Cheating allegations involving teachers and administrators are hounding local school districts across the country– including D.C. public schools. Some teachers blame the scandals on the pressure that educators are under to post gains on standardized tests. We chat with behavioral economist Dan Ariely about what science can tell us about why people cheat– and how these education scandals compare to behavior in corporate America.


  • Dan Ariely Professor of Psychology and Behavior Economics at Duke University; author, "Predictably Irrational" and "The Upside Of Irrationality"


  • 12:42:47

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIPublic school systems across the country are being dragged before the public honor court. Cheating scandals are hounding educators everywhere from Atlanta to Baltimore to Washington, D.C., scandals where teachers and principals have been accused of falsifying or tampering with standardized test results, all while such test score have become an increasingly important measuring stick for teacher performance and school effectiveness.

  • 12:43:12

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIAs such, Dan Ariely says the behavioral economics behind this wave of alleged cheating are easy enough to understand that in academia, just as in corporate America, behavior tends to follow the, you -- the you-are-what-you-measure rule. And that so long as test score are the primary basis for measuring up teachers and the schools they work for, there will be a standing invitation for bad actors and bad behavior.

  • 12:43:39

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIDan Ariely is a professor of psychology and behavior economics at Duke University and the author of "Predictably Irrational" and "The Upside of Irrationality." Dan Ariely joins us by phone. Dan Ariely, thank you for joining us.

  • 12:43:54

    PROF. DAN ARIELYWell, my pleasure.

  • 12:43:55

    NNAMDIThe stories keep coming. More than 100 educators in Atlanta schools are alleged to have falsified test scores. Testing gains have been called into question at a D.C. elementary school that was the poster child for progress in this city. Baltimore schools are fending off their second cheating scandal in less than a year. You are in the business of studying the science of human behavior. And you recently wrote in The Washington Post that this alleged behavior here can be directly traced to how we measure and reward teacher performance. How so?

  • 12:44:27

    ARIELYSo, first of all, let me say that we've been studying dishonesty for a long time. And what we found was that the usual approach is to think about dishonest people as kind of the few individuals at the outskirts of society who are -- cheat a lot while contemplating and deliberately deciding to cheat. So these are kind of the blue-collar criminals who are breaking into your house or Bernie Madoff or people who have this intention.

  • 12:44:55


  • 12:44:55

    ARIELYSo -- and we find those people, but they are far and few. And instead, what we find is that lots and lots of people can cheat a little bit and still feel good about themselves, and it turns out that this is really kind of an interesting psychological zone in which people can be slightly dishonest and, nevertheless, don't think about them as being dishonest. And I think that's where the teachers fall.

  • 12:45:19

    ARIELYBecause if you thought about it, if you wanted to be a crook, you would probably not pick up teaching as your career and as your way of doing that, right? If you actually did the cost benefit analysis, you would find something much more lucrative than being a teacher. But at the same time, we have lots of teachers who are cheating, and I think they fall in the same gray zones as we see in our experiments.

  • 12:45:42

    ARIELYI think they fall into doing things that they're thinking are helpful for the students, or they find something that was -- they thought of an injustice that they're just correcting. And in this process, I think we get lots of dishonesty. I think the same thing happened in the financial crisis. You know, you can ask yourself whether the right model to describe Wall Street is a model of crooks who are just out there to steal money from Americans.

  • 12:46:08

    ARIELYAnd, of course, a few people are like that, but I think most people are good people who were just able to convince themselves that they're doing something that was actually good for other people when, in fact, it was just good for them selfishly. And the problem comes from the centrality of this measurement, of the centrality of something very specific. So imagine that you are a teacher.

  • 12:46:31


  • 12:46:31

    ARIELYAnd imagine that you are given a very specific requirement of what you should be teaching this year. And you almost manage -- but you only managed 90 percent, and some of it didn't really work well. And some of the students were sick, and sometimes you were sick. And sometimes you didn't -- were not able to cover the material. And now there is this test, and you ask yourself -- and you have a chance of slightly improving the test.

  • 12:46:55

    ARIELYNow, you know, my guess is that no teacher basically said, okay, the students, you don't have to take any of the tests. I'll just put the right answers on the board here, and you just need to copy them. That doesn't seem to happening a lot. What seems to be is that people cheat a little bit. They just add a few questions here and there. And I can easily imagine the process that the teacher went for.

  • 12:47:17

    ARIELYBut they said, oh, you know, this substance -- the question here is not very clear, so I understand why my students got it wrong. So let me fix that. Or somebody could say, oh, we didn't get to cover this material because we didn't have enough time. So it's really not the students' fault that they are doing this. And, basically, by justifying your actions, they're probably cheating a little bit and, nevertheless, feel good about themselves until, of course, they've been caught and there are all these scandals.

