Friday, August 11, 2006

Cheating? Not me, honest!

Ms. Cornelius made me aware of an excellent post on cheating by Scott Elliott. There is no more important issue within the schools than this one. And on this one I think I'd have to agree with the critics of public education--we're not doing a very good job. But once again, we're not getting very much help from parents and the rest of society.

I hate everything about cheating. I hate suspecting that some students might be cheating, I hate thinking students have gotten away with it, and I even hate catching them. Confronting someone I've caught cheating is the most miserable thing I have to do in my role as a teacher. It amounts to saying, "You are a liar," and more often than not, the student to whom I'm saying this is someone with whom I've had a pretty good relationship up to that time.

I know that in many cases, as soon as I tell students that I've determined that they've been cheating, it's time to let the lying begin. Some kids will lie regardless of how incontrovertible the evidence (like the student in Scott's post), and then I have to go into my ace detective role, which is not a role I enjoy. Students who cheat, however, are not hardened criminals, so their stories usually fall apart rapidly. Here is an example from an interview conducted by our principal and me with a student who, after being accused of exchanging answers with another student on a number of quizzes, protested his innocence.

Principal: If you weren't cheating, how did you end up with the same answers on all the questions, and the exact same mistake on this question?

Student: I don't know.

Principal: Did he (the student's friend) give you a little help on this question?

Student: Well, actually on that one, I think I helped him.

Principal: So, in other words, you do communicate with him during quizzes.

Student: Well, he gives me hints once in a while.

Fermoyle: How did he know what questions you needed "hints" for?

Student: Well, I have a tendency to read the questions out loud.

In most cases, it's possible to get the student to own up to the cheating or simply drop the claim of innocence without too much trouble, but sometimes it isn't that easy. The worst situations occur when the student goes home and lies to the parent about the incident. When this happens, it becomes much more difficult to get an admission because the student doesn't want to admit to his parent that he lied. This can get very ugly when the parent is one of those who believes her role in dealing with the school is to be an advocate for her child. In this case, once again, it doesn't matter how incontrovertible the evidence is because, as so many parents claim, "My son wouldn't lie to me!"

Every time I confront a student with cheating, I am scared to death that I'm making a mistake. Even when the evidence seems crystal clear, I’m afraid I’m missing something. Maybe I’m ignorant of some set of circumstances or I'm misinterpreting what happened. Maybe I'm accusing someone who hasn't done anything wrong! This fear causes me to avoid making an accusation unless I'm dead sure about it, but even then, I still worry, and this just adds to the misery of dealing with cheating.

I said earlier that many of the students I accuse of cheating are students with whom I've had good relationships, and that is because cheating is definitely an equal opportunity character flaw. Males are just as likely to cheat as females, whites just as likely as minorities, athletes just as likely as non-athletes, and A and B students every bit as likely as C, D and F students.

As much as I hate cheating, I know that many of those who do it are not really bad people. Not every student cheats, but a lot of them do, and it is definitely part of student culture. Since I began teaching sociology a few years ago as an elective course offered to juniors and seniors, I've had open discussions in the class about cheating.

Students, in general, do not think cheating is terribly wrong. Let's face it, there's a lot going on in our society to lead kids to believe that dishonesty of any kind is not a big deal. Anyone watching TV for any amount of time is besieged by commercials that, though not out and out lies, certainly twist the truth. Truth-twisting has been turned into an art form by politicians and their handlers in political campaigns and advertising. It's not unusual to see someone who is running for or holding public office doing his best to explain why a lie he told is really not a lie at all. Democrats and Republicans are equally shameless when it comes to this, but the ultimate example has to be President Clinton's handling of his Monica Lewinsky mess, and just about all of the students that I've had in class the last few years remember that fiasco.

One of the most talked about events that has taken place on TV in the last ten years was the 2004 Super Bowl half-time show, during which pop star Janet Jackson bared her breast, revealing an interesting piece of artwork on her nipple. The first explanation we heard for that display was that it was a "wardrobe malfunction." Explanations of that explanation followed. Another hot topic has been the steroid investigation in baseball. Some of the athletes who are subjects of this looked like normal baseball players early in their careers, but suddenly became Arnold Schwarzenegger look-alikes. Their typical reaction to any accusations could best be summed up with, "What, me? Steroids? How could you think that?"

