Cheater or Cheated?

Teacher Monitors Standardized Test
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cheaters 300x199 Cheater or Cheated?The nation has been rocked by yet another cheating scandal. Former Atlanta superintendent of schools Beverly Hall, along with 35 teachers, principals and others, were recently indicted for racketeering. The indictment alleges that these teachers, principals and test administrators, either under Hall’s explicit direction, or thanks to a climate that endorsed such behavior, altered the results of hundreds, if not thousands of standardized tests given to Atlanta’s public school children.


Particularly troubling is the profession of the accused. When cheating scandals appear in the world of sports we barely blink, almost expecting such behavior from our athletes. The fact that Barry Bonds or Lance Armstrong broke the rules in order to excel surprised few. After all, we reason, these are ‘just jocks’, who are rarely held to high moral standards. The line goes, “Just win, baby”; in our culture victory trumps virtue. But teachers? Principals? School superintendents? Educators?


What hope do we have for our students if their teachers are cheaters? What could possibly be more hypocritical than a teacher who constantly stresses the virtues of truth telling and the merit of just rewards, but then changes the scores of the students’ tests hoping to reap unjust rewards? We stand aghast at the incredibly poor judgment allegedly displayed by Hall and her fellow defendants. In short, “What were they thinking?”


Obviously there are lessons here to be learned. We will have ample time to learn those lessons, which might include the lure of temptation and the simple truth of human frailty. However, being one who is not without sin, I do not want to throw that stone just yet.


Perhaps, there is another stone to be considered. Before we ‘hang’ the Atlanta 36 we should ask what it is that would lead people of seemingly strong character to make such gross errors of moral judgment. While we cannot condone cheating or lying, we have to try and understand its cause and expose possible factors which might have influenced the negative behavior. If such factors do exist, they do not necessarily absolve the accused but rather force all who contributed to those factors to share the burden of blame as well.


Virtue should not be the casualty of victory, but survival strains its limits. Bruce Dixon, managing editor of Black Agenda Report writes (

Since scores on standardized tests, of course, track to income levels, and in the US, where residential segregation along racial and economic lines is the rule, majority black and Latino schools consistently get the lowest scores, are most often labeled as “failing” and the most frequently closed and replaced by favored charter operations. In this climate of fear cheating has become a national epidemic, with reports of industrial scale test manipulation in Los Angeles, Houston, Washington DC and elsewhere.


The thrust of Dixon’s article is not to exonerate Hall. He is severely critical of her behavior. Rather, he wants to make sure that the required introspection takes place not only in Georgia, but in Washington as well. Has our rush to standards and the resulting assessments of students, teachers, schools and administrators, created an atmosphere in which good educators are left fighting for their lives? Do too many feel that a system has been created in which the deck is stacked against them in ways that only ‘cheating back’ will give them a fair shot in the game?


These are hard questions that must be asked and must be answered. As a community of educators we must realize that if one of ours falls we all become somewhat diminished. Our willingness to correct our personal flaws, and those of the systems we create, is in itself a virtue of immense value and a lesson worth teaching our students.

4 Responses to Cheater or Cheated?

  1. Monty J. Thornburg, Ph.D. says:

    The line goes, “Just win, baby”; in our culture victory trumps virtue. But teachers? Principals? School superintendents? Educators? Wow! He who throws the first stone … !!!

    The article sort of excused Bonds and Armstrong above because they represent the American culture; i.e., competition reigns. Competition is the hallmark of free enterprise and sports are a symbolic marker for our culture. Now that we have schools: Public and Charter, and school districts and their communities competing through the use of high stakes tests as the marker; competition between schools is moving them away from a civic purpose (Jefferson) toward an economic, “free enterprise” competition model, (Freedman- “Free to Choose”). Indeed, even nations seem to be competing! See the recent Exxon Advertisements that tell us “we can solve this.” Yes, the stakes are high and is it any wonder that this occurred- assuming everyone is guilty? Note: A real trial still needs to occur.

    The other, “political” and unseemly part of this has to do with the use of the RICO Act by a sitting Republican Gov. and with an obvious political agenda about “leadership” e.g., Black Leadership! The many racist comments after the news broke, particularly in the Atlanta Constitution Journal Blog, where too often vile and racist attacks went way beyond any kind of civility is a moral problem, too!

    In Atlanta and Texas too where another related incident occurred; this “moralistic” rant that’s being advanced, simply brings shame on us all. It’s shame on all of us with a demonstration of another cultural trait that remains in America- Racial hatred. Maybe cooperation and civility would serve us best in public k-12 education? Maybe we should re-examine our purposes and goals?

    I suggest that you look in “Project Censored, 2013″ one of this year’s articles: Chapter 8: GERM Warfare: How to Reclaim the Education Debate from Corporate Occupation, By: Adam Bessie. (GERM) the Global Education Reform Movement begins, according to the article, with the late economist, Milton Freedman.

