An earlier version of this essay appears in the Spring 2006 issue of educational Horizons.

Preventing Cheating: transforming educational values

Edward G. Rozycki, Ed. D.

"When I use a word," Humpty Dumpty said in a rather scornful tone, "it means just what I chose it to mean -- nothing less, and nothing more."--- Lewis Carroll

reedited 11/13/08

Ancient Magic, Modern Forms

It provokes dismay and wonderment in many of us to think that someone might so uncritically accept the authority of another that he would kill himself and others on the promise of some kind of "paradise."

"How barbaric! How medieval! How ignorant! How anti-democratic!" our chattering classes dismiss actions -- evils transmuted somehow into virtues -- which we, and our enlightened friends and compatriots would never be moved to commit.

And yet, this ancient magic, this transformation of values, if not of facts, by authoritative fiat, is a common practice in our schools, in our corporations, in our hospitals, in our government; indeed, in almost every organization that we, in our modern society, deal with.[1]

A school district renames an arithmetic review course, "Algebra X," so now its superintendent can brag that every child in the district "studies algebra." Corporations don't "lay off" their workers; they "rightsize," making a tremendous difference to the creditors of the unemployed. Mental hospitals pressure staff to reduce the use of physical restraints on violent patients while at the same time disregarding increases in attacks on other patients and staff: thus are justice and humanity served. Our national surplus is transformed into an abysmal deficit; thereby protecting our friends abroad and at home from the self-sacrificial behavior of persons barbaric, medieval, ignorant and anti-democratic.

Such examples are many. Happily, the pressure toward moral-magic, toward indulging our hopes in defiance of experience, is countered to some extent by our individual common-sense -- "Seeing is Believing" -- supported by empiricist traditions reflected in such classic tales as the Emperor's New Clothes, the Story of King Canute and, even nowadays, the belated exposés of official malfeasance in our newspapers, usually a generation too late to do anything more than serve as a lesson to those who still sometimes read such material.

Making Cheating Impossible

A recent Wall Street Journal reports that some schools have a new approach to cheating: making it legal.[2] This approach is neither new nor clever. As a teacher you could decriminalize "cheating" by rebaptizing it "cooperative learning" or "information sharing." But with what consequences?

Decriminalization is a way that we can change the value, if not the reality, of certain types of behavior. One could imagine, for example, a society that determined to do away with all crime simply by decriminalizing all acts presently recognized as crimes. This might be simple enough to do. But the realities of the behavior, e.g. the unpermitted appropriation of others' property, the damage to their bodies, etc. would not necessarily be diminished. The real issue is whether we would find such a society a better one to live in. Indeed, we might wonder, if, say, theft were decriminalized, what meaning the word "own" might have, if any. Or, if we decriminalized assault, rape, murder, and the like, what could the words "my body" or "my person" serve to mean?

Cheating in school is, however, not merely a "type of behavior" but, rather, a characterization of a student act in particular circumstances. Cheating requires both some kinds of recognized ends and restrictions on means to be operative. You can't even cheat on your own diet, unless you are following a diet. That is why when achievement is of first importance, as in warfare, sales, courtship and sports, (All's fair in ….!) we tend to overlook "cheating" in the procedure. It is not expected, even though praiseworthy, that we be humane in conquest, candid in selling, sportsmanlike with our sexual competitors and ethically punctilious on the playing field. The higher the stakes, the looser the play.

There are some things which the most fiendishly clever pupils cannot cheat at. They can't cheat at daydreaming. They can't cheat at sneaking a bite to eat in class, or at coming late to class, or at not doing their homework. These outcomes are not ends the school would have them pursue, nor are restrictions on means associated with them. A lemma of the argument: the more schools give up on the ends they would have students pursue, the less possible it is for students to cheat.

Restrictions on Means

Schools pursue many noble ends. Why give them up? We often judge behavior to be cheating because it does not operate within the constraints expected in achieving the desired end.[3] We want students to score high on a test, but not by looking at a neighbor's paper. We want students to write good essays, but not by plagiarizing another's work.

If we had no restrictions on means, how could cheating occur? It couldn't. But without such restrictions how can we tell whether the ends we desire have been achieved? To have a student learn to write his or her own good essay is not the same as having the student learn to acquire a document which we would recognize as containing a good essay.

