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Freakonomics: Tackling the problem of cheating teachers

A teacher speaks to her class in Miami, Fla.

Kai Ryssdal: Time now for a little Freakonomics Radio. It's that moment every couple of weeks where we talk to Stephen Dubner, the co-author of the books and the blog of the same name, joined this week by the other guy, the other co-author, Steven Levitt from the University of Chicago. Guys, welcome to the program.

Stephen Dubner: Hey Kai, how are you?

Steven Levitt: Good to be here.

Ryssdal: OK, so the topic du jour is cheating, specifically teacher cheating. There have been some big scandals lately in Atlanta and I think in Washington, D.C. And Levitt, in Chicago, like eight or 10 years ago, you actually caught some teacher cheating. So the first question is, based on your experience, can we say how many teachers cheat?

Levitt: Looking at the data, our estimate at the time, we thought that 5 percent of all the elementary school classrooms in Chicago showed evidence that the teachers had cheated on behalf of their students on these exams.

Ryssdal: Do we know why teachers cheat, Dubner?

Dubner: Incentives, right? So these days we've just seen the No Child Left Behind law be scaled back quite a bit. What's happened is states have been given more latitude for how they're going to administer tests. But the fact is if you're a teacher and all of a sudden there's a new incentive in place for you to not do poorly in your class, then teachers all of a sudden have the kind of incentive that students used to have. And so there are some teachers -- now granted, it's a very, very small portion of them -- who will cheat on behalf of the student. In this case, literally erasing incorrect answers and filling in the correct ones -- not necessarily to help the kids, but to help themselves not look like they're bad performers.

Ryssdal: Levitt, getting back to Chicago in 2002 and this scandal that you caught. The then guy running the Chicago school system, Arne Duncan, who's now the U.S. secretary of education, fired a whole bunch of teachers. Is that still currently policy, if you cheat you get fired?

Levitt: I think there are two things you can do if you don't like cheating. One is what Arne did expose, which is he actually let us really ferret out who the cheaters were and they went to the trouble to hold the hearings and to fire a bunch of tires. The other option that's available to policymakers if they really don't like cheating is just make it harder to cheat. People don't cheat much on the LSAT or the SAT because the companies that provide those tests spend a lot of money and they make it hard to cheat. With school districts now, I think have an ambivalence towards cheating because they really do want higher test scores and so they often carry out these tests in ways that it's not hard at all for teachers to cheat. In fact, maybe even subtly encouraged.

Ryssdal: But it's that whole spend-a-lot-of-money thing because public schools, as we know, in good parts of this country are out of money. How do you do it in a way that's cost effective?

Levitt: I think you can even do it without spending money. So for instance, one thing I proposed to Chicago at the time was that instead of having the teachers in a school administer the testing themselves, you would just have the teachers go to a different school that day and have other teachers come in and administer the test.

Dubner: Also, with as much money as the Department of Education spends now, Kai, and as high as unemployment is, it's not hard to imagine that you could enact a scenario where you could offer a part-time job. You know, we higher lots and lots of census takers, we could higher some exam proctors at a much, much lower cost and if it would help get the schools in the shape we want them to be in, it would be money well spent.

Ryssdal: Not to end on a downer, but this is really the classic Sisyphean task. Right? People are always going to cheat and you're always going to be behind in ingenuity and ways to combat it. Right?

Levitt: I don't think so. I think this one problem. Many problems are difficult, this one is easy. The real problem here is that the people who would have to make those choices and would have to spend that money, they actually don't want cheating to go away that badly. So I think it's a failure of incentives, not that we don't know how to fight this. So...

Dubner: Levitt, you actually tried to start a company offering your catching-cheating-teacher skills to school districts around the country.

Ryssdal: Is that right? Do tell. How did that go?

Levitt: Nobody was interested. I mean, who wants to buy our product? One person came forward. In East St. Louis, they had just reconstituted the entire district. And one of the guys on the board said, 'We'd really like you to come and we think there might have been cheating. Could you look at the data?' And they couldn't get the school, even the overseeing board, could not get the school district, they wouldn't give us the data. So of all the business ideas I've ever had, that I think ranks at the very bottom in terms of profitability and likely success.

Ryssdal: Freakonomics.com is the website. Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner, guys thank you so much.

Levitt: Thank you, Kai.

Dubner: Talk to you soon, Kai.

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