Tough on cheating, tough on the causes of cheating?

Tough on cheating, tough on the causes of cheating? January 5, 2015

A recent article in The Guardian reported a six fold increase in cheating in UK Primary school national tests due to teachers ‘flouting rules or fiddling results’: 37 schools saw their results scrapped.  The Department for Education response was that ‘strong action is taken’ to secure integrity of testing. This included a tightening of the rules, and guidelines that make it easier for whistleblowers to report suspected wrongdoing.

Yes, of course parents and teachers want to be assured of the integrity of the process. Of course it’s important to have accurate information about what progress children are making with the basics at key points in their education. But doesn’t the sudden increase in abandonment of honesty raise any questions in the minds of those in power? Isn’t there something badly wrong somewhere when people who understand about integrity and who, until a certain point, have been honest and straightforward in their application of tests, suddenly start to cheat?

People cheat for a reason:  every behaviour has a motive and the choices we make about our behaviour are governed by our personal moral codes. There have always been cheats – some see it as nothing more than working all available angles as a means of gaining advantage, or at least a means of getting by whilst hiding inadequacy or laziness. But what happens when the need to achieve something becomes so imperative that it militates against a need to be honest?

Several years ago, I found a very honest child cheating in a mock test. She was distraught about what she had done, and in talking to her, it became clear that in the conflict between meeting expectations and being honest, honesty lost. So I discussed expectations with the whole class. They talked about the stress of unrealistic expectations. They also talked about not knowing where that stress emanated from – not particularly from their parents or teachers, more just ‘around us everywhere. It’s our life’.  They also knew that cheating was wrong. But guess what? Every single one of them agreed that they had thought about cheating at some point, had actually cheated in key tests, or would do so if failure was a probability. In other words, if the stakes are high enough, compromising on honesty becomes a pragmatic choice.

That was ten years ago and the stakes are very much higher now, so it came as no surprise to read a flurry of media articles recently which show that teachers cheat, too.  It started with the searing honesty of the Guardian’s Secret Teacher: ‘The obsession with levels and never wanting to be on the wrong side of data is forcing many teachers into unscrupulous practice’.  Then came an article about a rise in Primary schools failing to meet targets, some of which is due to results being scrapped after schools were caught cheating. It seems that the warning from Pasi Sahlberg, Finland’s leading education policy expert that: ‘Introducing high stakes accountability regimes in schools increases corruption [and] cheating’ came too late. It isn’t only the UK that is experiencing this outcome, either. In 2011, 178 Atlanta teachers and principals were found cheating in standardised tests – the trial of some of them began recently. When the stakes are high enough to create a conflict, people cheat because fear of public failure takes precedence over private dishonesty.

Of course cheating is wrong. But are vociferous statements about moral rectitude the most appropriate solution? Shouldn’t we be looking at why this is happening – tough on cheating, but tough on the causes of cheating? That’s a useful sound bite, because it’s redolent of punishment. But to really be tough on the causes of cheating, successive Departments for Education on both sides of the political sphere need to own up to the effect of a culture of measurement not only on our young people, but also on those who teach them.

Cheating is destructive. Cheating corrodes trust. Is this how we want to prepare today’s young people for their lives as tomorrow’s adults?


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