All of My Favorite Students Cheat

When Dishonesty Is a Norm at School

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There comes a moment in every school year, usually when my American history students say something like “How could people have owned slaves?” or “How could Richard Nixon have lied so much?,” when I pop the question. I ask them to tell me about cheating in school. By the time I ask, we usually know and like each other. Students feel comfortable talking with me. After a few seconds of silence, I qualify the question: “Have any of you ever copied someone else’s homework, cheated on a test or quiz, or plagiarized?” Another few moments pass, and heads begin to nod. I ask for a show of hands, and everyone raises an arm.

When this first happened, about five years ago, I thought it was an aberration. Perhaps some sort of bizarre peer pressure was at work compelling my high school students to confess to infractions they did not commit. “Maybe some of you haven’t cheated, but don’t want to stand out. If that’s the case, come tell me privately how you bucked the trend.” I got no takers.

I have asked about cheating every year since and find kids remarkably candid. Almost everyone does it. They copy homework (the most frequent form of dishonesty), crib on tests (second-most-favored tactic), and lift text from the Internet (either verbatim or with minor changes in wording). There have been a few outliers who refuse to engage in it. Ironically, I encounter them most often in so-called “lower level” classes. But there is also a disturbing extreme in the other direction, such as the two kids who confessed to misusing Adderall, a medication prescribed for attention deficit disorder. They purchased the drug illegally from classmates with add and took it to enhance studying for exams.

My teaching career spans 25 years and has led me through a large societal spectrum of secondary, undergraduate, and graduate-level classrooms, but I am still coming to terms with cheating as a cultural norm. I got my first wake-up call over six years ago, soon after arriving at my current workplace, a suburban, upper-middle-class, high-achieving public high school. One of my students lifted three paragraphs from my own review of a book assigned in advanced-placement U.S. history class. He took the review from a website, ignored my name on the byline of the journal in which it appeared, and pasted it into his essay. I caught three other plagiarists that first year, but no one else was so brazen (or maybe he was just in a hurry).

Savvy students denigrate that plagiarist. “It’s stupid to get caught taking things from the Internet,” one told me. “No one should be doing that” because it lacks subtlety. They rationalize other forms of cheating as more acceptable. Some claim thoughtless pedagogy justifies their own copying of homework. “We aren’t going to respect teachers who give us photocopied worksheets as ‘busywork.’ We’re not going to waste our time doing that.” Others assert they are “sticking it to the man,” who makes them overwork. Still others say that “as long as we do well on the tests, the homework doesn’t matter.” Grades are “the bottom line.”

Get them talking, and students often become confessional and express guilt for their behavior. Many have asked if I think less of them on learning that they cheat.

One recurrent theme in these students’ comments is a sense that the deck is stacked against them. They see a prestigious college as the only gateway to a good life, and they believe they need stellar transcripts and mile-long lists of extracurricular activities to get accepted. Students taking three to six advanced-placement classes, playing sports, competing on robotics teams and at music recitals, and signing up for SAT-prep classes almost always turn to cheating as a survival tactic.

There is a lot of evidence that my students are no anomalies, and the literature also suggests that cheating is the 800-pound gorilla in the room we all want to ignore. Twelve years ago, Washington Post education reporter Jay Mathews devoted a chapter to cheating in a book analyzing “America’s best public high schools.” He identified college-bound high school kids with “at least B averages” as the most prolific cheaters, and cited a survey indicating that over three-quarters of such students have engaged in it.

In her 2001 book Doing School, Denise Clark Pope indicted performance-oriented, pressure-filled suburban high schools for encouraging students to believe that dishonesty is the only way to succeed. Four of the five high-flying students she studied made cheating a norm of “doing school.” Another recent book, 2009’s Cheating in School, What We Know and What We Can Do, identifies the culprits as greater “accountability,” viewing grades as an educational bottom line, and high-stakes testing. Its authors claim that these developments have fostered an “anything goes” mentality about cheating.

If you doubt such studies, and live in a community like the one where I work, ask teenagers about the issue. The answers you get may surprise you, and confirm the expert findings.

The kids themselves, however, are showing a way out. It seems significant that they want to talk about cheating with adults like me, a teacher and authority figure. And even the most strident defenders of the status quo among them admit what they are doing is bad. They would not do it, they say, “if the school worked better.”

Get them talking, and students often become confessional and express guilt for their behavior. Many have asked if I think less of them on learning that they cheat. I remember one of my favorite seniors from a few years ago beating himself up when he found out he’d been accepted to an Ivy League college. “I don’t think I earned it,” he said; the celebratory moment was tainted for him. My students want to play to their idealism. I am writing this in an effort to help them do that. Yet it seems pointless merely to list a set of remedies for cheating. The books I mention here, and many others, have already done that. The solutions they offer appear fairly obvious: making school less about competition and more about individual student growth; insisting that kids have sane schedules and adequate sleep; implementing honor codes; teaching ethics; showing kids that it is possible to lead happy and healthy lives even without a Harvard degree.

What we adults need to come to terms with, I think, is our own insecurity. We live in a moment of high anxiety: bad economy, two wars not going well, seeming political impotence, and corrupt business practices. The historian Paul Kennedy has pointed out that when the leading world superpower begins to slip, as England did a century ago, it almost always engages in “reforms” meant to increase its competitiveness and regain its edge. In The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, Kennedy notes the eerie similarity between educational reform in Edwardian England, with its emphasis on competition and “efficiency,” and modern America. We can infer such “reform” to be ineffective in both cases, and especially so in the modern instance, if it forces kids to internalize the notion that their success is predicated on their willingness to be dishonest.

My students are asking for help to lead more honest lives. They have already begun to talk about it. All we need do is refuse to let them suffer the fallout of our own fears, engage them, and follow through with the conversation.

Vol. 30, Issue 02, Pages 18, 20

Published in Print: September 1, 2010, as All My Favorite Students Cheat
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