Crackdown on Cheating in Schools Must Address Misuse of Cellphones

by Christopher Paslay

 Cheating in public schools goes beyond state exams.  Students regularly use cellphones in class to steal answers.    

Cheating is a growing problem facing public education.  PA Education Secretary Ron Tomalis recently ordered the state to investigate 49 school districts across Pennsylvania for alleged cheating on PSSA tests taken since 2009.  A recent report by the Georgia governor’s office showed that for years, Atlanta public school teachers altered student answer sheets on state tests.      

What has gotten systematically ignored by school leaders and politicians, ironically, is the daily cheating that goes on in American classrooms at the hands of cellphones.     

In 2009, Common Sense Media commissioned the Benenson Strategy Group to conduct extensive interviews with teenage students about the use of digital media for cheating in school.  The report concluded that 83 percent of students had cellphones and that in an average week, teens sent 440 text messages—110 of which were sent during class.  Sixty-five percent of teens used their cellphones in the building despite school policy.  Thirty-five percent admitted to cheating on a test at least once with their cellphone, while 65 percent said they knew of somebody who had cheated with a cellphone. 

To cut down on cheating, and to eliminate unwanted distractions, some educators have banned cellphones from their classrooms altogether.  If a cellphone is seen or heard in class, it is immediately confiscated and not returned until the end of the period.          

Interestingly, teachers who ban the use of cellphones are often labeled as old fashioned.  There is a growing pressure from society to embrace technology in all its glory, and this includes using cellphones as a learning tool in the classroom.  Education is nearing a point when all schools will be paperless, when the electronic word will replace the printed word, when laptops will serve the function of books.          

When you cut through all the rhetoric about technology, however, cellphones are an addiction.  A cellphone might be good for accessing the internet to do research, or it might have other multimedia uses and applications, but there’s going to be a time when the cellphone will need to be turned off and put away.  And too many teens do not have the self discipline to do so.     

Cell phone companies undoubtedly understand this addiction, but they’re not going to stop advertising to teens or let disruptions in learning get in the way of making billions of dollars in profit.  To ward off complaints by teachers and meet objections from educators before they can be adequately raised, cellphone companies have been donating a piece of their extremely large profits to education.

Verizon, for example, has started, a website that offers free lesson plans and professional development for teachers, after school activities for children, education news, and the like. To lay it on even thicker, they also launched, a website that boasts of a goal to “improve literacy and strengthen educational achievement for children and adults by preparing them for success in the 21st Century.”  Verizon even offers educational awards and grants to certain schools.

Not everyone associated with technology is so intent on keeping up a glowing image, however.  “Baby Shaker,” the 2009 Apple multimedia application that allowed users to shake their iPhone and in the process silence a crying baby on the screen is one example.  Although Apple apologized and removed the program from their website because of complaints from child welfare groups, it’s inconceivable as to why Apple would have placed a game like this on the market in the first place.

For those who thought Baby Shaker was just a harmless gag, they should understand what researchers in early childhood education have been saying for decades: the development of a child’s vocabulary and later academic achievement has a direct correlation to their interaction with their parents in infancy.  A child who grows up in a home where his parents shake him or shout discouragements is more likely to have a lower IQ later in life.    

Technology has a place in education, although as a culture we must be careful not to abuse it.  Just as school leaders have been careful to police state tests, so too must they fight against the misuse of cellphones in classrooms.

Impossible standards fuel spread of cheating

“‘I was thrown out of college for cheating on the metaphysics exam,’ Woody Allen once said. ‘I looked into the soul of the boy sitting next to me.’

Cheating isn’t usually a laughing matter, though, as the Philadelphia School District is learning. A recently revealed 2009 report by the state Department of Education flagged 22 district-run schools and seven charters for suspicious results on standardized tests. Several city teachers have also reported breaches in test security at their schools, although an internal investigation by the Philadelphia School District concluded that claims of cheating were unfounded. . . .”

