Category Archives: Education (K-12)

Raising the Next Generation of Cheaters and Liars

cheaterby James A. Bacon

As a high school student in Washington, D.C., in the 1960s, I was a mediocre math student. Somehow I excelled at geometry but I struggled with algebra, and my grades rarely rose above C+. I could have done better if, like some of my classmates, I cheated routinely on my homework. Our teacher, Doc Arnds, a short, gray-haired man with a bow tie, reviewed the answers in class every day before we handed in our homework. Nothing but our sense of personal integrity prevented us from changing our answers to get a better grade. I rarely did. But I do confess: I was honest but not a saint. If I’d made a careless mistake but had otherwise grasped the concepts, I did change an answer on rare occasion. With so many others cheating, it was hard to resist. The chiseling was so routine that my classmates had a euphemism for it — “quick penciling.”

At the time, I marveled that Doc Arnds would let the kids get away with it. Surely he could tell what was taking place right in front of him. To this day, I don’t know if he took quiet retribution against the worst malefactors. Maybe he did and we never heard of it. Maybe he tried, but wealthy, powerful parents squatted on him. Maybe he gave up trying, figuring that cheaters’ dishonesty would catch up with them eventually — cheaters never prosper. I don’t know.

What I do know is that society has always had cheaters. Always. In their discussion of how social behavior arose among humans, evolutionary biologists theorize about the impulse to altruism, and the impulse for cheaters to free-ride on that altruism, and the impulse of society to generate outrage against free-riders when they are exposed. Cheating is so deeply rooted in the human psyche that it has never been extinguished.

I also know that cheating is more prevalent than it used to be. While about 20% of college students admitted to cheating in high school during the 1940s, between 75% and 98% surveyed reported having cheated in the 1990s, according to a fact sheet published in conjunction with the Educational Testing Service published in 1999. Frequent cheaters feel justified in their practice. They see others cheat and think they will be unfairly disadvantaged if they don’t. A big reason for the ubiquity of whatever passes for quick penciling in the era of school laptops, I suspect, is that cheating no longer inspires the same outrage that it once did. Honor is deemed an antiquarian concept. Situational ethics prevail. Expulsion for cheating is decried as too harsh.

Against that backdrop, I hope readers have been following the posts in Bacon’s Rebellion by Robert Maronic, a former Latin teacher with Roanoke County Public Schools, and John Butcher, author of Cranky’s Blog, on the subject of widespread cheating in Roanoke County schools.

The fact of widespread cheating is disturbing in its own right. Even more worrisome is the indifference of local and state education authorities to the phenomenon. No public official would ever condone cheating, of course. But no one in Virginia seems to be moved to do anything about it.

Virginia Department of Education officials say preventing cheating is the responsibility of local school boards and superintendents. But when Maronic took his concerns to his local school board and the board of supervisors, he got the brush-off. No one wanted to deal with the problem.

I cannot imagine that the problem is restricted to Roanoke County. To the contrary, the evil affects every school system to a greater or lesser degree. Cheating has become so endemic that it would take immense political will to extinguish. Administrators would face inevitable pushback. Affluent white parents, wanting no blemish on the academic record of their little darlings, would raise hell. Poor minority parents, already aggrieved by perceived institutional racism, would cry discrimination. And everyone would have an excuse — why pick on my kid when everyone is doing it?

I understand why school officials might quail before the task. Clamping down on cheating would be a difficult job. But there is no under-estimating the corrosive effects of widespread dishonesty. American society is built upon trust. If that trust disintegrates, we descend into every-man-for-himself hell-hole. So, in my mind, school cheating is a big deal, the toleration of it is a scandal, and citizens who care about the future of this Commonwealth should express their outrage. Cheating must end, or heads must roll!

VDOE on School Cheating: It’s Not Our Problem

by John Butcher

We have seen that a former Latin teacher in the Roanoke County Public School (RCPS) system alleged wholesale cheating on non-SOL high school tests in the system. And we have seen that the President of the Board of Education, Billy K. Cannaday, Jr., ducked the issue, responding, in essence, that RCPS is doing something about the cheating… and, besides, the State can’t do anything.

So, of course, I filed a Freedom of information Act request with VDOE for the underlying public records.  The response: A collection of emails and drafts of the Cannaday letter but no report of a serious inquiry into the cheating.