This focuses the discussion on testing. How can we know if a student has learned something? There are many ways of evaluating whether something has been learned. Some procedures are more subject to subversion than others, for example, paper-and-pencil tests. Some procedures are more costly and time-consuming than others, for example, long-term observation and engagement of the student in pertinent activities, sometimes called "authentic assessment." [4]

Our considerations seem to be leading us to the conclusion that normally available cheap methods of evaluation lend themselves more readily to cheating. Do we imagine that taxpayers will prefer to have more money spent on educational evaluation in the public schools rather than just letting educators -- or a minority of parents and pundits -- grumble on about student cheating?

Vague Educational Ends Preclude Cheating

No clear educational ends; no cheating. No restrictions on means; no cheating. It's that simple.

There are large numbers of educational ends that are immune to cheating -- on conceptual grounds. That is to say, because these ends lack either specific definition of conditions of their fulfillment, or because they lack restrictions on means, cheating is not possible in their pursuit. These ends can be found embedded in school mission statements.

School missions, even though they may not mention specific educational ends, are presumably fulfilled when sets of such ends are met. When a school district announces that part if its mission is "to prepare students to be actively engaged, lifelong-learner-citizens of the 21st Century," you can bet your gradebook that no one is going to be caught cheating at whatever it is a student is supposed to be doing to reach whatever specific goals are waiting to be disinterred from that morass. Thus, as schools fail to meet clear, practical ends and as student cheating increases, we can expect even more mission statements to be generated, necessitating even greater arboreal sacrifice in the abattoirs of educational expatiation.

This is not merely a matter of trying to dig out specifics from vague puffery. The point is that no matter how a student manages to become a lifelong, actively engaged learner-citizen of the 21st Century, all that is crucial is the achievement. Not the process. As with war, sales, courtship or sports, it doesn't matter if we can imagine restrictions on the process, if the overwhelmingly important outcome is achieved outside those restrictions, it would merely be taken to demonstrate that they were unnecessary.

De-cheating, Deschooling, Dependency

School people at all levels report cheating is rife. Past research bears this out.[5] A 1986 study involving sixth graders attending 45 California elementary schools reported that 86% said that they had seen cheating; and 30% said they had witnessed cheating "many times." Only 14% said they had "never" observed cheating.

Ninety-seven percent of two thousand California public high school students in a 1986 study reported that 97% said that they had seen others cheating, copying other students' papers (75%), using crib notes (73.5%).

Trends over time remain consistent. The percentages of students agreeing with the statement that three-quarters of their classmates cheated grew over twenty years. In 1969 20.3 % agreed; in 1979, 27.2 %; and, in 1989 29.9.

In 1994 Who's Who Among American High School Students conducted a survey that asked thousands of the nation's best high school students if they cheated. Nearly 4 out of 5 of these very successful high school students said that they had. When asked, "How common is cheating at your school?" Ninety percent said that it either was "common" or "nearly universal."

College cheating research results are similar. A 30-year longitudinal survey of cheating on tests in college showed dramatic increases in various types of cheating from 1961 to 1991. The percentage of students copy from another student during an exam rose from 26% to 52%. Helping another student cheat on an exam rose from 23% to 37%. Using crib notes to cheat on an exam rose from 16% to 27%.

Unless we have reached the millennium, one might expect cheating to be even more prevalent today. We can understand the "de-cheating" movement as a desperate attempt to counter these statistics by defining away the problem.

But we define away cheating by undermining as goals what the cheating aims at. As with decriminalizing homicide, we decriminalize cheating at the cost of redefining what schools are about. This may not be a bad thing, in some cases. But as we give up on having our citizens acquire broad areas of knowledge deeply learned, we make them ever more dependent on an always fragile information technology and on persons who, even if only by default, have acquired the knowledge that gives its possessors untrammeled power over increasing numbers of the shallowly educated.

[1] Teaching us to maintain the pretense that our "superiors" have such magic powers may be the most important function of schooling. See Lee Clarke (1999) Mission Improbable. Using fantasy documents to tame disaster. Chicago: U of Chicago Press. Also, see Jeffrey Pfeffer "Management as Symbolic Action: The Creation and Maintenance of Organizational Paradigms" Research in Organizational Behavior Vol. 3 pp.1 - 52 1981, JAI Press.

[2] Ellen Gamerman, "Legalized 'Cheating'" The Wall Street Journal, Saturday/Sunday January 21 - 22, 2006 p.1.

[3] See Edward G. Rozycki, "Evaluating Learner Strengths and Weaknesses: 
the Impediments of Formalism" educational Horizons Spring 2005 on line at

[4] "Authenticity" is intended, I presume, to be self-validating in the limit. That is, the best test of whether someone can do something is to have them do it and have them replicate the doing in a reasonable variety of circumstances.

[5] See Gary K. Clabaugh & Edward G. Rozycki, Cheating Trends at