What Does Cheating Under a Testing and Accountability System Prove?

A llama seeks shelter next to an abandoned school bus at Cox Farms in Centreville, Va.

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In most public school systems in America, teachers are paid higher salaries based on their years of service and their accumulation of master’s degrees. In several American cities, there’s been a move instead to pay teachers higher salaries based on their students’ test scores. Not surprisingly, when financial rewards are tied to student test scores, some adults respond to the objective incentive structure by falsifying test results. Also not surprisingly, the “reformers” affiliated with these changes have not been eager to highlight malfeasance that’s occurred under their watch. But while I have no problem with the idea that there should be consequences for Beverly Hall or Michelle Rhee or any other school chancellor who presides over cheating, I’m genuinely puzzled by what anti-reform people think these cheating scandals prove.

Suppose we found out that LeBron James were taking steroids. I can imagine a whole range of responses to that revelation that reasonable people might take. What I can’t imagine is someone saying that LeBron James taking steroids proved that basketball players should be compensated on the basis of pure seniority rather than perceived basketball skill. Right?

To step back, the theory of the performance-based compensation system is that teachers differ in their effectiveness as teachers. It would be desirable to identify those teachers who are more effective than average and pay them an above-average amount so that they will have a below-average attrition rate. It would also be desirable to identify those teachers who are outliers in ineffectiveness—the relatively small minority who are much worse than average—and actively get rid of them. One vulnerability of an attempt to implement this system is that people of weak ability and low moral character can cheat so as to keep their jobs and earn higher pay. It’s a real problem and it’s not obvious to me how you solve it. But for the existence of that vulnerability to constitute a reasonable defense of the traditional “steps and lanes” teacher compensation system, you have to explain why steps and lanes doesn’t have that same vulnerability. But in fact steps and lanes does nothing whatsoever to protect kids and parents from the problem that people of low moral character might ignore their obligations. It does the reverse.

Now if you wanted to say that these cheating scandals prove that we’re never going to come up with a workable control system for organizations as large as big city public school systems and so we need to move to an all-charter system, I’d say that’s an idea I’m sympathetic to. But that’s not what the Michelle Rhee Detractors of America are after. So I’m really curious. What about the fact that some people respond to performance-based systems by cheating should make me think that pure seniority systems are good?