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When Teachers Cheat, What About The Kids?

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When Teachers Cheat, What About The Kids?

Education

When Teachers Cheat, What About The Kids?

When Teachers Cheat, What About The Kids?

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  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/139648752/139648741" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

Guests

Michael Winerip, national educational columnist, New York Times
Deborah Meier, convener, Forum for Education and Democracy

Scores of Atlanta public schools principals and teachers have confessed to doctoring student test results to inflate the schools' performance. Investigations are also underway in Pennsylvania and Washington, D.C. But what's behind the scandals, and what happens to students when teachers cheat?

NEAL CONAN, host: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Criminal investigators in Georgia spent nearly a year uncovering the biggest public school cheating scandal ever. A report released last month showed systematic cheating in nearly half of Atlanta's public schools. It named 178 principals and teachers, including 82 who confessed that they changed test answers. Teachers at one school held changing parties.

Investigations are also underway in Pennsylvania, Los Angeles and here in Washington, D.C. Some argue that this is predictable fallout from the pressure of high-stakes standardized tests, but whatever the motive, cheating is indefensible, and its victims include the students.

Teachers, administrators, what difference does this make for your kids? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later in the program, the woman who sped down the Appalachian Trail in unofficial record time. But first, what happens when teachers cheat. And we begin with Michael Winerip, national educational columnist for the New York Times, who joins us now. Nice to have you with us on the program today.

MICHAEL WINERIP: Thank you for having me, Neal.

CONAN: And the case in Atlanta, Hollywood could have scripted this.

WINERIP: Oh, it's amazing. It's just amazing. And much to the credit of the investigators - they're a former attorney general, a former DA and probably the best investigator in the state - they wrote it like a mystery novel. It's extraordinary.

There are things in it you just couldn't make up. There were tests that were held in piles that were sealed in cellophane, and one of the teachers in one of the schools where there was cheating took a razorblade, cut the tests, looked at them, made notes on them, put them back in and used a cigarette lighter to then - you know, to put the cellophane back together.

At another school, there was a principal - if the teachers at the classes didn't make their numbers, he would have them climb under, walk under a table, kneel under a table, just make the point that their scores were too low and they were low. It was extraordinary what went on.

CONAN: And it was - you suggested in a story you wrote that there was an overall tone set in the school system by Beverly Hall, the now-former superintendent, who if your school got good results, well, at the annual get-together at the Georgia Dome, you sat down on the floor, close to the dais, and if your school didn't do so well, you were up in the nosebleed seats.

WINERIP: Extraordinary. I mean, the - and people talked about it. Principals really talked about we want to make the floor. It was a big deal to make the floor. So if their test scores were high enough, they sat towards the front in the floor, they sat closer to Beverly Hall. And if their test scores were above 70 percent but not the highest, they sat in the back of the floor of the hall.

If they were below that, then they were up in the bleachers, and they were shamed for it. So I mean, it was extraordinary. It was just a case of this getting so out of hand, and it's just amazing that no one would just say stop, this doesn't make sense.

CONAN: And nobody blew the whistle. And there were any number of suggestions, reports in the newspapers, investigations indeed by the public schools themselves.

WINERIP: The Atlanta Journal started writing about this in - this was revealed in - the report came out at the start of July of 2011. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution started writing about this in 2001, they had been doing stories. And their stories mostly talked about the extraordinary gains at schools that just couldn't be possible.

At one of the schools, Park Middle School, one year they went from - the eighth grade math scores went from 24 percent proficient one year to 86 percent the next - I mean not superhumanly possible unless you have eight kids in the class, and the numbers get distorted that way.

But, you know, you're talking about 100, 120 kids in the set of eighth-graders, and the Atlanta paper kept writing these stories, and the leaders in the community kept saying, oh, you're just, you know, you're giving the community a bad name. And when the outcry became great enough, Beverly Hall would order an investigation, and they would never find anything.

CONAN: Eventually now-former Governor Sonny Perdue ordered this investigation, this high-powered investigation, which included powers like subpoena power.

WINERIP: Yes, yes. What Sonny Perdue did after just another one of these blue ribbon commissions that produced nothing is he said he wanted to get to the bottom of it. And he appointed three people. And I think this was the key.

Michael Bowers was a former attorney general in the state for about 15 years; Robert Wilson, who was the DA for DeKalb County for about 12 or 14 years; and Richard Hyde, you know, really a great investigator. And he basically said - left them alone. He said I'm not going to read the report ahead of time. I promise you I'll give you the manpower you want, you go doing what you need.

And they spent 10 months, and by the time they were done, they had about 60 or 70 investigators working with them and over 100 people altogether.