This is an excerpt from my commentary in today’s Philadelphia Inquirer, “Impossible standards fuel spread of cheating.”  Please click here to read the entire article.  You can respond or provide feedback by clicking on the comment button below.

Thanks for reading.

–Christopher Paslay

Safe Harbor



 by Christopher Paslay


You made “safe harbor,” you half-wit of a teacher,

you grunt, you nincompoop, you mule.  You made it

by the skin of your teeth, teeth we’ll wait another year

to punch down your throat.


You can thank the former president, George W.—

that gray-haired Texas stooge,

and that Margaret Spellings woman, who never taught

a day in her life, but who was “a mother of school-aged children.”

She was investigated for academic fraud, asleep at the switch

on student loans.  Nonetheless, her reform gives us

the power to fire, to overhaul, to turn you to stone. 


You made safe harbor, so we’re not going to blow you to bits,

firebomb your classroom like Dresden, boil the water

in the yellow bucket you use to wash your boards. 

We’re not going to reduce your erasers to ash.        

What about your students?  You think our reforms

are failing them?  You hear them crying-out

in their anger, their disenchantment, their fear?  Are they

panicking, huddled under their wooden desks?            

You must be mistaken. Our data

shows otherwise.       

You made safe harbor, mister.

Congratulations.  You and your deadbeat colleagues

can keep your jobs.


Lego Party

by Christopher Paslay

The following memoir was cut from the final version of The Village Proposal: Education as a Shared Responsibility.  The book, which is part memoir, part education commentary, will be published by Rowman & Littlefield this September.  (Note: Names have been changed to protect privacy.)

It wasn’t until the first week of October, 1995, that I got a call to substitute.  The phone rang at six o’ clock in the morning, and the woman in charge of dispatching assignments on the other end of the line told me that an elementary school needed a sub for one of their 3rd grade special education classes. 

Although I had a degree in secondary English and was trained to teach high school, I accepted the assignment with a positive attitude.  I drove through the predominantly African American neighborhood to the school, parked my car on a side street, and found my way to the main office.  I was greeted by the secretary with a smile, given my roster, and told to proceed to the third floor of the building. 

When I got to the room, a staff member—a special education teacher who was on her prep and covering the class—met me at the door. 

“They’re all yours,” she said, and left.

The class was made up of only eight students.  They were all boys, all third graders, and all special education.  They were sitting quietly at their desks, drawing on loose leaf paper.  When I arrived, though, my presence stirred things up a bit. 

“Who are you?” a boy asked.

“I’m Mr. Paslay,” I told him, and then explained to the class that I’d be their teacher for the day. 

“Where’s Ms. Riable?” another asked.

“She’s not here today,” I said, and tried to keep things positive and friendly. 

Ms. Riable had left a lesson plan on her desk and she’d written several assignments on the board.  I was supposed to have the students take out their math workbooks and complete a basic arithmetic lesson.  I instructed them to do this and they cooperated for about five minutes, but soon they started getting up out of their seats and walking around the room.  I asked them nicely to sit down, but they weren’t responding. 

“Guys, come on,” I said patiently.  “You have to stay in your seats.” 

I changed activities, giving them coloring books and crayons, hoping this would keep them occupied.  It did for five minutes, the same as before, but then the same thing happened: they left their seats and started walking around.

I sat down at Ms. Riable’s desk and figured I’d let it go for a while.  I’d let them stroll around the room and use up some energy; they didn’t seem to be hurting anyone.  But as I scanned through the rest of Ms. Riable’s lessons to see what else I could do with them, the screaming started.  I looked up and saw that one boy had tackled another to the floor and that they were now wrestling.         

“Guys!” I shouted.  The boy that got tackled started crying.  Not knowing what to do, I picked up the emergency telephone on the wall, the one that went to the main office.  When the secretary answered, I explained the situation.  She said she’d send somebody up to help me out.  A few moments later, one of the special education teachers from across the hall came in and told the students to behave themselves.  They sat back down in their seats. 

