Students aren't learning that cheaters never prosper



    9:23 PM EDT, May 29, 2009

    Roberta Gerold is superintendent of Middle Country Schools and David J. Steinberg is the president of Long Island University.

    As high school students across Long Island and beyond sit down to take the year's final exams, it's time to make an acknowledgment: Cheating is an open secret in America's high schools and colleges. According to Josephson Institute of Los Angeles, which surveyed 30,000 high school students, 64 percent admitted cheating on a test in the previous year.

    Too many students do not even see this as ethically wrong. And rather than assume some responsibility, college faculty tend to blame high school teachers, who blame the middle school instructors, who accuse the grade-school staff, who censure the preschool folks for failing to inculcate the necessary values.

    The rest of us shake our heads and bemoan the decline of civilization. Yet tacitly, maybe overtly, too many adults model for our children that cheating works. The superstar status of Alex Rodriguez, Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens is just one example. Then there are millions - at least one of them a member of President Barack Obama's Cabinet - who "push the envelope" on their income tax filings. Among the less rich and famous, many golfers fail to keep a good count of how many strokes they have taken.

    We know that cheating - plagiarism, fabrication, collusion, forgery, inappropriate possession and fraud in school examinations - often leads to chiseling in adulthood, chipping away at the foundation of our civil society. How do we stop this? First, we, the educators, need to admit that cheating is a kind of academic Ponzi scheme, with false grade built upon false grade, with promotion uncoupled from academic progress.

    Our educational system has become complicit, often tolerating academic dishonesty and suggesting to the nation's future citizens that success does trump ethics. Parents who do their child's homework - and there's a fairly long tradition of that - are central contributors to the problem. It's easy to see how a system obsessed with measuring the performance of students, teachers and administrators solely by test scores has fallen into this trap. Student results on New York State assessments, for example, are publicized, with "low performing" designations assigned to schools where test results are poor. Why not, some teachers think, provide students with a little more time, with focused "cues" that lead to the right answers?

    So how does our society protect academic integrity? A group of Long Island superintendents and local college presidents has devoted two years to examining this issue. In all, 19 college presidents in Nassau, Suffolk and Queens and 126 superintendents of Nassau and Suffolk school districts signed the resultant findings. The working group met with administrators, teachers, parents, high school students and librarians to debate the subject and to look at how the educational system, from preschool through graduate school, can better defend academic integrity to promote "the highest ethical standards appropriate to the students' age and grade level."

    Our group has viewed as bedrock the premise that any efforts must be locally based, must be sustained  over the entire educational experience, and must be a joint effort of family and teachers. Teachers and professors must again become the guardians of intellectual and academic integrity, as well as a conduit for knowledge. Both have a unique obligation to inculcate from pre-kindergarten through graduate school those values of intellectual integrity, because they have direct dealing with the young for at least 16 formative years.

    From the youngest age, students must be taught that their own work must be distinct from ideas "borrowed" from others and, importantly, that their own ideas and work have value. The little ones often openly say that "Mommy did the homework." These very young students need to understand that others cannot do their work for them and that copying without acknowledging is unacceptable. That way, 15 years later, they will understand that buying a term paper violates a code of academic ethics.

    As college students, these young men and women have to embrace a set of standards of academic conduct, in reality an "ethos" designed to "foster the highest ideals of academic integrity." When a student cheats, he or she has to understand that it is the community itself that is harmed also.

    Students often and unapologetically purchase works off the Internet. Selling such papers has become a big industry, attracting national attention. There are many software programs - for example or - used by faculty to try to find the cheaters. But the game of cat-and-mouse between teacher/professor and student usually ends simply with a failed grade - even if the student is caught plagiarizing - because the process to determine whether cheating actually occurred seems to faculty to be too complicated and dangerous to use. High school students can only be suspended for short periods of time and must be provided home learning. But few college students, even at schools like Annapolis or Princeton that maintain rigorous honor codes, are ever suspended as punishment. Missing tests and assignments under false pretense and citing sources in research papers that were not actually consulted are all too common.

    At the high school level, parents routinely hire attorneys to protect their children's reputations, however blatant an incident may be or clear the evidence. At most colleges, the judicial codes have become overly complex, quasi-legal documents that define the nature of evidence, due process, and the rights and limits of the parties.

    Students believe they can scam the system - and right now, they can. Punishing only those students who are caught minimizes the ethical issue and absolves the teachers or faculty from the task of protecting academic integrity. Students need to believe not only that they can do the work but also that they will be appropriately rewarded for authentic achievement. One proposal that emerged from our research is to celebrate academic honesty, perhaps providing "integrity credentials" equivalent to advanced standing, to help high school graduates win admission into universities.

    Our working group concluded that all educators have an ethical and moral obligation to "assure that students understand the concepts of ownership of work and intellectual property and are able to draw clear distinctions between their own work, the work of others and that of a group."

    Every teacher at every level must intervene as well as instruct. Together, we must strive to ensure that fraud does not win out. The success of our nation mandates not only higher test scores as a global competitive matter, but a reaffirmation of the values out of which democracy thrives.