A Swift Solution to Cheating

Because America is committed to testing every child in every subject in order to make sure teachers are doing a good job, the number of high-stakes tests is increasing, and that means that we have to act boldly to eliminate cheating, which, coincidentally, also has been increasing.

Some background is in order: We have a cheating problem in our schools1. While a handful of students cheat because they are competing to get into top colleges, many more principals, teachers, and administrators either cheat or encourage cheating. After all, their jobs are on the line because we now judge, reward and fire them based on student test scores..

The situation has gotten out of hand. In Atlanta, Washington, DC, Austin, Texas, Baltimore, Philadelphia, Dayton, Ohio and many other places, adults have worked together, even holding ‘erasure parties,’ to change student answers from wrong to right.

So what can we do to punish cheaters? Unfortunately, we cannot just fire the cheating teachers and administrators. After all, who would replace 2 them? Education is fast becoming an undesirable occupation, largely because of the pressure to demonstrate academic achievement (I.E., high test scores), and that is making it extremely difficult to recruit new people into education.

No, we have to work with what we’ve got, just as former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld had to fight the war with the army he had. There are two obvious steps: 1) increase surveillance to catch the cheaters and 2) make the punishments more obvious to the outside world.

Increased surveillance will cost more, of course, but we can trim other expenditures, perhaps in the subjects that aren’t being tested and therefore not occasions for cheating. I’m thinking of art, music and physical education, but, if schools have already cut those, then electives like journalism, minor sports, and theatre are places to look for savings.

Publicly shaming the cheaters is essential. Making the punishments more public should curtail cheating. For younger students, the shaming should be temporary. Perhaps cheaters should have to wear bright yellow shirts emblazoned with a huge letter 3 “C” for a month or more.

But for anyone cheating after 5th or 6th grade, a shaming shirt isn’t enough. After all, 10-year-olds are mature enough to understand consequences. Here’s where I think a permanent tattoo would do the trick. The first offense should produce a stern warning. But a the second offense demonstrates they are beyond redemption, so let’s tattoo the letter ‘C’ or the word ‘CHEATER’ 4 on the back of the criminal’s dominant hand. Should there be a third offense, the tattoo ought to be placed more prominently, perhaps on the cheater’s forehead. While I doubt matters would ever get to that point, leadership has to be ready to make the hard decisions, for the greater good. 5

Would prominent tattoos on hands and foreheads be enough to stop principals and adults from cheating to save their jobs? Perhaps not, and so we ought to be willing to have a free and open discussion about other penalties, including–hopefully as a last resort–lopping off the index fingers of persistent violators.

It’s important to do whatever is necessary to protect the integrity of the learning and testing process.

  1. In colleges too: http://www.academicintegrity.org/icai/integrity-3.php 
  2. A judge sent some Atlanta educators to prison, creating family hardships and the replacement problem. 
  3. Perhaps it should be scarlet in color even though, because of all the testing, most kids may not have heard of Nathaniel Hawthorne. 
  4. Tattoo artists are paid by the letter, and school budgets are tight. Because education is locally controlled, that decision, ‘C’ or ‘CHEATER,’ ought to be made by local school boards 
  5. There’s precedent here. I’ve seen lots of war movies where the Nazis would shoot every 10th man as a way of making sure the occupied village did not cause any trouble. Most times, that got rid of the trouble, although some people didn’t get the message and kept on fighting. 

15 thoughts on “A Swift Solution to Cheating

  1. John,

    You did not specifically mention El Paso in your list of cities. The Superintendent was sentenced to 3 years in federal prison. I think that was about right…and it certainly was well publicized locally.


    • I stand corrected. My point, of course, is that judging teachers by scores on tests that mean nothing to kids (and scores of kids they may not have taught) is insanity. My satire was heavy-handed, and of course not even the El Paso superintendent should have a permanent tattoo…


  2. Although,as a longtime teacher, (over 50 years at LIU) I can understand your frustration, even anger, over the widespread and increasing problem of cheating, surely there must be more humane and civilized ways to confront and even reverse this trend.
    Perhaps you were being ….facetious, or attempting a kind of gallows humor…
    I can’t tell.
    But, either way, your focus on this is admirable and may just inspire others to try to address the situation.
    Don’t give up on humanity,…just yet.



