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Confession of a cheating teacher

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

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.”

Almost all of her students were poor and African American. Most, she said, came into 11th grade reading far below grade level.

The teacher also felt that standardized tests like the PSSA, particularly the reading passages, were biased against her students.

Because her students were so unprepared and the tests so unfair, she believed the whole endeavor was a farce. Given that, she viewed encouraging her students to take the tests seriously as a betrayal of their trust.

That view, however, was met with charges of racism, according to her account.

She described a schism between some White teachers and the school’s largely African-American administration. The administrators, she said, mistook her stance that her students were being set up to fail for a belief that they were incapable of succeeding.

In retrospect, she wishes she had found a way to meaningfully address her students’ deep-seated academic deficiencies and the troubling school culture created by high-stakes testing.

Instead, she cheated.

As the testing sessions dragged on, she said, some students – those who hadn’t already given up, or grown “sullen,” or just started filling in random bubbles – would request help.

“Kids would ask questions, and I would answer them,” she said.

“I never went to any student who didn’t call me to help them cheat,” said the teacher. “But if somebody asked me a question, I wasn’t willing to say, ‘Just do your best.’ They were my students, and I wanted to be there for them.”

A pattern of intimidation

The teacher still works in the District, now an entire year removed from the neighborhood high school where she taught for over a decade.

A big problem, she said, was a revolving door of principals and vice principals, each of whom seemed to be more of a “bully” than the last.

She also disliked what she saw as the school’s penchant for embracing fads. At one point, it was graphic organizers. More recently, it was computer-assisted test preparation programs.

Underlying it all, the teacher believes, was a mandate to meet the school’s federal Adequate Yearly Progress targets.

“The prevailing message was, ‘We have to make AYP this year, or they’re going to shut our school down.’”

In response, adult cheating was “widespread” and “constant,” she claimed.

“Math teachers were sitting down in the seat next to the children, with a pencil, actually working out problems with them.”

By her account, administrators regularly saw such incidents and said nothing.

More damningly, in her mind, the school’s testing coordinator would use test makeup days to round up children who had started taking the exams, but hadn’t finished. The students would be made to complete sections they had begun days earlier – a clear violation of testing protocol.

The teacher who spoke with the Notebook/NewsWorks believes that most of those who cheated at her school did so to boost scores and protect their jobs.

But over the past five years, allegations of cheating in the District have proven difficult to substantiate.

According to internal documents first obtained by The Inquirer, the District investigated more than 30 claims of cheating between 2006 and 2010. Often, the investigators found partial evidence of infractions, or evidence of testing violations they attributed to ignorance of proper test administration protocols. In only a handful of instances did investigators find substantial evidence of intentional cheating.

District officials said discipline in such instances varied, depending on the situation. They have consistently described their test security protocols as “robust.”

The teacher who shared her story cautions that it can be difficult to understand the decisions made by people in “failing” inner city schools without having walked in their shoes.

“I thought I was really strong-willed and sure of what was right and wrong,” she said. “My only defense would be that I lost track of what was right because it was so stressful to be there.”