CONAN: In a piece in Education Week, Beverly Hall, the now-retired superintendent in Atlanta, said there's no excuse for cheating, I deeply regret I did not do more to prevent it. But she says the real story is being obscured by this scandal and that that's the progress made by Atlanta's public schools over the past decade is real and dramatic.

WINERIP: Well, it's hard to know if it's - what she's referring to is the NAEP scores, the federal test scores, which you can't prep for, and you can't - you couldn't cheat for. And those, there were some very, very modest gains in Atlanta.

I mean, they weren't - I don't know the exact numbers, but Atlanta, when it was ranked against other big urban school systems, was closer to the bottom than the top. So the gains were very, very modest.

And in terms of, you know, Beverly Hall, there are two ways to think about this. The investigators proved beyond doubt that the system was rife with cheating. Eighty-two people admitted they cheated, and another 100 were implicated at almost half the schools. So one or two things went on.

Either she was so clueless and just had no idea that her system was, you know, almost rotten to the core that, you know, she should be ashamed of that, or she was devious and covered this up.

CONAN: And it's not just Atlanta. You've written a subsequent piece about Pennsylvania.

WINERIP: Yes, yes, Pennsylvania is in a much earlier stage. And again, there was sort of a similar pattern there. A newspaper, in this case the Notebook, a Web news organization, got a hold of an erasure study that showed about 90 schools in the state where there were so many erasures on tests from wrong answers to the right that it just couldn't be.

At one of the schools the newspaper calculated that the odds of those erasures happening randomly, so many going from wrong to right, was one in 100 trillion. It just - you know, they were just beyond all common sense.

CONAN: We should note that the same machines that check for the answers on these standardized tests can also detect these little rub marks, the erasures, and that's - when you get a high rate of erasures, that gets suspicious.

WINERIP: Yes, exactly, and my understanding is the testing companies do this routinely. A lot of the states don't use the information, but the testing companies have that information as a check on the accuracy of what they are doing.

You know, Neal, there's a pattern in each of these cases. The pattern is a newspaper will, you know, talk about the problems - that's what happened in Atlanta with the Atlanta paper - and then there was a state agency, a very small state agency where a very smart woman running this little agency - it was basically a kind of public relations part of the state education government - she did an erasure study.

So they had two things. They had the test scores were out of whack, and they had the erasure studies with all this, and then you're not going to get it until you get the third piece, which is the shoe-leather piece. You put investigators on the ground at the schools that are suspicious, and you start - you know, it's like an old mystery novel. You start flips and snitches.

You get people to tell you the truth, and they point to someone else, and someone else points - a teacher points to a principal, a principal points to a district superintendent, a district superintendent points to the superintendent, and that's how you nail it down.

CONAN: And you mentioned the organization in Pennsylvania that helped break the story. We should give some props to our member station in Philadelphia, WHYY, which helped them provide some of the shoe leather.

WINERIP: Absolutely. What happened there, very interesting story. The Notebook, a very small publication, I think it had three full-time reporters just before this all broke and did very good work but, you know, these people just didn't have the time.

And after the agreement with the local public radio station, there were more funds. This was a sharing agreement, which I think is going to happen more and more. And so they were able to hire an extra reporter shared between the radio station and the news website, and that reporter, within a couple days, got this investigation started, a young man named Ben Herold, and that's what sort of exploded the whole thing.

CONAN: We want to hear from teachers today and principals too: What effect does cheating by principals and cheaters have on students? 800-989-8255. We'll begin with Monica(ph), Monica with us from Harper Wood in Michigan.

MONICA: Hi.

CONAN: Hi, Monica, go ahead, please.

MONICA: My question is: I teach in a suburb right next to Detroit Public Schools, which is now getting looked at, just like Philadelphia and Atlanta did, and Pennsylvania. And what - I guess it's a comment and a question. I'm expected to work a miracle with students who have been below proficiency since eighth grade. I'm supposed to get them to be proficient by 11th grade for a test that we don't see as being valid or reliable.

And the pressure that we're getting now, especially in Michigan, half of my evaluation is going to count based on my students' test scores, some of whom I've had for less than an academic year.

And I'm wondering if there's any, you know, discussion of what else we can do besides just using these standardized tests, because we can't cheat. It's wrong. It hurts us. It hurts the kids. But there's no discussion about what else we can do to try to test for proficiency.

CONAN: Well, there's - we'll be talking about that in a minute with Deborah Meier of the Forum for Education and Democracy. But Michael Winerip, as a practical matter, in just a few seconds, these tests aren't going anywhere, are they?

