Preventing cheating in schools

Change the culture to ensure integrity

June 12, 2000|By Ira Chaleff

WASHINGTON -- Shock and dismay have been expressed at cheating on standardized tests, a reaction that demonstrates ignorance of the consequences of heavily rewarding or penalizing students and schools on the basis of single measurements.

The education system is not alone in this deficiency.

The private sector is heavily rewarding or penalizing the share price of stocks based on a company's quarterly revenue and profit reports. Predictably, we see the consequences of this practice in flagrant misrepresentation of these numbers by such star companies as AOL and MicroStrategy.

In the public sector, where there is enormous political benefit to falling crime statistics, we hear of police precincts refusing to accept crime reports that would worsen the burglary or theft statistics!

It is important for a complex society to understand these events. Statistics help us develop consensus on how we are doing and what we need to do next. Misusing statistics has very adverse consequences.

The principle that "the map is not the territory" applies. Measurements are not the same as the thing they are measuring. They can as easily misrepresent, as represent, the actual conditions they are supposed to be alerting management to.

Measurements indicate that something is going well or poorly but don't tell clearly what that something is. Meaningful assessment requires further investigation. This can unearth dozens of contributing causes. It requires skill to identify which are meaningful and the resources for addressing them.

Focusing on a single measurement and rewarding or penalizing its movements causes those being judged by the measurement to de-emphasize other functions which are sometimes just as important to their mission.

Linking significant rewards or penalties directly to measurements, especially single measurements, creates enormous pressure throughout the system. Raising the measurement by any means becomes the "rational" thing to do, even when unethical. Generating greed or fear is a poor strategy for bringing out the best in people.

Intelligent management will monitor a constellation of measurements, explore the causes of significant improvements or deterioration and reward or correct those responsible for the underlying actions that contributed to the success or failure. It treats measurements as an indicator and tracking tool, not as a "win or die" gladiatorial contest.

By contrast, poor management will reward or punish those associated with the numbers themselves, which encourages "making the numbers" any way they can, even by fudging. Management obviously doesn't care, as long as it can flash the numbers it wants to the legislature, press or city hall. People become endlessly inventive about how to pad the figures when they have enough incentive.

The resolution to cheating by principals, teachers and students on standardized tests lies in a clear understanding of systems. You may need to make an example of the offenders to show that you value honesty above "performance." But don't stop there. Examine the system to determine how it pressures individuals to game it.

Chris Argyris, professor of education and organizational behavior at Harvard, has developed a useful model that he calls "double-looplearning." Most administrators see a problem and work to find its cause and correct it.

For example, if cheating is occurring, they may find weaknesses in test administration, or indoctrinate students in ethical principles, and take actions to remedy what they found. Mr. Argyris calls this "single-looplearning." It is seldom sufficient to produce real change.

A skillful administrator would initiate a second loop by examining what in the culture of the system allowed the situation to develop in the first place. She might ask those involved, "Is there anything the administration is doing which sends the message that this behavior is acceptable?" If she creates the conditions in which people can speak up without fear of reprisal, the answers will begin to reveal the roots of the problem.

Of course, individual choice and accountability are always present, regardless of system flaws. Our reputation for integrity is more valuable than our reputation for performance and much harder to recover once we have compromised it.

Ira Chaleff is a management consultant and president of Executive Coaching & Consulting Associates.

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