  • 12:47:44

    NNAMDIBut we're now...

  • 12:47:44

    ARIELYThe other thing...

  • 12:47:45

    NNAMDII was about to say, we're now measuring teachers, it would appear, increasingly by one standard, and that is how well their students do in school, how this can be more complicated places than corporations where there is always a bottom line. There aren't comparable statistics for profit margin or units sold inside of a school. So how do you connect this you-are-what-measure idea to teaching?

  • 12:48:10

    ARIELYYeah, so the No Child Left Behind basically introduced this notion that we need to pay a teacher based on their performance, and they -- more correctly -- more clearly, are linked to the performance of the kids on these standardized test.

  • 12:48:25


  • 12:48:26

    ARIELYSo now, you're facing a situation, not only that you want to help your kids and you want to help your school and because -- by the way, your school will do better as well. But you face a situation in which your salary, not a big part of your salary -- and, you know, your salary is not that high anyway if you're a teacher -- but a small part of your salary would also benefit from slightly distorting kids' performance.

  • 12:48:48

    ARIELYAnd you can ask yourself, what kind of justification would that allow you to have in this process? And, you know, what's interesting is that we all understand that if we are fans of some sports team, if we go -- and the referee calls a call against our team, we would think the referee is evil or, you know, blind or stupid.

  • 12:49:07

    ARIELYBut we don't understand the extent to which our conflicts of interest, the view in which we view reality, the perspective from which we view reality is going to change dramatically what we see is right and wrong, is a violation and not violation. So the fact that the teachers are getting paid to see reality through the lens of improving test scores, I think, further encourages them to find all kinds of ways to improve these test scores.

  • 12:49:34

    ARIELYAnd what's worse is that two more parties are even worse. The first one is that we find social contagions in cheating. So when we do our experiments, we find that if we hire an acting student and we hire this acting student to cheat in a egregious way in front of all the students, the other students start cheating more as well if they feel that this student is part of them, right? If he's an outsider, he doesn't have this effect.

  • 12:50:01

    ARIELYBut if it's part of their social group, they get this reinforcement that cheating is actually socially acceptable.

  • 12:50:08

    NNAMDIWell, all of this, it would appear, least of the conclusion that if it's the focus on student test scores on standardized test, that is the basis on which teachers are now able to get compensated, get pay raises or, in the final analysis, hold on to their jobs, that it seems to be that you're suggesting maybe we ought not to have that as the focus of our attention anymore. But it seems as if we have gone a long way down that road. Are you suggesting that we should now turn back?

  • 12:50:44

    ARIELYYes. So there's lots of good reasons to abandon the evaluation of test performance. You know, I'm a professor, too. If I thought that I was being judged by that, I am not sure that's the right standard, right? So that's the first thing. Is this the right standard for thinking about how we want to evaluate teachers? What about curiosity? What about interest? What about all kinds of things the teacher is supposed to get?

  • 12:51:05

    ARIELYBut I think what is clear to me is this focusing on test score is also causing this temptation to be dishonest. And what's worst about it is that they're creating a system of dishonesty that is not necessarily going to stop there. So imagine you're a teacher at a high school, and you're starting to cheat a little bit, and you encourage your students to cheat a little bit. What happens when they get to college?

  • 12:51:30

    ARIELYWhat happens when this rule of evaluation does no longer apply? What happen when they get to corporate America? Are we teaching people to -- that bending corners are okay? Are we teaching people that cheating a little bit is fine, you know? What is the bigger lesson here for the students? And I think this can have tremendous consequences. I said earlier, we find this incredible long-term effect of cheating.

  • 12:51:57

    ARIELYWhen people start cheating, it -- they see the next opportunity for cheating easier and easier and easier.

  • 12:52:03

    NNAMDIHere's an opposing opinion from Steven Pearlstein, who writes a business column in The Washington Post. He says, "The fact that there is cheating does not prove that the emphasis on testing has gone too far. What it proves is that the performance of the education system was even worse than we thought. That teachers and principals knew it and were so clueless about being able to turn things around that they were desperate enough to take the risk of cheating.

  • 12:52:27

    NNAMDI"You might argue that they were also rather stupid if they thought they wouldn't get caught, that the incompetent and stupid have now been smoked out and purged from the system might be viewed as an accomplishment." What do you say to that, Dan Ariely?

  • 12:52:41

    ARIELYSo, you know, I think it's an interesting approach, but I think it doesn't really reflect correctly the spirit of teachers. I think somebody who has this sentiment about teachers just cheating for their own benefit probably has not talked to any teacher in the public school system for a long time. The fact is that if you look at teachers, they are usually quite ideological individuals who go into this profession from the feeling of -- the desire to do well.