If you’ve ever dealt with the bureaucracy you know that functionaries don’t make a trip to the water cooler without writing a memo to file. Even though Virginia Department of Education administrators handled a letter from the aforesaid Latin teacher, Robert Maronic, largely by word of mouth, they left a paper trail.

Elizabeth – I am going to review the draft letter with Dr. Cannaday over the next two days while he is here for the Board meetings. Can you give me some notes (either written or verbal) that provide more specifics about who you talked with, what they are doing about the concerns, etc. so that I can share those informally with Dr. Cannaday?

  • Morris replied the same day:

Just in case you need it, here is the contact info for the person I spoke with from Roanoke County Public Schools:

Ben Williams
Associate Director of Testing & Remediation
540-562-3900

  • The June 22 Luchau email chain includes a June 20 from Eric Von Steigleder, the Special Assistant for Communications in the office of our Secretary of Education. He wrote:

    FYI ‐ Mr. Maronic wrote a similar letter to our office as well. With input from DOE and our office, I mailed the attached letter to the constituent encouraging him to work with his local Superintendent as well as his school board to address his concerns.

They didn’t produce the “attached letter” but Maronic has provided me a copy:

holton_letter2

Note her response: “I encourage you to share your concerns with your local superintendent’s office as well as your local school board.” (Maronic had brought up the issue to the School Board and Board of Supervisors, but no action was taken.)

So, there you have it: The few records that exist suggest that the VDOE inquiry into Maronic’s charges of widespread cheating amounted to a single phone call by one mid-level VDOE functionary to a mid-level Roanoke school functionary. The Party Line, running up to the Secretary: “Nothing we can do about it.”

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The State Department of Superintendent Protection

monkeysby John Butcher

On June 7, I posted a letter to the President of the State Board of Education from a former Latin teacher in the Roanoke County system alleging cheating at one or more schools in that system. That teacher, Robert Maronic, averred “widespread” cheating and claimed to have informed the administration of the problem in November, 2012, the Board of Supervisors in October, 2015, and the School Board in November, 2015.

(Maronic posted an op-ed in Bacon’s Rebellion on the same topic: “Halt the High School Cheating Epidemic.” — JAB)

On June 24, Maronic received a reply (reproduced below) from the President of the Board of Education. Let’s analyze that letter.

Thank you for your letter detailing concerns with the Roanoke County Public School system. I appreciate you [sic] taking the time to contact the Virginia Board of Education.

Just from the first sentence we know this letter is Bad News: President Cannaday characterizes allegations of wholesale cheating as “concerns.”

The [Roanoke County Public School] division informed the Department that it is taking measures to address this issue and is working with outside support to combat this challenge.

So, the Roanoke County division admits to some or all of the allegations:

  • It is taking unspecified “measures.”
  • Those measures will “address,” but perhaps not eliminate the cheating.
  • The division is “working” with outsiders to “combat this challenge.”

What this does not say is that the Roanoke County School Superintendent has eliminated the cheating and fired the people responsible for it.

Pursuant to the Constitution of Virginia, the Board of Education determines and prescribes the Standards of Quality for school divisions, and the supervision of schools in each school division is vested in the local school board.

Hmmm.  Let’s look at authority:

  • Va. Const. art. VIII, § 4:  The general supervision of the public school system shall be vested in a Board of Education . . .
  • Va. Code § 22.1-65:  A division superintendent may be assessed a reasonable fine, suspended from office for a limited period or removed from office by either the Board of Education, upon recommendation of the Superintendent of Public Instruction or the school board of the division for sufficient cause.

We need not parse the scope of “general supervision” to understand that the Roanoke County Superintendent is responsible for what happens in his system.  Either he knew of the cheating and needs to be fired for not dealing with it, or he did not know of the cheating so he needs to be fired for incompetence.

And Cannaday is president of one of the two boards that can do the firing.

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When Balanced Budgets Aren’t Really Balanced

hide_the_peaby James A. Bacon

The politics of fiscal implosion are ugly. Just look at what’s going on in Petersburg and Richmond.

