Lessons from United States’ education scandal

Students in class (Eductation) PHOTO: Shutterstock

It is now official: like Nigeria, the United States of America is grappling with endemic corruption in high places as celebrities and other rich parents engage in bribery and money laundering to get their children admitted into higher institutions. Head, Education Desk, Iyabo Lawal, writes on the latest racketeering scandal that has hit the U.S and its lessons.

“Make no mistake; this is not a case where parents were acting in the best interest of their children. This is a case where they flaunted their wealth, sparing no expense to cheat the system so they could set their children up for success with the best education money could buy, literally,” said Joseph Bonavolonta, the FBI special agent in charge of the Boston Field Office.

It is a sobering thought. Parents, who cheat to help their children gain admission into school or pass an exam, have to think twice.

The devastating effects of admission racketeering and examination malpractices are usually intangible as creativity, resourcefulness, ingenuity, technical know-how, and moral values are being eroded.

Industries and corporate organisations suffer because people who are qualified for the jobs are in the real sense not suitable for the jobs – they cheated their way through, most often through examination malpractices and admission scheme.

Many parents will stop at nothing to get their children admitted into higher institutions and Ivy League schools. They often go the extra mile to arrange for ‘mercenaries’ to sit for exams for their children. The latest scandal in the United States of America illustrates that.

American actresses Lori Loughlin and Felicity Huffman are among 50 people indicted recently in a widespread and sophisticated college admission bribery scheme in which parents were accused of paying off college coaches and standardised testing administrators millions of dollars in order to get their children into elite universities.

The racketeering conspiracy case includes 33 parents, as well nine coaches from universities that include USC, UCLA, Yale, Stanford and Georgetown. The entire operation was masterminded by William Singer (who runs a ‘tutorial’ centre) of Newport Beach, according to U.S authorities.

According to reports, the coaches were bribed to indicate students were being considered as athletic recruits because universities, “typically apply different criteria when evaluating applications from students with demonstrated athletic abilities.”

“These parents are a catalogue of wealth and privilege,” American Attorney Andrew Lelling said at a recent news conference. “They include, for example, CEOs of private and public companies, successful securities and real estate investors, two well known actresses, a famous fashion designer, and the co-chairman of a global law firm.”

Parents charged in the alleged scheme are accused of paying Singer a total of $25 million between 2011 and February 2019 for the arrangement. Singer used some of that money to bribe test administrators and college coaches. How did he achieve that?

He would hire stand-ins to take SAT and ACT exams for the students, along with invigilators to correct wrong answers. He would also create fake athletic profiles to help get students admitted into athletic programmes.

Singer, who portrays himself as an admissions consultant, is expected to plead guilty to charges including racketeering conspiracy, money laundering conspiracy, obstruction of justice and conspiracy to defraud.

Lelling revealed that coaches used slots that schools had allocated to them for athletic recruitment, and “worked with Singer, meaning they accepted bribes-to convince everyone else internally that this was a good person for the team.”

Singer’s method of cheating on standardised tests was laid out in the indictment’s description of his arrangement with Huffman.

Singer advised Huffman, who is married to actor William H. Macy, to arrange for her daughter to be granted extra time for her SAT exam by having her certified as having a learning disability. In addition, Singer then arranged for a specific person to invigilate that test and correct the girl’s answers. Her daughter received a 1420 on the test.

Last week, Macy was seen undergoing a security inspection before entering a downtown Los Angeles courtroom, where his wife, Huffman, appeared on a charge of paying a bribe to secure her daughter’s admission to college.

Court documents stated that Huffman paid $15,000 she disguised as a charitable donation so her daughter could partake in the college entrance cheating scam. Huffman is set to be released on a $250,000 bond. The actress has been ordered to appear in federal court in Boston on March 29.

Loughlin and her husband Mossimo Giannulli, the founder of clothing brand Mossimo, “agreed to pay bribes totalling $500,000 in exchange for having their two daughters designated as recruits to the USC crew team – despite the fact that they did not participate in crew,” the indictment said.

Also named in the indictment are current UCLA head men’s soccer coach, Jorge Salcedo; current head USC water polo coach, Jovan Vavic; former head USC women’s soccer coach, Ali Khosroshahin; former assistant USC soccer coach, Jaura Janke; and current senior USC Associate Athletic Director, Donna Heinel.

UCLA stated that Salcedo had been placed on leave.

“The conduct alleged in the filings revealed today is deeply disturbing and in contrast with the expectations we have of our coaches to lead their teams with honesty and integrity,” UCLA said in a statement.

Corruption in America’s education system is not new. The latest happening, however, reveals the determination of the state to stem the tide. The older generation is wont to say that today’s students are lazy and are adept at cheating during exams but the history of cheating in exams is as old as Nigeria.