    • It was dark humor, but I think I am seeing things too darkly. This insanity of judging teachers by scores on tests that mean nothing to kids, judging teachers by scores of kids they haven’t ever taught, etcetera has to stop.


      • I’d be interested to know how others have responded to your “dark humor”.
        Also, if anyone has made helpful suggestions.
        I have been teaching hands-on studio arts forever, and even in this area I’ve been asked ( no, required) to apply specific grading “rubrics” and evaluation criteria! And, of course, there is a move to incorporate digital technology into the studio arts! We now have digital printmaking.
        I continue to have students draw what they are actually looking at, with a pencil, on paper! What a dinosaur I am!
        So, keep up the good fight…..



      • Ah, but that was on April 1. This crazy business of high stakes testing to play gotcha with teachers is driving people away, keeping others from entering the field.


  3. Be careful who you show this peice to. Some may not get the sarcasm at all, and the next thing you know…i shudder to think!

    I hit one of my darkest moments when i learned that Elizabeth Warren was one of the Senators pushing for more testing requirements in the ESEA reauthorization. How can we be so far into this story and still have people in positions of influence thinking we can solve poverty and inequality by bludgeoning teachers and students?


  4. The third solution: get rid of these high stakes test in which teacher, students, family, city, state and nation want one thing only–higher scores.

    Forget shame.

    How do we shame tax cheaters And to one degree or another we “all” cheat as much as our CPE advises.

    The temptation is too great, the stakes too high, the tests too useless if not counter-useful.

    Yes. I sympathize with the cheaters. I suspect that given the opportunity many of us have cheated in some similar fashion.

    In the old days any but the briefest test-prep right before the test was considered cheating–the test companies claimed that it would distort their norms (percentiles). Meanwhile superintendents and principals urged teachers to do test prep all year long. The U of Chicago had a special course to help you pass the foreign language test that they were responsible for preparing–it worked. Ditto for courses on passing principal or teacher tests. Schools have been cheating since I came to NYC–and some was exposed in the lat 60s or early 70s, but scores indicated that many were engaged in it. Some get caught–rarely since it was in no one’s interest to expose them. Now cheating is no longer related to test-prep but rather to particular practices–like patting a child on the back during the test, providing tret and allowing children to walk around and take a bite when they felt a need, or smiling or frowning at kids in a way that might be a hint, or – in fact – even looking at the questions at all since we are now dealing with tests that are secret secret secret–and neither child nor teacher is supposed to notice how dumb many of the questions ec are.

    John, there is no alternative that works except–sampling, or lowering stake and/or resting on tests designed by schools and/or districts themselves.


    • I agree with you about high stake tests. We should teach kids that cheating is wrong because it is harmful to them. When I was in boot camp I was encouaged to cheat to get liberty sooner. The cheat was to have an extra pair of boots and keep them polished and hide the older boots. The Marine Corps doctrine was to alternate boots so that you always had two pairs that were usable. Our DI found out about it and confiscated our good boots and made us march 30 miles in the “show boots.” Of course, that way he found out who his cheaters were. He made it very clear that if you cheated you developed bad habits. And those bad habits and lack of integrity and discipline would cost lives. It seemed like a simple cheat but he was right it was a deception we used to gain an advantage. Students who cheat eventually self-destruct. The one way to discourage cheating is to move away from Scantron/multiple choice tests. That kind of testing encourages cheating and superficial learning. Encourage a variety of authentic assessments: short essays, definitions, presentations, map making, chart making etc.


  5. Love your Swiftian solution. Worry that the folks who should be reading it – aren’t.
    We need a Jon Stewart of education! Satire cuts deeper, cleaner and more swiftly than our usual didactic tactics.


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