WINERIP: The - well, the tests - the teacher brings up a very good point. The problem with the tests is they're so unreliable. The problem with the goals is they're just too high to hit so many times.

If you get a child in ninth grade, and that child is reading on third-grade level when he or she arrives in your class, you're not going to bring that child up to proficiency in a year's time. And so these - you know, these goals that are set aren't fair for teachers. It's just very, very hard.

I mean, you ask what we can do. You know, for years and years we trusted teachers. You know, so I think a big part of the answer is, you know, finding a way to get really good teachers in the classes...

CONAN: Monica, thanks very much for the call. Stay with us. This is NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Criminal investigators in Georgia spent nearly a year uncovering the biggest public school cheating scandal ever. A report released last month showed systematic cheating in nearly half of Atlanta's public schools. It named 178 principals and teachers, including 82 who confessed that they changed test answers. Teachers at one school held changing parties.

Investigations are also underway in Pennsylvania, Los Angeles and here in Washington, D.C. Some argue that this is predictable fallout from the pressure of high-stakes standardized tests, but whatever the motive, cheating is indefensible, and its victims include the students.

Teachers, administrators, what difference does this make for your kids? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later in the program, the woman who sped down the Appalachian Trail in unofficial record time. But first what happens when teachers cheat. And we begin with Michael Winerip, national educational columnist for the New York Times, who joins us now. Nice to have you with us on the program today.

WINERIP: Thank you for having me, Neal.

CONAN: And the case in Atlanta, Hollywood could have scripted this.

WINERIP: Oh, it's amazing. It's just amazing. And much to the credit of the investigators, they're a former attorney general, a former DA and probably the best investigator in the state, they wrote it like a mystery novel. It's extraordinary.

There are things in it you just couldn't make up. There were tests that were held in piles that were sealed in cellophane, and one of the teachers in one of the schools where there was cheating took a razorblade, cut the tests, looked at them, made notes on them, put them back in and used a cigarette lighter to then - you know, to put the cellophane back together.

At another school, there was a principal, if the teachers at the classes didn't make their numbers, he would have them climb under - kneel under a table just make the point that their scores were too low, and they were low. It was extraordinary what went on.

CONAN: And it was - you suggested in a story you wrote that there was an overall tone set in the school system by Beverly Hall, the now-former superintendent, who if your school got good results, well, at the annual get-together at the Georgia Dome, you sat down on the floor, close to the dais, and if your school didn't do so well, you were up in the nosebleed seats.

WINERIP: Extraordinary. I mean, the - and people talked about it. Principals really talked about we want to make the floor. It was a big deal to make the floor. So if their test scores were high enough, they sat towards the front in the floor, they sat closer to Beverly Hall. And if their test scores were above 70 percent but not the highest, they sat in the back of the floor of the hall.

If they were below that, then they were up in the bleachers, and they were shamed for it. So, I mean, it was extraordinary. It was just a case of this getting so out of hand, and it's just amazing that no one would just say stop, this doesn't make sense.

CONAN: And nobody blew the whistle. And there were any number of suggestions, reports in the newspapers, investigations indeed by the public schools themselves.

WINERIP: The Atlanta Journal started writing about this in - this was revealed in - the report came out at the start of July of 2011. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution started writing about this in 2001, they had been doing stories. And when they - and their stories mostly talked about the extraordinary gains at schools that just couldn't be possible.

At one of the schools, Park Middle School, one year they went from - the eighth grade math scores went from 24 percent proficient one year to 86 percent the next, I mean, not superhumanly possible unless you have eight kids in the class, and the numbers get distorted that way.

But, you know, you're talking about 100, 120 kids in the set of eighth-graders, and the Atlanta paper kept writing these stories, and the leaders in the community kept saying oh, you're just, you know, you're giving the community a bad name. And when the outcry became great enough that Hall would order an investigation, and they would never find anything.

CONAN: Eventually now-former Governor Sonny Perdue ordered this investigation, this high-powered investigation, which included powers like subpoena power.

WINERIP: Yes, yes. What Sonny Perdue did after just another one of these blue ribbon commissions that produced nothing is he said he wanted to get to the bottom of it. And he appointed three people. And I think this was the key.

Michael Bowers was a former attorney general in the state or about 15 years, so - Robert Wilson, who was the DA for DeKalb County for about 12 or 14 years, and Richard Hyde, you know, really a great investigator. And he basically said - left them alone. He said I'm not going to read the report ahead of time. I promise you I'll give you the manpower you want, you go do and what you need.

And they spent 10 months, and by the time they were done, they had about 60 or 70 investigators working with them and over 100 people altogether.

