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Education: Should cheaters prosper?

February 28, 2011 | 10:38 am

Some of those watching the Oscars on Sunday probably pined for the good old days of hosts Bob Hope and, later, Johnny Carson.

Not me, though. (OK, full disclosure, I didn't actually watch the Oscars; I had the Knicks-Heat game on.)

But I was reminded of Carson on Monday morning, when reading The Times’ story on Crescendo charter schools.

One of Carson's famous bits on "The Tonight Show" was to appear as Carnac the Magnificent. Carnac was given answers (in sealed envelopes); he then "divined" the questions.

Turns out that a better name for Crescendo would've been Carnac charter schools.

According to The Times story: "Last year, administrators and teachers at the six schools south of downtown Los Angeles were caught cheating: using the actual test questions to prepare students for the state exams by which schools are measured."

In the academic world, cheating is usually frowned on. On Wall Street, of course, it's called business as usual. Hedge-fund managers who trade using insider information earn millions in salaries and bonuses.  Sometimes they go to jail, but their money doesn't.

Still, you might expect the folks at Crescendo to be horrified about the cheating. 

Not exactly. Like mortgage bankers, NASCAR drivers and baseball players, they used the "rules are made to be broken" gambit.

"While such a breach was not authorized or condoned, the fact that regulations exist to address such breaches suggest they do happen," then-board president Leah Bass-Baylis wrote to L.A. Unified.

Aha! You put rules in to stop cheaters, so you must know people are going to cheat. Just call that the "Catch-23" excuse (which is not the answer to question No. 6 on the test, "What is the name of Joseph Heller’s famed antiwar novel?")

However, I'm on the fence on this issue. Absolutely, cheating is wrong. But if we're going to measure academic success by standardized test scores -– forcing teachers to "teach to the test" -– why beat around the bush? Why not have students study the actual questions? They’ll certainly do better. Their  parents will be happy. Administrators at all levels will be pleased. Money will flow. 

It could be a sea change for education, sort of like "new math."

Heck, we might even stop hammering the poor teachers.

Of course, there may have to be some adjustments made when these students hit the work world.

For example, here's a staff meeting at Acme Plasma & Computer Chip Co. in 2025:

"OK, folks, sales are down, and we don't know why. Something has to be done. Smithers, you're in charge of sales; what are we doing?"

"Well, boss, here's what we've come up with so far: 

a) Keep trying what we're trying.

b) Try something else.

c) Do nothing.

d) All of the above.

e) None of the above."


The cheating charter: Crescendo gave students test answers. How low does a school have to go for L.A. Unified to close it?

A daring bet at Belmont

For the L.A. Unified board

Cartoon: Milking parents in La Cañada

-- Paul Whitefield

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