested in that info).

    I just made a quick list of what I remembered reading in HS and before. Almost all were outside of my immediate experience, either in place, time or usually both. That was college prep, but I know the other kids read a significant number of the same works. Until HS, everyone read the same works, except for book reports. It was a small-town school of about 120 in the whole HS and only 2-3 kids went on to 4-year colleges and a few to 1 or 2-year programs.

  19. Deirdre Mundy says:

    Not to mention the fact that it doesn’t take intensive teaching to give city kids a sense of “gardens”— In fact, a few episodes of Sesame Street, Sid the Science Kid, and Word World can probably do the job.

    A really GOOD teacher could even throw in a few picture books, like the Gail Gibbon’s one. “General knowledge of gardens” is a pre-K or K milestone. This was not a ‘culture’ problem, it was a reading one, and the teacher is apparently trying to cover for the fact that these kids made it to 11th grade unable to read.

  20. Mark Roulo says:

    “It’s summer and I’m allowed certain fantasies.”

    Yep.

    For what it is worth, I don’t have much hope that testing will be done correctly or used correctly, either.

    I’d like it to be, but I don’t think that there is much of a constituency for this :-(

  21. I don’t entirely agree with Lightly Seasoned, but the rest of you are utterly clueless.

    These are juniors who are close to illiterate. And they aren’t close to illiterate because they had teachers who didn’t care, but because they have (overall) very low cognitive ability and simply aren’t capable of anything even close to the curriculum that the teachers are mandated to teach.

    The white and Asian teachers (and, I suspect, the black and Hispanic teachers as well) know this. The black administration, like most other administrators, are required to ignore this and scream at anyone who points this out as having low expectations. But pointing out that kids with 4th grade reading skills are incapable of understanding a newspaper article has nothing to do with low expectations.

    Give them something with a high school reading level but manageable content knowledge, it’s at least something they have a shot at trying to struggle through. Give them a test in which not only the reading level but the content knowledge is so far beyond their ken, it’s simply a cruel joke.

    I personally think that giving students a high stakes test that they have absolutely no ability to deal with is grotesque and cruel. That doesn’t justify, explain, or even give me the slightest sympathy for the teacher. It simply means that those of you yammering about widening student horizons or “they’ve been in school for 11 years and [fill in the blank with some moronic bromide]” are talking through some other part of their anatomy than their mouths.

    It’s the policy, stupid. Not the school, not the teacher, but the policy that pretends everyone is capable of achieving, that we can’t acknowledge the existence of a whole school that has kids reading below 8th grade level, that we can’t test progress with tests that start with a meaningful basis of comparison.

    The teacher’s a cheat. So what? So’s the policy. And the policy’s wasting far more money.

    The teacher is accurately representing the reality and the futility. Feel free to judge her, but don’t think for a moment she’s not right about the kids.

  22. Quote:

    These are juniors who are close to illiterate. And they aren’t close to illiterate because they had teachers who didn’t care, but because they have (overall) very low cognitive ability and simply aren’t capable of anything even close to the curriculum that the teachers are mandated to teach.

    Actually, these students are juniors, they were GIVEN that title by the amount of seat time (parking one’s rear end in a seat at school for hours a day) for 10+ years allowed them the right to be called juniors.

    Our district did an interesting thing some years ago, for high school classes (9th-12th), it tied class standing in terms of grade level to credits actually earned, so to be classified a 9th grader, you had to have earned 0-5 credits, 10th, 6 to 11 credits, 11th, 11 to 17 credits, and 12th grade was 17 or more credits earned.

    A credit is 1 year of student in a given class. When the district was all said and done, it found something very interesting, they had a whole new crop of 17 and 18 year old freshmen and sophomores on their hands.

    The fact that these so-called ‘juniors’ can barely read is everyone’s fault from the parental units of these students, to everyone who had helped to NOT educate them. Also, to say that cheating is going to help these students is nonsense, giving students grades they didn’t earn for material they didn’t learn will only cost them after they leave school and go out into the real world.

  23. Deirdre Mundy says:

    Cal– I stand corrected. I looked up two of the sample passages available on line. One was written at a sixth grade level, but had many “Britishisms”. The other was at a 12th grade level.