CONAN: In a piece in Education Week, Beverly Hall, the now-retired superintendent in Atlanta, said there's no excuse for cheating, I deeply regret I did not do more to prevent it. But she says the real story is being obscured by this scandal and that that's the progress made by Atlanta's public schools over the past decade, is real and dramatic.

WINERIP: Well, it's hard to know if it's - what she's referring to is the NAEP scores, the federal test scores, which you can't prep for, and you can't - you couldn't cheat for. And those, there were some very, very modest gains in Atlanta.

I mean, they weren't - I don't know the exact numbers, but Atlanta, when it was ranked against other big, urban school systems, was closer to the bottom than the top. So the gains were very, very modest.

And in terms of, you know, Beverly Hall, there are two ways to think about this. The investigators proved beyond doubt that the system was rife with cheating. Eighty-two people admitted they cheated, and another 100 were implicated at almost half the schools. So one or two things went on.

Either she was so clueless and just had no idea that her system was, you know, almost rotten to the core that, you know, she should be ashamed of that, or she was devious and covered this up.

CONAN: And it's not just Atlanta. You've written a subsequent piece about Pennsylvania.

WINERIP: Yes, yes, Pennsylvania is in a much earlier stage. And again, there was sort of a similar pattern there. A newspaper, in this case the Notebook, a Web news organization, got a hold of an erasure study that showed about 90 schools in the state where there were so many erasures on tests from wrong answers to the right that it just couldn't be.

At one of the schools in the state, I calculated that the odds of those erasures happening randomly, so many going from wrong to right, was one in 100 trillion. It just - you know, there were just beyond all common sense.

CONAN: We should note that the same machines that check for the answers on these standardized tests can also detect these little rub marks, the erasures, and that's - when you get a high rate of erasures, that gets suspicious.

WINERIP: Yes, exactly, and my understanding is the testing companies do this routinely. A lot of the states don't use the information, but the testing companies have that information as a check on the accuracy of what they are doing.

You know, Neal, there's a pattern in each of these cases. The pattern is a newspaper will, you know, talk about the problems - that's what happened in Atlanta with the Atlanta paper - and then there was a state agency, a very small state agency where a very smart woman running this little agency - it was basically a kind of public relations part of the state education government - she did an erasure study.

So they had two things. They had the test scores were out of whack, and they had the erasure studies with all this, and then you're not going to get it until you get the third piece, which is the shoe leather piece. You put investigators on the ground at the schools that are suspicious, and you start - you know, it's like an old mystery novel. You start flips and snitches.

You get people to tell you the truth, and they point to someone else, and someone else - a teacher points to a principal, a principal points to a district superintendent, a district superintendent points to the superintendent, and that's how you nail it down.

CONAN: And you mentioned the organization in Pennsylvania that helped break the story. We should give some props to our member station in Philadelphia, WHYY, which helped them provide some of the shoe leather.

WINERIP: Absolutely. What happened there, very interesting story. The Notebook, a very small publication, I think it had three full-time reporters just before this all broke and did very good work but, you know, these people just didn't have the time.

And after the agreement with the local public radio station, there were more funds. This was a sharing agreement, which I think is going to happen more and more. And so they were able to hire an extra reporter shared between the radio station and the news website, and that reporter within a couple days got this investigation started, a young man named Ben Herold, and that's what sort of exploded the whole thing.

CONAN: We want to hear from teachers today and principals, too: What effect does cheating by principals and cheaters have on students? 800-989-8255. We'll begin with Monica, Monica with us from Harper Wood in Michigan.

MONICA: Hi.

CONAN: Hi, Monica, go ahead, please.

MONICA: My question is: I teach in a suburb right next to Detroit Public Schools, which is now getting looked at, just like Philadelphia and Atlanta did, and Pennsylvania. And what - I guess it's a comment and a question. I'm expected to work a miracle with students who have been below proficiency since eighth grade. I'm supposed to get them to be proficient by 11th grade for a test that we don't see as being valid or reliable.

And the pressure that we're getting now, especially in Michigan, half of my evaluation is going to count based on my students' test scores, some of whom I've had for less than an academic year.

And I'm wondering if there's any, you know, discussion about what else we can do besides just using these standardized tests because we can't cheat. It's wrong. It hurts us. It hurts the kids. But there's no discussion about what else we can do to try to test their proficiency.

CONAN: Well, there's - we'll be talking about that in a minute with Deborah Meier of the Forum for Education and Democracy. But Michael Winerip, as a practical matter, in just a few seconds, these tests aren't going anywhere, are they?

WINERIP: The - well, the tests - the teacher brings up a very good point. The problem with the tests is they're so unreliable. The problem with the goals is they're just too high to hit so many times.

