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Iowa Watchdog

Davenport schools ripe for cheating expert says


DES MOINES – At least one teacher in the Davenport School District voiced concerns about low morale and overstressed staff prior to a cheating scandal that broke earlier this year, according to district emails.

The anonymous author described, in a three-page letter to Superintendent Arthur Tate, teachers as demoralized, overwhelmed and stressed because of increased district expectations and demands to improve student test scores. Those factors also created an environment ripe for cheating, at least one expert said.

“When you get a demoralized staff that is under pressure to look better that’s where you get the cheating,” said Walter Haney, a retired professor at the National Center for the Study of Testing at Boston College.

RIPE FOR CHEATING? New initiatives in the Davenport School District have left staff overwhelmed and stressed.

RIPE FOR CHEATING? New initiatives in the Davenport School District have left staff overwhelmed and stressed.

The letter outlined issues such as art, music and physical education instructors teaching reading and stringent “non-negotiables,” according to an email between Tate and Madison Elementary School Principal Sara Gott that laid out varying requirements and increased classroom evaluations for schools depending on their performance.

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Additionally, schools follow district lesson plans and now have data teams to assess student outcomes. They then use the information to adjust instruction and address student weaknesses, according to a copy of the four-page non-negotiable list.

“We are unsure what the specific cause of the dissatisfaction of the staff member at Madison,”district spokeswoman Dawn Saul wrote Tuesday in an email to Iowa Watchdog.

Davenport officials did not take the email into consideration during their investigation into a cheating scandal at Madison, in which someone erased student answers and replaced them with the correct ones on state reading and math tests, Saul said.

The alterations boosted the percentage of students passing the exams from 63 percent to 92 percent, Tate said.

Cheating among teachers and administrators has increased in recent years as more states tie educator evaluations to the scores of the students they teach and place more pressure on schools to produce results, Haney said.

Studies have shown it’s more prevalent in urban districts with large low-income and minority student populations. Davenport is the state’s third largest school district with nearly 16,400 students, according to figures from the Iowa Department of Education.

Davenport doesn’t provide monetary incentives for teachers who produce high test scores, nor does it tie teacher performance to student outcomes, Saul said.

“If a teacher is having problems, we provide them with more supports,” Saul said.

The anonymous email was not included in the documents received by Iowa Watchdog. Tate, instead, sent Gott a summary of the problems outlined. The last bullet-point said, “Sincerely, A [sic] veteran teacher who thinks that having any other job would be preferable to teaching in the Davenport Schools this year.”

Tate told Gott in his email that he wished he had the opportunity to discuss the rationale and need for the district’s actions with the disgruntled teacher. He went on to say, “I assume that you are having open discussions in your school so our teaching force understands that, although change is hard, all of the things we are asking go to the bottomline: service to our students.”

In her response, Gott told Tate that officials could figure out who wrote the letter, saying it sounded like an unprofessional teacher who is uncapable of communicating effectively. Sometimes, however, it’s better to just move on,” said Gott, who earns $95,600 a year and is in her second year as the school’s principal.

“At the end of the day, I want you to know that I love my job and working for the district … just like my mom did during her 40 years in the district,” Gott wrote in the email.

An internal investigation by the district has thus far failed to find who tampered with third- through fifth-grade reading and math tests. Investigators discovered an unusually high number of erasures on reading and math tests but not science exams. Reading and math results are used to judge the performance of schools under No Child Left Behind. If they fail to reach achievement targets, schools and districts face sanctions.

Contact Sheena Dooley at Sheena Dooley is the Iowa bureau chief for, where this story first appeared.

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