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Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Why Do The Smartest Kids Feel The Need To Cheat?

Stuyvesant High School in New York City is one of the nation’s top public high schools.  It is a so-called ‘exam school’ where admission is contingent only upon test scores.  Stuyvesant is not the only such exam school in New York – Hunter being another – and in the Washington, DC area, Thomas Jefferson High School in Alexandria is well known.

These schools are academically elite, only the brightest students get in, and admission is free and a ticket to a prestigious college.  Although these schools have come under criticism for being elitist and favoring children whose parents provide the home environment, extracurricular activities, and test preparation that facilitate admission, they are in fact the most democratic of institutions.  Legacies, favoritism, or financial influence are out. These schools’ admission policy is little different from that of prestigious French universities such as the École Nationale d'Administration open to all based solely on test scores.

If there is any drawback to these free, top-of-the-line high schools, it is that because so many graduating seniors have the SATs, grades, and extra-curricular activities to go to Harvard or MIT, only a few get in.  In a weird twist of logic, it might be better for a talented student to suffer through an ordinary secondary education, graduate at the top of his class, and go wherever he wanted.

Recently it was discovered that a significant number of Stuyvesant students had cheated; and questions were immediately asked why.  Every possible theory surfaced:  the students’ sense of ethics had been compromised by the hi-octane competitive hyper-individualism of the age; success was linked more than ever to graduation from top universities which had maintained or elevated their standards while others lowered them to make ends meet; ethical choices were less frequently rewarded or went unnoticed in a society driven by academic success; students from Asian and Jewish families (who predominate at Stuyvesant and other exam schools), always culturally insistent on learning, knowledge and education had become even more so. 

Whatever the reason, kids who shouldn’t need to cheat cheated.  The reasons they gave were fascinating and much more telling about American culture than the stock explanations suggested above. 

In article in the New York Times (9.26.12) Vivian Yee writes about one commonly-cited but shocking justification that students gave for cheating. Cheating in a worthless class – worthless because of an inferior teacher or because it satisfied some ‘dumb’ requirement was OK.  Absolute right and wrong – it is wrong to cheat – was supplanted by a sliding scale.  It was wrong to cheat in some classes, perfectly all right to cheat in others.

A recent alumnus said that by the time he took his French final exam one year, he, along with his classmates, had lost all respect for the teacher. He framed the decision to cheat as a choice between pursuing the computer science and politics projects he loved or studying for a class he believed was a joke.

“When it came to French class, where the teacher had literally taught me nothing all year, and during the final the students around me were openly discussing the answers, should I not listen?” he said.

This reminded me of an experience in Poland shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall.  The Communist system was being dismantled and liberal democracy and market economics replaced it.  I was part of a team making a television series on this transition, and I had the opportunity to interview the President of the Warsaw Chamber of Commerce who told me of his dilemma.  Under Communism, he said, cheating and lying were considered heroic acts because they were done to undermine a corrupt and corrosive system.  Now that liberal democracy was taking over, these young people had to be re-educated: lying and cheating now were wrong, socially irresponsible, and personally unethical.  This particular element of the transition would not be easy.

By the time they graduate, many [Stuyvesant students] have internalized a moral and academic math: Copying homework is fine, but cheating on a test is less so; cheating to get by in a required class is more acceptable than cheating on an Advanced Placement exam; anything less than a grade of 85 is “failing”; achieve anything more than a grade-point average of 95, and you might be bound for the Massachusetts Institute of Technology or Yale (Yee)

Cheating in the form of plagiarism was made easy by the Internet and devalued as a crime of ethics.  It did not take many ethical gymnastics to appropriate an idea generated by someone else because it was ‘common knowledge’.  Transforming a direct quote to an amended, modified, and slightly changed version also fell within the realm of acceptable acts.  Who is harmed? asked the students.  No royalties are lost; and in fact original idea are now, thanks to the plagiarizing student, getting even more currency.

How many of us while writing articles, blog posts, or incidental references on Facebook have edited an original source to suit our argument?  Eliminating a caveat, an exception, or a warning.

Surprisingly, cheating is often done collectively, belying the dog-eat-dog myth of the highly competitive school.  Internet chat groups take the place of evening study sessions and raise the ante, for they provide sources, quotes, and references. 

Although Stuyvesant has a reputation for being cutthroat, students say collaboration, not competition, is the norm. Several framed the collaboration as banding together against a system designed to grind them down. Many classes have private Facebook groups that students use to exchange advice or, sometimes, to post full sets of answers for classmates to copy. Take-home exams are seen as an invitation to work together (Yee).

As in the case of Poland, students said that cheating is OK because the system is designed to grind them down.

Perhaps worst of all is the complicity of teachers:

Many teachers were so understanding of the pressure students faced that they would hand out lighter punishments for cheating.  [Teachers endorsed] steps like telling students who were copying homework simply to put it away and allowing those cheats to retake tests, despite policies that prescribe a range of punishments, from giving a zero on the assignment up to suspending the student.

If the best and the brightest cheat, we can only imagine what the rest of American students do. 

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