If you get a child in ninth grade, and that child is reading on third-grade level when he or she arrives in your class, you're not going to bring that child up to proficiency in a year's time. And so these - you know, these goals that are set aren't fair for teachers. It's just very, very hard.

I mean, you ask what we can do. You know, for years and years, we trusted teachers. You know, so I think a big part of the answer is, you know, finding a way to get really good teachers in the classes and...

CONAN: Monica, thanks very much for the call. Stay with us. This is NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan. The Atlanta Public School cheating scandal captured headlines and concern from parents across the country, who wondered if similar dramas could develop in their own school districts. They just might.

In Houston, investigators found evidence of cheating after inexplicable jumps in test scores. Several students commented that they had received help from their teacher, who had tapped their shoulders to point out incorrect answers on the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills exams.

And similar episodes have played out in Washington, D.C., and Philadelphia, as investigators take a closer look at the patterns of erasure marks on students' answer sheets.

Teachers, administrators, what difference does this make for your kids? 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. Go to npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Our guest is Michael Winerip, national educational columnist for the New York Times; and joining us now is Deborah Meier. She's at our bureau in New York. She spent nearly four decades in public education as a teacher, principal and advocate, founded several schools in New York. In 1987, she was the first educator honored with the MacArthur Foundation's Genius Grant. She now serves as senior scholar at the Steinhardt School of Education at New York University. Nice to have you with us today.

DEBORAH MEIER: Nice to be here, Neal.

CONAN: And you've been a teacher and principal. Was cheating ever an issue at a school you worked at?

MEIER: Well, it was an issue in that period of history but not my school. I thought it was cute that you said I might have been 40 decades teaching...

CONAN: I apologize for that.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MEIER: Well, I sometimes feels that way, so.

CONAN: I bet it does.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CONAN: It feels like 40 decades in radio, too, to tell you the truth.

MEIER: I want to get to the question of is there an alternative. But, you know, cheating is so corrupting to us all, and, you know, a time in history when our whole democracy is in fairly fragile state, I'm more and more worried about the lack of trust that we have for each other. So this undermines it, and I worry about it.

But let me tell you that when I started teaching in New York City in the late '60s and '70s, I was astounded. I'll tell you - I could tell you stories. But I was astounded at what obviously was cheating because some - Mike Winerip - hi, Mike. But as Mike Winerip noted, scores can't inexplicably go up from 40 to 80. But New York City's - some schools did.

And when I looked into it, I discovered that school, sometimes it was a change in population. They became a gifted center. But still the newspaper people, who weren't all as wonderful as Mike Winerip, acted as though that wasn't part of their investigative powers to wonder about schools that had these strange rises.

And in fact, they became star principals, and everybody worried about, you know, how could they get their kid in that school without realizing that sometimes it was a change in the students, and sometimes it was cheating by the principal and teachers, and sometimes it was cheating by the system as a whole.

And since everybody in the system, from the governor to the mayor to the superintendent of schools to the principal and the teachers, looked better if the scores were high, and no one was interested in stories about that. I did report it to a newspaper, and my wonderful chancellor at the time, Tony Alvarado, forgave me for it. But the press was not interested in the stories.

So I think cheating is an old story, but I think it's profoundly more significant today because the test scores are worth thousands of dollars and people's future lives. And that's for students as well as teachers.

A kid gets a 64, and we're worried that they put you up to a 65, but the 65 is not a true answer either way. In the psychometrics of testing, a 65 means he is equally likely to have gotten a 70 to a 50 or a 60. You know, there's a range in which they say it's irrelevant.

So here's a teacher stuck looking at a 65 and looking at a 64 and thinking am I going to really deprive this kid of going to college because he's at one point below? He might be really three points above if he took this test again, of reliability problems.

So to put so much weight on one single instrument makes no sense either, just in pure mathematical statistical terms, and as well as in terms of keeping people honest. If, you know, we put out - the storekeeper puts out some $1, $2 newspapers in front of his store, and he doesn't look very carefully, and he probably calculates there's a certain amount of theft but that he figures it's worth it.

But he wouldn't put out a $100 object there. And yet we have - we're bribing people by saying if you can get your scores up, we'll give you thousands of dollars and if you don't, you're fired and out of the field, you're unemployed.

And we say to kids, if you can get your score up, you can have a choice of many high schools in New York City, and if you don't get your scores up, you have practically no choice.

CONAN: Well, it's interesting, there's an email to this point from Marcia(ph) in Chico, California, who writes: Obviously teachers cheating on tests hurts students. What's not so obvious but is no less insidious is teachers who cheat students by awarding them unearned grades because it's easier than biting the bullet and telling students and parents the truth.

