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Are We Teaching Our Children to Cheat?

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Teen cheating decreased for the first time in a decade, from 59 percent in 2010 to 51 in 2012, according to a recent report from the Josephson Institute for Ethics. That's certainly good news. But there's also bad news: 10 percent of the incoming class at Harvard admits to having cheated on exams in high school, according the student newspaper The Harvard Crimson. Studies of undergraduates at other universities, conducted over the last four years, show that two-thirds admit to cheating on tests and assignments. Tom Keane, writing on the subject for the Boston Globe, concluded in his headline that society systemically encourages cheating: "Cheating is just what we do to survive."

It didn't used to be that way. In similar surveys conducted in the 1940's, 20 percent of teens admitted to cheating in high school. Since then, and especially during the past 20 years, numbers have skyrocketed. In 2002, according to an ABC Primetime investigation, 74 percent of teens cheated. In 2004, the Educational Testing Service said that 86 percent of teens agreed that most of their peers cheat, citing pressure for high grades.

Whichever number is valid, education experts agree that the numbers are too high, and they blame relaxed standards with parents, teachers and society as the cause. "The ethical muscles have atrophied in part because of a culture that exalts success however it is attained," according to Harvard School of Education professor Howard Gardner.

The consequences of cheating aren't just limited to school. The Josephson Institute's surveys show that people who cheat on exams in high school are three times more likely to lie to a customer and twice as likely to lie to their boss. The Society for Human Resource Management says that 40 percent of resumes are false, while 78 percent are misleading. Mr. Employer, wanna hire those employees?

Experts agree that cheating is not just situational but cultural. When leaders, parents and teachers reinforce ethical standards, repeating them over and over again, cheating in schools is reduced. One principal I interviewed said, "Children are like sponges -- they absorb everything they see in the adult world. And they are waiting to be led." As proof of this, students in the ABC Primetime study, referring to Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky, said that if the president can lie, so can they -- after all, everybody's doing it!

So how are we connecting the dots? How are we leading our children, and what messages are we exposing them to?

Let's start with politics. Right now, our children are seeing partisan manipulation and spin at its worst. Enough said.

Next, there's Wall Street. While millions of Americans suffered financial decline and foreclosure as a result of The Great Recession, the manipulators of Wall Street have largely gone unpunished. Aside from audited financials, I question how much business information is completely truthful because it is so well spun by very able PR departments.

Then there's parents. Within the past two decades, teachers have contended that parents have not been the moral compass they once were. Affirming this problem, Disney recently discontinued first in line tickets for families with special needs because people were hiring disabled stand-ins to cheat the system and get the tickets so that their families could cut in line. Pretty disgusting, but regrettably true!

Honesty with athletes? That went out the window with Lance Armstrong, Barry Bonds and others who wanted to illegally enhance performance and with Joe Paterno, Jim Tressel and others who looked the other way to illegal activity in the interest of their top-performing programs.

Let's not forget media. Just listen to talk radio, talk television and reality TV that choose more to disgrace than to hold up the honest and good. That's what our children are exposed to, directly or indirectly.

Religion? The perceived integrity of clergy disintegrated with the priest pedophile cases.
The waning importance of religion also decreases children's exposure to a weekly dose of values.

By and large, certainly teachers are honest. And I believe this to be true. But let's not forget that the former superintendent of the Atlanta schools recently reported to prison for fabricating student test scores.

The world that children see is a world where winning -- however you get there -- is number one, where television rarely projects moral messages, and where education is still largely about performance, not about character.

In our win-at-all-costs society, "coloring" or "spinning" the truth has become the new normal. Our children will continue to cheat as long as parents, businesses, political leaders, media and schools support a culture that, despite lip service to the contrary, values getting to the top instead of doing the right thing.

We can reverse this trend only if we reverse our negative messages. In our 24/7 world, the stakes are high, the lessons are constant, and the children are listening.

Purple America is a national initiative of Project Love/Values-in-Action Foundation to re-focus the American conversation to a civil, productive and respectful dialog around our shared values. To see America's shared values and get involved, go to www.PurpleAmerica.us