Our Cheating Credentialed Society

From all the articles and cases, there’s clearly a problem in U.S. schools with cheating, and another one with grade inflation. There’s also a problem with too many students not mastering skills. All three problems are linked to a single societal perceptual problem — the false equation of credentials with skills.

In music, for example, mastery of an instrument or the voice is not demonstrated by how fast a musician can get through the piece, nor how many works can be quickly learned, nor by a piece of paper that says the student has a B.M., M.M., or D.M.A. Mastery is singing or playing on key, in tempo, with flawless tone and/or diction, and precise emotional expression.

In recent years, time after time, various studies have trotted out statistics to show that people with degrees make more money than those without degrees. Seldom, if ever, has anyone addressed first, what the studies actually show, and second, their actual applicability to life. The initial studies reflected the difference in earnings between those with a college degree and those without one. And the key term remains “degree.” Once upon a time, a degree signified a mastery of a certain set of skills, and the degree was the certification of those skills. Today, a degree is viewed by students and society alike as either a passport to a better job or the credential to another degree which is a passport to an even better job. The emphasis is on the credential, not on the process of education, not on learning the skills necessary to do the job. Given this emphasis the symbols of success — the grades, the honors, the degrees — is it any wonder that students — and their parents — cheat?

Those teachers who try to emphasize the need to learn fundamentals well, to master skills, and who grade rigorously, are overwhelmed by a society that wants quick results and easy-to-verify credentials and that has lost its understanding of the true basics. The “answer” to a test is only a small part of the learning process. The idea behind learning is to gain the abilities and understanding necessary to find answers on one’s own, especially in new and different situations. This emphasis is being lost behind the demands for testing and accountability.

Students are far from stupid. They see that only the result matters in most cases. The answer obtained on-line or through cheating, if done successfully, counts as much as the one sweated out the hard way. The well-publicized Kansas case of several years ago was not an exception, but far more common than most politicians and school boards want to admit. Just talk to the teachers — well off the record.

This emphasis on the credential, rather than the skills, is everywhere. High school students want to get into the prestigious college so that they can get the good grades there in order to get into the prestigious graduate school in order to get the best job/highest compensation. More and more money and effort are being poured into testing students as to what they are learning. Here, again, we run the risk of focusing on “credentials” — the good test score. Tests like the SAT and the ACT, the GRE, the LSAT, the MEDCAT all purport to measure two things — a certain level of knowledge and the ability to recall that knowledge in a short period of time. Individuals who know their subject matter in great depth, but do not recall the material either swiftly or under time pressure will score less well than those with lesser knowledge but greater test-taking skills.

While there are certain occupations where time is of the essence, and one must act in seconds or minutes — most high-level occupations don’t — and shouldn’t — require such haste. Most occupations are those where a thoughtful complete mastery of the subject and skills is far more preferable to incomplete knowledge and speed. We don’t need an architect who can design a building quickly; we need one who designs it well and safely. We don’t need medical researchers who experiment quickly, but ones who do so thoughtfully and thoroughly. We don’t need financial analysts who can design new financial instruments that magnify credit and the money supply nearly instantly — and then crash and plunge us into financial and economic chaos, but analysts and “quants” who fully understand the ramifications of their work and who can also explain it clearly and concisely… and who will.

There is an old proverb that seems to have been forgotten in our desire for easy credentials, quick measurements, and instant gratification: Haste makes waste.

Never before was this more applicable than in education today. “Accountability” and all the other buzzwords being used are in danger of creating an even greater charade in education than the present sad situation. Universities tout the percentage of their faculty with a Ph.D. Can all those highly degreed professors actually teach? How many actually do? Which ones are effective? Is there any serious effort to evaluate whether candidate A with a masters degree is actually a better and more effective teacher than candidate B with a Ph.D. or candidate C with a mere bachelors degree, but with twenty years practical experience?

A number of studies and articles have also appeared recently suggesting that student evaluations of professors at universities have become both omnipresent and are focused more on the grades that the professors give than upon their teaching effectiveness. That is, in general, the more high grades a professor gives, the better the student evaluation. Once more, both the students and the administrations which rely on such evaluations are focusing on the “credential,” the grade given by students largely ignorant of the requirements of the discipline they are learning, rather than on the process of learning and the skills attained by the students. Yet when such elite schools as Harvard set the example by giving half the student body As in all courses, it becomes increasing difficult for others to go against the example. In the state of Utah, the governor and the legislature have been pressing the universities to graduate students more quickly so that they can get into the work force more quickly, and presumably pay taxes more quickly. Yet, even as the number of students swells, the resources available on a per student basis decrease, and the buzz-word “efficiency” gets bandied around wildly, as if the only important measure is how quickly students get a piece of paper in hand — a credential.

All of these examples have one factor in common — the failure to understand that education is a process, and that mastery of the skills involved is what leads to eventual long-term success for the student — not merely a credential that, without the skills mastery that it is supposed to represent, means little. Most Americans understand that a basketball or football coach cannot merely have a players attend three practices a week for nine months for four years, give them high grades without rigorous examinations, and then graduate them all to a professional sport, saying that they are all equivalent. Yet, in many ways this is exactly what the American public is asking of its undergraduate colleges and universities.

Unfortunately, the problem doesn’t end with graduation. It goes on. Credentials take the place of judgment in the business and academic hiring world. The recommendations of the highly credentialed analysts at the Wall Street brokerage houses were accepted unquestioningly in the cases of Enron, Tyco, Global Crossings, and all the other high-level corporate disasters. So were those of the accountants at Arthur Anderson, AIG, Lehman Brothers, and innumerable banks. Everyone focused on “credentials” — reported profits — rather than on the process of the businesses at hand. Instead, the financial world went on focusing on paper credentials, just as the education world seems prepared to do.

Credentials have become more and more divorced from the abilities and results they were once supposed to measure and have in fact become almost a substitute for ability and accomplishment, yet so long as this continues, we as a society will continue to pay the high price for that practice.