Long before 1960, students in the country have been cheating their way through to success. Examination malpractice was first recorded in the country in 1914.

During that year, it was reported that the questions papers of the Senior Cambridge Local Examinations were seen by candidates before the scheduled date of the exam. Ever since then, examinations and students have never remained the same again.

By 1970, the situation has gone out of the frying pan into the fire – not only students are now engaged in the act. Their parents, uncles, brothers, sisters, cousins, and unfortunately, teachers and examiners have become part of the cheating gang.

In 2000, at least six per cent of the 636,064 candidates who sat for the West African Examination Council (WAEC)-organised examination were involved in one form of malpractice or another. 

In 2001, five per cent of the 1,025,185 candidates for the examination were involved in examination malpractice. In 2002, 10.5 per cent of the 909,888 candidates for the examination were involved in examination malpractice.

In 2003, the percentage increased to about 11 per cent (of 1,066,831 candidates for the examination). While in 2004, there was a further increase to 11 per cent (of the 1,035,280 candidates for the examination).

No doubt, WAEC, whose vision is to become a world-class examining body, is worried about students cheating during its exams.

In its decades of existence, the exam body has been promoting the idea of hard work and honesty in youths through its awards for outstanding performance in its examinations.

The Council conducts several international and national examinations in all member countries except Nigeria where it has shed all but one of its examinations, The West African Senior School Certificate Examination (WASSCE) for school candidates in May/June and private candidates in November –December.

But all is not well.

The overall aim of education is to shape the behaviour of students so that he can perform effectively within his social milieu. Bearing in mind the role that education plays in nation-building, a nation stands the risk of being underdeveloped in terms of accumulation of illiteracy, disease, and poverty when its youths reject the honour of getting a sound education and seems to opt for fraudulent activities and deceptive ways in making ends meet via cheating during exams.

Those who successfully cheated in exams graduate into the larger society with the mentality that dishonesty is a quicker way to success and fame –and regrettably so, many Nigerians today considered as being prominent have been fingered to have risen to the top based on questionable exam results and certificates. Even the country’s number one citizen has not been spared.

In a nation where exam malpractice thrives, many of its citizens will end up being insensible, dishonest, ignorant, narrow-minded, myopic, deceptive, and disingenuous. Examination malpractice puts youths and professionals in a situation that leads to a future of social-political and economic bankruptcy.

Sometimes when caught, students have had to repeat classes, retake the exams, dismissed from school; thus wasting money, time and efforts that could have been put to productive use. The importance of examination for diagnosis, placement, classification and quality control in schools has been eroded. WAEC, in the early 1970s, first witnessed mass cheating during exams and has since been grappling with the menace to society.

In 1977, a judicial commission of inquiry was set up to look into the affairs of WAEC in relation to the problem of efficient conduct of examinations and prompt release of results. Among other things, the committee acknowledged the excessive workload of WAEC and recommended among other things, that the workload of WAEC should be reduced by establishing some more examination bodies, which could take over some of its numerous examinations.

Registration of too many candidates over and above the facilities available in schools was also cited as a risk factor. With limited facilities and unlimited candidates, supervision is expected to be minimal with many candidates crammed into a classroom.

A situation was reported where 200 candidates registered in a school which equally had halls that could accommodate them, but the arrangement was such that when a supervisor was in one of the classes that were so wide apart, dictation would be going on in the remaining classrooms.

During examinations, materials, which candidates’ feel could assist them to answer questions, are brought in. It can be a small sheet of paper like the size of a business card hidden on any part of the body.

Researchers noted that there was a time in when teachers knew their students individually. Teachers at that time served the functions of both teachers in the school and in role model to the students. There was a strong link between the home and the school. The home, society, and school cooperated to raise the children properly.

With the advent of the Universal Basic Education (UBE), education experts said things are no longer at ease as there was a great uptick in student’s enrolment in schools without adequate preparation in terms of staffing and infrastructure. The limited number of teachers remaining in the schools could no longer cope with their functions.

As a result, morals and knowledge acquisition took a downward spiral – in which exam malpractice is a symptom.

Even though the Federal Government promulgated laws, which stipulated a 21-year-jail term for anyone found guilty of examination malpractice, the act has become the norm rather than the exception.

In 2006 the Federal Ministry of Education blacklisted and de-recognised 324 secondary schools as centres for conducting public examinations from 2007 to 2010.

According to education analysts, rather than Nigerians revel in the opened can of cankerworms of the US education system, the government and school authorities should take a cue from the way the American authorities are tackling the hydra-headed monster of cheating one’s way to gain admission and pass exams.

Perhaps, the Nigerian government and school authorities can imitate their American counterparts by probing suspicious admissions into unity schools, federal universities, polytechnics and colleges of educations.

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