This routine continued for the rest of the morning.  I’d do my best to get the students interested in something from Ms. Riable’s lessons, they’d get distracted and leave their seats, and I’d have to pick up the phone and threaten to call the office to settle things down; after I called the office twice, they stopped answering the phone. 

At lunchtime, another teacher came and took the students to the recess yard and I got an hour break.  After lunch, I took a shot at reading the class a story.  To my satisfaction, I pulled it off.  I read them Clifford the Big Red Dog.  They sat Indian style around me in the front of the room, completely silent, listening intently. 

Just then, the teacher who took the students to lunch an hour before popped in to see how I was doing.  “Oh, you’re so good with them,” she cooed, and walked away smiling.

When the story was over they wanted more.  I was tired of reading, and asked them what else they liked to do.

“Legos!” one boy shouted.  He took me to the book case in the corner where there was a container filled with them.

“You guys are allowed to play with these?” I asked the boy.

He said that they were, that Ms. Riable let them play with them on Fridays if they were good all week and got their work done.  It was only Monday, but what the heck, I figured I’d let them play with some Legos.  It might keep them occupied for the last hour of the day. 

When they took their seats, I gave out the Legos.  They played with them . . . for a while.  After ten minutes however, they started throwing them around the room.  Lego pieces went zipping through the air like exploding fireworks.  I shouted for them to stop, but in the end I had to go around, student by student, and take the pieces away and put them back into the big white bucket. 

I spent the last 15 minutes of the day cleaning up the room.  I found Legos pieces everywhere.  I shut the classroom windows as I cleaned, afraid that if I didn’t, one of the kids would literally jump out the window while my back was turned and fall three stories to his death.

When the bell rang I was told to take the students out back into the recess yard so their parents could pick them up.  On the way out into the yard, one of my students suddenly jumped on another boy’s back and threw him to the ground.  The boy on the bottom bumped his head on the concrete and started crying at the top of his lungs.  The mother of the crying boy came up to me, picked him up off the ground, brushed him off, and told him to settle down.  She proceeded to wipe the snots coming from his nose.

I explained what happened, but she didn’t seem too upset; it was par for the course.  I apologized and she left.

I went back inside to the main office so I could return the roster and sign out.  There, the secretary said to me, “Thank you so much.  Will we see you tomorrow, then?  Ms. Riable will probably be out for a while, maybe six weeks, and we need a long term sub.”

“I don’t know,” I said. 

The secretary seemed confused.  “Well, you have a job here for the next four weeks, if you want it.”

I told her I’d have to think about it, which was a lie.  I knew I’d never be coming back to that school.  In fact, at that very moment, I was sure I’d never teach another day in my life. 

It would be 23 months before I set foot in another classroom.

District Refuses to Own Up to $630 Million Deficit

In a recent Inquirer commentary, CFO Michael Masch cherry-picks financial data to blame the District’s $630 million deficit on a lack of funding.   

by Christopher Paslay

On June 6th, concerned about the Philadelphia School District’s $630 million budget deficit, I published a commentary in the Inquirer headlined, “District spent its way into massive shortfall.”  In it I commented that the District had only itself to blame for its current financial mess—that officials spent freely on questionable initiatives, banking on temporary federal stimulus money as if it were permanent and ignoring their own five-year financial plan.

Coincidently, on the same morning that my commentary ran in the Inquirer, Phil Goldsmith, who served as interim CEO of the Philadelphia School District in 2000-01, wrote a piece in the Daily News headlined, “If it’s really about the kids, then we need some controls.”  Here, Goldsmith brought-up some of the same points I’d made about the District’s financial woes—that they stemmed more from mismanagement than from cuts in funding; Goldsmith took the argument a step further and called on city leaders (which he insisted had “misdiagnosed” the problem) to make the school budget more transparent and to hold District leaders accountable.

