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Bruno: DC Blame Game Distracts Us From Root Causes

image from farm1.staticflickr.comOne of the larger Michelle Rhee-related controversies revolves around how much cheating on standardized tests took place during her time running the schools in Washington DC, and whom to blame.

Richard Whitmire came to Rhee's defense in the Washington Post last week, but in the process he got bogged down in an unhelpful game of finger pointing, going on at some length about how the right targets for "blame" are teachers rather than the administrators holding them accountable.

There's obviously some reasonable appeal to assigning blame for cheating, and it's intuitive enough to assign that blame to the individuals most directly involved. As satisfying as it is to assign blame, however, it's only tangentially related to the policy issue at hand: namely, the extent to which cheating is a problem under Rhee-style reforms and what we should do to mitigate it. The causes of cheating are therefore much more relevant than the assignment of guilt.

It may be that in most cases teachers are the most direct and immediate causes of cheating, but the fact is that cheating is the result of a numerous causes operating at different levels. If cheating rates rose during Rhee's tenure, there's no sense in denying that she probably caused at least part of that increase by making the test results more important. (Nor is it offensive to teachers - unless you have wildly unreasonable expectations of the profession - to think that increasing the incentives to cheat will lead to more cheating.)

Whether that means Rhee is "to blame" for any resulting cheating is mostly a question of ethics rather than policy. The policy discussion we should be having is about what rules should be in place for teachers, administrators, and chancellors to minimize the extent to which cheating undermines schooling and learning.

Cheating teachers should probably be held legally and professionally accountable, but if we do so to satisfy our urge to distribute justice we've missed the point. If Rhee's reforms lead to an increase in cheating, that's a knock against them that needs to be weighed when we think about implementing them on a wider scale. Arguments about the appropriate allocation of blame are a distraction. - PB (@MrPABruno

Image via CCommons


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It's self-evident that punishing educators and closing schools based on test scores well lead to cheating, inevitably. That's what the objection to "high stakes" is about.

Think about it -- even if you as a teacher are fully willing to take the punishment (or, if you're lucky, reward) personally for your own students' test scores, the consequences if your school is likely to be closed over them go far beyond you -- to your students and your colleagues. Multiply this by institutions full of individuals. Cheating will pervade the culture. How could it not?

The issues with Rhee are both the culture of cheating that she created -- and the fact that the culture of cheating blows her claims of success out of the water. As to her personal ethics or lack thereof, they were already emblazoned for all to see based on her eye-rollingly ridiculous fibs about her supposed success as a Baltimore teacher before she got the D.C. job.

Tests are supposed to assess individual students' progress, not be used as weapons against schools, districts and the entire teaching profession. Obviously once they're used as weapons, cheating is going to happen.

As I said, I agree that cheating would increase if test stakes were raised. I think it's an open question *how much* they would increase and the extent to which it could be easily mitigated by additional security. (As of now, for example, the California state tests have lots of *rules* but approximately no enforcement. I hear they're stepping up enforcement this year after some embarrassing cell-phone based cheating last year, but am not sure.)

Standardized testing has always led to trouble. The stakes are high enough for most schools with their funding riding on actual test scores. I agree completely with the fact that cheating would increase if stakes were raised.

Reinforcement needs to occur in order for there to be any progress. Teachers are not the only ones to blame though. If you think about a school that is in a very poor community, they will have lower test scores which means less funding. The amount of pressure put on kids so their schools can stay open is astronomical...and ridiculous.

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