When Ethics and Achievement Based Evaluations aren’t in Alignment or Why follow Ethics when Cheating Pays Better?

March 15, 2011

Last week I was speaking at a conference and during a lunch break on of the attendees said, “Wow, business must be great for you with all this interest in ethics and all.”  I must admit I was humored by her comment, because on the surface it would appear that firms of all shapes and sizes would be interested in ethics and ethical behavior.  Reality is, however, many give lip service to the idea, but their expectations from employees pushes the “need” button and starts the potential for a pattern of unethical behavior.

The following represent excerpts from an article in USA Today regarding cheating on standardized tests.  Mind you, in not all cases were the students the ones cheating.  See the following excerpts:

In 2008, teacher assistant Johanna Munoz helped her Orlando-area fourth-graders on the state achievement test.

According to investigative documents obtained by USA TODAY, Munoz erased wrong answers and whispered corrections while she was helping non-native English speakers with difficult words. She snapped her fingers in a code students understood to mean they should correct an answer.

While the teacher was out of the room, Munoz warned the students “not to tell anyone, not even your parents, what I did.” If they told, she warned, they “would fail fourth grade.”

This is high-stakes testing. The standardized tests required by the federal No Child Left Behind law have become one of the most important — and controversial — ways to measure a student’s progress, a teacher’s competence, a school’s success and a state’s commitment to education. That can be a heavy load for an assessment built on paper booklets and bubble sheets.

At Groveland Elementary in Groveland, Fla., where Munoz taught, at least one child told a parent about getting answers to the test, and the school began to investigate. Munoz pulled students out of class and again warned them not to tell. But one by one, the students confessed.

“You could almost see the relief in their face(s) as they let go of this burden,” says Groveland Principal Dale Delpit. One fourth-grader who initially defended his beloved teacher later blurted, “I lied!” in front of his classmates, tears streaming down his face, records show.

Munoz resigned after the school district concluded that she cheated and recommended that the school board fire her. She denies giving her students any answers and says she was never alone with them in the classroom.

“I have no clue why the kids said I helped them. I think one said it, then they all did,” says Munoz, 28, who was proctoring the test for the first time. She is now a day care worker.

NO CHILD LEFT BEHIND…perhaps a law enacted with the best of intentions, but a law that might have at its core the seed for the application of unethical behavior for both students and teachers.  And, it appears that, from experience, when outcomes aren’t matched with ethical choices – when the actions aren’t in alignment with integrity – people are naturally set up for a potential ethical disaster.


The USA Today report goes on to say in part:

Teachers cheat sometimes and so do principals, according to academic studies. Why it happens and how often — and the seriousness of efforts to stop it — are open to debate. Punishment varies from state to state, too. In an investigation of standardized testing in six states and the District of Columbia, USA TODAY found that an infraction such as casually coaching one student can carry nearly the same punishment as deliberately changing answers for a whole class.

In an Arizona State University survey published last year, more than 50% of teachers and other educators admitted to some kind of cheating on Arizona’s state tests. The authors of the online survey of more than 3,000 educators defined cheating broadly — from accidentally leaving multiplication tables on classroom walls to changing answers.

USA TODAY examined hundreds of “misadministration” and “irregularity” reports from state Departments of Education in Florida, California and Arizona. Such reports, which cover everything from missing test booklets to a teacher’s whispering answers to pupils, do not come to conclusions about whether there was cheating. That determination is usually left up to the school district or the state after an investigation.

Florida has one of the most rigorous reporting systems in the country. Yet in 2009, the state had only 112 reports of “compromised tests,” and just 12 of those reports indicated an allegation of intentional cheating by educators. In a state with 341,000 teachers and staff, that’s a minuscule fraction.


Whether it’s fraud (unethical behavior at it’s most serious) or behavior that is perhaps less severe, the three components are typically always there.  NEED, OPPORTUNITY and RATIONALIZATION.  If there is a need (good student results for example) an opportunity (teacher proctored tests) and rationalization (well, this is ridiculous we shouldn’t have to deal with these tests anyway – or – I’m a good teacher and I don’t think these tests should determine my pay increase or fate) – then there is a reasonable chance that a person who is by nature ethical might take the unethical road too often traveled…and every choice has a consequence.

Here’s another excerpt from the USA Today story:

Robert Hamann, a veteran social studies teacher, had been volunteering to help students at Scarlet Oaks Career Center in the Cincinnati area. So he already knew the senior taking the graduation-mandatory writing test.

Confused by the test instructions, the student asked for help. He told her to use the strategies they had discussed, and she began to string together a written answer. With each halting sentence, she looked to him for approval and he told her to write it down.

“In a moment of trying to help this kid, I kind of lost myself,” Hamann says of the 2005 incident. “This was what we had been doing in review. … This kid is in 12th grade trying to pass a ninth-grade test. This is her last shot. So, you’re explaining, explaining, explaining, and I think I gave her too much information.”

Hamann reported himself immediately. He got no breaks: His teaching license was suspended for three months; he now works as an administrator in another Cincinnati-area school.

“I didn’t think I was, at the time, violating any rules, but now … years later, it’s obvious I was,” he says.

