Rachel Aviv’s article “Wrong Answer” in a recent New Yorker issue presents a textbook case of why good people do bad things. The article tells the story of the recent cheating scandal in the Atlanta School District, which was one of the worst of a string of school cheating scandals across the U.S. Forty-four of the district’s schools cheated. One hundred and ten teachers were put on administrative leave. Many were fired. Thirty-three teachers and administrators were charged criminally, including the district’s superintendent, Beverly Hall. More than half of the defendants pled guilty; others still await trial.
The scandal did not happen because a bunch of people with particularly bad character were teaching in the Atlanta schools. The teachers and administrators featured in the article appear to have been committed to education and to helping students.
The scandal did not happen because people were unable to decide whether cheating (by giving their students access to standardized tests before they took them and changing answers after they took them) was right or wrong. Everyone knows cheating is wrong.
The story is one of behavioral ethics and it begins with incentives. As Lamar Pierce notes in our “Incentive Gaming” video, people respond to incentives. They will often game the system. Anyone setting up a system of incentives needs to think long and hard about how their targets will respond. As I indicate in a four-part video that we will post on this site in September about how to be your best self, effective incentives use measurable metrics and are moderate in scale. If too much is at stake, the temptation to cheat will be large.
From this perspective, the fault largely lies with Congress. The “No Child Left Behind” law, as implemented around the country, is misguided. Our worst schools are bad because the children who go to them are poor, which saddles them with a range of disadvantages. Rather than improving the schools by attacking poverty, Congress decided to put all the responsibility on teachers, who, according to a document by the American Statistical Association quoted by Aviv, account for only somewhere between one and fourteen per cent of variability in standardized test scores. It’s not that teachers cannot have any impact, but it is unrealistic to expect them, just by dint of greater effort and motivation, to create the sort of improvement in student test scores that is routinely demanded.
If target scores are not met in Georgia and elsewhere, students are humiliated, schools are shuttered, principals are fired, and teachers’ evaluations plummet. This incentive system causes teachers to “teach the test,” which has its own set of moral implications. Additionally, it should surprise no one who has studied incentive systems that an unrealistic emphasis on standardized test scores has also been followed by major cheating scandals in Baltimore, Cincinnati, El Paso, Houston, Philadelphia, St. Louis, and Toledo. Cheating has been detected in 40 states and probably went undetected in the other ten.
But blame lies with the teachers and administrators who cheated as well. Many teachers did not cheat and even tried to turn in the wrongdoers. But Aviv’s story of several of those who did cheat makes a case that their main motive was not to keep their own jobs or to get raises, although those motives certainly had to affect their decision making. Rather, their primary motive to help the kids they taught led to rationalizing of the sort that is common in white collar crimes. In our videos “Jack and Rationalizations” and the fourth video in the “Being Your Best Self” group (available next month), we talk about the sorts of rationalizations that people commonly use to give themselves permission to do that which they know is wrong, like cheating. Damany Lewis, a math teacher at Parks Middle School in Atlanta, is in many ways the most sympathetic actor in the Atlanta scandal. Smart, hard-working, and fanatically devoted to his students, he used a common “higher loyalty” rationalization. He knew that cheating was wrong, but his students had worked so hard that he felt he had to cheat to prevent them from being crushed by being labeled as “failures,” from seeing their neighborhood damaged by the closing of its school, and from being transferred around Atlanta to other schools. In his mind, loyalty to his students justified cheating.
There are many other behavioral ethics lessons in this story. Obedience to authority played a role—Lewis’s principal supported the cheating and made it clear that teachers who didn’t play along could be punished. So did the conformity bias—so many schools in Atlanta were cheating that it was easy to view the practice as acceptable. Incrementalism played a part—the cheating started modestly, but grew and grew. Finally, there was loss aversion—once the teachers and the administrators began receiving plaudits on a national level for making such progress in Atlanta, it became seemingly impossible for them to give up that glory by admitting that the students’ progress was mostly an illusion.
These behavioral factors are an explanation for why teachers cheated in Atlanta. They are not an excuse. Cheating is wrong. So is government’s refusal to fix the real problems with our schools.
Dan Ariely, The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty (2012).
Rachel Aviv, Wrong Answer, New Yorker, July 21, 2014, at 54.
Max Bazerman & Ann Tenbrunsel, Blind Spots (2011).
David DeSteno, The Truth About Trust (2014).
Francesca Gino, Sidetracked (2013).
Joshua Greene, Moral Tribes (2013).