Cheating Students: How Our Schools Fail the Humanistic Vision of Education

Students cheat in high school. In fact, a lot of high school students cheat routinely. A 2010 study conducted by the Josephson Institute of Ethics found that at least 59 percent of high school students had cheated on a test in the past year, and over 33 percent had cheated more than twice. People who work in our high schools know that cheating is rampant but they ignore it: the constant whispering during tests, the scrawled answers on forearms, the use of cell phone cameras to take pictures of “cheat sheets” before finals. Meanwhile, non-cheating students don’t blow the whistle on rule violations because they want to avoid being labeled “snitches” and “jerks.”

However, it’s dangerous to ignore the cheating epidemic because it reflects the absence of effective education, which has always been the source of human progress and enlightenment. Cheating reflects a deep social crisis that cannot be solved with more tests, more test proctors, more test preparation, and more test anxiety, which is the usual bureaucratic response these days. Ultimately, the cheating crisis can only be solved by rethinking our schools, which are currently modeled after Industrial-Age factories, and redesigning them to fit the educational and moral requirements of modern society.

The nature of work changed in the wake of industrialization in the nineteenth century. The employee no longer built a product alone as a craftsman or tended to the field as a farmer, but rather worked on an assembly line in which he or she repeated the same mundane tasks. The fulfillment of work was lost in the regime of strict oversight, frequent punishments, and inhumane conditions in which factory workers were forced to operate. For tardiness, workers were beaten or fired. The productive process allowed for no active or stimulating thought, and people worked only out of a necessity to make a meager salary in order to survive. The Enlightenment values of inquiry, tolerance, and autonomy championed by Thomas Jefferson, Voltaire, and others were traded for factory life and industrial organization.

Modern-day schooling is still shaped by this disciplinarian industrial model, which became dominant in the twentieth century. “Learning” (like work) is a means to the end of good grades (like wages). Learning is not meant to be intrinsically enjoyable in school. All the school administrations I’ve experienced have placed a bizarre emphasis on discipline, not student engagement, as the key to success. Schools develop elaborate three-page absence policies that punish students for being away from the classroom, and generally prevent students from obtaining credits anywhere but the classroom. But if school is so great, why do we need to scare kids into going? Why do school systems need huge armies of truant officers to coerce daily attendance? Like the activity in industrial factories, much of schoolwork isn’t fun, engaging, or inspiring, and people only put up with it so that they can graduate, go to college, and then reap the economic benefits they’re promised for getting diplomas.  What a waste of talent.

I go to a very large, diverse, and highly ranked public high school in suburban Montgomery County, Maryland. My interactions with students and teachers there, in addition to interviews with educators and students at other public and private schools, have taught me that today’s schooling is flawed in a fundamental way. During half of the tests I take, I see students blatantly cheating. I also see students preparing to cheat in elaborate ways in order to minimize the chance of getting caught. On one occasion, before a foreign language test, I took a quick survey of the class to find out how many students were planning to cheat. Because the six students sitting closest to me were all going to cheat, I decided to take issue with it before the test started.

“I always see people getting away with cheating in this class,” I told the teacher after raising my hand. “When you see good test results, you think that cheaters have learned, when that really isn’t so.” My friends around me exclaimed “Shh!” and “Come on, man!” Others quietly congratulated me for articulating what they knew was true about school. In any event, I had revealed a troubling secret that everyone in the class was in on. Even though school is meant for learning, it often doesn’t happen. Cheating reflects a lack of learning, a lack of love for education, and a lack of respect for the teacher, the school, and fellow students. But the teacher brushed off my comment, and when we took the test, everyone went back to cheating as usual.

Now, it’s not always the case that students are actively at fault and teachers and administrators are just passively complicit. Scandals continue to unravel in which teachers and school officials have changed test answers on scan sheets in order to meet state and federal education demands. A shocking article published March 6, 2012, in the Washington Post with the headline, “‘Creative…motivating’ and fired,” told the story of an excellent fifth-grade teacher in Washington, DC, Sarah Wysocki, who was dismissed from her job at MacFarland Middle School because of a mysterious drop in her students’ test scores from the prior year. The publishers of the D.C. Comprehensive Assessment Program found “unusually high numbers of answer sheet erasures in spring 2010, with wrong answers changed to right,” suggesting that Wysocki’s students had their test answers changed by teachers the previous year. Amazingly, the school system maintained that the possibility of cheating by the other teachers wasn’t reason enough to let Wysocki keep her job. As evidenced here, the system protects cheating above teaching.

The problem isn’t test oversight. The problem is tests. As long as there are tests, at least the kind of standardized, multiple-choice, brainless regurgitation tests given today, there will be fraudulent attempts to garner higher scores on them. Mass cheating arises when opportunities, motivations, and incentives to cheat exist; the root of the problem lies not in the immorality of the cheater, but rather in the immorality of this system. Put straight: you can’t place a stressed out sixteen-year-old in a small room, give her a fill-in-the-blank test on uninspiring information she’s supposed to have memorized but will never apply, tell her that her grade on the test determines her ability to get into college, and then scold her for cheating. In light of the unethical absurdities such a student faces in the compulsory education system, her infraction is minimal in her mind and predictable in everyone else’s.

Once we move away from timed tests based on the principle that knowledge is private property­—and that we are all in ruthless bureaucratic competition with one another for it—students will have the capacity to collaborate freely, spend time grasping and applying the material instead of memorizing it, and exercise their natural willingness to learn. Is it not in human nature to seek to learn and to crave new ideas and new knowledge?

