An Incentive to Cheat

Most people have heard of “The Law of Unintended Consequences”, the notion that the consequences of your actions may be far different to those you intended. It is possible that one Government policy is encouraging teachers to give unethical levels of assistance to their students.

Most have also heard of school league tables, which rank schools according to their success (or otherwise) in public examinations. Many of those exams now contain a large coursework element. Clearly, this presents an opportunity for cheating.  Just because the opportunity for cheating exists does not in itself mean that advantage is taken of it but is it likely that when tens of thousands of teachers enter hundreds of thousands of students for public examination no cheating takes place?

In their book Freakonomics, Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner outline the consequences of a Chicago policy of paying bonuses to teachers for good results in standardised tests. Without going into details, analysis of results showed that some teachers were clearly altering their students’ results.

You might say that there was a financial incentive to cheat in Chicago whereas there is not in the UK and therefore teachers have no incentive to take advantage of the opportunity to cheat. Before you say it though, cast your mind back to those league tables. Now consider that poorly performing schools will lose students as parents will endeavouir to get their children educated elsewhere. Consider further that this means loss of income to the poorly performing school. And the icing on the cake is that “failing” schools can be forcibly shut down.

Clearly, with their jobs at stake, teachers do have an incentive to cheat so the situation in the UK is not so dissimilar to the failed Chicago policy after all. What is worse is that at least in Chicago the school management had an incentive to identify the cheats (they were costing the schools money) but here in Britain management has an incentive to turn a blind eye if not actively collude in the cheating since they also risk losing their jobs if the school closes.

As well as outright cheating there is also the incentive to give most attention to those students whose class and coursework performance puts them on the C/D boundary. Anecdotal evidence suggests that these are the students most likely to be offered revision classes and other assistance. There is nothing unprofessional about teachers offering help to students to push up their grades but why is similar assistance not offered to those on the E/F or A/B boundaries, for example?

The reason is that a school’s position in the league tables is dependant on the number of passes at grade C or better it produces so the more students who can be pushed above the C/D boundary the better it looks for governors, management and teachers alike.

The school league tables should be scrapped. At best they distort the education process and at worst they are an incentive to cheat.


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8 Responses to “An Incentive to Cheat”

  1. Shinga Says:

    My brother used to teach in a fairly notorious inner-city school. They took the pupils that had been expelled from every other school in the city; they were nowhere in the School League Tables. Within 2 years of his arrival, my brother had taken several pupils through GCSE French which might seem unimpressive but no-one in the history of the school had ever succeeded at even CSE French. Pupils actually went on, with his help to take several foreign languages that enabled them to study for vocational qualifications. Huge achievement for the pupils and the school – no reflection of this in the tables etc. This is how you destroy both students’ and teachers’ morale.

  2. nicholasmarsh Says:

    It’s not just the teachers who have an incentive. Parents want their kid to do well, and devaluing exam results is someone else’s problem. How many of them will offer ‘assistance’ on assessed coursework etc. The kids want to get good grades, especially if they don’t have to work too hard. School administrators want everyone to get good grades. Exam boards are in competition with each other. The problem is that everyone has an incentive to massage the results. And no one involved in the system has a direct material incentive to prevent small scale but widespread cheating (notwithstanding personal integrity and professional ethics).

    I remember that I was in the first class to do the new GCSE. I’m that old. In chemistry I recall that we all had to do an experiment of some sort as part of our assessed work. We weren’t that good so the teacher explained where we went wrong and next lesson we all did it again. Unsurprisingly our performance had improved.

  3. kelvinthroop Says:

    Shinga – I reckon there’s a lot of people like your brother slogging away in “sink” schools. The old system, where state schools were all run by the LEA and inspected by same might not have made his school any better but at least his and his students’ achievements would have been recognised.

    nicholasmarsh – you’re right about the exam boards, they get paid by the schools so as a result of the competition for contracts they have a financial incentive to deliver what the schools want: good grades.

    Isn’t the free market in public service provision wonderful?

  4. valueaddedwater Says:

    Shinga, know what your Brother is going on about. Used to know a headmistress of one such school, who never got credit from the educational establishment, but was widely applauded by the local community for turning a hell hole sink school into somewhere that the parents were proud to send their kids, who went on to make a future for themselves rather than being a statistic for the “Sociologists” to crow about.
    I’ve seen what league tables mean for the school in our catchment area. Bullying of staff and pupils is rife, and those not quite good enough are thrown on the scrapheap so they don’t effect the league tables. Surprisingly enough Ofstead regard this as a top of the league table school.

  5. coatgal Says:

    I don’t think it is just financial incentives that lead to this kind of behaviour. At my current school the level of pressure put on departments and individual teachers for ‘not achieving’ the grades desired by senior management is shocking, and difficult to cope with. I am made to feel that any students achieving below a C are an indication of ‘my poor teaching’ and nothing else.

    The SMT also openly enquire – with little subtlety as to the subtext – as to what is being done for C/D borderline pupils and as this is in no way disguised, I can only assume that Ofsted and the other powers that be support them in this.

    And added to all this, the lack of ability to string a sentence together (let alone a coherent essay or entire piece of cousework) demonstrated by many students means all work must be closely guided if they are to produce anything at all markable.

  6. kelvinthroop Says:

    coatgal, I daresay our HODs are getting pressure from the SMT re C/D borderline pupils but the league tables put this pressure on them.

    The course work problem is solved by allowing students to submit “first drafts” which are the “commented on”. These comments are then incorporated into the text of the re-submission (probably with some help from mum & dad).

    In the Twenty-first century Science syllabus, course work is replaced with a “case study” which in many cases will be cut and pasted from the internet.

  7. coatgal Says:

    I understand how the problem can be ‘solved’, I was simply making the point that I do not believe that teacher ‘over-assistance’ is simply the product of financial incentives, as suggested by para 5 of your post. I think teachers – who frequently attach much of their self-worth/image – to their jobs, are more pressured by the fear of having been seen to have ‘failed’ than by fear of losing their positions.

    And, on a side-note, I long for the day that I can assume that mum & dad will provide assistance in a redraft.

  8. An Incentive To Cheat (Part 2) « Education Watch Says:

    […] highly unlikely that it was read by Government ministers. Which is a pity because if they had read this they migt not have come up with this bright idea – financial incentives for schools to […]

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