Raising the Next Generation of Cheaters and Liars

cheaterby James A. Bacon

As a high school student in Washington, D.C., in the 1960s, I was a mediocre math student. Somehow I excelled at geometry but I struggled with algebra, and my grades rarely rose above C+. I could have done better if, like some of my classmates, I cheated routinely on my homework. Our teacher, Doc Arnds, a short, gray-haired man with a bow tie, reviewed the answers in class every day before we handed in our homework. Nothing but our sense of personal integrity prevented us from changing our answers to get a better grade. I rarely did. But I do confess: I was honest but not a saint. If I’d made a careless mistake but had otherwise grasped the concepts, I did change an answer on rare occasion. With so many others cheating, it was hard to resist. The chiseling was so routine that my classmates had a euphemism for it — “quick penciling.”

At the time, I marveled that Doc Arnds would let the kids get away with it. Surely he could tell what was taking place right in front of him. To this day, I don’t know if he took quiet retribution against the worst malefactors. Maybe he did and we never heard of it. Maybe he tried, but wealthy, powerful parents squatted on him. Maybe he gave up trying, figuring that cheaters’ dishonesty would catch up with them eventually — cheaters never prosper. I don’t know.

What I do know is that society has always had cheaters. Always. In their discussion of how social behavior arose among humans, evolutionary biologists theorize about the impulse to altruism, and the impulse for cheaters to free-ride on that altruism, and the impulse of society to generate outrage against free-riders when they are exposed. Cheating is so deeply rooted in the human psyche that it has never been extinguished.

I also know that cheating is more prevalent than it used to be. While about 20% of college students admitted to cheating in high school during the 1940s, between 75% and 98% surveyed reported having cheated in the 1990s, according to a fact sheet published in conjunction with the Educational Testing Service published in 1999. Frequent cheaters feel justified in their practice. They see others cheat and think they will be unfairly disadvantaged if they don’t. A big reason for the ubiquity of whatever passes for quick penciling in the era of school laptops, I suspect, is that cheating no longer inspires the same outrage that it once did. Honor is deemed an antiquarian concept. Situational ethics prevail. Expulsion for cheating is decried as too harsh.

Against that backdrop, I hope readers have been following the posts in Bacon’s Rebellion by Robert Maronic, a former Latin teacher with Roanoke County Public Schools, and John Butcher, author of Cranky’s Blog, on the subject of widespread cheating in Roanoke County schools.

The fact of widespread cheating is disturbing in its own right. Even more worrisome is the indifference of local and state education authorities to the phenomenon. No public official would ever condone cheating, of course. But no one in Virginia seems to be moved to do anything about it.

Virginia Department of Education officials say preventing cheating is the responsibility of local school boards and superintendents. But when Maronic took his concerns to his local school board and the board of supervisors, he got the brush-off. No one wanted to deal with the problem.

I cannot imagine that the problem is restricted to Roanoke County. To the contrary, the evil affects every school system to a greater or lesser degree. Cheating has become so endemic that it would take immense political will to extinguish. Administrators would face inevitable pushback. Affluent white parents, wanting no blemish on the academic record of their little darlings, would raise hell. Poor minority parents, already aggrieved by perceived institutional racism, would cry discrimination. And everyone would have an excuse — why pick on my kid when everyone is doing it?

I understand why school officials might quail before the task. Clamping down on cheating would be a difficult job. But there is no under-estimating the corrosive effects of widespread dishonesty. American society is built upon trust. If that trust disintegrates, we descend into every-man-for-himself hell-hole. So, in my mind, school cheating is a big deal, the toleration of it is a scandal, and citizens who care about the future of this Commonwealth should express their outrage. Cheating must end, or heads must roll!

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19 responses to “Raising the Next Generation of Cheaters and Liars”

  1. LarrytheG Avatar

    Jim – do you think there is rampant cheating on the SOLs the same as Mr. Marconic thinks there is for non-SOLs?

    How about the SATs? do you think folks that take the SATs cheat their way to better scores?

    how about the guy/gal that flew your plane to/from Aspen? Do you think they cheated their way through school and now have hundreds of lives in their hands every day?

    I’m not saying there is not cheating – there is but is it a rampant as you suggest?

    Finally the big extra credit question for you.

    Do you think the government should be in charge of stopping cheating?

    serious question. Obvious VDOE is in charge of stopping cheating on SOLs , right

    Doctors, Lawyers, Engineers, pilots, even teachers are subject to govt standards and certification.

    so we want VDOE to be in charge of all schools and all subjects taught in Va to stop cheating?

    1. I don’t know what the solution to rampant cheating is. I’ve just gotten involved in this issue and haven’t time to study it in detail. One positive role that DOE could play is to conduct research on how students cheat and how the cheating can prevented, and share that information with local school boards, many of whose schools systems are too small to be able to afford to conduct such research themselves.

