I was recently asked to give an ethics talk to a group of high school principals in training.  For a time my mother was a public school teacher and a principal, and in my mind these people are to be greatly admired.  Although a recent survey found teachers to be a pretty happy and satisfied lot, as compared to most other professions, most public school teachers forgo greater incomes that they could make in other jobs in part to advance the best interests of society by training our nation’s youth.  I like to say that they are truly doing “God’s work.”  It is therefore jarring to read about scandal after scandal involving public school teachers.

As I am writing this blog entry, thirty-five Atlanta school employees are turning themselves in to be fingerprinted and photographed for mug shots.  They have been indicted by a grand jury for cheating by changing students’ test scores on standardized tests to make it appear that the students were doing better than they actually were.

There is evidence that several schools districts across the country have cheated in a similar way, and recently the former superintendent of the school district in El Paso was convicted of fraud and sent to jail for almost four years for a cheating scheme that put students in the wrong grade, pushed them out of school, or prevented them from enrolling in an effort to make it appear that low-performing schools were meeting state and federal standards.  And the school district in Columbus, OH, is under investigation for manipulating student data by eliminating certain students from attendance lists and passing rates to, again, meet standards and inflate state ratings.

An obvious lesson here for policy makers is that neither the federal government nor state governments can turn failing schools in poor areas of town into good schools by setting unrealistic performance standards, even if teachers and administrators are incentivized by harsh negative punishments (“we’ll shut down the school and fire the teachers if standards aren’t met”), or by lavish cash rewards (the superintendent of the Atlanta School District received a $78,000 bonus and was named national superintendent of the year in 2009).  Extravagant rewards for meeting impossibly high standards virtually invites gaming the system and even out-and-out fraud.  Ask Enron.

It is impossible to know with certainty why people do what they do, and motivations no doubt vary from case to case.  But the lessons taught in our “Concepts Unwrapped” videos probably help explain why many teachers and administrators fall into ethical traps.

The decisions and actions of school administrators, like Beverly Hall, the Atlanta superintendent who was in line to receive very large bonuses if performance standards were met, are inevitably influenced by the self-serving bias.  Perhaps they consciously say:  “I will cheat if that is what it takes to get my bonus.”  But the psychological evidence shows that people are often unconsciously influenced by this bias to make decisions that seem obviously dishonest to third parties but are not so obviously wrong to the affected individuals.  As Lance Armstrong told Oprah, “it didn’t seem wrong at the time.”  And it probably didn’t, to an athlete who was blinded by how much he had to gain by winning the Tour de France.  Or to a superintendent looking at a huge bonus and national recognition.

Teachers cooperate in these schemes because they, too, are often rewarded if students’ performance is boosted and, additionally, they may face loss of their jobs if it is not.  Psychological studies show that people are loss averse, meaning in part that teachers will cheat to avoid losing their jobs in ways that they would never do to get the jobs in the first place.  In addition, teachers are motivated to please their superiors (like the superintendent) in part because their own self-interest is at stake but also because we are generally programmed to please authority figures.  In August of 2013, we will roll out Concepts Unwrapped videos on both Loss Aversion and Obedience to Authority that will highlight these tendencies.

In addition, teachers who may be scrupulously honest in pursuing their personal interests may view it as part of their job to make their schools look good and to help out their students, even if they have to stretch a few rules to do it.  Our Role Morality video illustrates how easy it is to fall into this trap of jettisoning your personal moral standards in pursuit of an organizational goal.

Finally, teachers are generally admired for their commitment to education, for putting their financial well-being aside to help their students make a better life.  This admirable conduct allows them to add points to their personal mental ethical scoreboard.  In their own minds, they are good people, but they may then give themselves ethical license not to live up to their own ethical standards.  You may view the Moral Equilibrium video in our Concepts Unwrapped series to see how easily this can happen.

No one is completely immune from the cognitive traps and social and organizational pressures that can lead good people to do bad things—not doctors, not priests, not even public school teachers who are doing God’s work.