Confession of a cheating teacher
by Benjamin Herold
This summer, the Notebook uncovered a 2009 report commissioned by the Pennsylvania Department of Education that examined suspicious PSSA results. The report, which was unaddressed by state officials for two years, revealed that dozens of state and city schools had been flagged for a high number of wrong-right erasures and other indicators of possible cheating. The news prompted the state to order further investigations, which are ongoing.
Notebook/NewsWorks reporter Benjamin Herold interviewed a Philadelphia English teacher who speaks candidly about why she helped students cheat. This is an abbreviated version. For the full story was originally published on The Notebook blog.
She said she knows she’s a good teacher.
But she still helped her students cheat.
“What I did was wrong, but I don’t feel guilty about it,” said a veteran Philadelphia English teacher who shared her story with the Notebook/NewsWorks.
During a series of interviews, the teacher said she regularly provided prohibited assistance on the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA) exams to 11th graders at a neighborhood high school. At various times she gave the students definitions for unfamiliar words, discussed reading passages they didn’t understand, and commented on their writing.
On a few occasions, she said, she even pointed them to the correct answers on difficult questions.
Such actions are possible grounds for termination. As a result, the Notebook/NewsWorks agreed to protect her identity.
The teacher came forward following the publication of a 2009 report that identified dozens of schools across Pennsylvania and Philadelphia that had statistically suspicious test results. Though her school was not among those flagged, she claims that adult cheating there was “rampant.”
The Notebook/NewsWorks is also withholding the name of her former school. But her story seems worth telling.
During multiple conversations, the teacher provided a detailed, consistent account of her own actions to abet cheating. Her personal testimonial highlighted frequently shared concerns about the conditions that high-stakes testing have created in urban public schools.
In the last two years , 22 states and the District of Columbia have had confirmed cases of cheating, according to Robert Schaeffer, public education director of FairTest, a nonprofit critical of the “misuses and flaws” associated with standardized tests.
Almost always, says Schaeffer, those involved say they broke the rules because they felt pressured to generate unrealistic test score gains and avoid sanctions under the federal No Child Left Behind Act.
“That’s the background against which teachers and principals cross the line,” he said.
This teacher, a middle-aged White woman who grew up in the Philadelphia suburbs, told a story of tangled motivations and constant stress. The intense pressure from administrators to raise scores at her former school did indeed contribute to her cheating, she claimed.
“It’s easy to lose your moral compass when you are constantly being bullied.”
But she described her cheating as motivated by loyalty to her students.
Whatever the teacher’s reasons, School District of Philadelphia officials say such actions are unacceptable.
‘I wanted to be there for them’
At the beginning of PSSA testing each year, the teacher recalled, things weren’t so bad.
“The first day, they would be really energetic,” she said. “But by the third day, kids would be putting their heads down, or just not coming.”
Pennsylvania’s annual testing regimen is a grind. Spread out over weeks, the tests involve six sections, which are scheduled to take approximately eight hours to complete.
“A lot of people understand how these tests deprive [students] of a real education,” she said. “But I also think that there’s a whole self-esteem side that people aren’t talking about.”