Schoolhouse Rock

Freaks and Cheats

After my post on cheating went up on Monday, a few readers wrote to remind me of a classic work of cheating economics, ” Rotten Apples: An Investigation of the Prevalence and Predictors of Teacher Cheating ,” by Harvard economist Brian A. Jacob and Chicago economist Steven D. Levitt, which was prominently featured in Freakonomics , the best-selling book by Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner. According to the original paper’s abstract , the authors:

estimate that serious cases of teacher or administrator cheating on standardized tests occur in a minimum of 4-5 percent of elementary school classrooms annually. The observed frequency of cheating appears to respond strongly to relatively minor changes in incentives. 

As Levitt and Dubner reported in Freakonomics, Arne Duncan, the CEO of the Chicago public schools, contacted Levitt and Jacob after their paper was published and asked for their help in catching the cheaters. Duncan and the economists chose 120 classrooms—some classrooms with suspicious results, some regular classrooms as a control—and retested them, but with officials from Duncan’s office overseeing the test, rather than the teachers themselves. When the test results came back, the scores from the classrooms with suspicious results had dropped sharply. A dozen teachers were fired, and as Dubner and Levitt write in their book, “The final outcome of the Chicago study is further testament to the power of incentives: the following year, cheating by teachers fell more than 30 percent.”

Another reader sent a link to this story , by the New York Sun ‘s education reporter, Elizabeth Green, about an alleged rash of cheating at P.S. 48 in the Bronx. Green uncovered convincing evidence of a principal who pressured teachers to cheat:

Meanwhile, 11 of 12 P.S. 48 graduates interviewed last week said they were coached during the state tests. They said that teachers would look over their shoulders and instruct them to try again and again until they got answers right. …

“When I was at 48, I never went to class, and I still passed the test,” a seventh-grader said. “If you go to graduation, you pass.”

If your paycheck depends on your classroom’s test scores, there’s always going to be a temptation to cheat. But stopping cheaters doesn’t seem like rocket science. As another reader wrote : “One obvious solution is to stop allowing teachers to proctor their own student’s tests. You don’t let the students grade their own tests because of the temptation to cheat; you shouldn’t allow the teachers that temptation either.”