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Honor

Even after expending some 1300 words on it last week, I can’t seem to get this supposed “cheating epidemic” out of my head.

Last week, I wrote about two New York Times articles that addressed cheating beyond the ongoing scandal at Harvard. The first dealt with an alleged incident of mass cheating at New York City’s Stuyvesant High School, the second with a number of (unnamed) studies supposedly demonstrating that cheating is on the rise.

The tone of first Times article disturbed me. The emphasis was on whether or not students had been adequately punished, whether or not the punishment would be noted on their “permanent record,” and whether or not this might affect their college admissions prospects. Not once did the author raise the question of whether this school (or schools in general) might be failing their students by not teaching academic or personal integrity in a more holistic way.

Methinks they are. For instance, Stuyvesant interim principal Jie Zhang is quoted as saying (in a letter to the school community): “Such acts undermine the reputation of this school and hurt our students individually and collectively.” She also wrote of the possible need to create an honor code “as a public sign of our commitment to uphold academic integrity.”

These are all reasonable concerns in the wake of a cheating scandal—but they sort of miss the point. What about the fact that a substantial percentage of the school’s students apparently saw no problem with brazen cheating? Maybe said school should be less concerned with its external “reputation” (and how is that reputation defined? I wonder) and more concerned with whether or not they’re meeting their social obligation by preparing young people for responsible citizenship. Rather than worrying about a “public sign” of integrity, perhaps it should engage in some serious school-wide conversation about what integrity really means and why it is essential—not only in the classroom, but more importantly beyond it.

It’s unfair to assume that Ms. Zhang’s comments are indicative of her entire educational philosophy, and it’s certainly possible that she was quoted out of context. That said, I can’t help but feel as though her letter reflects a factory-model view of students as “products.” As if she’s reassuring shareholders that some recent criticism of the company’s business practices—however accurate—is not a truly representative portrayal. Nevermind the Third World sweatshop behind the curtain. Move along, folks—there’s nothing to see here!

Let’s remember, too, that these “products” weren’t yet “ready for the market.” They’re still in school and should be expected to continue learning, even if the school isn’t teaching the things they need. So instead of condemning them for jeopardizing the school’s reputation, it might be worth approaching this as a teachable moment: “OK, kids, you messed up. So let’s talk about why you did that, why it’s wrong, and what you’ve learned from this experience.”

Why do I get the sense that’s not really happening? Maybe because people—adults, I mean—are more concerned with “reputations” and “permanent records” and “college admissions.”

I wrote over the summer about David McCullough, Jr.’s commencement address in which he told students they weren’t “special.” I speculated in that post about whether or not McCullough was really speaking to the adults at the ceremony. I wondered whether or not those adults might be more to blame than students for the graduates feeling “special.” I wonder the same thing now.

At every conceivable level, our educational system has been built to reward product instead of process. On top of this, the need to sort our students has created an insatiable demand for data in the form of grades and test scores. If we don’t guard against this mentality (which I would argue pervades almost every school in America), we risk losing sight of the fundamental purpose of education, which is to help young people in their development toward engaged citizenship and a productive adulthood.

If we’re not careful, this “product-driven” mentality can lead us to lose sight of the human beings sitting in our classrooms. In the fog of the day-to-day, teachers may find themselves giving tests or assigning work because at the end of the grading period, someone (who, exactly?) expects to see “grades in the gradebook.” It’s like feeding a monster. The more you feed him, the hungrier he gets. (And I know it’s true because I was one of the teachers who thought this way. In fact, I still struggle with it.)

Education reformers should note, too, that the need to “feed the monster” also tends to discourage more innovative approaches to teaching. Consider this 1974 editorial from the Harvard Crimson (written in the wake of a previous cheating scandal):

It is disturbing that students were callow enough in their pursuit of grades to take advantage of the course’s innovative, low-pressure structure to get advance answers to its tests. It is disturbing that medical school admissions are so stringent and quantitative that pre-medical students–who made up almost all of Physics S-1–feel the need to cheat in order to raise their grades from A-s to As.

It will be especially disturbing if the administration takes the cheating incident as a sign that it should crack down on innovative instructional and teaching methods because they make it, as Dean Whitlock said last week, “easy and even tempting to cheat.” Paul G. Bamberg, associate professor of Physics and the instructor of Physics S-1, has been a pioneer in developing methods of self-paced teaching that are designed to emphasize individual learning rather than performance on final exams, an emphasis that pre-med courses at Harvard badly need.

Disturbing, indeed. As you can see, there’s a vicious cycle (or at least the potential for one) at work here:

  • Emphasis on product rather than process –>
  • Perceived need among students to take “shortcuts” in the name of perfection –>
  • Concern about preserving the school’s “reputation” –>
  • Less innovative (i.e., more “cheat-proof”) approaches to teaching –>
  • Emphasis on product rather than process –>

Unfortunately, I don’t know if process has ever been more important. Students carry encyclopedic knowledge around in their pockets these days. Facts matter less; analysis and synthesis matter more. But students must learn processes for sorting through the vast sea of information that they face on a daily basis. They must learn processes for thinking critically, for collaborating, for communicating, etc. In short, a “twenty-first century education” will be a process-driven education. But before we can get there, we have to throw off the shackles of “twentieth century” assessment practices and the mentality they reinforce.

If it’s true that we’re preparing our students to face challenges that don’t exist yet (and I suspect it is), the products that they produce in school won’t really matter much. After all, some of those products are likely to be obsolete in a few years anyway. What students will actually take with them when they leave us are the processes—above all, the processes for interacting with other humans, whether face to face or through verbal media, and with a wealth of information.

