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Why Do Students Cheat? Look in the Mirror

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The question for today, class, is “Why do students cheat?” I have posed this to my students in my college freshman writing classes over the years as a writing assignment, and you would be amazed at the responses I have gotten. I have taught in a college, a university, and a community college at various times in my career, and believe it or not the essays came back with very similar responses. The number one reason was that they could do it and mostly get away with it. The second was that they wanted that “A” on their transcripts.

Recently here in New York City a cheating scandal at the elite Stuyvesant High School shocked people, but I was not surprised. It is extremely difficult to get accepted by the school, and once enrolled the expectations are enormously high for students. The pressure to excel is there from the moment a student enters the front door, and this comes from teachers, administrators, fellow students, and parents.

A former student of mine who attended “Stuy” told me, “The competition is fierce. Everyone, and I mean everyone, expects you to be a genius, and you better be.” At the time he never spoke about cheating, but it is no wonder why it would happen in that kind of environment because it happens in regular high schools, elementary schools, and colleges everywhere. If we think it doesn’t we are kidding ourselves, and if you are outraged please take a good look in the mirror: we only have ourselves to blame.

You may remember the old way of cheating. Kids used to call it “crib” notes, and they devised all sorts of ways to write answers on slips of paper, desks, the backs of the kids in front of them, on their arms, and even on the palms of their hands. This decidedly low tech means of cheating was around forever, and kids did get caught, but it never stopped them because even then pressure was high.

In this case at Stuyvesant it was high tech and sophisticated all the way. Would you expect anything less from a school filled with brainiacs? The cheaters (about 100 of them) used their cell phones to get the answers for Regents exams. Here in New York getting a Regents diploma is essential, and this high stake exam is part of the problem. So is the “elite school” mentality at Stuyvesant. Put it all together and you have a fecund environment for cheating.

Cheating is rampant today and most educators know it, and students will admit to it in private and off the record. Cheating can be anything from copying someone else’s homework to having someone else write a term paper or even take your exam. On Long Island earlier this year in wealthy Great Neck, some high school students (children of prominent parents) paid college students to take their SAT exams. When this story broke a colleague of mine and I talked about the parental pressure being sometimes so unreal, and that kids will go to great lengths to please them and be successful, even if it is illegal as in this case.

When I was a college instructor, I saw simple and complex cheating. Much of it had to do with plagiarism, much of it intentional, where whole papers had been cut and pasted from an Internet source. Other times I would receive the same paper in two different classes from different students. I guess they thought if they changed the name I wouldn’t notice. Shame on them but more than anything shame on a system that encourages cheating because of unreal expectations.

We know that even teachers and administrators are not above cheating. Because of the unreal pressure to excel on state testing, educators have been caught coaching kids beyond acceptable means, giving answers, and even changing answers to improve test scores. This whole No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top thing leaves a bad taste in my mouth, because to secure federal funds it seems some people will do almost anything. How can we expect the kids to do the right thing if adults do not?

I have also seen parents drive kids too hard in so many ways. Besides living vicariously through their progeny by having them play all kinds of sports, join all sorts of clubs, and make certain that they have not even one free second in any given day, they also drive them too hard to excel in school. Kids with perfectly good test papers with scores of 90 or above are ridiculed. One kid told me, “Mom said don’t show me another test unless it is a 100.” Multiply this by thousands and you get an idea of what’s happening and why kids will cheat if they feel there is no other way.

What should be done about the case at Stuyvesant? Or the one in Great Neck? Should those students be expelled? Should metal detectors be installed and cell phones collected every morning and returned at the end of the day? How far should we go to stop cheating?

Perhaps the easy answer is to cut off this cancer at its blood supply. Adults should reassess their expectations for their children. Yes, we all want the best for our kids, but not at the expense of their emotional and physical well being. Unrealistic expectations fuel kids’ fears and at Stuyvesant (where you know from the start that you are going on to Harvard, Yale, or Columbia) kids are in an academic pressure cooker. It does not help that standardized and state testing, inferior instruments to be sure, are always looming and success will be determined by their performance on these exams.

Cheating is an age old tradition. Plato no doubt caught Aristotle once or twice, and it has been happening ever since. You can be sure Plato did not give up on his brilliant student for a transgression or two, and we cannot as well. We should understand that cheating will always be part of the equation as long as the solution is too difficult to attain. Perhaps we can create learning environments that will eventually be less about achievement and more about accomplishments measured in various ways (such as portfolios and presentations) that make cheating unnecessary.

I think that we should go back to the Socratic Method and appreciate that students do not have to get the answer right the first time, or even the next time, as long as they are learning and eventually come to awareness themselves. Something needs to be done to let students know that schools are about them and not about us. Student centered learning is at the heart of the new Common Core, and it is time we start thinking about what that means for education. It certainly doesn’t mean testing them to death and expecting them to do the impossible and then nailing them to the wall if they try to find any means possible to do what we expect of them.

In the old Star Trek series, it was noted a number of times how Captain Kirk (played by William Shatner) was the only student in the Star Fleet Academy history to pass a test involving a no-win battle scenario. Kirk became a legend because he reprogrammed the computer to make it possible to beat the odds. I bring this up here because maybe this is what the kids at Stuyvesant were doing in their own way.

Do we want a system that forces kids into no-win situations? Or do we want a system that is about truly educating children and not about test scores and administrators patting each other on the back for high stakes assessments that mean nothing in the real world? It is time for the adults (parents, teachers, administrators, politicians) to take a long look in the mirror and find the answers. Oh, and no cheating, please.

Photo Credit: crib notes – main.nc.us; Shatner – wikipedia.

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About Victor Lana

Victor Lana has published numerous stories, articles, and poems in literary magazines and online. His books In a Dark Time (1994), A Death in Prague (2002), Move (2003), The Savage Quiet September Sun: A Collection of 9/11 Stories (2005) and Like a Passing Shadow (2009) are available online and as e-books. He has won the National Arts Club Award for Poetry, but has concentrated mostly on fiction and non-fiction prose in recent years. He has worked as faculty advisor to school literary magazines and enjoys the creative process as a writer, editor, and collaborator. He has been with Blogcritics since July 2005, has edited many articles, was co-head sports editor with Charley Doherty, and now is a Culture and Society editor. He views Blogcritics as one of most exciting, fresh, and meaningful opportunities in his writing life.