The articles by Goldsmith and myself did not fall on deaf ears.  On June 6th, the very morning our pieces ran, Bill Green, Philadelphia City Councilman-At-Large, wrote a letter to Mayor Michael Nutter asking him for more financial oversight and accountability from the Philadelphia School District.  In it Green wrote:

“The crisis at the School District is not over, but it is a crisis stemming more from a lack of meaningful oversight and good stewardship than from a lack of funding. I refer you to the excellent pieces in the Daily News and Inquirer today by Phil Goldsmith and Christopher Paslay, respectively, which define the issues and problem well. . . .”     

On June 28, Michael Masch, CFO of the Philadelphia School District, publically responded to the growing criticism over the handling of District finances in a commentary in the Philadelphia Inquirer headlined, “Philly School District’s spending under control.”  In it he insisted the District’s budget shortfall is not the result of mismanagement, or bad bookkeeping, or reckless spending.  It is simply the result of a lack of funding.   

“The district’s problem is not spending,” Masch writes in the article.  “It is funding.”

With all due respect to Masch and his recent efforts to raise money and balance the budget, his claim that the District doesn’t have a spending problem is a clear case of denial; it is a total lack of accountability.  He blames the District shortfall on funding cuts, and writes that they are “unprecedented and disproportionate.” 

The concerning part, however, isn’t that he and the District are trying to shuck all responsibility for the $630 million budget deficit, a shortfall that has adversely affected nearly everyone in the city—taxpayers, teachers, parents, children, and unions, to name a few.  The alarming part is that the numbers Masch uses in his Inquirer commentary to explain away all responsibility for the budget shortfall are cherry-picked and taken out of context.

According to the District’s Third Quarter Financial Report, dated April 13, 2011, eight percent of the District’s funding for the 2010-11 school year was federal stimulus, which totaled $258 million.  In the 2009-10 school year, the District received $227 million in stimulus money.  Yet Masch writes in his article:

“State and federal funding for the district is going down next year—for the first time ever, and by an enormous amount—more than $400 million, a 15 percent drop. And this is not due solely or primarily to the district’s loss of federal stimulus funds. The district received an average of $113 million in annual stimulus funds in 2010 and in 2011, but it is losing more than $400 million in total funding next year.”

It appears Masch is getting the number $113 million from “Directly Allocated Federal Stimulus Funds.”  What he fails to mention, however, is that in the school years 2009-10 and 2010-11, the District also received “State Allocated Federal Stimulus Funds,” which brought in an additional $130 million per year.   

Masch also writes in his piece, “The district’s annual operating budget spending grew by just 4 percent in the past three years.”    

He is again playing with words.  Although the District’s “Operating Funds,” which only include “Local Taxes,” “City Grant,” ‘Local Non-Taxes” and “State Funds,” may have only increased 4 percent in three years, the District’s total budget grew from $2.79 billion in 2008-09 to $3.12 billion in 2010-11.  I’m no accountant or mathematician, but 4 percent of $2.79 billion is $111 million.  And from 2008 to 2011, District spending increased over $300 million; interestingly, the student population in the District went down 7,000 students during this time.         

I’m not the only one who finds Masch’s representation of data a bit troublesome.  The City Controller’s Office has also expressed serious concerns about how the School District handles tax dollars, and has recommended that they be required to present a five-year financial plan to an independent accounting authority because of “material weaknesses” found in its financial statements.

If the entire city of Philadelphia is being asked to make sacrifices to help balance the School District budget, if kindergarten and transportation are going to be cut, if unions are going to make $75 million in concessions, if property taxes are going to go up nearly $100 a year and 1,200 schoolteachers are going to lose their jobs, than there must be some real accountability. 

How can Mayor Nutter and the SRC ask so many people to give so much money to District officials who take no responsibility and who spin their financial information?        

This is a question that state and local leaders must start asking themselves.