So students see ample evidence that cheating and lying are simply ways to get ahead in life, and if caught, the way to handle the situation is to lie some more. And while many students don't think cheating is a terrible thing to do, they do think that turning in a cheater is. They justify this by saying, "everybody cheats," or "it's none of their business," or that all-time popular favorite, "they're only hurting themselves when they cheat."

I know that this last line is one that young people hear frequently from adults, but I also know it's not true. Students who cheat do hurt others. Most obviously, it may allow the cheater to move ahead of other students in class rank, which is viewed as a crucial factor by most colleges in the admissions process. On a more basic level, if one student has worked hard studying for a test or writing a long paper, and another student who hasn't done the work cheats and gets a better grade, that's going to hurt the morale of the one who put in the effort.

Cheating also hurts everyone because it breaks down trust. I don't know how many times a student or students have done well on a test or some other assignment in my class, and instead of just feeling good about it, I’ve had lingering doubts in my mind. Why did they do so well? Did they study harder than usual? Did I do a good job teaching it? Or did they cheat? I hate having to think that, but I know from experience that I'm a fool if I don't. More than once I've found out that students for whom I had the utmost respect -- students who I thought were completely honest and would never cheat -- had, in fact, cheated on a test or an important assignment. This would have shocked me early in my career, but now that I am older I am only mildly surprised.

There are times when a student cannot cheat by himself; he needs help, someone to feed him the answers on a quiz or a test, or to give him a completed assignment to copy. There are students with enough character to tell the cheater to “buzz off” and do his own work, but a determined cheater can always find a willing helper. When this happens, I’m not sure who makes me angrier. I’ve always thought of cheating as parasitic, but I view helping cheaters as being somewhat like prostitution. The person who helps others cheat has something that no one else has a right to, and it shouldn’t be given away, namely, the work that has been done, or the knowledge gained from studying. A prostitute sells her or his body for money, and the student who helps cheaters sells what he has for friendship.

This sounds harsh because I really care about the learning that takes place in my classroom and, whether they know it or not, students who cheat, along with their helpers, take a wrecking ball to what I am trying to build when I teach. The foundation of all of my classes is student effort. There will be some students who are interested in the subject matter from the first day they walk into my class, but I don’t want them to be the only ones who do well and enjoy it. I try to hook the average students by making it clear that, if they make a good effort, they can also earn good grades. In trying to earn those good grades, students will learn something. My hope is that, as they learn and gain success, they’ll become interested in the subject and they'll be motivated to learn even more. Students who cheat and get away with it destroy that foundation. They may get the good grade, but they haven't done the work for it, and they haven't learned a thing -- at least nothing that I wanted them to learn. Their interest in the subject doesn't improve one bit, and they have no incentive to work harder. And when someone gets away with cheating, a lot of other students are going to be tempted to go the same route, especially if the cheater gets a better grade than the kids who were honest.

I know that I shouldn't, but I can't help taking cheating personally. I value my relationship with students, and there is nothing worse for any relationship than dishonesty. When students cheat, they are lying to me. They are telling me they did work that they never did, that they learned something they never learned, that they deserve a grade that they have no business getting. They are trying to pull the wool over my eyes and, in effect, I feel they are trying to make a fool out of me.

I think it's obvious from the amount of cheating that goes on in schools that the consequences of getting caught often aren't harsh enough. A zero on one quiz or one assignment or one test isn't that big a deal to a student if she has gotten away with cheating on enough other things. An obvious solution is for the penalty to be an F for the entire marking period or semester. I had that as a policy when I first came to Warroad, but the reaction from parents was so hostile that I was forced to back off. We had an excellent young teacher come to Warroad a couple years ago who followed that policy as well, and he was praised for his courage, at least as long as the kids who were getting caught were those C or D students who didn't seem to have the greatest attitudes anyway. When a couple of nice A and B students with concerned parents got nailed, however, a lot of the solid support he had enjoyed suddenly turned to Jell-O. Cheating is one of the biggest problems in our high schools today, and until teachers, administrators, honest students, and parents get serious about it, it will continue to be.


