Cheating spreads everywhere, but in the end it gets you nowhere

When I first read about the cheating scandal at a high school in suburban Chicago, I thought the officials running Naperville School District 203 had lost their minds.


The school is test-piloting a “Bring Your Own Device” program for students, in which kids can bring their cell phones or other wireless devices – e-readers, laptops – into the classroom to supplement their learning.

Since you’re reading these sentences in the order I wrote them, you’ve guessed what happened.

Students in the school’s college-prep macroeconomics class found a way to beat the system during an exam. According to reports, one student would snap a photo of the test with his phone, then excuse himself to the bathroom, where he would send the photo to other students who hadn’t yet taken the test so they could research the precise answers they needed to pass with flying colors.

Administrators refused to comment to the media, but the school’s newspaper (yay, high-school journalism!) scooped the world by getting an interview with the principal, who explained what happened. The paper also quoted an instructor as saying the exposed cheating incident made the Bring Your Own Device program “look like the stupidest idea ever.”

Which is what I thought. At first.

Academic cheating probably has been around since pupils could palm cuneiform tablets to pass that big alchemy midterm. Technology makes cheating easier, or more tempting, or more devious.

At Dartmouth College in 2000, a visiting computer science professor left the answer to a problem on the class’ website and showed the Web address on an overhead projector. But since it was impossible to determine exactly which students logged onto which computers to cheat, 78 students were cleared of any charges.

Another Ivy League cheating scandal boiled over earlier this year at Harvard. More than 100 students of an Introduction to Congress class – about half the class – were implicated in a scheme in which students plagiarized material from study guides for a take-home final exam. To be fair, considering that the class dealt with Congress, you’d think stealing would be required as part of the syllabus.

Cheating scandals even hit the U.S. Naval Academy in 1994. In 2007, they hit Indiana University’s dentistry school, Duke University’s business school and football players at Florida State University. At California’s Diablo Valley College a few years ago, a cheating ring was discovered in which students apparently traded cash and even sexual favors for better grades.

Cheating is being rubbed into our culture like a stain increasingly impossible to remove. Continually we hear about students cheating on tests. Shifty spouses cheat on one another. Shady businesses cheat shareholders. Crooked politicians cheat constituents. Steroid-hungry athletes cheat against clean sportsmanship. Video games even tout “cheat codes” to play a game at an unfair advantage that you’re actually expected to enjoy.

And kids – adults, too, really – are soaking all of that in. The message: The honest and often hard road to success is for suckers. Or maybe you feel that you’ve worked hard enough, and you somehow deserve a little edge to improve your performance.

Why do people cheat? To get ahead? To look good? To dodge the fear of failure? Or because the cheater shrugs it off because he thinks everybody else is cheating?

It’s all those reasons, and you probably can think of a few more. And think about this: Cheating early in life sows seeds for cheating later in life. A Josephson Institute of Ethics character study issued in 2009 found that high-schoolers who cheat on tests are three times as likely to become workers who lie to customers, taxpayers who cheat on their returns and insurance-holders who cheat on their claims.

Cheating has to be fought like you would any epidemic.

They lost a battle in Naperville Ill. But in Fayette County, Ga., school officials are shooting for success.

Fayette schools, in southern suburban Atlanta, also are piloting a program that allows students to use wireless devices. Officials call their program Bring Your Own Technology. According to the school system’s website, the program “uses that personal technology the student is familiar with, provides it a safe location on a student virtual network, and allows its use for educational purposes.”

When it’s put like that, it makes more sense. Engage kids through the portals through which they view the world. If a kid is most comfortable hunched over her phone, you might as well pump some knowledge through to the kid’s screen while she’s there.

It’s being done at schools across the country. And it’s coming sooner or later to schools in the CSRA. Count on it. That wireless genie is out of the bottle.

The key – and this is where Naperville dropped the ball – lies in relentless supervision.

Students get to keep their electronics, but teachers and administrators still have to retain rigid control. Kids should be allowed to network solely by the school’s rules, accessing only school-sanctioned material. Any and all cheating shenanigans have to be anticipated and stomped out.

As I was writing this, I was reminded that it’s exam time for a lot of schools in the CSRA. Here’s hoping all pupils hit the books instead of hitting the “easy” button by cheating.

Cheating erodes the trust others have in you. It tears down your confidence. It stains your soul.

That’s not just advice for the students. That goes for the rest of us.



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