November 16, 2010 4:24PM

Future Teachers Most Likely to Cheat in College?

The current issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education features a story by a professional ghost‐​writer of college student papers. One passage in particular caught my eye:

it’s hard to determine which course of study is most infested with cheating. But I’d say education is the worst. I’ve written papers for students in elementary‐​education programs, special‐​education majors, and ESL‐​training courses. I’ve written lesson plans for aspiring high‐​school teachers, and I’ve synthesized reports from notes that customers have taken during classroom observations. I’ve written essays for those studying to become school administrators, and I’ve completed theses for those on course to become principals.…

This is of course the weakest of anecdotal evidence and no one should take it as gospel (particularly the seminary students who apparently also contract out papers to the same ghost writer). But let’s say, for the sake of argument, that it’s true—that ed school students are the most common consumers of fraudulent papers. How could we explain that?

There’s no reason to believe that future teachers are any more ethically deficient than their peers in other fields, so that’s an unlikely explanation. Could it be that ed school students are less well prepared for college? Certainly it’s an uncomfortable truth that the SAT scores of those applying to ed school (both undergraduate and graduate) consistently rank below those of applicants to most other college programs. But it is also widely acknowledged that the academic standards of ed schools are commensurately below those of other college disciplines, so future teachers shouldn’t have any more difficulty completing their assignments than students in other fields.

But there is one way in which education is fundamentally different from every other college discipline: it’s the only one whose students will go on to work in a government monopoly industry. Not only is the hiring process of public school systems less focused on identifying candidates’ academic excellence, there is evidence that it is actively hostile to excellence (e.g., that principals are less likely to hire top‐​scoring candidates from elite colleges than candidates from less rarefied institutions). What’s more, compensation for public school teachers is generally a function of time served (over which teachers have no control) and degrees conferred (over which they do). This has created demand on the part of teachers for graduate degrees—not necessarily for the acquisition of advanced skills, but for the diplomas themselves, which amount to valuable cash prizes.

Again, we can’t know from a single ghost-writer’s experience if ed school students systematically cheat more in college than their peers in other fields, but we certainly shouldn’t be surprised if they do. We’ve organized education in this country in a way that decouples skill and performance from compensation, and instead couples compensation to the mere trappings of higher learning (e.g., masters degrees). We’ve created a powerful financial incentive for existing and future teachers to cheat. Maybe not such a good idea.

Hat tip: Bill Evers.