When a quarter-century of kids came into my classroom, they were offered the opportunity to learn and earn their grades rather than being given a grade.

And that is a problem that has been endemic in some schools, as well.

MEIER: Uh-huh. Yes, no doubt it's a complicated question to decide - make decisions in various cases, as it is all along the line. I mean, people use their influence to find a friend to help them get into Harvard, and somebody else doesn't get into Harvard. That's a form of cheating.

You know, the forms of cheating that are going on in our society right now that I'm scared about are cheating by people with a great deal of power and a great deal of money, and they've been playing with data for the last 20-so, maybe longer, years, so that the data in the field of economics and finance has become hard to trust. And that's enormously dangerous.

And in most cases, we don't hold them very accountable for that fact. But I think it permeates the whole society that you're excused for doing things for money, and if millionaires are excused for doing things to make a profit, it's hard for me to feel so righteous about teachers doing it or kids doing it. But I think it corrupts us all when we do - engage in such practices.

And, Neal, there are simple answers to that. There are - they are known well. For example, first of all, on the school level, if you're really trying to get information about an individual child so you can help that child, we don't need this kind of standardized test. There is nothing, after 40 years of working with children, in these kind of tests that helps me really work with Johnny or Sam or Jose. I have to know a lot more.

And there are tests that are for knowing a lot more and could be given on a local level, I mean given by schools or districts, genuine diagnostic test that has no stakes attached except for the fact that it informs both parent, child and teacher about what we could do.

You can have all kinds of critical data that's brought on the school base that fits what that school needs in terms of data. On the terms of a large-scale info, we have the NAEP, and it rests - the NAEP is the National Assessment for Educational Progress - it rests on sampling, much cheaper and doesn't leave us - you mentioned this earlier, didn't you? It doesn't leave us vulnerable to cheating.

And why in the world - I mean, there's - you know, when I get a blood test, they don't drain all my blood. They just take a sample of it. Well, if we want to know how New York City is doing, we should take a sample, and the NAEP already does that. We could have even better NAEPs, I'm sure, that connect other subjects besides reading and math because the NAEP is often narrow.

But why - this is an old field. We do a billion things in this country on the basis of sampling. Why in the world, if we want comparative data, to compare schools, districts, parts of the country, why don't we use sampling? And...

CONAN: Why don't we get another caller involved in the conversation?

MEIER: Yes, thank you.

CONAN: Let's go to Paul, and Paul's with us from Hudson Valley in New York.

PAUL: Hi, good afternoon, thanks for taking my call.

CONAN: Sure.

PAUL: I, as I indicated to your screener, I am a teacher who changed the scores on tests. This goes back - I'm both glad and sorry to say - over 20 years ago that I did that. And it was in a private school with a proprietary owner.

And what I wanted to speak to is the human dynamic behind the impulse to do such a thing. I was in a school with children with significant emotional needs for whom at the time was a small group of teachers. We excused our actions based on the fact that they would improve the sort of positive reinforcement among our students. They were in a longitudinal setting, which meant that we could have them through age 20 or 21. So we always felt, well, we'll have another chance.

But the human dynamic for teachers involves not so much as Ms. Meier, your previous guest, said is a matter of, well, society in general condones it or there are others doing significant wrongs, but the human dynamic was one where it wasn't so much a matter of getting on the floor of the Georgia Dome but rather a matter of holding our job, literally holding our job...

CONAN: Did you get caught?

PAUL: ...at a modest salary and also in a situation where we couldn't resign under a principle. And I think...

CONAN: I just wanted to ask, did you get caught?

PAUL: No. We were never caught. I think in some ways our director overlooked the situation for the purposes of her own promotion, of the institution, but we were under a significant amount of duress, both for derision within the school and, ultimately, dismissal.

CONAN: Well, Michael Winerip, I wanted to ask you, you mentioned the object of getting bonuses. And there was also a question, though, of if you did not do well, did these teachers in Georgia, in Atlanta, stand at risk of losing their jobs.

WINERIP: Absolutely. The average - in the course of (unintelligible) there was, I think ,12 years. In the course of that time, 90 percent of the principals turned over. Should we basically say you have three years - to her principals, you have three years to give me the numbers. Otherwise, you're gone. So - and then the principals would turn around and say that to the teachers, you know? And so it just went up and down the line. The example was very dangerous.

CONAN: Paul, do you regret it?

