Parents are aghast and students are under heavy scrutiny in Middleton, Wisconsin, these days, since Middleton High School administrators last month discovered evidence of chronic and widespread cheating. The school forced 250 seniors to retake a calculus test in the wake of the revelations.
But the calculus test is only the beginning. In the wake of the calculus incident, school investigators at Middleton now suspect that cheating at the high school goes far beyond one test, spinning out of control to affect many courses and multiple departments. While the investigation is still under way, many in the school community now believe that a large number of students regularly shared and sold photos of tests, strategically planned absences on test days (and then sought test information from those students who showed up) and bartered test questions (as in, "I'll give you a math question if you give me a science one").
The culture of cheating has become so ascendant at Middleton, that its principal, Denise Herrmann, says her administration is now looking to overhaul the very ways in which students are tested. "We need to improve the quality of the assessment tools used to measure student learning," she told me. "And we also need to get to the root causes and pressures that prompt students to cheat in the first place." Her administration will call on teachers, students and parents to weigh in on the cheating issue, and to propose solutions that ensure all voices -- not just those of shocked administrators -- are heard.
While Middleton's story is surprising to me -- particularly as a parent of a high school student -- it probably shouldn't be. The research suggests that, whether they recognize it or not, there are plenty of schools with similar problems. The Josephson Institute of Ethics, which conducts biannual surveys of adolescent ethics, reports that the number of high school students who reported cheating on a test increased substantially, from 61 to 74 percent, in the decade between 1992 and 2002. In the Institute's 2010 survey, the number went down to 59 percent, but it's a specious improvement. More than 25 percent of respondents admitted to lying on one or more of the Institute's survey questions.
In September 2013, Harvard issued a similar survey to its new students. Nearly 42 percent of incoming first-years admitted to cheating on their homework prior to their Harvard acceptance. That same month, the 125 students involved in a 2012 cheating scandal at Harvard, the largest ever faced by the university, were allowed to return to school after being suspended for a year.
When cheating scandals come to light, parents and pundits alike often profess their amazement. We ask how students can show such dishonesty. We shudder that their parents or teachers or coaches or exam proctors would look the other way. We blame lax security and the capricious judgment of immaturity.
But all too rarely do we do what the administration at Middleton is doing: question ourselves. We don't ponder whether the roots of cheating are in the very fabric of our competitive culture -- a culture in which status points such as a prestigious alma mater, a six-figure salary and a desirable ZIP code in which to raise one's family are seen as the markers of American success.
What I hear among my own children and their peers, and in the schools near our home -- public and private, urban and suburban -- is that a highly competitive academic climate means not just run-of-the-mill homework copying and essay-writing plagiarism (though these abound). It also means a subtler, more pervasive, more culturally sanctioned form of the same thing: after-school tutoring, private test preparation courses and college admissions counseling, and insidious parental involvement in the completion of homework assignments or the securing of college recommendation letters. These activities may not be unethical or underhanded in themselves. But the motives behind them are. Because behind every test prep tutor or SAT course is the sinister message that our children can't get ahead without a handicap and, most of all, can't afford to lose.
All too often, I think we're actively teaching our children that external, material, quantifiable indicators of accomplishment are the most important. Too seldom do we remind them that it's their enthusiasm, curiosity and spirit of inquiry and determination that will best prepare them for happy, healthy adult lives. And that these qualities -- more than an Ivy League admission or a perfect SAT score -- can't be gained through fraud.
If we want to put a stop to cheating, on the SATs as on Wall Street, we need to model the belief -- in our homes, classrooms, playing fields and boardrooms -- that success will not be measured by a report card or an Ivy League acceptance letter. We must show our children, instead, that they will be measured by their willingness to seek out challenges, even if they stumble on the way, to pursue what stirs their souls and serves their fellow human beings, to ask for help when they are uncertain or confused, to accept consequences when they have made poor decisions, to try and, occasionally, to fail.
Until we demonstrate for our children that success lies in the process and not in the product of their work, we will encourage them to cheat. And we will continue to cheat them.
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