  • Confronted with a massive budget deficit last year in contravention of the state constitution and the prospect of a deficit in the year ahead, Petersburg City Council bravely agreed to cut the compensation of the city’s 600 employees — but carved out exemptions for senior city officials and themselves.
  • Another trustee has resigned from the board of the city of Richmond’s severely under-funded retirement fund, which has been embroiled in governance issues over who calls the shots over investment decisions.
  • City of Richmond officials say they have nearly completed their comprehensive annual financial report for 2015 — seven months late! The city has not completed the required report on time since 2014. City officials blame IT issues.

That’s just in the Richmond region, which I am familiar with because I read the Richmond Times-Dispatch as my daily newspaper. Who knows what’s happening elsewhere? While Virginians pride themselves for their fiscal rectitude, it is increasingly clear that some jurisdictions don’t hew to standards much higher than Chicago, Cleveland or Detroit.

In theory, the state constitutions requires the state government and each political jurisdiction to balance its budget each year. Virginians should be concerned that Petersburg failed to do so in fiscal 2016, that it shows every sign of failing to do so again in fiscal 2017, and that there appears to be no sanction or penalty in sight. Likewise, we should be concerned of the various tricks the state and its localities can use, if so inclined, to hide long-term structural budget deficits. Here are three:

  • Under-fund employee pensions. The Commonwealth drastically under-funded the Virginia Retirement System in the last recession, although it is now doing penance by accelerating repayments. The City of Richmond has under-funded its government-employees pension, which it operates independently of the VRS.
  • Slow pay creditors. This tactic comes straight out of the Illinois Fiscal Irresponsibility Playbook. Petersburg, it has been revealed, delayed payments of millions of dollars not only to the VRS but schools and the regional jail.
  • Defer maintenance. Rather than properly maintain roads, streets, buses, water systems, sewer systems, school buildings and the like, save money by scrimping on maintenance, even if it means even higher costs down the road.

To what extent do local governments rely upon these and other budgetary sleights of hand to balance their budgets? Nobody knows. Let me rephrase that: The public doesn’t know.

The bottom line here is that citizens cannot take at face value that their local governments are truly balancing their budgets. Some might be. I have faith that my home county of Henrico, whatever its other failings, runs a tight fiscal ship and doesn’t play bookkeeping games. But I don’t know it for a fact. Speaking generally, not specifically about Henrico County, government administrators are subject to the temptation of hiding bad news. And in most cases, local elected officials are either too timid or too untutored to ask tough, probing questions about how money is being spent.

Citizens unite! There are active taxpayer groups in Arlington, Fairfax County and Virginia Beach that I know of. I hope and pray that there are others of which I remain ignorant. Rather than fight lonely fights, they need to pool resources and expertise. I invite like-minded citizens to join Bacon’s Rebellion to create a platform to share knowledge and hold state and local governments more accountable than our elected officials seem able to do on their own. If anyone is interested in such a collaboration, please contact me at jabacon[at]baconsrebellion.com.

Halt the School Cheating Epidemic!

cheatingby Robert Maronic

Roanoke County Public Schools (RCPS) has a good reputation for educating students in grades K-7. However, cheating on non-Standards of Learning (SOL) testing on school-issued laptops is a chronic problem. I taught Latin at Hidden Valley High School from 2011 to 2013, and took every precaution to prevent cheating but to no avail.

Cheating is a widespread problem at all five county high schools including the 8th grade. I spoke about the problem this spring before the School Board and then the Board of Supervisors. Unfortunately, nothing was resolved.

I believe that RCPS is in violation of Standard 7 (C) (3) of the Code of Virginia, which states that “the standards of student conduct and attendance and enforcement procedures [are] designed to provide that public education be conducted in an atmosphere free of disruption and threat to persons or property and supportive of individual rights” (§ 22.1-253.13:7).”

RCPS has adequate “standards of student conduct” and policies in place for academic integrity. Unfortunately, the central office of RCPS and the administrators at the five county high schools cannot realistically enforce the rules when students take an online non-SOL test or quiz on school-issued laptops. Students can cheat easily, making the “enforcement procedures” in Standard 7 (C) (3) almost meaningless.

The problem is that students have complete access to both their hard drives and the internet during an online test, and it is impossible for a dedicated teacher to watch fifteen or thirty laptop screens from the back of the room while also monitoring for such traditional cheating as crib sheets and smartphones. Students can easily right click on Google, access the Snipping Tool, copy and paste answers, hide a cheat sheet, email passwords, and, most insidiously, program a key to perform screen captures of an entire test or quiz to a Google server without the teacher ever knowing it.

