Cheating Is Pervasive Problem in Education, Forum Participants Say

By Catherine A. Carroll — February 25, 2004 3 min read
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Several speakers at a forum here last week agreed that cheating has become a pervasive problem in the corporate world, the athletic arena, and in schools.

The Cheating Culture, a new book by David Callahan that was the inspiration for the forum, asserts that students are cheating more often, more seriously, and are prodded along the path of academic dishonesty by society, parents, and even teachers.

Read more about The Cheating Culture, including how to order, reader stories, and an integrity test, to find out just how honest you are.

Educators who took part in the Feb. 18 forum echoed those concerns.

“We teach children not to be the best they can, but to beat who they’re competing against,” Virginia Secretary of Education Belle S. Wheelan told the group of educators and researchers gathered at the forum. “The golden rule nowadays is that he who has the gold makes the rules, so we want to get the gold.”

‘Nation of Cheaters’

The forum, called “Are We a Nation of Cheaters?,” was sponsored by the Washington-based Ethics Resource Center and the New York City-based research and advocacy group Demos.

Ms. Wheelan told the group there are four main reasons that students cheat, and the first one is competition. Educators and parents have pressured students to focus solely on their grades and not on learning. And that has created a culture in which cheating is seen as a survival tool.

The second reason, Ms. Wheelan argued, is that students are less prepared academically than they used to be. As a consequence, they see cheating as their only alternative to get by in school. Poor study habits add to the problem, the Virginia secretary said.

Ms. Wheelan said the third reason students cheat is simply that they haven’t been taught that it isn’t right. She said that schools lack the “punitive measures” needed to teach students that lesson.

“If a student cheats on a paper,” she told the audience, “we tell them to write another paper. ... We don’t want to fail students on any level.”

But she said if a student is caught cheating, schools should not be afraid to fail them for that assignment.

Lastly, Ms. Wheelan told the group that students cheat to feel “the thrill of not getting caught.”

‘Whatever It Takes’

In “Cheating From the Starting Line,” a chapter in The Cheating Culture that focuses on dishonesty in the education world, the author, Mr. Callahan, discusses two elite New York City high schools and the pressures of getting accepted into those schools—and then once there, getting into a top college. From cheating on a test to parents’ hiring of professional tutors—who, he suggests, often “help” students more than they should—the atmosphere at those schools fosters the idea that if you don’t cheat, you’ll get left behind by the people who do.

The chapter says that, according to an annual survey, sponsored by Who’s Who Among American High School Students, cheating has steadily increased over the past two decades, especially among high-achieving students. “Young people seem to be hearing ‘just say no’ about some temptations—and ‘do whatever it takes’ about others,” writes Mr. Callahan, a political scientist who is a co-founder of and the research director for Demos.

Other problems contribute to the apparent rise in cheating, forum participants said.

Donald McCabe, a professor of management at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J., who has conducted research for decades on student cheating, also was part of the forum.

In 2001, Mr. McCabe released a study that found that nearly half the 4,500 high school students surveyed said they believed their teachers sometimes chose to ignore students who were cheating.

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