    • Karmi Gross says:

      The racial overtones that accompanied much of the current scandal are most unfortunate and conceal the real issues. The trial that must yet take place should include a good, hard look at every aspect of our rush towards school evaluations, and the many perhaps unforeseen consequences of such policies. Thank you for your thoughtful remarks.

  2. Don Berg says:

    The question of what causes bad behavior usually goes almost automatically to the “bad apple” theory in which each person is a moral island who freely exercises individual will in every behavior, thus implying that only bad people do bad things. In a small concession to our social nature that one “bad apple” is also capable of corrupting other nearby “apples” in the “barrel” they share, thus, leading to some good people doing bad things but only because they were acting under the influence of a bad person. Psychologists such as Philip Zimbardo have suggested that any reasonable explanation of human behavior has to also account for the possibility that there are “bad barrels” in which the nature of certain kinds of situations influence good people to do bad things. This idea means that there might be situations in which there are only good people, but they end up doing something bad because of the way the situation is set up. And it further implies that if someone was responsible for creating that situation, then we should be attributing the bad behavior to a “bad barrel maker.” He does not offer this explanation to exonerate the “apples” but to expand the scope of accountability to include “barrel makers” in the feedback that should encourage good behavior and prevent bad behavior. The responsibility for behavior lies with both the individuals who took action and the people who created a situation in which those actions could be taken.

    The perfect example of individuals making choices within a created situation is the now famous marshmallow experiments on self-control amongst children in the 60′s and 70′s by Walter Mischel. For those who aren’t familiar with these experiments the set-up was to put a child usually about 4 years old in an otherwise empty room in a chair sitting at a table with a single marshmallow on a plate. Then the experimenter tells the child that s/he will be able to get two marshmallows if s/he can wait until the experimenter comes back before eating the one on the plate. The child is also given a bell which they can use to signal the experimenter that they will no longer wait for the second marshmallow. Signalling means they get to eat the one on the plate but do not get the second one. Then the experimenter leaves the child alone (while secretly filming them through a one-way mirror) for 15 minutes or until the child signals that they are done waiting. The films are often hilarious to watch, so here’s two reproductions for your enjoyment (–w ) and here’s the YouTube channel for it

    This experiment is widely touted because the kids who were unable to delay their gratification went on to later show less success in life in high school and college. But my point is about how the experimenters acted as bad barrel makers in this situation. They created an opportunity for children to act on a temptation. The fact is that lots of kids figured out ways to NOT eat the marshmallow and got two in the end. Some just ate the one. If we are concerned about responsibility for each child’s actions then we need to give some of the blame to the experimenters. The children who gave in to the temptation would not have done so if there were more ways to avoid it. But the experimenters deliberately created a situation in which they knew temptation would be very high. There was almost nothing else in the room besides the child and the marshmallow, so it was very difficult for some kids to figure out how to distract themselves from the object of their desires. While there are probably a few kids who might have succumb to temptation under almost any circumstance in which they were offered a marshmallow there are probably lots who would not have given in if they had more resources available to provide distraction.
    Now consider this- I can tell you one absolutely sure fired way to make sure that no children would ever succumb to the temptation of eating the marshmallow: Don’t offer them any marshmallows. Don’t put them in the situation in which the undesirable behavior is an option. But even if you absolutely must put them in situations in which some undesirable behavior is going to be possible, then train them to handle the situation before they are tempted.
    This is why the cheating scandals are no surprise to anyone who is the least bit familiar with social psychology. The high stakes associated with the outcomes of the tests create a systematic bias that will encourage cheating. It’s not the people, it’s the situation in which they have been put that encourages the cheating. Obviously, lots of people were able to NOT cheat, but the pervasive scope of the laws that create this situation make it highly likely that someone is going to cheat. If our public dialogue on schools wasn’t crippled by a pathetically inadequate notion that education is just the delivery of knowledge which can and should be measured on tests then we would create better situations in which accountability was based on more meaningful measures such as classroom and school climate, the quality of motivation to learn, and the meeting of basic needs as a prerequisite to providing academic enrichment.


    Don Berg

    Free E-book: The Attitude Problem in Education

    • Karmi Gross says:

      I agree that is absurd to test the moral character of children, or adults for that matter, before we first teach them how to ‘pass’ the test successfully. What could such a test possibly tell us? On the other hand, adults who have been exposed to lessons in moral behavior are to be measured by how deeply they have absorbed those messages, precisely when exposed to the ‘bad barrels’. This does indicate to us the strength of their moral fiber. When they fail, the blame must be shared by the creator of the ‘testing’ environment and by those who did not live up the moral standards reasonably expected of them. When they are people in positions of influence both the expectations and their failures are amplified resulting in the ensuing scandals.

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