    You’re right. That IS insane, considering that most US adults do most of their reading at a 3rd to 5th grade level. And, frankly, I’m not sure that “Able to read a long essay in the Atlantic Monthly” should be our standard for “literacy required of a HS graduate or as proof that teachers are doing their jobs.”

    College for all is NOT realistic, and 12th grade reading level for all is even LESS realistic. (Heck, there are lots of College graduates who are successful in their chosen fields and can’t read at a 12th grade level!)

    So, looking at the actual test, the PSSA is incredibly unrealistic. Which is why state boards of education need to sit down and come up with a list of what they want kids to be able to do when they leave high school—and then they need to test it against their mechanics, nurses, small business owners, computer networkers, etc. and see if they’re on the right track.

    (As an aside the 12th grade level piece (the one on Mir, according to F-K) could have used an editor. There’s no reason that piece SHOULD have been at that level–it could have been just as powerful and informative if it was written for the Highlights crowd! (Highlights tops out at 5th or 6th grade for the more advanced pieces.))

  24. Deirdre,

    Quote:

    You’re right. That IS insane, considering that most US adults do most of their reading at a 3rd to 5th grade level. And, frankly, I’m not sure that “Able to read a long essay in the Atlantic Monthly” should be our standard for “literacy required of a HS graduate or as proof that teachers are doing their jobs.”

    At the moment, the average adult in the US reads at approximately grade levels 7 to 8, but independent testing centers at Sylvan can properly assess a person’s reading level, and most college students or graduates rarely have excellent written/verbal communication skills from what I’ve seen on resumes and job applications in the last two to three years.

    Actually, I know several small business owners, they’d like their potential applicants to be able to do the following:

    Show up to work on time.
    Be able to read and follow instructions.
    Quit socializing with friends or text messaging while working.
    Be able to handle basic math issues.

    These are all things that a high school student 25 or more years ago could handle without too much trouble. These days, I’m not so sure. I’ve walked out of businesses without getting any service due to employees goofing off, so I take my money somewhere else.

    Also, in the professions you mention, potential students will need excellent reading and writing skills, along with math ability in order to succeed. The career track used to be an option in high schools when I attended, but was phased out over many years to get everyone ready for college. These days, skilled trades will require some college level coursework.

    A certificate in HVAC (or applied science degree) will require 30-64 credits of study at a minimum. If students don’t have the knowledge before starting the program, they’ll spend $$$ getting the remediation they need for subject matter they should have mastered in middle and high school.

  25. Roger Sweeny says:

    Deirdre Mundy,

    That is a fascinating idea. Find out what the skills and knowledge of actual successful people are, and then seriously teach them.

    Alas, it is rather contrary to what most people in this business think should be done, “They should take courses like I did in college, just at a lower level.”

  26. Deirdre Mundy says:

    Roger– well, I want core knowledge too— but “reading at a 12th grade level” is not realistic.

    And there’s a difference between “excellent reader and writer” and “reads and writes well enough for HVAC.” Why? Because someone’s subject specific reading level is much higher than their general one.

    My MIL is a nurse. She can read and understand very complex medical articles and reports. If you give her Plato, she’ll give up after 5 minutes. But, when she left HS, she couldn’t read medical reports at a 12th grade level either— it comes from time in the field. And we can’t expect a general-education HS curriculum to teach everyone to read at the highest level in every subject.

    OTOH, there’s a basic level of Math, Reading and Writing that people need in order to be able to pursue their chosen fields. It varies, but I think we should be aiming for /HVAC/Administrative Assistant/Mechanic/ for most rather than “Academic Career” for most.

    Because, let’s face it–many of us on the site find a life of reading, writing, and arguing fulfilling. Otherwise, we wouldn’t be reading edublogs. And many ed reformers see that as the ‘good life.’ But it’s important to remember that ‘the good life’ varies from person to person, and that for MOST americans, reading/writing/thinking is NOT the good life. And for most of history it hasn’t been the good life.

    The challenge is to create an education system that satisfies both the academic-wannabes and the mechanic-wannabes. The PROBLEM is that we’ve stopped giving kids a choice and have declared them all to be ‘budding academics’, which is as damaging as declaring them all ‘budding mechanics.’