Anonymous MellowOut said...

It's even worse at the university level, in my opinion. Now that helicopter parents are following their children into the post-secondary arena, the universities are toning down their own punishments for such offences, thanks to the student-is-primarily-customer mentality that's being practiced by universities. Before they would just kick them out of class with an "F" at the first offense.

8/11/2006 10:13 AM  
Blogger NYC Educator said...

Cheating is as American as apple-pie nowadays. As someone who originally believed that Sadaam had WMDs, and that there were Iraqi ties to Al Queda, I wonder who Americans are looking up to nowadays.

People just accept this nonsense as part of life. I agree with you, and I certainly don't want my kid growing up with this ethics-shmethics mentality.

The most interesting case of cheating in the last few years was that of the KC teachder who caught a bunch of kids, had the school board change the rules for them, and resigned out of principle (as did her principal, no pun intended).

I wonder what happened to her.

8/11/2006 5:15 PM  
Blogger elementaryhistoryteacher said...

Cheating occurs fairly often at the elementary level as well. By the time they get to me group work is so instilled in them they don't know how to do anything on their own. They see nothing wrong with looking on another person's test even when they are told it is cheating.

Over the last few days there has been a big bru-ha-ha over an entire class of police cadets who were dismissed in Cobb County, Ga. because they were caught cheating on a test. Their one told them they couldn't. I believe there is more to the story since they were taking an exam in a room with no supervision, however, cheating has become norm in all areas of our society.

8/11/2006 6:22 PM  
Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

Thank you Mellowout, NYC, & EHT for your comments. On ESPN there's been a lot of discussion about the use of things like steroids and human growth hormone. The typical comment by their analysts are that they don't condone it, but because of the money involved and the competitiveness of the players, they understand it. I think our "understanding" and our glorification of people who will do anything--ethical or unethical--to win is horrible for our society. It will be interesting to see how quickly Mark McGuire gets into the Hall of Fame.

The thing with Landis and the Tour de France is also interesting. They seem to have him cold, but his protestations of innocence seem so sincere that you wonder if there could have been a mistake. I know I've felt that way a lot of times with students that I've nailed for cheating. It seems like our society is raising better and better liars.

8/12/2006 3:41 AM  
Blogger Deb S. said...

I definitely find increased incidences of cheating disburbing. However, I do think it is reflective of the society that we live in today. What I find even more disburbing are those parents who defend their children.

We could have entirely separate conversations on business ethics and the incidents on cheating/bad behavior in sports. There is a reason I believe strongly in character education in the schools.

If we want to know why so many of our kids are cheating, all we (the "royal" we) have to do is look into the mirror.

8/12/2006 9:14 AM  
Blogger EdWonk said...

You're from War Road? I remember passing though on our way south from Angle Inlet.

Small world!

8/15/2006 6:39 PM  
Anonymous Robert said...

"There is a reason I believe strongly in character education in the schools."

Deb, the best "character education" schools can impart to students is to have a clear idea of one's priorities -- such as "academic excellence" and "integrity" -- and rigorously stick to those priorities. If schools (K-12 as well as universities) would consciously commit, come what may, to the highest levels of excellence and integrity in academics and then vigorously enforce policies aimed at preserving them, then students would get the picture. The problem arises when schools and their employees either fail to commit to those standards in the first place or else start twisting in the wind the moment some parent gets upset that their kid might be accused of cheating.

Instituting a sort of concocted, out-of-context "character education" is not going to work if character is not deeply part of the institution itself; and if it is, then a "character education" curriculum is entirely unnecessary.

At my college, students get a "0" on the assignment and a deduction of a letter grade for the semester on the first academic dishonesty offense, and expulsion on the second offense. And our administration has been rock-solid in enforcing these. We still have an epidemic of cheating and plagiarism going on, but I believe students are at least aware that the college holds certain ideals and does not start equivocating when push comes to shove.

8/16/2006 3:32 AM  

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