It's Time for a Real Code of Ethics in Teaching

Yes, the Atlanta schools scandal happened because of high-stakes testing. But it also happened because teachers are treated like children, not professionals.

A defendant in the Atlanta Public Schools case turns herself in at the Fulton County Jail on April 2. (David Goldman/AP)

Earlier this week at The Atlantic, Emily Richmond asked whether high-stakes testing caused the Atlanta schools cheating scandal. The answer, I would argue, is yes... just not in the way you might think. Tests don't cause unethical behavior. But they did cause the Atlanta cheating scandal, and they are doing damage to the teaching profession.

The argument that tests do not cause unethical behavior is fairly straightforward, and has been articulated by a number of writers. Jonathan Chait quite correctly points out that unethical behavior occurs in virtually all professions -- and that it occurs particularly when there are clear incentives to succeed.

Incentivizing any field increases the impetus to cheat. Suppose journalism worked the way teaching traditionally had. You get hired at a newspaper, and your advancement and pay are dictated almost entirely by your years on the job, with almost no chance of either becoming a star or of getting fired for incompetence. Then imagine journalists changed that and instituted the current system, where you can get really successful if your bosses like you or be fired if they don't. You could look around and see scandal after scandal -- phone hacking! Jayson Blair! NBC's exploding truck! Janet Cooke! Stephen Glass! -- that could plausibly be attributed to this frightening new world in which journalists had an incentive to cheat in order to get ahead.

It holds true of any field. If Major League Baseball instituted tenure, and maybe used tee-ball rules where you can't keep score and everybody gets a chance to hit, it could stamp out steroid use. Students have been cheating on tests forever -- massive, systematic cheating, you could say. Why? Because they have an incentive to do well. Give teachers and administrators an incentive for their students to do well, and more of them will cheat.

For Chait, then, teaching has just been made more like journalism or baseball; it has gone from an incentiveless occupation to one with incentives.

There's an interesting slippage here, though. Chait refers to violations of journalistic ethics -- like the phone-hacking scandal -- and suggests they are analogous to Major-League steroid use, and that both are similar to teachers (or students) cheating on tests. But is phone hacking "cheating"? Chait says it is, but I doubt that that's the first term that would leap to mind for most people. Journalism isn't a game like basketball, where the goal is to win or rack up the most points or the highest test scores. It's an (arguably debased, but still) profession. Phone hacking was, then, not an example of cheating. It was a violation of professional ethics. And those ethics are not arbitrarily imposed, but are intrinsic to the practice of journalism as a profession committed to public service and to truth. If journalism were incentivized like teaching, Chait might be paid based on how many people link to his stories -- which might lead him to go around the web linking to himself on random comments threads. That would, arguably, be "cheating" -- but it also would have little to do with journalistic ethics as we usually understand them.

This is an important distinction. Behaving ethically matters, but how it matters, and what it means, depends strongly on the context in which it occurs. Thus, the fact that teachers in the Atlanta schools were "cheating" on tests tells you a lot about how teachers are perceived and what is expected of them. Ethics for teachers is not, apparently, first and foremost about educating their students, or broadening their minds. Rather, ethics for teachers in our current system consists in following the rules. The implicit, linguistic signal being given is that teachers are not like journalists or doctors, committed to a profession and to the moral code needed to achieve their professional goals. Instead, they are like athletes playing games, or (as Chait says) like children taking tests.

Using "cheating" as an ethical lens tends to both trivialize and infantilize teacher's work. Professions with social respect and social capital, like doctors and lawyers, collaborate in the creation of their own standards. The assumption is that those standards are intrinsic to the profession's goals, and that, therefore, professionals themselves are best equipped to establish and monitor them. Teachers' standards, though, are imposed from outside -- as if teachers are children, or as if teaching is a game.

High-stakes testing, then, does leads to cheating. It does not create unethical behavior -- but it does create the particular unethical behavior of "cheating." And while it's true that unethical behavior in itself is not a reason to get rid of incentives for excellence, it seems like this scandal might be a good moment to think about what incentives we actually are creating, and why.

For example, would we want to tie oncologist salaries to patient outcomes, so that their pay was docked if too many patients died? You would then have a case where doctors would probably start cheating the system by falsifying patient records. That cheating would, surely, be a sign of something wrong -- not because it caused unethical behavior, but because it created a system in which bureaucratic record-keeping had replaced meaningful moral commitment.

This is what has happened with teaching. We have reached a point where we can only talk about the ethics of the profession in terms of cheating or not cheating, as if teachers' main ethical duty is to make sure that scantron bubbles get filled in correctly. Teachers, like journalists, should have a commitment to truth; like doctors, they have a duty of care. Translating those commitments and duties into a bureaucratized measure of cheating-or-not-cheating diminishes ethics; it turns it into a game. For teachers it is, literally, demoralizing. It severs the moral experience of teaching from the moral evaluation of teaching, which makes it almost impossible for good teachers (in all the senses of "good") to stay in the system.

It's a bad thing for teachers to cheat on tests. But the fact that badness for teachers has come to be defined in large part as cheating on tests is even worse. If we want better schools, we don't just need more ethical teachers. We need better ethics for teachers -- ethics that treat them as adults and professionals, not like children playing games.