Who proctors the proctors?

This second, consecutive post on public teacher ethics is occasioned by a New York Times piece last Thursday on teachers and administrators who engage in cheating to improve their students’ scores on standardized tests. Steven D. Levitt (a Times blogger on matters of behavioral economics) is said to have studied answer sheets of standardized tests administered in Chicago in the 1990s and concluded that 4-5% of elementary school teachers cheat. Undoubtedly the amount has risen as the incentives for higher scores have risen.

Now bear in mind that the cheating is in an area that is central to what the teachers are supposed to do. It is not cheating on taxes or handing in false expense reports. Central to what we expect public school teachers to do is honestly evaluate their students. And yet on this central issues 1 out of 20 cheat.

Perhaps I am naive, but I cannot conceive of another profession in which cheating in something so central to the integrity of profession is so rampant. I cannot believe, for example, that 1 in 20 litigators destroy harmful documents before producing his client’s documents pursuant to a discovery request. I don’t believe that 1 in 20 accountants falsify audit results.  I don’t even believe that 1 in 20 traffic policemen will forgo handing out a ticket for a bribe.

In fact, the cheating by teachers is more akin to third world petty bureaucrats than professionals.

The explanations in the article are unconvincing. It is true that the recent emphasis on standardized tests often produces unfair, counterproductive and nonsensical results. (Likewise, when I reviewed client documents before discovery I often found a document that I knew the other side would be able to misconstrue, making the litigation costs for everyone greater and settlement disproportionately more expensive to my client. Nevertheless, I, like all other litigators I know, produced the document, rather than rationalized destroying it.) It is also true that often times teacher and administrator promotions and bonuses depend on the fortuitous results of the tests. But if teachers are craven enough to falsify documents the public, rightly or wrongly, relies on (remember this is public school, one of the supposed virtues of which is public oversight and civic participation) for a couple of thousand dollars aren’t they in the wrong profession to begin with?

Perhaps we should stop beatifying the public school teacher. I am sure there are many who are quite dedicated and some who make many sacrifices. But when 1 in 20 betray one of their fundamental principles, then they require more rather than less supervision. (And this doesn’t even take into account other issues such as competence and temperament.)

But we have the odd situation where public school teachers are accorded protections unknown in any other field. They have procedural due process protection by virtue of being public employees. They have the protection of union membership and union contracts. They often have the protection of tenure (as do administrators, for some reason), even though academic freedom issues are entirely unknown in elementary school. And most importantly they have the protection of the hive.  Administrators and supervisors come from the ranks of the profession. They live in a closed environment where outsiders are rarely permitted to enter (and when they are, the conduct of all is usually scripted). School administration have used “security” concerns to further seal the schools from outsiders. And almost all school districts have such byzantine procedural rules than any complaint by an outsider or client (such as the students or their parents) is generally dissipated in a cloud of exhaustion much the way chancery court worked in Bleak House. This is of course on top of the protection that naturally results from the reality that most parents neither have the time nor ability to monitor what is going on in the public school.

This situation is perhaps just another example of the American genius for reducing a system to inefficiency by applying ad hoc procedural protections to parts without consideration for the whole. First, teachers are protected from arbitrary dismissal. So something has to be done to protect students. Procedural codes are devised for “complaints.” Administrators therefore believe they have no management responsibilities and therefore concentrate on financial and other matters. The public is outraged that teachers are not incentivized to teach basics and therefore enact blunt instruments like standardized tests. Teachers feel this is unfair and cheat in order to produce “fairer” results.

At some point, the solution has to be the same as the one Alexander used when he confronted the knot at Gordium and start over.


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