04/07/2013 05:42 pm ET | Updated Jun 07, 2013

Cheating in Atlanta: A Teachable Moment

The Atlanta school cheating scandal involving teachers and administrators has prompted a series of public responses that echo an explanation/justification/excuse often used in the context of why students cheat: The stakes were high, and the cheaters felt there was no other way to succeed.

Undeniably, students are under considerable pressure to get good grades, so they can get into good colleges, so they can be successful in life. When students look around and see that cheating is one way to accomplish the goal, some teachers ask, how can we expect them to live up to a higher standard than the people who teach them?

Educators Who Cheat

This is not a uniquely American problem.

In January, the director of education for the Toronto (Canada) District School Board stepped down after it was revealed that he had plagiarized in his speeches, his op-ed pieces and even his doctoral dissertation.

In February, Germany's education minister was forced to resign when it was revealed that portions of her doctoral thesis, written nearly three decades earlier, had been plagiarized.

These scandals seem to indicate that cheating is acceptable to the leaders of our educational system. This makes the kind of comprehensive changes it will take to reduce academic dishonesty an even more monumental task.

Recently, in Nevada, educators cited the magnitude of the task when they argued against making cheating a bar to winning a scholarship, but those educators are wrong. The fact that the task is difficult is not a reason not to try.

Academic Integrity as a Generational Issue

Perhaps we can use these incidents of cheating to show the next generation how a culture of dishonesty already is diminishing the world they are about to inherit.

Every generation has an opportunity to re-examine the ways of their parents -- to pick and choose which traditions and values they believe will work for them and which would be better discarded. Today's students could see cheating as a legacy they reject -- as a defect they did not create, but might be able to repair.

Past generations have done the same in situations that were no less daunting. Civil rights and environmental protection are two such "causes" adopted by a younger generation that was viewed as naïve and idealistic by its elders, but history shows what changes could be achieved. Creating a culture of integrity is no more difficult an endeavor and no less important.

Cheating as Theft

The teachers and administrators in Atlanta who corrected student answers on bubble sheets may have helped those students look good, but they did not do them any good. They robbed those students of the help they needed to become better prepared for their future. The salary bonuses paid to those cheaters was money that might instead have been used to improve the students' education.

We sometimes talk about pursuing a culture of academic integrity as an esoteric philosophical exercise, but that makes the job harder. The way to convince students that cheating is wrong is to show them the damage it does and how it affects them.

Frequent news stories of cheating -- in education, in sports, in business -- provide something educators call a "teachable moment" -- an opportunity to show students a better way. Certainly, the scandal in Atlanta does. Let's not waste this one.