01/09/2013 04:15 pm ET Updated Mar 11, 2013

When Did Cheating Become a Controversial Topic?

Perhaps I am delusional, but I seem to recall a time when everyone agreed that cheating was wrong. Today, cheating seems to have evolved into an insidious disease infecting our society. As a result, it is now difficult to get a roomful of people to agree on what cheating is, let alone what causes it, how to discourage it, or whether to punish cheaters who are caught.

"Cheating" today can refer to infidelity in a relationship, violating the rules of a game, or copying somebody else's homework. A "cheat sheet" may be an unauthorized list of answers to a test or an executive summary of various aspects of a complicated issue of finance or public affairs.

In education, the topic is referred to as "promoting academic integrity," rather than "preventing cheating." This linguistic turn is a product of more than a desire to focus on the positive. Framing the issue in terms of integrity broadens the scope beyond a single incident, and it widens the topic to include others besides the cheating student.

Rooting out academic dishonesty is a deceptively difficult task. Too often, the search for a simple solution begins with a flurry of finger-pointing. Parents blame teachers and administrators for not being more diligent in their prevention efforts. Teachers complain that administrators fail to act (or overreact) when they report cheating and parents focus more on grades than on learning. Administrators wring their hands over the political and financial restrictions they face, as pressure mounts to raise test scores and graduation rates. Students tend to blame each other... and everyone else.

Academic dishonesty is not a uniquely American problem, either. The search for answers is going on around the world, producing a wide variety of results.

In India, an attempt to identify a single cause of cheating put officials in an awkward position, prompting some furious backpedaling when someone noticed a passage in an approved textbook that seemed to blame cheating on eating meat. Unfortunately, it isn't that simple.

A cheating scandal prompted Ireland's Galway Mayo Institute of Technology to launch an introspective inquest that has turned into some very expensive institutional navel-gazing. After almost two years, the two-person committee -- an administrator and a lawyer - have spent nearly $300,000, but produced no results and no recommendations.

The reaction to an essay I wrote on this topic last summer for the Los Angeles Times made it clear to me that this issue resonates powerfully with people all around the world. I was asked to participate in a NPR talk show segment with people who have spent much of their careers conducting academic research on the topic.

The effort to combat cheating has moved away from just trying to stop a behavior, and towards changing the culture of learning on our campuses. Without making excuses for cheaters or absolving them from the consequences of their acts, researchers say, teachers, administrators, students, and parents must work together if a way to reduce the incidence of cheating at any given school is to be found. A lot of the work is already underway, and more needs to be done.

As part of the effort to reduce cheating at the high school where I currently teach math, we have joined the International Center for Academic Integrity (ICAI), as well as a local consortium of secondary and tertiary schools that are looking for answers to some of the same problems. I have seen how generative these meetings can be, as educators compare notes on what has and hasn't worked in their own schools, and I have learned that an open-ended conversation is an essential element of promoting integrity.

I encourage anyone with an interest in education -- students, parents, teachers, administrators, etc. -- to join in the conversation!