09/12/2012 08:51 pm ET Updated Nov 12, 2012

Cheating Because the Stakes Are So Low

The reaction to cheating scandals at Harvard University and New York's Stuyvesant High School might lead one to believe that we are driving high stakes through the hearts of America's young folks. Nearly every piece of commentary ascribes cheating to a culture of high expectations, relentless stress and the fear of failure that can accompany "high-stakes" examinations.

That may be conventional wisdom, but I think it's more conventional than wise. Perhaps the cheating is really because the stakes are so low. (And, of course, the cheating, lying culture in which today's teenagers are immersed has an insidious effect.)

As to this parenthetical point, teenagers have built-in hypocrisy radar. They listen to adults talk about academic honesty and ethics with one ear while tuned into contemporary political discourse with the other. For goodness sake, the GOP vice presidential nominee lied through his teeth from the podium in Tampa with utter impunity! It was (is) outrageous, but we've accepted this as a way of political life.

Candidates on both sides (but most egregiously on the political right) distort the truth, quote out of context or simply prevaricate. This behavior would not be acceptable from middle school students in my school. This 2012 political campaign is like a spin-off to the silly quiz show, Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader? This year's version: Are You as Honest as a Fifth Grader? Both parties fail the test.

We have become a culture where bending the truth is accepted as a way of doing business. Just think of the Wall Street scandals. This is not a new phenomenon, but it's a whole lot worse than a generation ago. And we wonder why our most advantaged young folks (Harvard, Stuyvesant et al.) have cloudy ethical compasses?

Statistics show that the incidence of cheating is higher when economic disparity is greater. There are also indications that wealth and ethics have an inverse correlation. As reported in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences: " least some wealthier people perceive greed as positive and beneficial." America today is a place where the crude, rugged individualism espoused by Ayn Rand is celebrated.

By contrast, the incidence of cheating is lowest when students or citizens perceive that they are members of an interdependent community, but that's not, sadly, today's America. We are blind to our interdependence. Inequality and dishonesty are two rents in a frayed national fabric.

While these social and economic issues are complex, calling the striving of privileged students "high stakes" is inaccurate in any era. High stakes are when children are homeless, parents are unemployed, families are deeply stressed and schools for poor children (particularly of color) are punitive and joyless. High stakes are not privileged kids having to choose between Harvard and Haverford.

When confronted with cheating we too easily accept the notion that the stakes are high and kids cheat out of desperation. Nonsense. The take-home test at Harvard was of little consequence, as was also true in the Stuyvesant affair. But if, as research contends, academic dishonesty is on the rise around the nation, there is another reason that is seldom expressed: A great many young folks in America cheat because the stakes are so dismally low.

Like the Harvard and Stuyvesant students who have been "gaming" the system for much of their school lives, many high-achieving students are not invested in or connected to the kinds of hoops they're expected to leap through. High stakes are when you take intellectual risks, posit a controversial idea, expose your vulnerabilities in a poem, or question authority. In today's educational climate those things are either irrelevant or punished.

So-called high-stakes tests are meaningless, except as a sterile means to an end. And when the "end" -- admission to a supposedly top-tier college or graduate school -- is pretentious and superficial, the "means" become "by any means necessary."

When a textbook or teacher's "facts" are the primary or only consideration, students are engaged only in succeeding in the game. The rote process of filling heads with information and testing it out has little relevance to student's passions, values, imagination or critical capacities. Cheating in this context violates very little of what really matters to young men and women. Neither the process nor the product represents much of who they really are.

By contrast, meaningful assessments are intimately connected to students' learning. In every discipline, good pedagogy invites students to invest themselves in the process and, as a corollary, in the product. When a student's unique point of view or creation is invited and appreciated, cheating is neither necessary nor possible.

Cheating, in any realm, is less likely if the individual is in love. In today's "high stakes" classrooms few students would say that they love school. Cheating in school is less likely if students have deep, affectionate relationships with their teachers and peers. In today's drill and kill environment kids are disconnected and cynical.

Until we have educational practices that really matter to our kids we'll be unable to address the question, "What's the matter with our kids?"