Investigators acknowledge that without a confession like Hamann’s, some cheating is impossible to detect, because it often involves only a brief conversation between teacher and student.

It’s “a fairly simple operation. All one has to do is lean close and whisper,” says Christine DiDonna, coordinator and school counselor at Groveland Elementary in Florida. She has helped conduct several investigations, including the one involving Munoz, the former teacher.

To avoid expressly giving answers, some teachers have resorted to codes. At a California elementary school, the phrase “toilet paper” meant a student should subtract or “wipe away” a number in a math problem. In other states, a teacher would cross her arms if a student marked the wrong answer.

Kimberly Richter, a fifth-grade teacher at Schwab Elementary in Cincinnati, admitted to pointing at incorrect answers on the math test in 2008, but she said it was only to get the kids back on track. Many had quit paying attention 30 minutes into the two-hour-plus test. The school already was slated for closure, so better scores weren’t going to help.

“I knew it was wrong, but I didn’t think it would matter,” says Richter, who insists she never gave out correct answers. “I didn’t think it was going to blow up in my face like it did.”

Richter’s 25 students had to take a makeup test and her license was suspended for six months. She no longer teaches in Cincinnati Public Schools.

Upton reported from Florida for USA TODAY; Ryman from Phoenix for The Arizona Republic; Amos from Ohio for The Cincinnati Enquirer.

Contributing: Jack Gillum of USA TODAY in Washington, D.C.


Ethics…well that should be a high priority, yet, by our actions – results weigh higher than ethics when it comes to doing the right thing – at least enough of the time to  warrant more questions.  In a New York Times article the following examples were given about cheating and unethical behavior by adults in school settings.

¶At a charter school in Springfield, Mass., the principal told teachers to look over students’ shoulders and point out wrong answers as they took the 2009 state tests, according to a state investigation. The state revoked the charter for the school, Robert M. Hughes Academy, in May.

¶In Norfolk, Va., an independent panel detailed in March how a principal — whose job evaluations had faulted the poor test results of special education students — pressured teachers to use an overhead projector to show those students answers for state reading assessments, according to The Virginian-Pilot, citing a leaked copy of the report.

¶In Georgia, the state school board ordered investigations of 191 schools in February after an analysis of 2009 reading and math tests suggested that educators had erased students’ answers and penciled in correct responses. Computer scanners detected the erasures, and classrooms in which wrong-to-right erasures were far outside the statistical norm were flagged as suspicious.

The Georgia scandal is the most far-reaching in the country. It has already led to the referral of 11 teachers and administrators to a state agency with the power to revoke their licenses. More disciplinary referrals, including from a dozen Atlanta schools, are expected.

John Fremer, a specialist in data forensics who was hired by an independent panel to dig deeper into the Atlanta schools, and who investigated earlier scandals in Texas and elsewhere, said educator cheating was rising. “Every time you increase the stakes associated with any testing program, you get more cheating,” he said.

Perhaps it’s time we disconnect the three variables that open the door for cheating or unethical behavior.  If we can disconnect – need from opportunity from rationalization – then the outcome can’t by nature be unethical behavior or cheating.


University Cheating – is it an ethical delima? A surprising study links cheating and grades

March 18, 2010

Each day I receive (on-line) the Chronicle of Higher Education.  I skim what I see looking for interesting information that might be useful in my frequent presentations of university audiences.  As a business ethics speaker, as you can imagine I am often asked to speak to business majors on the ethical side of business choices, but a larger ethical question looms that affect all students.   So here’s the story…

Jeff Young wrote – Cheaters Never Win, at Least in Physics, a Professor Finds

A professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology devised a clever way to detect student cheating on homework in his introductory physics course—and found about 50 percent more cheating than students reported in anonymous surveys. And he discovered that frequent cheaters ended up bombing their exams.

The professor, David E. Pritchard, led a research team that analyzed student performance in an online homework system called MasteringPhysics.com during four different semesters. The researchers were able to measure the time spent on each question and look for suspicious work patterns. If a student took less than a minute each answering several complex questions and got them all right, for instance, the system flagged that as likely cheating. “Since one minute is insufficient time to read the problem and enter the several answers typically required, we infer that the quick-solver group is copying the answer from somewhere,” said the researchers in a paper due out today in the free online journal Physical Review Special Topics–Physics Education Research.

The interesting part of this story for most is how the study correlated the consequence between cheating students and their test grades.  Interesting stuff, but perhaps no great surprise.  If you don’t study and don’t do your homework, how could you assume that anyone would do great on tests?

From my perspective the study, while interesting, revealed attitudes that showed ethical deficiencies.  When there is an ethics lapse, review will generally reveal three components – NEED, OPPORTUNITY and RATIONALIZATION.  So lets look at other parts of Mr. Young’s article and see what we can find.

Researchers found that the culprits typically copied answers from friends, by logging onto a friend’s account on the system to copy work or by getting answers via e-mail or instant message.

OPPORTUNITY – how the students cheated showed that it was not sophisticated.  Rather, the likelihood that a student will cheat is related to the ease in which one might do so.  In other words (less academically put)…if OPPORTUNITY is present, students (under pressure) will choose to cheat.

