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Cheating = Treason?

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A recent news story out of China reveals that academic integrity is truly a global issue. The report also makes it clear that there will always be some desperate students who cheat, regardless of the severity of the penalty for getting caught.

Under Chinese criminal law, buying the answers to a higher education self-study exam counts as "illegally obtaining State secrets," but that didn't stop a 23-year-old student in Beijing. She spent $80 for a cheat sheet, and it nearly landed her in prison for a year.

The student didn't share the answers with anyone else, so the court suspended her sentence. But in 2009, according to the story, 21 people who helped students cheat on the Chinese national college entrance exams were jailed for "stealing State secrets."

Meanwhile, Back on the Homefront...

Here in the U.S. this week, members of the International Center for Academic Integrity are meeting in San Antonio, Texas, looking for a less draconian response to the problem of cheating in the classroom.

According to survey results shared today by Dr. David Wangaard, Executive Director for the School for Ethical Education in Milford, Connecticut, 95 percent of American college students reported they had cheated within the last school year.

If that number isn't depressing enough, Dr. Wangaard reported in a presentation this past Tuesday a "moral action gap" that appears when students are asked to identify when cheating might be justified. Specifically, he says, 60 percent will agree that cheating (in general) is morally wrong, but only 40 percent feel that way about cheating on schoolwork in particular. Perhaps even more revealing, when students see their future success is at stake, the number who still think cheating is wrong drops to 24 percent.

Education in Jeopardy

When cheating becomes so commonplace in academia that nearly everyone admits to doing it and most don't even see it as a problem, the entire education process is undermined. At least, that's the concern of a lot of the academics and students attending the opening sessions here today.

For more than 20 years, the International Center for Academic Integrity has been collecting data on the problem of cheating in the classroom. For much of that time, the focus has been on finding uniform ways to do research, so the results of various studies can be compared and meaningful conclusions can be drawn.

Now, the emphasis is shifting toward finding effective responses that will help reverse the ethical decay that seems to be turning cheating into an acceptable path to success. Some of today's presenters described how their schools developed codes of conduct that students, faculty, and administrators were all willing to support. Others discussed how to respond to cheaters in ways that help them recognize that their mistake really was cheating, not just getting caught.

Fighting Back

Even as some universities grapple with their own academic dishonesty issues, others are turning to the high schools to help foster a stronger environment of integrity even earlier in the education process. Outreach programs are helping students and teachers see the value in fighting against the "everyone-is-doing-it" justification for misconduct.

There is more than just enthusiasm on display here. There are some success stories and some fresh new ideas about how to raise the ethical standards in our schools. There are some generous people willing to share what they learned and curious people who have come in search of solutions.

For the next couple of days, at least, across the street from the Alamo, the champions of academic integrity are making their stand.