This testing environment is the direct opposite of state-mandated SOL testing, which requires a lock-down browser and other software to prevent digital cheating.

Standard 7 (C) (3) clearly states that “public education be conducted in an atmosphere” “supportive of individual rights” (§ 22.1-253.13:7). RCPS has violated the “individual rights” of honest students who obey the rules or “standards of student conduct” (§ 22.1-253.13:7). Honest students are at a distinct disadvantage in competing against the dishonest ones on the basis of GPAs, class ranking, and academic awards, all of which impact college admissions, scholarships and grants.

There is a de facto system of academic apartheid between the honest students and the cheaters in grades 8-12, creating a non-level playing field in RCPS and a negative “atmosphere” of learning. Like Major League Baseball players during the steroid era, many honest students ask themselves if they should cheat in order to get ahead academically while the dishonest students never ask themselves this question. This is a moral dilemma every honest student faces during the academic year at every county high school and all the other county schools in grades 8-12.

In addition, Standard 7 (C) (3) states that “public education be conducted in an atmosphere” “free of disruption.” Not only is cheating both academically disruptive and morally wrong, it teaches bad “citizenship” — the antithesis of “responsible participation in American society.” RCPS should not be teaching its students to emulate such notorious “cheats” as Lance Armstrong, Mark McGwire, Lenny Dykstra and Alex Rodriguez, not to mention Swiss banks, Mitsubishi and Volkswagen. Lastly, cheating certainly does not “foster public confidence” in RCPS, which is one of the five “accreditation standards” of the “public education system” in Virginia.

RCPS has not been in compliance with both Standards 7 (C) (3) and 1 (C) in grades 9-12 since 2007 and grade 8 since 2015. The Virginia Department of Education should conduct an immediate external investigation to ascertain the status of the school district’s state accreditation, and to determine who has been either responsible or complicit in this shameful and preventable academic misconduct. The students, parents and taxpayers in Roanoke County all deserve more integrity and better accountability from their public schools.

Robert Maronic, a former teacher, resides in Roanoke, Va.

Truant Teachers — a Systemic Failure?

Bad Teacher. At least Cameron Diaz showed up for school!

Bad Teacher. At least Cameron Diaz showed up for school!

by James A. Bacon

Everyone knows that truancy is a problem in Virginia’s public schools. If students don’t make it to class, they don’t learn, they drop out, and many go on to live miserable, impoverished lives. We’ve all heard the story.

What happens when teachers don’t show up at school? The problem is more prevalent than I’d imagined.

John Butcher, writing at Cranky’s Blog, has a knack for digging up arcane educational data, and it turns out that the U.S. Department of Education’s “Civil Rights Data Collection” tracks the number of teachers absent from work for more than ten days for reasons not related to professional development.

There is extraordinary variability by school district, Butcher finds. Here in Virginia, of the 656 teachers in Franklin County public schools, not a single teacher was absent more than ten days in 2014. By contrast, 68 of 98 teachers (69%) in Lancaster County public schools missed school. In a majority of districts, the percentage of truant teachers ran between 20% and 40%.

This strikes me as a phenomenon that needs exploring.

First, it is worth inquiring whether there is a link between high teacher truancy and low educational achievement. All other things being equal, a substitute teacher parachuting into a classroom cannot be as effective as a teacher who knows the students, knows what has been taught already, and knows what needs to be taught.

Second, it is also worth inquiring whether there is a link between teacher truancy and the number of substitute teachers that schools must maintain on staff. In other words, does the problem force schools to spend more money on payroll than they would otherwise? If so, how much are absentee teachers costing the schools?

Third, the extreme variability in teacher truancy suggests that some school systems are more effective at managing the problem than others. If half your school system’s teachers are absent more than 10 days, it sounds like you’ve got a major management issue. Could addressing the truant teacher problem be a lever for school administrators to improve student achievement and save money?

Finally, before going off the deep end and declaring that we have a system failure on our hands, it would be helpful to better understand the nature of the numbers. What exactly do “absences” include, and why is the baseline set at ten days? I assume that teachers are allowed a number of “personal” days off to deal with personal and family emergencies — perhaps that’s why USDOE tracks only teachers who have been absent more than 10 times.

