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What’s to blame for cheating teachers?

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If a student cheats on an important test, such as a midterm, he is punished, and rightly so. His teacher doesn’t merely brush aside the offense and blame it on all the stressful and unnecessary high-stakes tests that today’s unfortunate students are required to take.

Yet every time an educator is caught in a test-cheating scandal, the teachers union response is as predictable as 2 plus 2: Of course cheating is wrong, but what else can we expect when policy makers stress achievement on standardized tests — and especially when, as in this case, there were financial bonuses attached to higher scores?

It happened again Tuesday, as Atlanta educators surrendered to authorities after being indicted in the nation’s biggest and most blatant example of systemic cheating. Close to 200 teachers and principals in the Atlanta schools admitted to fixing students’ incorrect answers and other wrongdoing; the indictment names 35 people, including the former superintendent of schools.

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, issued a joint statement with the head of the Georgia Federation of Teachers that condemned the misdeeds and declared that cheating could not be condoned under any circumstances.

But the tut-tutting fell flat because no sooner was it uttered than the two labour leaders let forth with a litany of complaints about the testing itself. "The Atlanta cheating scandal harmed our children and it crystallizes the unintended consequences of our test-crazed policies," the statement said, going on to detail and bemoan the pressure placed on teachers.

It may well be that standardized tests are being overemphasized. But such concerns have no place in the discussion of cheating. Whether teachers think the tests are fair or not, they’re required to administer them honestly. Weingarten is pushing the boundaries of excuse-making when she conflates the two issues — just as a student couldn’t get away with calling his own cheating a sad but understandable consequence of his teachers’ expectations, no matter how unfair and irrelevant he might consider them.

By all means, policy makers should re-examine how extreme reliance on standards tests, which measure a limited portion of what students have learned, might harm education. But cheating isn’t one of the issues they should consider. Holding pizza parties while tampering with student answer sheets, as some teachers in Atlanta did, isn’t a natural reaction to academic or career pressure. It’s dishonesty, plain and simple.

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