People love to judge a cheater.
Some students at our local high school were caught cheating. They stole copies of a test. These weren’t the kind of kids who usually get into trouble. They were honor students, in gifted classes. They were competing in the high stakes game of top 20 college admissions, where every grade counts. So they found a way to win.
My state, Georgia, has also been embroiled in a high profile teacher cheating scandal that made national news. Teachers and administrators are accused of giving elementary school kids advance answers to standardized tests. With their performance ratings and school funding dependent on test scores, several teachers and administrators, allegedly, fed the kids the answers in advance to improve their scores.
In both instances I hear people, including the media, asking the same questions: who are the cheaters? How did they get caught? What’s their punishment?
These questions totally miss the point. The bigger, better, question is why?
Why did honor students feel that they needed to steal a test to succeed? Why did teachers believe that giving kids the answers was the best way to keep their jobs?
When someone violates the rules, it’s a human tendency to want to individualize their crimes. We tell ourselves that it’s an isolated incident. The offenders were people of low character or morals. They were lazy. They were looking for the easy way out.
Placing blame on the moral failings of individuals makes us feel better, but it’s a cheap out. It does nothing to solve the root problems and avoids our own culpability.
While we’re vilifying the offenders - Fire the teachers! Expel the students! - we’re completely missing the point.
How is it that we have created an educational system that prompts students and teachers to cheat?
We’re not talking about a few isolated incidents. There have been cheating scandals at top universities, including Harvard and the Air Force Academy. Numerous academic studies have documented a significant rise in cheating, particularly among high-achieving students.
Articles and advice abounds on how to stop the cheating, but why aren’t more people asking: why is our system causing the cheating in the first place?
Systems are created to produce outcomes. People will work to achieve the outcomes the system deems important.
In the case of our educational system, we’ve decided that the most important outcomes are high test scores and top grades, not love of learning, not expanding young minds, and certainly not the development of individual’s skills and talents.
The way we evaluate administrators, teachers and students has made it absolutely clear to all parties involved: grades and tests scores are what counts.
Even well-intended parents, myself included, contribute to the problem when we ask, “How are your grades?” instead of “What interesting things are you learning?”
The cheating students and teachers are not outliers. They’re the direct result of the system that we have created.
A free education is an amazing gift that our country gives our children. Yet every day, I see kids and teachers treating it more like a prison sentence.
I’m not a professional educator. But I do know a lot about human motivation. Humans crave reward and recognition.
If we continue to reward test scores, we’ll continue to get cheating. But if we decide that we, the American people, care passionately about learning, we’ll create a system that inspires our students and teachers to feel the same way.
‑ Lisa Earle McLeod is a sales leadership
consultant and author of several books