Can We Stop Pretending Fraud in Education Is Victimless?

In other fields, fraud is fraud. But in education, as long as it's "for the children," it gets a pass.

Most “thought they were committing a victimless crime.”

That line comes from a lawyer who interviewed witnesses in a major education scandal. No, it wasn’t the recent college bribery bombshell that led to dozens of federal indictments. It was in relation to an epidemic of cheating in Atlanta Public Schools that came to light more than a decade ago.

Facing pressure to improve results, educators at many city schools engaged in elaborate efforts to alter student responses on annual tests given by the State of Georgia. District leaders were only too happy to celebrate and reward the gains, no matter how improbable. Teachers and principals accepted bonuses, promotions, awards, trips, and fanfare. But one year’s fake scores required still more cheating the following year, or the precipitous drop would attract scrutiny. The cycle continued until news media and state investigators intervened. Jobs were lost. People went to jail.

Still, many of the key actors felt the crime was victimless. In fact, the principal who led one of the schools in the most egregious, multi-year cheating schemes subsequently published a memoir titled Cheating But Not Cheated, in which he argued that “one of the major things that I want to really make sure that we put on the record, and as a part of what we do and say, is that there was cheating, but the children at Parks Middle School were not cheated.” Instead, he claimed, he and the other educators were acting in the best interests of students by protecting them from unreasonable expectations on tests that did not tell the true story of their learning.

As it turns out, this principal was dead wrong. Researchers followed up on the students whose answers had been changed, unbeknownst to them, on state tests. They concluded that those students were indeed harmed by the experience: They never received the academic support they needed. Their long-term performance in English language arts was weaker than students who started at the same level but did not have answers changed on their behalf.

The crime was not victimless.

Fast forward to 2019. We’ve had a front row seat to all the embarrassing details of privileged parents buying entry for their children to elite universities through an array of fraudulent gambits, ranging from changing answers on entrance exams to positioning students as athletic recruits in sports they did not even play. You can bet the parents will claim they deserve leniency because their actions were victimless. After all, they simply wanted the best for their children. The college admissions game has become so unreasonably competitive. And really, what’s the harm?

But here’s the thing: There is harm. When parents pay for their children to receive accommodations—like extra testing time—that their children don’t qualify for, they make it harder for students who actually need those resources to get them. When a student who doesn’t meet the bar for a sports team or isn’t academically qualified for admission gets a spot because their parents cheated, legitimately deserving students lose out. Indeed, any time parents throw money at advantaging their own (already advantaged) children, they disadvantage others—whether they intend to or not.

It isn’t a viable defense to claim that you did it because you really wanted the thing you stole. You can’t get off the hook by reminding everyone that you were facing substantial pressure to succeed and the only way to win was to cheat. Somehow, in other fields, fraud is fraud. If you engage in deceit to gain something of value that does not belong to you, that’s fraud. But when it comes to education, as long as someone says they did it for the children, we’re supposed to cut them a break. I don’t buy it. I don’t think “for the children” was a credible excuse for years of lying to families in Atlanta with phony test results, and I don’t think it means we should go easy on wealthy celebrities who took a college spot for their own child that another student truly earned.

It’s easy to be indignant about famous people who get caught doing wrong. They earned it. But let’s make sure we are equally indignant the next time those entrusted with educating our public school kids do the same.

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