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Public Education Permeated By a Cheating Culture

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By Linda Dobson

Teaching Class

From students to teachers to entire school systems, widespread cheating to make one's self look good is rampant.

Everybody’s doing it, or so it seems when report after report stack up in the news.

On August 6, 2010, Parent at the Helm reported on “Atlanta Suspects 109 Teachers of Testing Cheating.” (We subsequently learned that the city spent $100,000 of taxpayers’ money to investigate.)

Indiana and Texas have public problems with inflated high school graduation rates, turning into “push outs” those students who might tarnish the percentage of graduates and thus make the schools look worse. This practice of  “lowering the reported drop out rate” is rampant across the U.S. – just ask anyone who volunteers to take phone calls for homeschool support groups across the country. The tales of frantic parents saying the local school told them to homeschool – when they have no desire or wherewithal to do so – are sad and frightening. This report in Reason magazine is from 2005.

So when the school systems are doing it, and the teachers are doing, it’s not surprising to discover the kids have picked up on the cheating culture that permeates public education as evidenced in recent writing. Psychology Today’s Peter Gray had so much to say on the topic it took two parts: “Cheating in Science, Part I: The Tragic Story of a Young Man’s Suicide” and “Cheating in Science, Part II: School Is a Breeding Ground for Cheaters.” (This, of course, doesn’t even address the issues of false scientific study on mankind, even though it might help explain why one week eggs are bad for us and, the next, good for us.)

To whet your whistle:

A high-school student whom I was once trying to help with math homework summed it up nicely to me. After a few minutes of pretending politely to listen to my explanation of why a certain way of solving certain equations worked and another did not, she exclaimed: “I appreciate what you are trying to do, but I don’t need or want to know why the method works! All I need to know is how to follow the steps that the teacher wants and get the answers that she wants.” This was an A student.

Students recognize that it would be impossible to delve deeply into their school subjects, even if they wanted to. Time does not permit it. They must follow the schedule set by the school curriculum. Moreover, many of them have become convinced that they must also engage in a certain number of formal extracurricular activities, to prove that they are the “well rounded” individuals that top colleges are seeking. Anyone who really allowed himself or herself to pursue a love of one subject would fail all the others. To succeed, students must acquire just the limited information and shallow understanding that is needed to perform well on the tests; anything beyond that is wasted time. All of the top students learn that lesson.

In many cases the rules about what is and isn’t cheating in school are arbitrary and have nothing to do with learning. If you create a summary sheet of the terms and facts relevant to a test and then consult that sheet while taking the test, you have cheated. However, if you create such a sheet and commit it to a form of short-term memory that lasts just long enough for the test and then vanishes, you have not cheated. If you create a term paper by copying out large chunks of other people’s writing and pasting them together, that is cheating; but if you do essentially the same thing and then paraphrase sufficiently rather than use the copied paragraphs exactly, that is not cheating.

Students understand that the rules distinguishing cheating from not cheating in school are like the rules of a game. But in this case it’s a game that they did not choose to play. They are forced to go to school, forced to do the assignments, forced to take the tests. They have little or no say in what they study, how they are tested, or the rules concerning what is or isn’t cheating. Under these conditions, it’s hard to respect the rules.

Another report from in Durham, NC. reveals:

Noah Pickus, director of Duke’s Kenan Institute for Ethics, said cheating is widespread and there are some indications that the number of students cheating is on the rise in recent years.

Seventy percent of students admitted to cheating on exams, according to a study conducted by the Center for Academic Integrity in May 2001. The group surveyed 1,800 students from nine state universities across the country.

Eighty-four percent said they cheated on written assignments, the study found. Fifty-two percent said they copied sentences from a website without giving the source.

Interesting, isn’t it, that at the same time the cheating culture becomes apparent, we also learn that when it comes to college applications, we’re suffering from “Application Inflation: When Is Enough Enough?” The New York Times clues us in on colleges’ race “to look good” by turning down record numbers of applicants.

As Caroline M. Hoxby noted in a 2009 paper published by the National Bureau of Economic Research, admissions rates fall even when students apply who don’t have a shot. Moreover, while increasing selectivity suggests better students than in years past, in truth the most competitive applicants couldn’t get more amazing if they levitated. The number of such all-stars isn’t multiplying, either. Instead, they are jumping into more applicant pools, which Ms. Hoxby, a Stanford economist, describes as the nationwide “re-sorting” of students as more attend college far from home.

So it behooves colleges to cast wide nets. Most colleges start by buying the names of students whose standardized test scores and grade-point averages fall within a particular range. In the early 1990s, the College Board sold 35 million names a year; now it sells 80 million to about 1,200 colleges, at 32 cents a name. More colleges are buying names of sophomores to jump-start interest.

From students to teachers to entire school systems, widespread cheating to make one’s self look good is rampant. What are the implications for a society when this is the culture in which children grow? More importantly, what are the implications for your child personally?

There is only one way to provide your child with an environment that reflects more positive cultural experiences, and that is by taking the responsibility of his education into your own hands, freeing him from the pressures of comparison, grades, statistics, and performance-for-reward. In this way, cheating isn’t necessary or desired. Not only will your child be healthier, he will be happier with his life and self at the same time.


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2 Responses to “Public Education Permeated By a Cheating Culture”

  1. Vash the Stampede says:

    As a product of public schools I find your last paragraph ridiculous. The majority of people can't afford to home school their children so are they just SOL? (pun intended)

  2. Hi, Vash the Stampede,

    Many, if not most, homeschooling families need to make priority changes in order to be able to afford to homeschool, including doing without things that are important when education isn't on top of the family's priority list. While homeschooling isn't feasible for some for many reasons, it is feasible for many more than who practice it. It certainly isn't a majority who need to feel SOL…it's about priorities.

    Thank you for writing,


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