      Schools might have to revamp the way they deliver tests. They might need to restrict the use of technology in tests. There may be easy ways to reduce cheating, even if we don’t expunge it entirely.

      In the meantime, it would be useful to gather basic data. How often do students cheat? How often are they caught? How often are they punished? How much pushback is there from parents? Could schools take a harder-line stand against cheating than they do?

      I don’t think VDOE should be asked to tell every school board how to approach the problem. But it can raise consciousness, and it can provide resources. In extreme instances, as Cranky suggests, it has the power to suspend school superintendents who fail to act.

  2. JOHN BR Avatar

    Cheating is not just a student problem or one ignored by educators. It is certainly not limited to Virginia.

    The very interesting book, Freakonomics, detailed how statistical analysis was used to determine that a number of teachers were changing their students’ answers on standardized tests. I encourage you to read that while studying or discussing this subject.

    Things got so bad in Atlanta, with administrators and teachers combining to change results that investigators reported: “Among the other findings, the report stated that the changing of answers was often done at weekend gatherings, or so-called erasure parties.”

    I think the students (and educators) who try to be honest have an uphill battle.

    1. To address Larry’s question, statistical analysis is another tool than can be applied in certain circumstances — as it was in Atlanta.

  3. LarrytheG Avatar

    my other questions – do you want government to do this?

    and – does anything think that cheating is a problem with Va SOLs?

    I acknowledge that there have been some high profile occurrences of teachers and administrators doing cheating on the standardized tests. Make it a felony and make an example of them.

  4. Peter Galuszka Avatar
    Peter Galuszka

    Depends on the culture, I guess. I have worked and lived in a country where cheating was the only option. Anything the state did was awful and dishonest, so the only trust that mattered was that among close friends.

    In the Soviet Union, you had a “public” life filled with lies and a “private” life based on trust, family love and friendship. Funny why the place didn’t disintegrate earlier.

    In this country’s schools, I think the more important thing is how students actually think and how they can be encouraged to think more creatively and solve problems. Too much standardized testing encourages rote memory and cheating.

    1. True enough. By raising the stakes for standardized test outcomes, we’ve increased the incentive to cheat.

    2. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
      Reed Fawell 3rd

      I agree with Peter’s comment.

      But I would add that in my experience working in countries without the rule of enforced and obeyed laws, ie. where folks cheat continually by reason of custom or necessity, like where taxes are imposed by government officials solely to create absolute need in others to bribe those officials so as to avoid paying those prohibitive taxes and also used to keep others out of the market, all this destroys wealth and growth and prosperity for all but the very few at the top.

      In short, cheating destroys good government and all else it touches. Hence the need for US to fix this problem, defined as reducing it as far a reasonable possible.

      Remember our entire culture is now infected with cheating – it’s the heart and soul of Crony Capitalism for example.

  5. LarrytheG Avatar

    re: ” By raising the stakes for standardized test outcomes, we’ve increased the incentive to cheat.”

    and that is why there are efforts to determine performance with more frequent but more informal assessments.

    but Jim – you and Cranky are two of the folks who say you want to use those tests to hold teachers accountable .

    but let’s also recognize that all of us want Doctors who demonstrate they are qualified – people who have to pass the “high stakes” SATs or the Armed Forces tests to qualify – etc. You and I both want the person who points that x-ray at us to have passed a certification, etc.

    but again – do we want Richmond to set standards for cheating for all schools in Virginia?

    if as Reed states “cheating destroys good govt’ – what are ya’ll advocating as a response? to put the govt in charge?

  6. LarrytheG Avatar

    VDOE is using a 3rd party to test SOLs – Pierson – and still researching if they have anti-cheating built into in the software…

    but the VDOE SOL testing manual seems to have a pretty straight-forward process that any locality could simple adopt:

    ” You must do your own work. At no time may you discuss, or share, by any means, the questions on the test with anyone. Students who cheat on the test will receive a score of zero and will not be permitted another opportunity to take the test until the next test administration. ”

    I don’t know why any local school district would “quail” at using this rule but if they did – and you’re going to call out VDOE for not “making” them – that sure sounds like an advocacy for more top-down from Richmond.

    Now I guess I could be persuaded on this if it meant VDOE would control testing for charter/choice schools so I’m “flexible” but then I don’t have the same problem with top-down from the govt – as those who seem to be upset here.

  7. Darrell Avatar

    The elite don’t cheat.

    Only the brain dead use brain dumps.

    Cheaters never prosper. (Except in Wall street, politics, speech writing, law, affirmative action, business, employment, promotion, on and on and on)

    Only students are guilty. Why, the idea! The government must regulate these miscreant study habits. The rule of law must prevail!

  8. LarrytheG Avatar

    Once again – Darrell has slapped his hand on the forehead of reality!


    I had the very same thoughts but was sure I’d be accused of spouting leftist morality… so I kept quiet!

