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Teacher cheating, student testing and the great education tradeoff

Education reform is a long battle that needs to be waged in the United States.

This piece is part of a leadership roundtable on the right way to approach teacher incentives — with opinion pieces by Duke University behavioral economics professor Dan Ariely, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, Harvard Graduate School of Education professor Howard Gardner, and Washington Post columnist Steven Pearlstein.

Try this thought experiment. Imagine I told you there was a way to improve student performance on standardized tests by 15 percent over the course of a several years, but it came with the downside that every year a small percentage of students, teachers and principals would almost certainly try to game the system by cheating. Would you take the deal?

I don’t think this question answers itself. It is the kind of real-world tradeoff that leaders have to make all the time. And while they can talk until they are blue in the face about no tolerance for cheating and creating a highly ethical culture and rigorous enforcement efforts, the reality is that if you create high-stakes competitions of any sort, you’re eventually going to get a certain irreducible level of cheating and abuse.

This has been true in corporate sales, with its long history of bribery and kickbacks. It has been a reality in politics and elections. It has been the case in major league and top-level amateur sports. Lord knows it has led to lots of problems on Wall Street. And if we continue to rely on high-stakes testing in education, it will also be a factor there as well.

The right reaction to the cheating scandals in Atlanta, Washington and elsewhere isn’t to declare testing a failure. It is to string up, metaphorically, the worst offenders as a lesson to anyone else who wants to give it a try. It is to spend the money on software and investigations to create a very credible threat that if you do this you’ll get caught. And it is to reaffirm, absolutely, our commitment to accountability in education and continuous improvement in the ways we measure success of students, teachers and principals.

To me, this is one of the critical tests of leadership: to be able to stand firm and stand tall when bad things happen to good ideas or policies or strategies. This is all relatively new stuff and it’s almost inevitable that there will be several years of embarrassing screw-ups before school systems get it right—and even then there will be continuing risks that clever, selfish people will find new ways to game the system.

The alternative, of course, is to return to the days of virtually no accountability and no cheating, which is not preferable. The notion that there is some happy middle ground is a fantasy.

The fact that there is cheating does not prove that the emphasis on testing has gone too far. What it proves is that the performance of the education system was even worse than we thought, that teachers and principals knew it and were so clueless about being able to turn things around that they were desperate enough to take the risk of cheating. You might argue they were also rather stupid if they thought they wouldn’t get caught. That the incompetent and stupid have now been smoked out and purged from the system might be viewed as an accomplishment.

Education reform is a long battle that needs to be waged here, and it calls for generals who understand how to manage setbacks and learn from them while continuing to champion the cause.

Also in this roundtable:

Dan Ariely: U.S. education’s history lesson from corporate America

Howard Gardner: Time to treat teachers as professionals

Steven Pearlstein is a business and economics columnist who writes about local, national and international topics.

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