Monday, April 28, 2008

The Ethics of Cheating

This post has nothing directly to do with Early Childhood Education. It is only tangentially related in so far as what we are teaching our young children about ethics, specifically about cheating. I presume that the majority of parents teach their children that cheating is unethical. But then what happens in the school environment that erodes the lessons learned at home?

Last September Regan McMahon, of the S.F. Chronicle, wrote an article about cheating in school called: Everybody Does It. Academic cheating is at an all-time high. Can anything be done to stop it? All parents and teachers should read the article. As a teacher for 15 years I have witnessed abundant cheating and was shocked when I read it. A few highlights:
Ask a high school or college student about cheating, and before you can finish the sentence, the person will blurt out two things: "Everybody does it," and "It's no big deal."
…a 2005 Duke University study found that 75 percent of high school students admit to cheating, and if you include copying another person's homework, that number climbs to 90 percent.
…a lot of students' philosophy is "Cheat or be cheated." So many of their friends are cheating, they figure they'd be a chump not to. "If you're the one honest kid, you're actually going to get the lower grades or the lower test scores."
If the article surprises you, visit It is a website where a student can download a paper on just about any subject. To combat the problem, teachers now need to use plagiarism detection software that will scan the Internet to detect whether papers are copied.

I know that many, if not most, parents are largely unaware that their own children are cheating. I have had to deal, often enough, with angry parents who can’t imagine that the reason their child is struggling in math is because he/she is not doing the homework. Then to compound the situation, a child will tell the parent that the concepts weren’t explained in class. Parents are often too willing to believe the false version of the story when the only alternative is to face the fact that their child is lying. A few years ago, a good friend confronted her daughter’s high school math teacher when her daughter earned an F after attending class every day and doing all of her homework. It wasn’t until the daughter went off to college that she admitted to her mother that she had copied all of the math homework from the back of the book. My friend felt retrospectively humiliated and was devastated when her daughter admitted to having cheated.

McMahon cites Madeline Levine, author of "The Price of Privilege: How Parental Pressure and Material Advantage Are Creating a Generation of Disconnected and Unhappy Kids." Levine says, in her book that today’s students “… will be our doctors, our lawyers, our policymakers. And if the issue of integrity is on the back burner, that doesn't bode well for all of us." In the article, it is suggested that students feel the stress of having to earn high grades to get into good colleges, or the students feel pressured by parents to get good grades. What is the problem? Do we, as a culture, feel that if a student is feeling “stressed out” about getting into a “good” college or feels “pressured” by parents to get good grades that it justifies cheating? What is wrong with feeling pressured to work harder to be more successful? What about the students that actually do the work? Is it all right for a student who cheats to win a coveted spot in a good college in lieu of the student who legitimately earned the good grades?

Pressure to get good grades, instead of earning them, is superficial and meaningless but even educators are sometimes part of the conspiracy. It the last teaching job I had, the school counselor warned me about giving poor grades to students. He told me that the last math teacher that gave students bad grades didn’t work at the school anymore. He also told me that our school was competing for spaces in college with the public school around the corner (poor urban area near San Francisco) where teachers give their students good grades for coming to school every day and behaving. I’m fairly certain that colleges know which schools are inflating grades, especially when it isn’t hard to compare grades to SAT scores. Let me know if I’m wrong.

Is it not our responsibility as parents and educators to refocus the emphasis from grades to understanding concepts? If students understand concepts, they will earn good grades.

Ms. McMahon wrote a follow-up article in March: It's time to deal with students who cheat.

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