More students cheated later in the semester than in the beginning, and many students surveyed said that time pressures led them to copy a friend’s work.

Interesting … PRESSURE combined with opportunity was cited as a prime reason that students resorted to cheating.  In fact the patter is similar to those who commit white collar crime.  The fraudster is not an inherently bad person, rather, they succumb to pressure by taking OPPORTUNITY  to relieve the pressure.  In fact, the PRESSURE might be considered the NEED portion of the equation.  One might assume that if there was a reduced homework requirement (less pressure) then there would be a greater likelihood that cheating would be reduced.  Just a theory…

Either one cares less if they cheat, lie or steal OR through personal RATIONALIZATION they convert their unethical behavior into something that intellectually and/or emotionally they can deal with.  Here’s what the article says…

“If you look at the self-reported data, over half the kids think receiving unfair help is either not a big deal or trivial,” Mr. Pritchard said in an interview. Among other reasons students gave for cheating: “I knew this pretty well from my high-school physics course so it was only review,” and “not motivated to learn physics because I don’t enjoy it and it’s not needed for my major.”

Mr. Pritchard said that many professors turn a blind eye when students cheat on homework. “A lot of people are willing to forgive copying because they think those students are weaker— that they work as hard but just aren’t as able to get them,” he said. But he said their research showed that cheaters were most often those who waited until the last minute to start the work and that they copy answers before even trying the problems.


If you wish to reduce fraud, remove one of the legs – then it can’t stand.  The same is true when it comes to cheating in school.  Whether it was part of his model, in effect the professor involved removed one of the legs – HE CHANGED THE TEACHING MODEL.

The professor said he did find a way to greatly reduce cheating on homework in his class. He switched to a “studio” model of teaching, in which students sit in small groups working through tutorials on computers while professors and teaching assistants roam the room answering questions, rather than a traditional lecture. With lectures, he detected cheating on about 11 percent of homework problems, but now he detects copying on only about 3 percent of them.

Great article Mr. Young.  And for those Universities who grapple with the issues of ethics and cheating…I can see this research now becoming part of my presentation.  Somehow I think the students will get this…


Cheating and Lying? Teen Ethics – Junior Achievement’s Report and Comments by Chuck Gallagher Ethics Motivational Speaker

January 6, 2008


For a number of years Junior Achievement has conducted a nationwide teen ethics poll and this year is no different. Over a number of years one can begin to see trends with respect to choices and attitudes that teen make as part of their ethical decision making process.

Issued on December 5, 2007 the entire Junior Achievement/Deloitte survey follows: http://www.ja.org/about/about_newsitem.asp?StoryID=435

Here’s a summary quoted from the Junior Achievement Poll:

  • 71% of the teens surveyed say they feel fully prepared to make ethical decisions when they enter the workforce.
  • 38% – however, believe that it is sometimes necessary to cheat, plagiarize or lie or even behave violently in order to succeed.
  • 24% of the teens surveyed think cheating on a test is acceptable at some level justified by their personal desire to succeed.
  • 23% of the teens surveyed think violence toward another person is acceptable on some level. The reasons violence is acceptable is settling an argument (27%) and revenge (20%).
  • More than a quarter (27 percent) of all teens surveyed said it is not fair for an employer to suspend or fire employees for unethical behavior outside of their jobs and another quarter (26 percent) said they weren’t sure if it was fair or not.
  • More than half (57 percent) of all teens surveyed believe it is not fair for employers to make hiring or firing decisions based on material they have posted to the internet and another 19 percent weren’t sure if it was fair or not.

Pressure to succeed is cited as one of the major motivations for a teen’s willingness to make unethical decisions. Certainly, having teen’s of my own, I see first hand the expectations that are placed on teens and the competition that they face to climb the ladder of success in a highly competitive world.

“The high percentages of teenagers who freely admit that unethical behavior can be justified is alarming,” said David Miller, Ph.D., executive director of the Yale Center for Faith and Culture and Assistant Professor (Adjunct) of Business Ethics, who reviewed the findings. “It suggests an attitude of ethical relativism and rationalization of whatever actions serve one’s immediate needs and purposes.

“This way of thinking will inevitably lead to unethical if not illegal actions that will damage individual lives and ruin corporate reputations,” he said.

This survey mirrored another report featured in the New York Times (see one of my earlier blogs) where young people had no real perception that activities on the internet had or should have any impact in “real world” situations. In fact, the Times article showed just how disconnected teens were when it came to their ethical behavior and downloading or sharing music.

Illustrating teens’ perception of different ethical standards for online versus “real world” behavior, nearly half (47 percent) of teens said it was acceptable on some level to illegally download music without paying for it, but only 5 percent said it was acceptable to steal something from a store.

There seems to be a real difference in what “Baby Boomer’s” define as ethical behavior in some areas and what teens feel is ethical today. While most will agree that ethical choices and morays change, the question today is how will the ethical choices and changes reshape our society as the teens move into adulthood?

If you have comments…feel free to join the discussion.

For now, Motivational Ethics speaker (http://www.chuckgallagher.com) signing off…