Why We Cheat

Posted on July 9, 2011


Asian student cheating off another Asian student

When given the right incentives, people will do almost anything.

The same goes for testing.

Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner explored this very idea in their 2005 book Freakanomics.

They discovered that there was systematic cheating occurring in the Chicago school system.  Using an algorithm that tracked test score fluctuations and suspicious patterns of student answers, Levitt and Dubner discovered that serious cases of teacher and/or principal cheating occurred in 5% of elementary schools.  The algorithm could only discover serious cases of cheating, and therefore they predicted cheating occurred that could not be detected (the Chicago system found a 30% decrease the following year once it began implementing the plan to catch cheating).

The ultimate incentive to cheat is to achieve.

With college admissions becoming apparently more-and-more competitive (although I’ve debated this assertion),  with parents wanting the best for their children, and with the ever-decreasing value of a basic college degree, cheating has become one way to ensure the high-level of achievement needed in order to matriculate at an institution of higher learning.  This explains why students are willing to cheat at extremely high levels.  In some recent studies, nearly 80% of high school students have admitted to some form of cheating.

Yet, the case in Chicago – and the case in Atlanta, Texas, Boston, Mississippi, California, Florida, Indiana, DC, and even Poland – reveals a different type of cheating.

Teachers are systematically cheating in order to improve student-achievement indicators that would suggest that the teacher is doing a good job.  Many point the finger at No Child Left Behind (NCLB) and the policy of holding teachers accountable for student learning gains.  The increased scrutiny and over-sight of teachers has created an even greater incentive for teachers to cheat.

Since student achievement is tied to teacher jobs and bonuses, it’s really no wonder that many teachers began to cheat.  With no other monitors for success, teachers have no way of showing academic gains or learning except with student achievement.  And why shouldn’t they?  The chances of being caught are very small.  In fact, if you consider that there are thousands of school districts, and only a very small fraction of them have been under scrutiny, it is very easy for a teacher to cheat in order to ensure good scores.

So what personal experience do I have with any of this?  I don’t teach to the test or have a state test for which I am held accountable.  In reality, the only benefit of my students performing well on the AP test is that I earn bonuses for passing students.  It isn’t much (a public school principal I play golf with asked me what my passing rate was and he choked and commented that he would have had to pay me thousands of dollars), but it still makes a nice incentive to motivate the students to do well on the exam.

In my current school I have had very little oversight into my actual classroom. Rarely will an administrator or department head come to visit my classroom and see what I am doing.  All I do is turn in weekly lesson plans (although I no longer did that out of sheer refusal of educational ideology) and my “tests” for them to make sure that the students are actually doing something in class.  My only real analysis if I’m doing a good job comes at the end of the year with SAT and AP exam scores being returned.

Because I have a very high passing rate on the AP exam, and because I have a very high SAT average, the administration and department head leave me alone.  They assume that what’s going on in my class must resemble some sort of teaching mecca.

However, they fail to understand the truth of my class.

A veteran teacher knows the tendency of the exams.  For example, I know the basic trends of the AP exams over the years.  It’s pretty easy to predict what types of questions and essays they will ask.  The same goes for the SAT exam.

In the past six years of teaching the AP test, I’ve increased my passing rate from the mid 60% to over 90%.  However, that doesn’t necessarily mean I’ve become a better teacher.  Rather, I’ve become more aware of how to prepare my students to pass the exam.  I do yearly analysis of what weaknesses the students have and then concentrate more on those areas.  One year, I noticed that my students had lower scores overall on the analysis passage.  The following year, I initiated a different rhetorical analysis curriculum that resulted in a dramatic increase in the analysis score.

Again, that doesn’t mean I became a better teacher.  Certainly teaching includes understanding needs and changing curriculum and using assessments to know what students need.  Yet, an increase in test scores doesn’t mean I’m a better teacher.  It means I’m good at statistical analysis.  I knew what to look for, how to spot it, and how to improve it.  It’s a basic skill.

I also became better at understanding what was and what wasn’t going to be on the test.  I could leave out a lot of information under the “American Literature” banner that didn’t fit into my AP English and Composition curriculum because they weren’t going to be ultimately tested on it at the end of the year.  Poetry was limited because poetry does not appear on the AP Comp exam.  Therefore, if they weren’t going to be assessed on the poetry, why should I spend months teaching that when I could improve rhetorical analysis skills, argumentative writing skills, and stylistic analysis skills?

If that doesn’t sound like “teaching to the test,” then what is?

We blame NCLB for the whole “teaching to the test” culture, but in reality, that culture was already in place in education degree programs across the country.  Benchmark testing and analysis was being used decades before the Bush NCLB.  Teachers were limiting curriculum to what knowledge they knew the students would need in order to move on to the next level.

Why do you think kindergarten children, with very few exceptions, have the same curriculum nationwide?  Because somewhere along the line, there was an unofficial agreement on what kindergarten students needed to learn in order to be successful in first grade.

In many ways, that is also “teaching to the test.”

We limit the teaching to only what is necessary.  By doing this, we limit what the student potentially can learn.

This would be the call for educational revolution.  We don’t need reform.  We need a complete remaking of the educational system in America.  But, that is another blog post.

Does the current state of education cause cheating?  Perhaps.  Yet, cheating has been around since humans first existed.

Some argue that the tests help.  High-stakes testing does help ensure there are standards to what the children learn (although standards are highly debatable).  Furthermore, testing can be one way to look at accountability of education in American schools.

Yet, when we look only at test results as the indicator of what’s working in our schools, we ignore the crumbling infrastructure, the neglected music instruments, the lost creativity, and the lack of discipline and respect.

Should we Race to the Top?  Even that isn’t the answer.  The Obama promise is that they will reward states that raise their academic standards, improve teacher quality and expand the reach of charter schools.

“This competition will not be based on politics, ideology or the preferences of a particular interest group,” said President Obama. “Instead, it will be based on a simple principle—whether a state is ready to do what works. We will use the best data available to determine whether a state can meet a few key benchmarks for reform, and states that outperform the rest will be rewarded with a grant.”

Yet, this is the very same culture that critics of NCLB claim led to the cheating in all those school districts.

There aren’t easy solutions, but NCLB and R3T aren’t the answers.  We’re merely reworking failed systems.

I always use this analogy when teaching writing to my students:

When writing a rough draft imagine it’s a dinner you’re cooking for me.  If you hand me a plate of dog crap to begin with, it’s always going to be dog crap.  No matter what you do to it – dress it up with garnish, throw some spices and flowers on there – it will always be dog crap underneath.  You just have to throw it out and start all over.

Thankfully, they learn this early on when I grade their first essays with remarks that have made tears appear.

It isn’t you, I say.  It’s your writing.

There’s also one bit of advice I tell them before they take the AP exam or the SAT exam.

This isn’t the test of your life.  This is just one test in your life.

Does anyone else find it a bit disturbing that three of the first images to pop up on my “stock image student cheating” search were these “Asian” girls cheating off their legs?

Posted in: Education