10/01/2012 12:26 pm ET Updated Dec 01, 2012

The School Game

Cheating in high school! Cheating in college! College rankings! Get your news here... It's all about school as game. And there are a lot of losers in this game -- including some of the winners.

Some moments provide a nice ironic juxtaposition of stories that illuminate each other. The Stuyvesant High School story about how these privileged students -- privileged at least because they attend New York City's most highly regarded public high school -- make decisions about when to cheat contains the obvious truth that students and the faculty and administrators share the goal of getting the students into elite colleges. Anthropologist Peter Demerath showed that this is common in schools where the dominant groups is privileged. Everyone wins -- in the college admissions game -- if the students succeed, even if it means ignoring the glut of extra credit points, the inflated grade-point averages, the brownnosing, and the rampant cheating.

Then we have college admissions.

US News and World Report, that middling publication, saved its life by focusing on its college rankings. In turn, colleges and universities change their practices to move up in the rankings, for instance, by limiting class sizes to the exact numbers USNWR uses to determine "small" and "large classes," or by marketing themselves to greater numbers of students in order to reject more of them, boosting their "selectivity" rate and then moving up. Still, as Joe Nocera notes, the rankings don't reveal many surprises, as Harvard, Princeton, Yale, and Columbia retain their premier positions.

Though US readers may not follow this, a new higher education arms race is emerging internationally as well, with QS rankings challenging Times Higher Education rankings and Academic Ranking of World Universities, done by Shanghai Jiao Tong University, vying for primacy. Around the world, universities desperately invest in the areas most likely to affect their rankings, trumpeting successes and berating failures.

U.S. rankings, world rankings: What happens in those universities?

Here we have the Harvard Cheating Scandal from the previous month, with 125 students charged with having collaborated unlawfully on a take-home exam.

In my research on college cheating and plagiarism (and truth and deception) in the U.S. and in China, I have found both the scandals and the reactions to them instructive.

In the United States, public attention has focused on student cheating and professional writers' plagiarism. We worry about whether our students have done their own work and produced original works. We worry about the "culture of cheating" spilling from academe into business and public life, or the reverse.

In China the focus is more about faculty misdeeds. In fact China is so concerned about academic misconduct that in March 2012 the Ministry of Education issued guidelines and laws about this. There is to be no more fraudulent data, no more misrepresentation of academic credentials, no more recycling of publications, no more admissions missteps, no more simply paying journals and editors to get articles published. The threatened punishment is severe.

Yet despite the jeremiads, the threats, the hand-wringing, the attempt to infuse morality, such as through Honor Codes, the pull to cut corners remains, because at all levels of schooling many of the participants regard it all as a game.

If administrators are trying to improve in the rankings at any cost, if professors are trying to increase the number of publications by hook or by crook, if admissions counselors in complicity with parents go to any means to help students connive to look good for admission to the most selective colleges, if the first question everyone always asks is about rankings, grades, scores, numbers of publications -- in short if the question is always about the externals and never about that mushy middle we could call learning -- then there would be no reason, no incentive (using economists' lingo), no motivation (psychologists'), no model for a focus on the substance.

We can keep calling for morality, but just as arguments to share the ball don't make any sense in football, the stakes of the education game compel students and faculty and administrators to compete win in the perceived zero-sum game.

There are other ways to look at school, education, but those ways are quieter and harder to measure, as we know from the high-stakes testing conversation that was so evident in the Chicago Teachers' Strike.

If school is a game, then gaming the system is a rational outcome.

But of course it is also deplorable. Even the winners in the game are losers in the real enterprise, which is learning and teaching for successful and meaningful living.