On cheating

As cheating is in the news, I thought it might be appropriate to share an excerpt from my book on cheating. Everyone seems to be shocked concerning the profundity of the cheating scandal, but the truth is that many inner-city school systems cheat–just not in the traditional sense.

From my book, Education Exposed:

When discussing standardized tests, I would be remiss in my duties of exposing the world of education if I didn’t talk about cheating. When the stakes are high, there will always be cheaters. In education, it is easy for teachers to justify cheating because they feel so passionately about the unfairness of the very existence of the tests in the first place.

When people think of cheating, they think of getting the answers from someone else. That is, after all, the kind of cheating that many students participated in at one point in their education career. For me, I was always the one whose paper was being copied in school, and I was equally guilty by allowing the cheating to occur. But whether or not you were the copier or the source—you probably had an experience of at least glancing at another’s page to confirm an answer you’d put. Cheating happens.

The kind of cheating that schools are doing, however, varies. The cheating that makes it onto the news is the aforementioned cheating—teachers giving students the answers. There have been several national-news cases involving teachers who were filling in blank answers with correct answers or even erasing answers to replace those answers with correct ones. This kind of cheating is not as widespread because the perpetrators get caught.

The kind of cheating that pervades the system is much more clever and sneakier. Of the two schools in which I taught, one was a failing school and one was not (though it would later become one). The failing school had similar demographics but was way worse off when it came to impoverished students. The greatest similarity between the schools was the number of English Learners (EL’s) the schools had. The failing school did everything by the book. The passing school was passing because they gamed the system.

In high school, there are different types of tests. Most tests are course-specific. For example, only those enrolled in Biology take the Biology standardized test. Then other tests, like the writing assessments, are grade-level-specific. In our case, all juniors took the writing assessment. Both of these schools were failing in the English/reading measurements which included both the writing assessment and course-specific tests. These tests were particularly hard for EL’s because they struggled with reading endurance and the subtle nuances of language involved in the tests.

The passing school gamed the system by exempting less-competent students from the tests. One way the school exempted students was by booting them out of the school for behavior issues. When the student was booted, even if he or she returned later in the year, the student’s enrollment status voided their test scores.

Another way the school avoided testing EL’s is by selective enrollment. English learners only have to take two English courses to graduate. The progression should be English I then English II. English II is a tested course. English IV, however, is not a tested course. Consequently, EL’s would be scheduled to go right from English I into English IV.

The other issue was the writing assessment, which is grade-level specific to ensure that everyone takes it. They found a way around that as well. A couple of weeks before the test, the counselors would go through and count the credits of their junior-level EL students. If the number of credits was closer to sophomore level, the student would be bumped down to sophomore level. If the student’s credits were closer to senior level, the student would be bumped up to senior level. That way, the students did not take the junior-level test and still weren’t counted against the 95% attendance required for the test. After the test was over, the students’ credits would be returned to their previous state, and they would be juniors once again.

When I found out what the school was doing, I was disgusted. The administrators and teachers at the school often compared themselves to my previous school and made incredibly disparaging remarks about my previous school. In my loyalty, I wanted everyone to know what was going on. Whenever I found myself in a conversation about test scores, which happened quite often, I would bring up what I’d learned. Most teachers were disgusted like I was. One time, however, I received an unexpected response.

The teacher was a lead teacher in English. When I told her, she was angrily defensive and said, “Good! That means they’re doing their jobs. Any administrator who doesn’t do that should be fired. They’d have to be pretty stupid not to.” These behaviors undermine the tests and invalidate them. On paper, my previous school was a failing school by two students because the administrators did everything by the book; my new school was a passing school on paper but in actuality should have been a failing school by dozens of students. Which was the better school? The measurements used sure aren’t going to tell you.


On school climate

In graduate school, I can remember discussing school climate and school culture using an analogy of an iceberg. What we see of an iceberg is only a tiny fraction of the actual majority of the iceberg that is hidden under water. That visible part of the iceberg is the school climate. It’s what we perceive on the surface.

School culture, however, informs school climate. School climate may fluctuate. A school may go through some positive, optimistic periods, but if the school culture is negative then it will eat away at that positivity until what remains is as bitter and hopeless as the culture.

Cultures exist at multiple organizational levels. For every rung of the organizational ladder a corresponding culture exists: state, district, school, teachers, and students. I want to focus on building-level cultures, so I will address school culture as it relates to teachers and students using my own personal experience.

As a teacher at my first inner-city school, I was brand new. I was yet unaware of any cultural norms, so I did everything in an idealistic way. I worked as hard as I could because I like to be good at everything I do. I stayed for hours preparing for the next day’s lessons and wrote detailed lesson plans. I came in to work when I could barely talk in an effort to eke out every bit of instructional time afforded me. I approached every lesson with excitement, as an opportunity to be a part of the solution to the problems with education. I stayed out of the teacher’s lounge and eschewed any negative teacher complaining.

Although it was emotionally draining working to form relationships with inner-city students, I loved my job and my students. But I thought about the idea that no man is an island. I did not want my colleagues to think that I was too good for them. I did not want my colleagues to think that I felt that I knew everything and did not need their input or advice.

Through interactions with teachers I learned the bare minimum I could include in my lesson plans for them to be considered acceptable. I learned I could very easily use my sick days as mental-health days. I learned that I could play videos and justify them as curriculum. I learned that if I would coach something I’d have job security no matter what the quality of my teaching. I learned that I could miss even more school by jumping at every opportunity for professional development. The culture for teachers was one of doing the bare minimum.

