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School Cheating Scandals -- What's a Parent to Do?

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In the past year, the headlines have been filled with stories about cheating scandals at some of our most esteemed high schools and colleges, schools like the Air Force Academy, the Atlanta public schools, Stuyvesant High School in Manhattan, and most notably, Harvard University. The reasons behind the cheating can be blamed on the pressures caused by the highly competitive college admissions process and job environment, the prevalence of social media and technology that facilitates cheating and the win-at-all-costs mentality of a society obsessed with success.

In a September 6th post in HuffPost Parents, Mary Dell Harrington and Lisa Endich Heffernan offer helpful advice to parents on how to talk to their kids about cheating. Harrington and Heffernan write that parents must tell children that regardless of what their classmates are doing, cheating is wrong and won't be tolerated. Counseling parents to take the moral high ground, the authors write, "It is a tough place to stake out, a tough place to stay but ultimately, as parents, we know it is the right place to be."

I couldn't agree more. I'm telling my own children I'd rather see a failing grade, no matter how deep my initial disappointment, than a passing one achieved dishonestly. After all, I want my kids to have the one constant that will help them navigate this ever changing and confusing world: a strong sense of values.

But that got me thinking: Is there more that we as parents can do to find real solutions to cheating? What actions can parents take to affect real change so that cheating doesn't become an indelible part of our educational system?

In order to understand the scope of the problem, I resorted to what most parents do at the end of a long day to resolve a troubling parenting question... I turned to the Internet for answers.

I discovered that the statistics on cheating are downright dismal. According to a recent survey of 24,000 high school students in grades 9-12, a whopping 95% said they cheated during the course of their education. In a 2010 survey of 40,000 high school students (conducted by the nonprofit Josephson Institute of Ethics), more than half admitted to cheating on a test in the prior year, and 34% said they'd cheated twice.

Examples of student cheating range from copying another's homework, plagiarizing a take-home final exam or using a cell phone to photograph exam questions. The cheating doesn't always end with students. Professor Howard Gardner of Harvard University says, "Students... all too often see their professors cut corners -- in their class attendance, their attention to student work and, most flagrantly, their use of others to do research."

Equally discouraging, it appears that schools, teachers and parents often send mixed messages to children about cheating. Laurie L. Hazard, director of the Academic Center for Excellence at Bryant University, recently told Richard Perez-Pena of The New York Times, "Institutions do a poor job of making those boundaries clear and consistent, of educating students about them, of enforcing them, and of giving teachers a clear process to follow through on them."

Parents need to be accountable, too. Some parents may be tempted to look the other way when their kids cheat, justifying the means if the end results in admission to an elite college. And if their children are caught cheating, parents are sometimes quick to blame the school or the teacher, rather than holding themselves or their children accountable.

What then, to do? While I have no magic solution, here are four outcomes that I think would support parents like myself who hope to raise honest children.

First, parents need to be part of the solution, not the problem. Parents can foster awareness by discussing the issue in their schools and parent associations, building buy-in for policies that promote academic integrity. A parent, teacher and student anti-cheating covenant would be a good place to start. And when parents and schools collaborate, their guiding principle should be, "Does this policy treat fairly and protect the students who don't cheat?"

Second, as I've discovered with all ethical and governance issues, there has to be real commitment at the top to sustain meaningful change. This means school administrators must also make clear that cheating will not be tolerated, and parents should press educators to ensure this translates into meaningful action. Why not memorialize the commitment to ethical behavior in a mandate or a set of operating principles? Schools can adopt an Honor Code, charter or bylaws amendments, or a vision statement from the Board or Parent Association to guide conduct and give support to reformers seeking positive change. In addition, parents, teachers, and students must be better educated on the consequences of violations.

Third, parents -- through parent associations and civic organizations -- can work with school administrations to provide incentives for ethical behavior. For example, more scholarships can be awarded to students who demonstrate high ethics through academic achievement and personal integrity. Parents often struggle with the dilemma that while they want their kids to be honest, they suspect their children may not "get ahead" in the same way as someone who cheated. The goal of rewarding ethical behavior is to convince parents and students that being honest has its own tangible awards.

Finally, there has to be a dialogue at all levels of government about academic cheating, which goes to the heart of our educational system's integrity. As important as the debate is over testing and teaching standards, it has to share the spotlight -- from local school boards and councils to the corridors of the Department of Education and our legislatures -- with instilling academic integrity in the nation's classrooms. Parents can contribute to this debate by bringing their views and concerns to the attention of their elected and appointed officials. After all, there's no constituent group as influential as parents galvanized to protect their children's future.

John McCormick and his sons William and Connor are the authors of "Dad, Tell Me A Story," How to Revive the Tradition of Storytelling with Your Children (Nicasio Press 2010). For more information about family storytelling, visit the authors' website and blog at http://DadTellMeAStory.com.
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