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CHEAT THE PARENTS WELL! Houston is trying to “help prevent” cheating. Newspapers ought to discuss it: // link // print // previous // next //
SATURDAY, JANUARY 14, 2006

COUNTRY BOYS: We’ll postpone our reactions to this weirdly fascinating PBS show, which can be viewed in full (six hours) at its web site. (Click here for a superb overview from the Baltimore Sun’s David Zurawik.) If you watch this show, you’ll see adults working heroically to help poverty kids—and you may even see part of the reason for those lower literacy scores among the nation’s college graduates. More to come on both topics next week.

CHEAT THE PARENTS WELL: On Friday, we noted that the Houston schools have adopted a merit pay program for teachers and principals. Given recent cheating problems in Houston, we wondered if the system had built security measures into its plan (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 1/13/06). As it turns out, the system did consider the problem of teacher cheating when it created its new program. Indeed, the Houston Chronicle’s Jennifer Radcliffe discussed the matter on Tuesday. Here’s the start of her report:

RADCLIFFE (1/10/06): Houston's plan to reward top teachers with bonuses upwards of $3,000 is expected to win school board approval on Thursday, but district officials warned it comes with a new testing policy that makes it harder for teachers to cheat to get the money.
What exactly will Houston do to “make it harder for teachers to cheat?” Teachers will no longer administer high-stakes exams to their own students. We’ll present Radcliffe’s full account:
RADCLIFFE: To reduce teachers' temptation to cheat to earn the incentives, [Superintendent Abelardo] Saavedra also said Monday that teachers will no longer administer the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills to their own students. Instead, teachers will be rotated to other classrooms on testing day.

Gregory Cizek, a University of North Carolina professor who recently completed a review of Texas' testing security at the state's request, said the extra effort should help prevent cheating.

"Generally, when you increase rewards associated with test performance, you're creating some incentive for cheating," he said. "On the other hand, I think that's a really smart move to have teachers administer the test for other classrooms."

Cizek cautioned that switching teachers on test day could alarm some of the youngest students enough to hurt their scores.

[The Houston school district] investigated questionable test gains at two dozen schools last year and found clear evidence that employees at four schools helped students cheat. Investigators found inconclusive evidence of cheating at seven other schools.

Other districts nationally, including the 53,000-student Knox County Schools in Tennessee, also keep teachers from administering standardized tests to their own classes.

Despite being frustrated by the district's incentive proposal, Houston Federation of Teachers President Gayle Fallon said she appreciates the district's move to have teachers administer these high-stakes test to classrooms other than their own.

"That's probably a good idea," she said. "It takes away the motivation and it takes away the allegations.”

Teachers will no longer administer these high-stakes tests to their own students. How does that “help prevent” teacher cheating? Over the decades, many teachers have actively cheated while high-stakes tests are being conducted, making sure that students mark the right answers. But this is hardly the only way that teachers have cheated on such tests in the past. We agree with Cizek, the UNC prof; Houston’s new practice should “help prevent” teacher cheating. But Radcliffe doesn’t discuss the many other ways teachers and principals have cheated in the past. Has Houston addressed these other bad habits? There’s no way to tell from this report.

Radcliffe’s report is excellent—as far as it goes. But we’ll note what we’ve noted in the past; for reasons only they can explain, the nation’s major news orgs seem to hate discussing this critical topic. Teacher cheats on test! You’d think the story would be a natural, given its comical man-bites-dog aspects. But news orgs avoid this topic like the plague. Around the country, a good number of papers did report on Houston’s new merit pay program this week. But we can’t find any who mentioned the delicious fact which Radcliffe reported. Did Houston have to search for a way to “help prevent” its teachers from cheating? You’d think that would count as news, or as human interest. But no one but Radcliffe reported it.

When we start our new site in the next few weeks, it won’t be exclusively a “press critique” site. But we think the public discourse about public ed has often been very weak down through the years. The reluctance to talk about teacher cheating would be an excellent case in point. Over the years, teachers have cheated the public well. And as they’ve done so, the mainstream press corps—like an unwilling student—has tended to gaze into air.

