Incentives To Cheat

Obviously if you try to measure performance in some field, including teaching, then this creates both an incentive to perform well and also an incentive to game the system. So I don’t think we should be at all surprised that the introduction of more performance measurements into the field of K-12 education has led to a non-zero level of cheating, which is what USA Today seems to be uncovering. And to my eye, they should be applauded for their efforts. Efforts to measure performance only work if we actually try to measure performance, which requires scrutiny of potential cheaters.

But it seems to me that these revelations are leading to some weird reactions from people who appear to be implying that the possibility of cheating means we should give up on measuring performance. Alternatively, I’m seeing proponents of performance measurements just trying to hand-wave past these problems. Both responses strike me as slightly absurd. As Ryan McNeely wrote last summer the solution to the possibility of cheating is to try to catch cheaters:

A smarter response is to simply acknowledge that while assessing and acknowledging difference in teacher quality is both promising and important its promise will be undermined unless proponents address cheating. The good news is that the Jacob and Levitt study demonstrated that even very simple oversight measures, such as making teachers aware that scores will be scrutinized for irregularities, can dramatically reduce cheating frequency. As the trend toward greater reliance on tests increases, responsible policymakers will have to remain vigilant about the potential for cheating and inform themselves about the most effective countermeasures.

Dana Goldstein writes along similar lines for the Daily Beast:

Of course, creating better testing systems will be expensive, and implementing them will demand significant expertise on the part of school administrators. But as the Obama administration and national education reformers—Michelle Rhee chief among them—ask states and school districts nationwide to tie teacher evaluation scores and pay to student performance, it is crucial that we measure student academic growth in nuanced ways that encourage deep learning, not in over-simplified ways that create perverse incentives to dumb-down the curriculum and cheat.

Meanwhile, I hope that people who are skeptical about the possibility of measuring school performance will spell out in greater detail what they think the implications of this view are. Not “Michelle Rhee is a bad person” but the implications for K-12 education policy. Does this mean we should turn all education funding into an unregulated voucher? Does it mean that public schools are just a kind of intangible neighborhood benefit (like a park) that should be funded exclusively at the municipal level?


Here’s a good example. It looks like when you make the students of voucher-receiving schools in Milwaukee take the same tests as are taken by the students of the city’s traditional public schools, the voucher school kids do worse. To me that seems like a very important result that shouldn’t be dismissed out of hand on hazy “testing is bad” grounds.

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