    ” Volkswagen developed six generations of cheating software to beat emissions tests—and even calculated the cost of getting caught was still worth it, according to a new lawsuit by New York and Massachusetts.”

    what is this world coming to? good lord!

  9. Cheating is definitely on the uptake, and maybe in part because the stakes of grade/test failure are higher than before. I graduated from high school in ’58. college in ’62, law school in ’65 and I never saw, or indulged in, cheating, and I wasn’t oblivious to the world around me. But along with the higher stakes kn more difficult employment environments, and the institutional (church, cultural, etc.) linkages broken in the 1960’s, we’re closer to those cultures where cheating is normal. Worst case I know of, from work experience, is in Bangladesh, where cheating is virtually a “right.” Now, if we elect Trump, we’ve got a Presidential example of a liar and cheater in chief as our young people’s example.

  10. Hill City Jim Avatar
    Hill City Jim

    “Now, if we elect Trump, we’ve got a Presidential example of a liar and cheater in chief as our young people’s example.”

    As opposed to your FBI identified liar?

    Give me a break!

  11. LarrytheG Avatar

    cheating is a fascinating , human-created concept.

    free market folks will often claim that when the government gets involved with regulation it screws up the free market. The very same folks holler bloody murder if their insurance company “jacks up their rates”!!!

    in fact – the whole concept of “insurance” would probably not even exist if it were not for the Government “protecting” folks from “cheaters”, eh – to say nothing about the concept of “equal justice”.

    1. The concept of insurance originated hundreds of years ago as a private-sector innovation to share risk. It pre-dated any government interest in the idea.

  12. LarrytheG Avatar

    Jim – who makes sure the insurer does not rip you off?

    please don’t confuse early sharing risk with others cooperatively the same as contracting with another party to “insure” you.

    people forming a fire dept or helping each other rebuild after a disaster is not the same as Modern insurance – where insurance itself is a transaction between two parties. Who insures that the person who takes your money – pays your claim?

    you could pay a nursing home or a private fire dept money instead of buying insurance but who do you expect to make the nursing home or fire company provide to you what you paid for? Government.

    it’s what you free-market types call “rule of law”, right?

  13. This comment is posted on behalf of a correspondent who asked to remain unnamed.

    I wanted to write and thank you for your blog. It’s an interesting perspective on Virginia. I was intrigued by your last blog post about cheating and found it funny that you thought perhaps cheating in schools occurred everywhere.

    I ran into a mom at the grocery store a year ago. Her kid was one who had been redistricted to Douglas S. Freeman High School. I asked her how it was going. One of her responses was her son kept talking about the cheating by the Center for Leadership kids. I laughed and said, yes, they do have a reputation for cheating. I explained I felt sorry for the kids who didn’t cheat because they were guilty anyway by association. I further explained that my daughter’s friend in the center had been offer several hundred dollars to write college essays.

    On some level, I realize this sounds harsh and rather accusatory towards these kids. In some ways it is.

    However, I am also aware of the flip side to the coin. I remember when my eldest was a Freshman in high school, I asked a guidance counselor what colleges were looking for. She replied that they look for rigor, what classes the kids have taken versus what’s been offered. She also said that colleges didn’t like to see C’s. I furred my brow and said, “Do you mean to tell me we have an entire generation of kids who have no idea they are average at something?” Her response was, “That’s correct.”

    I understand that when the stakes are highest — i.e. those kids vying for selective schools — this is when we see the moral compass slide off the rails. I’ve often wondered if parents knowingly assist and abate in the cheating because that’s what they need to do to get Johnny ahead.

    I respectfully submit that by pushing these kids to live out our bragging rights as parents, we have raised a generation of not only cheaters but of kids who don’t have an accurate picture of their strengths and weaknesses.

  14. LarrytheG Avatar

    Judy White Moore not only speaks the truth but ought to get an ID and contribute more!

    yes – we are raising a generation of kids to be average and we are not telling them the truth – and many graduate with far less than an adequate 21st century -competitive education and become “under-employed”.

    Parents urge their kids to AVOID the classes where they may have “trouble” and actually encourage them to do what they have to – to get a good grade when they have to take a “must” course.

    Schools – are a mess.

    Schools are required to meet the SOLs but many schools receive millions in additional local money and choose to NOT spend it on courses that require rigor but rather “electives” that allow students to “pad” their college resumes… with courses that lack rigor and also – as Mr. Marconic has shown – have looser standards for cheating.

    The top schools provide rigor for those that seek it – but they also provide the less rigorous for those that want it and the results are breathtaking – about 1/3 of high school grads lack the minimum required skills for first year college and it does not stop there -even the armed forces are encountering significant percentages of kids who cannot even pass the armed forces entrance standards.

    Parents want their kids to do well – yes- but they’re risk adverse – they don’t want their kids to fail and so they help them take the easy path – and that includes fudging when necessary…

    but I’m serious in encouraging Judy White Moore to start contributing… more. … and thank you for taking the time to send it to Jim to get it posted.

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