In the past year, 30 percent of U.S. high school students have stolen from a store and 64 percent have cheated on a test, according to a large-scale survey suggesting that Americans are too apathetic about ethical standards.
Educators reacting to the findings questioned any suggestion that today’s young people are less honest than previous generations, but several agreed that intensified pressures are prompting many students to cut corners.
“The competition is greater, the pressures on kids have increased dramatically,” said Mel Riddle of the National Association of Secondary School Principals. “The temptation is greater.”
The Josephson Institute, a Los Angeles-based ethics institute, surveyed 29,760 students at 100 randomly selected high schools nationwide, both public and private. All students in the selected schools were given the survey in class; their anonymity was assured.
Cheating in school is rampant and getting worse, the survey found. Sixty-four percent of students cheated on a test in the past year and 38 percent did so two or more times, up from 60 percent and 35 percent in a 2006 survey. Thirty-six percent said they used the Internet to plagiarize an assignment, up from 33 percent in 2004.
Despite such responses, 93 percent of the students said they were satisfied with their personal ethics and character, and 77 percent affirmed that “when it comes to doing what is right, I am better than most people I know.”
Nijmie Dzurinko, the executive director of the Philadelphia Student Union, said the findings were not at all reflective of the inner-city students she works with as an advocate for better curriculum and school funding.
“A lot of people like to blame society’s problems on young people, without recognizing that young people aren’t making the decisions about what’s happening in society,” said Dzurinko, 32. “They’re very easy to scapegoat.”
Mr. Riddle, a long-time high school teacher and principal in Virginia, spoke in defense of today’s students.
“We have to create situations where it’s easy for kids to do the right things,” he said. “We need to create classrooms where learning takes on more importance than having the right answer.”
A version of this article appeared in the December 10, 2008 edition of Education Week