However, unless there is something about these statistics that doesn’t meet the eye, it looks like literally thousands of Virginia teachers are playing hooky. I cannot see how such behavior can be countenanced. Why isn’t this a scandal?

Update: Butcher’s follow-up analysis shows even more variability between individual schools within the City of Richmond than between school districts. Overall, Richmond schools have the ninth highest teacher truancy rate of all school districts in Virginia. At John Marshall High School only 16% of teachers were no-shows more than ten days. But at Lucille M. Brown Middle School, the rate was 94% of teachers!

Butcher then asked a critical question: Is there any correlation between teacher truancy and student performance? Based on the sample of Richmond schools, the answer appears to be not. However, he notes that the school system spent $4.1 million on substitute teachers in 2014. If the city could cut the use of substitutes by half, it could give its other teachers a 2% raise.

Will More Money Really Help Poor Students?

schoolby James A. Bacon

Once upon a time, the liberal critique of Virginia’s school funding system was that schools with rich kids got more money per student than schools with poor kids. The state of Virginia moved to address funding inequalities two-and-a-half decades ago. Now liberals have raised the bar. It’s not enough to provide equal resources. Now the state needs to provide poor students with more money per student than affluent students. Perhaps a lot more.

“The fact is it costs substantially more to help low-income students reach similar levels of performance as students from wealthier families,” states a new report by the Commonwealth Institute, a left-of-center think tank focusing on Virginia issues. “Studies in New York and Wisconsin find it can cost two to two-and-a-half times as much to educate lower-income students. Other studies in California, Kansas, and Missouri find costs ranging between 55 to 64 percent more.”

In Virginia, says the report, Virginia contributes 14 to 19 percent more per low-income student than other students. Yet that’s not enough, the authors say. Some other states do even more.

Virginia has more than 512,000 disadvantaged kids in its public schools, about four out of ten students.

These students face serious challenges that can make success in the classroom more difficult. For instance, they are more likely to have distractions in their home life, such as moving frequently, hunger, and parents coping with substance abuse. Many do not have the luxury of outside resources, such as private tutoring, that students from higher-income families may receive. They are less likely to be involved in organized activities like music lessons, clubs, or sports teams that can lead to social and mental development.

So, what’s the solution? The Commonwealth Institute says Virginia should increase funding for its “At-Risk Add-on,” a program created in 1992 to compensate for the fact that poor students cost more to educate than better-off students. The program pays 1% to 13% more funding per low-income student, depending upon the concentration of low-income students in the school district. The Commonwealth Institute proposes increasing that payout to 1% to 25%. “Making this adjustment would almost double the state’s share of add-on funding and would increase state support in Virginia’s highest poverty schools by more than $200 per student.”

Bacon’s bottom line. There are a number of issues here. Should we adopt the principle that it is the state’s obligation to provide a level of funding sufficient to ensure that poor kids have comparable educational outcomes to other kids? Rejiggering the At-Risk Add-On formula to steer an extra $200 per student to poor schools won’t get there. Once it’s apparent that $200 is not enough to make a difference, the Commonwealth Institute’s logic would suggest that there is no limit to what we would be morally obligated to pay.

Further, it is ridiculous to say, as the Commonwealth Institute does, that extra money for poor students “would not take away from school divisions in better off communities.” More money for the At Risk-Add On program has to come from somewhere — the pot of money the state uses to provide state aid to public education. Skimming more money off the top for poor schools would leave less to be distributed among all schools. How reasonable is it to ask middle-class families, who pay sales and property taxes to support schools in their own communities, to do with less so the kids of poor families, who already get 14% to 19% more state support than kids from middle-class families, can get even more — even as poor families pay very little into the system themselves?

It is especially unreasonable to dock funding for middle-class students when there is no guarantee that extra money would actually improve educational outcomes in schools plagued by disciplinary breakdowns, bloated and incompetent district administrations, decrepit school buildings suffering from short-changed maintenance, and a host of other ills. The underlying assumption of the Commonwealth Institute is that poor educational outcomes of poor kids is a problem that only more money can solve. That’s just not true.

I’m not heartless. I understand that little kids are not responsible for the poverty of their parents. I’d like to live in a country where poor kids get a decent shot at succeeding in life. I’m just not convinced that what we’ve been trying for the past 50 years is working, nor that doing more of the same, only with more money taken from the middle class, is the solution.