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When Teachers Cheat: Looking Good, Being Bad

Justin Minkel

Legend has it that in 18th century Russia, Governor Potemkin liked to impress Queen Catherine by taking her on boat trips to observe his stewardship of her realm. Their boat followed a winding river populated by lovely villages teeming with well-fed peasants.

The villages only had one problem: They weren't real. Neither were the rosy-cheeked peasants. These "Potemkin villages" were painted wooden facades of houses mounted on wheels, and the actors playing the peasants would wave at Catherine and her retinue, then drag the fake houses to the next bend in the river once she was out of sight.

The NCLB-era fixation on testing has turned thousands of schools into Potemkin villages, where what matters is looking good to outsiders, not actually being good for the students, parents, and teachers within those school walls.

When I started teaching in West Harlem 13 years ago, a visionary young superintendent decided to shift the literacy practices in District 6—actual books instead of textbooks, meetings at the rug area instead of long-winded lectures, cooperative group work instead of worksheets.

Our principal's response? A few days before the superintendent's mid-year visit to our school, she sent out a "red alert." The old reading textbooks were swiftly carted to the basement. Desks were dragged from their traditional rows and jammed into clusters to simulate a collaborative learning environment. Dusty rugs were brought up from the basement and unfurled.

After the superintendent left the building, the rugs went back down to the basement. The old textbooks came back up.

Governor Potemkin and my principal made the same choice as the educators allegedly involved in the Atlanta and D.C. cheating scandals: to look good instead of being good.

Young children know better, but by the time they start 2nd grade, we've taught them our bad habits. My students begin the year eager to impress. They want praise and a pat on the back. They want an A+ with a smiley face sticker. They want that gold star. If they had a bad-tempered teacher the year before, they're afraid of being yelled at. They fear a letter home.

Are human beings hard-wired to crave the carrot and fear the stick? Or have our systems created that craving and fear?

Daniel Pink makes a system-shaking point in his book Drive: Brain research proves that human beings are in fact motivated by things that matter, like meaningful work, the opportunity to collaborate with colleagues we respect, and freedom to innovate and create.

My students change over the course of the year. They remember that they used to love books. They once loved to build things and ask questions and tell stories.

Once they rediscover that love of learning, the need for sticks and carrots has vanished. In its place is a bone-deep desire to think, to create, to unlock their own potential brilliance. They have chosen to be good at what they do, not to worry about looking good to me or anyone else. No clipboard-wielding state monitor can take that away from them.

Adults in our school system are the same. When every incentive and punishment is designed for the benefit of outsiders with the power to shame or applaud our efforts, we sometimes turn to quick tricks. We bypass the hard, incremental work of becoming good in favor of smoke and mirrors that can make us look good for those few anxious moments when the outsider's gaze burns bright.

Let's roll the flimsy facades into the river. Send the cheerful peasants home. Let's begin the real work of building systems for instruction and assessment that bring out the better angels of our nature: Accountability to our students and their families. The courage to innovate. An internal desire to excel.

There is nothing inevitable about a system that rewards appearance over substance. We can choose to be good and become better. Or we can continue to look good by the tricks we devise until our painted facades topple, the trained peasants fumble their lines, and the Potemkin villages of our making collapse beneath their own weight.

Justin Minkel, the 2007 Arkansas Teacher of the Year, teaches 2nd and 3rd grade at Jones Elementary in Springdale, Ark. He is currently writing a book on Common Core-aligned instruction at the elementary level.

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