MORE ON READABLE TEXTBOOKS: When kids are years behind in reading, do they get textbooks (and other materials) they can actually read and understand? On Tuesday, we posted some e-mails about that from Jerry Pace, former Georgia state textbook coordinator. Later, Pace sent us the following reaction from a friend of his—someone he described as “a third grade teacher of low-level students in a metro Atlanta school system with a large number of minority students.” We’ll post her statement in full, along with a brief reaction:

THIRD GRADE TEACHER: As for my thoughts on textbooks, yes, they are better than they used to be in the past, and they are being used. In my opinion, they are being used too frequently, especially with lower level students. Reading First is the initiative funded fully by the federal government to implement “research based” instructional programs and practices in failing schools to meet NCLB requirements. Through Reading First, many many many schools and districts are having to adopt certain programs or text series to meet their students' needs. What is being said, not in words but through actions, is that teachers are not succeeding in teaching their students. This is being shown through poor test scores. So, they need to put programs into place that either teach teachers how to teach or are “teacher-proof.” Teachers are not being recognized for their craft or their professional knowledge. Instead, they are handed the textbook series or a scripted program and told “Do this...in this order.” Schools are going back to skill and drill exercises. The textbooks are full of them. The stories in the books are great, but the activities chosen to go with the stories are not meaningful learning activities.

Low level students, the so-called “at risk” population, enter school in kindergarten behind. Because of their poverty and/or language barriers, they lack background experiences, vocabulary, knowledge of the world—experiences that people in the middle and upper classes take for granted. Wealthy students learn very easily through textbooks because they have the knowledge to understand and picture the things they read about in books. They can easily understand worksheet directions. I was like this in school. So, it's hard to understand the at risk population's trouble with textbooks. I learned fine that way, so why can't they? Once when I asked that question, a leading poverty expert told me that maybe that was because I learned “ in spite of the way I was taught.” Poor students, on the other hand, are teacher dependent. They cannot learn anything without it being modeled, discussed, practiced, practiced again, modeled, discussed, analyzed, etc. Teachers of low level students should be allowed to use any method they can to help their students learn. But, they're not. They are being told that they must use only the textbook all the time. But it's pretty hard to model, discuss, and practice practice practice, only using a text. Does this make sense?

The state of Georgia is doing a great thing in changing the curriculum. They have set up the new state standards in a way that develops teachers' knowledge of their craft and helps teachers understand the best way to teach their students. The new standards focus on what the students learn, not what the teacher has taught or what activities have been done in the classroom. Unfortunately, districts are not implementing this new curriculum in the way it was designed. Districts want an easy fix for low test scores, so they throw money at different textbooks and programs that promise to help students achieve. And these texts and programs are thrown at teachers as the fix for all students' learning problems. Textbooks don't teach students how to think, they just show students how to regurgitate information.

I think textbooks are good resources, but they are not a substitute for a teacher or good teaching. And they are not the curriculum.

That’s a fairly complex answer to the question we raised last week. We agree that textbooks are not “the whole answer.” But education can’t proceed without good textbooks and supplementary materials—materials children can actually read, understand, enjoy and learn from. Literacy is a culture; you can’t involve kids from low-literacy backgrounds in that culture unless you have a wealth of materials they can actually read and enjoy. Their classrooms should be full of top-quality materials—and those materials must be both challenging and readable. For obvious reasons, we don’t ask average sixth-graders to read MIT textbooks. We can’t ask struggling, below-level readers to engage in equivalent practices. Are classrooms full of readable books—books with which those kids can be challenged? We’ll be exploring that question all year. If you’re a teacher or a principal, we’d love to hear what you can tell us.

By the way—the modest Pace chided us gently for describing him as a former “textbook czar.” We were just having some fun with the language! As a matter of fact, we had reined ourselves in. We’d wanted to go with “textbook tsar,” but we decided to mind our p’s and q’s and adopt the more common weird spelling.

SKILL AND DRILL: One final note on the teacher’s post. She refers to “teacher-proof” skill-and-drill programs—programs she doesn’t much care for. The PBS program Making Schools Work examined the use of such programs with struggling students in several of the systems it visited. For ourselves, we don’t have any particular view of such programs; if they work, we’ll be all for them. But in our view, the test scores from the schools in question didn’t seem to suggest that the programs were working in any major way, as we noted in our endless reviews of this PBS show. For one example, she THE DAILY HOWLER, 11/03/05.