High schools today promote competitive, self-destructive, and hostile behavior. I don’t say that in any provocative way, but because I actually see it on a regular basis. Last week, I sat in a class in which a student was more focused on rolling a marijuana joint than understanding the teacher’s lesson. When I spoke to two of his distracted friends at the end of class, they made it abundantly clear that they hate being forced to take classes they don’t like. All of them cheated on a test we took shortly thereafter, leaving the teacher with the false impression that they understood what was being taught. I can’t decide which possibility is more troubling: that the teacher is totally oblivious, or is cognizant of the situation but allows it to persist. Either way, everyone’s cheating everyone else. The teacher is cheating the students of real education; the students are cheating each other of a fair competition; and everyone is cheating him or herself of the joys of learning.

Students in Advanced Placement and honors classes are bombarded with the message that good grades in hard courses are the key to college acceptance. Cheating, as a result, is a very direct manifestation of the competitive culture, urging young people to put aside honesty in order to attend a good university and continue on to join the cut-throat economic culture in our country. A Fordham University study indicated that the GPA of the average college cheater is 0.56 points higher than that of the non-cheater, and another Education Testing Service study showed that the vast majority of college cheaters started cheating in high school. If these students are being rewarded for cheating, and the system tolerates it, what compelling incentive do they have to stop?

Even if cheating were not so prevalent, most tests and grades would still be troublesome. After I spoke up in my foreign language class, a friend of mine replied, “I’m not defending cheating, but when you cram the night before a big test, you’re not really learning either.” I agreed with him, and emphasized that my condemnation was not of cheating as an isolated problem, but rather as one of many symptoms of a system that throws learning under the bus and turns testing into a kind of religion. Instead of proving academic worth, grades too often just tell us who’s willing to hustle, who’s willing to cheat, who’s willing to pull an all-nighter in order to memorize atomized facts that are quickly forgotten. And what does this do for our moral education, our character?

Students in all different classes with different levels of rigor use drugs on the weekends to escape the drudgery of schoolwork and the stress of test-taking. My closest friends, some of whom are attending very elite colleges, all engaged in at least one of the following preoccupations while in high school: a steadfast resentment of school, hard-core drinking, or an eerie obsession with drugs. If young people had the power to direct their own learning by deciding what to study, what to write, and when to write, it’s hard to believe that they’d be trying to “escape” their own academic choices. Drugs and alcohol present an alternate reality that’s most appealing to those who can’t find excitement in their sober-minded intellectual pursuits. Drug dealing is also prevalent in high school and, in my experience, it knows no socioeconomic barriers. When the entrepreneurial minds and the inherent excitement and short-term thinking of young people aren’t properly channeled, they manifest themselves in illicit behaviors. Some kids—usually poor ones—end up going to jail because they’re not being challenged in any meaningful way. Coercion inevitably fails because the will of the student and the content of the work are usually out of sync.

Students are pushed into constant moods of discontent and reckless behavior because school restricts them to an insular environment for the greater portion of their week. One of the most troubling effects of school is that it takes otherwise generous and talented young people and turns their focus inward, making them self-pitying and high-strung. This effect is particularly profound in metropolitan areas with high disparities in wealth. Rich kids are sent to competitive private schools or well-endowed public schools and stay there for seven hours a day, taking stressful tests that leave them with no physical or emotional energy to engage with the world around them. Poor kids are sent to schools with metal detectors, security guards, and disciplinarians galore, and end up dropping out or graduating with an engrained resentment toward society.

Those who would argue that adolescents are naturally self-absorbed and would rather pity themselves than start a small business, intern at a non-profit, partake in a community art project, or develop plans for environmental sustainability in their community, simply don’t give young people enough credit. The educational philosopher John Dewey argued that “education is not preparation for life; education is life itself.” Adolescents like to work together in worldly settings and have educational experiences outside the classroom whenever given the chance.

As a high school junior, I often hear from adults that my current spot in schooling is “so stressful.” In the final analysis, junior year is nothing more than an amplification of what everyone hates about school as a whole: homework, competition, pressure, and grueling memorization. Therefore, what troubles me is that truly compassionate individuals just accept the authoritarian nature of school as inevitable. “It’s so hard, but just keep going.” In what other context would it be appropriate to say that to suffering individuals? Perhaps it’s adults’ negative recollections of school that make them apprehensive about approaching the issue in a critical way. Indeed, it’s essentially common knowledge that school isn’t fun. So why do we make kids attend? If it’s for the sake of learning, then the school mandate isn’t working. Learning is an organic, thought-provoking, individual and collaborative process that requires more than copying off of a classmate during a fill-in-the-blank assessment. Even though learning should be a shared endeavor, schools turn it into a ruthless competition, a little bit like The Hunger Games, and then let the competitors cheat and fight.

Perhaps the most unfortunate reality is that schools prepare us for an economy with nearly identical values, where conventional wisdom says: “If you can make a lot of money, do whatever you can to get it” and “It’s okay to cheat on your tax forms or induce a subprime mortgage meltdown if you can get rich and get away with it.” Look how much cheating has brought our economy to near ruin. To bring about a real change in the way we approach work and economic life, the nature of schooling must be drastically altered so as to make true learning the number one priority.

The rampant cheating in high schools across the United States not only threatens intellectual honesty and integrity, but also the legitimacy of our economy and politics. The cheating epidemic reflects a bizarre and unhealthy obsession with testing and the obsolete industrial-era authoritarianism that takes the joy out of learning. But, ironically, so much group cheating shows us a way out by giving us a glimpse, although in a deformed version, of the cooperative modes of learning that could take over if we ever get beyond the prevalent use of standardized testing and competition-based grading.

Humanists must play a leading role in reforming our educational process today because it is humanistic values that are at stake in the cheating crisis.