Healthy human interactions depend on integrity, and I might argue that in an increasingly connected world, interactions with information do as well. So if we’re going to teach process, why don’t we start there?

If you read the news, it seems as if there’s a cheating epidemic in our schools. Of course, the big headline grabber is the ongoing scandal at Harvard, where more than 100 students (and some graduates) are accused of academic dishonesty. Over the weekend, however, I also noticed two articles in the New York Times which would seem to confirm the plague.

The first article addresses a case at New York’s prestigious Stuyvesant High School that sounds eerily similar in some ways to the situation at Harvard. But it was the second article (“Studies Find More Students Cheating, With High Achievers No Exception”) that really got me thinking about cheating as a systemic issue. It cites recent studies showing that “a majority of students violate standards of academic integrity to some degree.” The article goes on to say that, according to researchers, “Cheating has become easier and more widely tolerated, and schools and parents have failed to give students strong, repetitive messages about what is allowed and what is tolerated.”

Harvard professor Howard Gardner, widely known among educators for his theory of multiple intelligences, is quoted as saying that students’ “ethical muscles have atrophied” over the last few decades. He sums up their supposed mindset as follows: “We want to famous and successful, we think our [classmates] are cutting corners, we’ll be damned if we’ll lose out to them, and some day, when we’ve made it, we’ll be role models. But until then, give us a pass.”

The cynic in me wonders whether the recent scandals might actually indicate the emergence of a heretofore undiscovered “intelligence.” After all, these students are in many ways simply navigating the environment into which they have been placed, and they are doing so along the path of least resistance. There’s a certain logic in that, is there not?

One of the other experts quoted in the article seems to understand this… sort of. Professor Donald L. McCabe of Rutgers University, who is listed as “a leading researcher on cheating,” posits that “students have become more competitive, under more pressure, and, as a result, tend to excuse more from themselves and other students.” He also charges that such behavior is “abetted by the adults around them.”

I think McCabe is basically right, but I suspect that the number of teachers who are guilty of such aiding and abetting is pretty small. On the other hand, I would argue that the number of teachers who drive their students to cheat is substantial. We hear increasing talk of “gamification” in education these days, as if that’s some cutting edge idea. I hate to break the “gamification” crowd, though: school was “gamified” a long time ago. The students who cheat, for better or worse, are simply playing the game.

While McCabe has some valid insights, his argument goes off the rails when he states flatly, “There have always been struggling students who cheat to survive. . . . But more and more, there are students at the top who cheat to thrive.” I don’t know what his teaching load at Rutgers looks like, but I’m afraid he seriously misunderstands today’s students.

Based on what I hear on a regular basis, many students have somehow been led to believe that mere “survival” is tantamount to failure. From their perspective, in an increasingly competitive college admissions game, if you’re not “thriving,” you’re dead. And for college students facing an increasingly competitive job market, if you’re not thriving at that level, you might reasonably expect to spend your twenties sleeping on the sofa in Mom and Dad’s basement. To a twenty-something, that’s social death. So really, to them, “cheating to thrive” is an attempt to survive. The terms of the game–what it takes to “win”–have simply shifted.

In our heavily tracked education system, kids as early as preschool are labeled as high achievers and set apart from the rest of their classmates. They’re told—sometimes in explicit ways, sometimes not—that they are the best and the brightest. The world is their oyster, but the future rests on their shoulders. Because we expect so much from these students in particular, they are burdened with increasingly unrealistic workloads and a sometimes inhumane schedule as they progress through the system. Not wanting to let their parents and teachers down—and not wanting to admit to themselves or their peers that perhaps they aren’t superhuman—they naturally begin to look for shortcuts.

Part of Gardner’s comment is especially telling: “we think our [classmates] are cutting corners, we’ll be damned if we’ll lose out to them.” Lose out to them? When did education become a zero-sum game? I’m not sure, but from the perspective of many students at least, it most definitely did, and “kids these days” are playing to win. Just like we taught them.

(Please allow me a slight digression here. Perhaps by cheating—especially en masse, as at Harvard and Stuyvesant—students are actually engaging in a subtle and perhaps subconscious form of protest against the system. By acting out a real-world game of Prisoner’s Dilemma, they change the game from one that is zero-sum to one that is cooperative. As anyone who has taken ECON101 knows, if both players in Prisoner’s Dilemma cheat, everybody wins! That’s collaboration, which we hail as one of the cornerstones of 21st century learning, even as we punish students for not “doing their own work.”)

In all seriousness, though, let me be clear here: I do not say any of this to excuse what these students may (or may not) have done. Cheating is wrong, and it cannot be condoned. To allow such actions to stand uncorrected weakens not only our academic standards, but the moral fiber of our very society. However, I do believe that when we face such widespread violations of the rules, we need to start asking some serious questions about the game being played. For instance:

  • Is it possible that these alleged incidents are not indicative of a moral failing on the part of America’s young people?
  • Is it possible that school, in its current form, might push students to cheat (and perhaps even reward them for it)?
  • Is it possible that adults—the teachers, the administrators, perhaps even the media types who cover this story—are primarily responsible for establishing the conditions under which cheating comes to be seen as “the path to victory?”

Although I have some thoughts on the matter (clearly), I’ll admit that I don’t know the answers to all of these questions. But I do think it’s a conversation worth having.