PAUL: Oh, absolutely, I regret it. I think, in retrospect, the better response would have been to offer honesty to parents, and through them, or to students directly. But I do feel - and this is the primary focus of my call. It's not a confessional or saying I'm sorry, which I am, but rather that there are very real dynamics where teachers who are in a precarious situation often having no other employment opportunities. And again, it's not an excuse, but it's an explanation.

The pressures within the system, whether a microcosm as with my school or a larger system that exists in New York City or Chicago or in Los Angeles. But the pressures are significant, personally, to preserve one's job. And it's as simple as that. It's not right, but neither is it right that the external pressures in terms of test scores and expectations or - regarding individual students and their potential, are such that teachers aren't afforded the honesty of supervision as administration say. You're doing your best. We're trying. Let's admit to the outside world that the forces are such that we can't always do what we can with our resources. Again, I think - thank you very much for taking my call.

CONAN: I appreciate it. Thank you for your candor. We're talking about cheating in schools by teachers and principals. Our guests are Deborah Meier of the Forum for Education and Democracy and Michael Winerip of the New York Times. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And talking about those pressures, Deborah Meier, but getting back on teachers, of course, but getting back to the kids, A, yes, of course, it would be corrupting to find out your teachers were cheating. If they can do it, why can't we do it? But also, did I get the honest score? Did I get my score upgraded or if I didn't, did the teacher not - there's all kinds of questions that this opens.

MEIER: I don't - I'm making a guess. I'm wondering how many students, how many of your friends when they got the SAT score are worried because their score was too high. I just - I don't think that's the problem I'm worrying about. I am worrying about that the intellectual corruption of our students. You know, when they realize this is going on in the school, that it's a game of playing games with data. And it just goes to all kinds of aspects of society because trust is important. There's never a total trust. As I said, you know, we don't - we keep, in any store you go to, they keep some things locked up, and no one 100 percent trust. But we have an obligation not to use instruments that we know are going to encourage trust - distrust and are going to make trust hard to do.

And when we have alternatives, and we don't use them. Then I think we're all implicated in a kind of attitude towards schooling that is, itself, corrupt. That is the test scores are the measure of a man or a woman. And we know that most of the wonderful things that our friends and we have accomplished in life, had virtually nothing to do with the questions that are asked in the test.

Now, therefore, we shouldn't be putting so much weight on these, which I think, they last - the two teachers both commented on. One, since they don't really think the test is the measure of a student and because so much for the student and for them rest on this score, that they compromise themselves. And I think that's the way it is in lots of fields in America where we do that, and I think that is a compromise. There are a lot of compromises, as our president says, that we have to learn to make. But this is not a compromise we have to make. And the trade offs are much too dangerous for us to keep doing this.

We need to find other ways of assessing students that doesn't - that are more accurate, more reliable, give us more information, and don't mislead us into compromising important values.

CONAN: At the same time, Michael Winerip, we have to be ready to conceive that when it looks too good, it probably - it looks too good to be true - it probably isn't.

MEIER: Yes, right.

WINERIP: Yeah, indeed. You know, Deborah just talked about the SAT. Every year, the SAT scores come back, and the range of scores is almost always the same, because the test is normed and it's - you can't cram for it as much as you can for the state tests. The state tests, every year, people are getting 10 percent smarter. That's not how life is. That's not how things work. It would be nice if it were that way.

CONAN: Well, present company excluded.

MEIER: Yeah.

WINERIP: Yeah. Right. One more thing I just want to say about kids getting cheated, the simple example, I think...

CONAN: Can you hold the thought because we have to take a short break? Michael Winerip, education columnist for The New York Times. Also with us, Deborah Meier, convener with the Forum for Education and Democracy, senior scholar at the Steinhardt School of Education at New York University, a former teacher and principal. We're going to take a couple more calls on this subject when we get back from a short break. We're also going to be talking with Jennifer Pharr Davis, who just set a new unofficial record for hiking the entire Appalachian Trail. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

And in just a minute, we're going to be speaking with Jennifer Pharr Davis, who hiked the Appalachian Trail in 46 days, 11 hours and 20 minutes. That's 14 states, but we wanted to continue our conversation on cheating in schools. We're talking with Deborah Meier of the Forum for Education and Democracy and Michael Winerip of The New York Times. And just before the break, Michael Winerip, you were trying to make a point.

WINERIP: The only point I was going to make very quickly is how this cheats a child. If you have a child who enters, say, seventh grade, and he or she is reading, you know, two or three years behind, and one of the ways you trigger that is by giving them an assessment that says, oh, this child is two or three years behind. He or she needs extra reading help. And instead you cheat on the test, and the child's got a - instead comes out with a high score saying they're proficient, that child doesn't get the help he or she needs.