  • 12:53:09

    ARIELYAnd all of a sudden, they are given this particular measure, and all of a sudden they have to succumb to this measure. And the consequences of them succumbing to this measure is both personal and for their school and for their children that they care about. So I don't think this is about a deceptive act that is intentional because, you know, if they wanted to do it -- and, of course, the person who wrote this column can say they are just stupid and incompetent.

  • 12:53:37

    ARIELYBut if you wanted to cheat in the school system, there are probably very good ways for you to go ahead and cheat. And we don't see this outrageous cheating, right? What we see is a slight improvement here and there that, I think, is designed because of this system. I'll give you another example for this. I was in a committee that took the No Child Left Behind policy.

  • 12:53:59

    ARIELYAnd we interviewed one of the -- the head of a school, a big school district in California. And he basically said that what they do is they ship about 30 percent of the kids to schools that are not the closest to them in order to optimize the system. So you have a school that is doing very well. They don't need lots of good students. So they take some of their good students and they put it somewhere else.

  • 12:54:21

    ARIELYAnd they have a school that doesn't do very well, and they take these kids and they put them in a good school and are basically just trying to mix it for the benefit of the whole system. Now, this guy was causing -- by this design, he was causing tremendous damage to lots of kids, right? All of a sudden, all of these kids had to be bused for 30 to an hour extra a day, which is a lot of time, just for the purpose of maximizing that system.

  • 12:54:51

    ARIELYBut this is not how he was viewing it. He was not viewing it as hurting the kids, which, of course, he was. He was viewing it as that he had to do the best he could with the system that he never understood why it was created. He was angry and frustrated with the system, and, because of that, he was willing to do something. And this puts us to another thing. It turns out that when people are slightly dishonest against something that they think is immoral, unjust, they find the easier way to do that.

  • 12:55:20

    ARIELYSo you can think about the Robin Hood effect. You can think about people cheating an insurance company that they think has been treating them badly. It turns out that if you stand in front of an entity that you think has no moral base, it's easier for you to find your own moral balance and say, this is a stupid test. I realized this is idiotic. I'm going to do something to not suffer as much as possible because of this stupidity.

  • 12:55:46

    ARIELYAnd I think that's a much better description of what's happening in the school system than to say that teachers are just out there to thieve and rob and get 10 percent increase in salary by improving their kids' -- the kids' scores.

  • 12:56:01

    NNAMDIWe have Joseph in La Plata, Md., who would like to comment along that line. Joseph, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:56:06

    JOSEPHYes. I was really pleased to see that this came up. I was actually having a conversation with my daughter, who's a teacher in Louisiana, this morning. And we've talked about this subject a good many times, and she's had several experiences. I'll just share a couple of them. One of them was when she was in a class, she did not cheat, was almost fired because of that by her superintendent for not improving the scores.

  • 12:56:34

    JOSEPHBut, apparently, she actually had -- the superintendent knew she didn't cheat, so she almost fired her anyway. The next year, the principal assigned a state monitor to stay in her classroom because she -- and she can actually hear the teacher in the next room reading the reading comprehension test to her students, which completely compromised it, pointed this out to the monitor. The monitor said she couldn't do anything about it. So it seemed to be pretty obvious that it was not her -- it was her job not to find anything wrong.

  • 12:57:03

    NNAMDIDan Ariely, care to comment on that?

  • 12:57:05

    ARIELYYeah, and I think that's part of the problem with the continuous effort. So the No Child Left Behind has stricter and stricter rules about what schools need to accomplish. And there's a question of what is acceptable, right? And it turns out that we all have this idea of what is acceptable deviation from the law. We all think about how many miles over the speed limit we can drive and it's still okay.

  • 12:57:28

    ARIELYOr can we cross this -- cross-walking in red and it's still okay? And can we submit the receipt for a dinner we had with the friend when we talked about work a little bit to the IRS in our taxes? And we all keep on finding these boundaries of what's acceptable and not acceptable.

  • 12:57:45

    ARIELYAnd the risk, of course, is that as more and more people kind of challenge these boundaries and bump into it and push it further, the acceptable social norm about what is within the appropriate lines gets expanded and expanded. So if you think about the No Child Left Behind for the last...

  • 12:58:02

    NNAMDIOnly have about 10 seconds.

  • 12:58:04

    ARIELYI think that this boundary is expanding and creating a lot of damage, and I hope it will not be expanded even further.

  • 12:58:09

    NNAMDIDan Ariely is a professor of psychology and behavior economics at Duke University and the author of "Predictably Irrational" and "The Upside of Irrationality." Dan Ariely, thank you for joining us.

  • 12:58:20

    ARIELYMy pleasure.

  • 12:58:21

    NNAMDIAnd thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

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