The school had just been given a new principal, and that principal made a point of trying to re-culture the school. Although the school was a failing school, he was going to throw every penny at turning that around. And he did. Teachers worked as hard as they were capable. Teachers stayed four to five hours after school was over. Teachers implemented innovated ways of teaching and grading. Teachers collaborated with each other on their own time. But there was another culture at odds with this new culture for teachers that was being cultivated: the student culture.

The student culture was one of failure. I can remember one of my smartest students telling me that no one goes on from our school to do anything great. Why would our athletes train their hardest when no scouts were going to check out our games? Why would our students strive to be academically successful when it meant little to do so at a failing school? So they didn’t. Teachers were going at 200%, but in the end we were still a failing school.

But we had only failed by two students. Teachers had a glimmer of hope. One more year was all it would take. One more year of running at full speed. But we failed again. Our principal was “fired” to show the district was doing something about our poor performance. He was then promoted to a district office position because he was actually an amazing, dynamic leader; he just couldn’t do the impossible. Teachers started to question the value of wearing themselves out just to be failing teachers in a failing school. Teachers burnt out and went back to that bare minimum mentality or they left the school, left the profession, or moved on to other endeavors.

Teachers are trained to find creative ways to give students a taste of success to motivate them to do well. We weren’t given a taste of success. We worked as hard as we could, but we only got fear, uncertainty, and blame. Our motivation was shot.

Now once again I am a new teacher and figuring out the climate. The school culture is completely foreign to me. Teachers dress professionally. Teachers hold high expectations for their students. Teachers don’t take a bunch of mental health days and are held accountable for attendance by their colleagues. All teachers must post their lesson plans (as opposed to just new teachers) for all other school personnel to see. Teachers are expected to communicate frequently with parents. We have parental involvement. We have celebrations—and success to celebrate. Our teachers get great evaluations and support.

We have school spirit. Our students are proud and consider themselves lucky to be a part of such a great school. Students from out of zone fight to get to come to our school. Our athletic teams win district and state championships. Our students go on to become National Merit Scholars. Our students hold high expectations for themselves and work hard to achieve success. Students feel that they have real futures. These circumstances create cultures for both students and teachers of success. That culture of success goes a long way in perpetuating that success. It’s a big, wonderful cycle of success that breeds more and more success.

We can’t expect to turn around our worst performing schools if we don’t allow them a culture of success. This witch hunt on the basis of test scores is killing the morale of students and teachers in our inner-city schools. If we want to breed positive school cultures that can sustain positive growth, we must not label schools as failing schools. That year that we failed by only two students, we should have been celebrating the tremendous growth we’d made since the previous year. But we weren’t. We couldn’t. When failure is your only future, why even try?

On “teaching to the test”

The following is an excerpt from the chapter “Accountability” in Education Exposed: What teaching taught me about America’s failing education system by Kelly Matthews, M.Ed.

…Administrators often expect teachers to do the impossible. In addition to doing the impossible, teachers are expected to do so while working within the confines of the specific rules of operation the administrators set forth. These rules of operation are not put in place to help teachers to be better teachers; they are there to serve the administrators and make their lives easier. Administrators expect teachers to teach and grade in specific ways that are not conducive to improving test scores.

When administrators walk into classrooms, they want to see teachers motivating the students like something out of Dead Poet’s Society. They want teachers to be inspiring students to do magnificent work. Students will be engaged through inquiry and developing products that show their mastery of the standards. The real fact of the matter is that a student being able to show mastery through a specific task—such as a poster—does not mean that students can show mastery of the standards on the tests. But the administration wants to see both the fun, product-based teaching and the improving test scores.

One of my favorite things to have my students do is to make a mind map. It is a critical thinking activity in which students in cooperative groups must create a graphic representation of a character from a novel, play, or short story. The students must include two symbols that represent the character, two quotes from the story that add to his or her characterization, and two original phrases that help people understand the significance of the character. They create a face shape with all of these tasks.

The poster project is a great way of measuring whether or not students get characterization. They also must understand the significance of the work as a whole in order to understand the roles played by the individual characters. It’s also great if I am being observed because the students are engaged, working in groups, and I am facilitating instead of lecturing.

Although the poster project is aligned with the state standards, the poster project is not aligned with the state test. Just because a student can complete all of the tasks I have assigned, it doesn’t mean the student can answer a question on the test about symbolism, theme, or characterization. The knowledge doesn’t transfer. If I want to ensure that my students can answer questions about symbolism, theme, and characterization, I must teach them and assess them in a way that aligns with how they will be assessed on the test.

And if I teach like that, my students will do well on the test. I know this because I do and they do. But if an administrator drops in for an unannounced observation, I will fail that observation because students aren’t standing on the desks declaring, “Oh Captain, my captain.”

Do I want to teach like that? No. I would love to do mind maps every time. I would love to do as many projects as I could fit into the class period. It’s not just fun for the students; it’s fun for me. I love being a facilitator—it’s less work. I love getting to see the creativity with which these students create their products. I love students getting to develop their critical thinking skills.

But I also love having my students show growth on the tests. So, I can still do projects from time to time, but the bulk of my teaching has to be explicit, direct instruction. And this is what people mean when they reference teaching to the test. And, yes, it sucks the souls out of hard-working teachers on a daily basis….