MEIER: I'd love to respond to that.

CONAN: Go ahead, Deborah Meier.

MEIER: Mike, they - the kind of response we have is to send them to summer school. And that - and then they do various preps for the test. They spend the whole summer school preparing them, not to do a lot of reading, not to fall in love with books, because no one knows that child there.

So it's - as a teacher, I - and as a principal for many years, I don't think that's the loss we have to worry about. I think it's the loss of knowing our children well. And the tests put a lot of attention on data which is not worth that kind of attention. You came up to visit our school in Boston, Mission Hill once, Mike. Do you remember?

WINERIP: Yes.

MEIER: And you looked at how we tested reading.

WINERIP: Right.

MEIER: And it was done one by one, and we had, at that time, I think they were old-fashioned tape recorders. And from kindergarten 'til they left our school, once a year we had an interview with them about - which they read things to listen, discussed what they were reading. And it was open, and parents couldn't hear it. The child could hear it over the years. It was done twice a year, once in the fall and once in the spring.

And we built a rubric, they call these things, to judge the stage of reading the child was in. There was no way to cheat on those, and parents were given good information. And the teacher learned a lot about the student in those one-on-one situations. And it's such a more powerful way, and these are not newfangled secrets that we invented.

These are, in fact, fairly old-fashioned ways in which human beings learned, whether people knew how to do things. The driving test. That was like that. I mean, we wouldn't - the driving - we make sure that someone drives. We don't make sure they can pass a paper-and-pencil test on driving.

CONAN: Michael Winerip?

WINERIP: I was just going to say I saw that, what Deborah is talking about. It was fantastic. It was like for every child, there was six- or seven-year set of tapes, where you could see the child's improvement, where you could tell whether the child was reading with feeling or was just reading mechanically. You could - it was almost like watching the child grow right before your eyes.

CONAN: Why aren't those kinds of assessments used on state and national levels?

MEIER: You got me.

WINERIP: Deborah might have a better idea.

CONAN: But she just said, you got me. So maybe there's - let's see if we can get another caller in.

MEIER: Testing companies make very little money on our system.

CONAN: Right.

MEIER: Maybe that's one little part of the answer.

CONAN: Connie is on the line from Sugar Land, Texas. We'll get one last caller in.

CONNIE: Yes. I am in the middle of a cheating scandal, and it's not these standardized tests, although I think you've reached the topic that might be the tip of the iceberg. In my daughter's summer school class, the students were allowed to use iPhones on a chemistry test. And...

CONAN: So they could Google the answers.

MEIER: Yes. Yes, yes, yes. They Googled each other in the class - I mean - or they contacted each other in the class. Hey, you know, what's - what about this one? They called friends from outside the class. And, of course, she was very upset, just added to the stress that you have when you're - you don't have control over a very difficult class. And it was traumatic for her, and she didn't want to go to the professor, and she didn't want her friends to be angry at her. And so, finally, her dad and I convinced her to go. And he pretty much told her that the kids come to his class unprepared for his course, and that this is, you know, happens and that life isn't fair.

CONAN: Life isn't fair. That's not the lesson they necessarily signed up to learn, but it's probably a good one.

CONNIE: I remarked, no, life isn't fair, but teachers should be.

CONAN: All right. Connie, thanks very much.

CONNIE: Okay.

CONAN: Let's end with this email we have from Sarah(ph): I'm a school counselor and testing coordinator in North Carolina. I cannot imagine participating in cheating, being asked to cheat or not being listened to if I tried to speak up. I cannot imagine teachers in my school taking part in this. I know school systems could be highly political, but when we compromise our morals and integrity, what kind of educators are we? Much of what we do is teach children how to be good citizens.

This lesson was obviously lost in Atlanta. I wonder how many teachers felt the same way I do and tried to blow the whistle but were ignored. Michael Winerip, thanks very much for your time today.

WINERIP: Thank you for having me, Neal.

CONAN: Michael Winerip, national education columnist for The New York Times. And, Deborah Meier, I appreciate your coming in too.

MEIER: Can I just one - one last word?

CONAN: Go ahead.

MEIER: Because I knew Beverly Hall when she was in New York. And what's painful to me is that she was a very decent educator, at least as far as I know. And I think when people we know who we respect and like gets corrupted this way, we know there's something more fundamentally wrong than just human nature. It's the way we're - what we're doing to each other that leads someone as honorable as Beverly into what was clearly a disastrous and morally compromised position.

CONAN: Deborah Meier, thanks very much for your time. Deborah Meier joined us from our bureau in New York, where she's a senior scholar at the Steinhardt School of Education at New York University. More after a break.

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