By Elizabeth Hemmerdinger

An editorial from the New York Times a few weeks ago, something that seemed so obvious to me as to require no further thought whatsoever, has in fact, caused me to dwell rather obsessively.

In “Digging Out Roots of Cheating in High School,” Maura J. Casey reports that cheating in schools has been rising at an alarming rate since the mid-1960s. In 1963 (the year I graduated from high school), 26 per cent of students copied answers from one another during tests. Citing a study done by Donald McCabe of Rutgers University, the editorial reports that by the mid-1990s, only a small percentage of students in high school said they never cheated on a test.

But there are many varieties of cheating, including plagiarism, collaboration on homework that is not permitted, copying homework, and turning in work as your own that was actually done by a paid tutor.

Casey’s editorial goes on to report that Dr. Jason Stephens of the University of Connecticut has embarked on a pilot program in six schools to reduce cheating, which, even to those who do it, experience as a “corrosive force.”   Students’ behavior is most influenced not by their parents, which surprises me,  but by the “bad soil” in schools. Students are pressured to get good grades and teachers are pressured to see their students achieve them, by any means. I suspect this could be at least partially attributed to the complications involved in No Child Left Behind. Is there hope for these kids?

I don’t know about you, but I’d have been thrown out of the school I attended if I’d been caught cheating. No cheating was a law; but it was also doctrine.

Teachers patrolled the classroom rows during a pop quiz and the finals. In ninth grade, my miserable (good teacher, miserable person) science teacher, Mrs. Hatcher, the most righteous person I had ever met, officiated over our biology final in the lunchroom. The one-armed, desky-chairs were spread out so far apart we were each a weird little island unto ourselves, or so I thought. I must have looked up at some point, and Mrs. Hatcher pounced on me. She grabbed me by the arm, dragged me to an even more isolated chair, and shoved me into it. Everybody looked up, slack-jawed and bug-eyed . I was crippled with shame, though I’d done absolutely nothing wrong. I couldn’t even have read my neighbor’s paper if I’d intended to, because wasn’t wearing my glasses and I was very nearsighted – just like Mrs. Hatcher!

I pulled myself together to finish the test, determined to prove to her that I knew the work. Still, I felt Mrs. Hatcher’s hot, ragged breaths on the back of my neck through the rest of the test – whether she was behind me, or two miles to the left, patrolling the next row.  And – I was one of the really, really good students in a class of twenty girls. Seriously good and seriously capable. I never dared tell my parents this story. They’re both gone now, and I expect they died more peacefully with what they considered my rectitude and reputation intact, so I guess it’s all right that I consign that grim memory to history today.

Now, says Casey, “Schools will be asked to consider an honor code,” to encourage honesty and integrity — not only as values, but also as good habits. And a 1993 study suggests that such codes work — that students cheat less in schools that support a culture of integrity (such as St. Agnes’ College, above). Schools that have, for simplicity’s sake, an honor code. Doesn’t this seem obvious – and intuitive – to you?

Another study cited by Casey  — paid for, presumably, with our tax dollars —“showed dishonest business behavior was lowest among employees who had attended schools with an honor code and whose workplaces encouraged ethical behavior.”

So here’s the “sweet spot” of the problem and my big question. How did we as a nation allow the concept of honor, integrity, honesty to drift off the radar screen in even a single school? When was the moment (okay decade) when Honor Code as a doctrine was no longer essential to educating our children? And what in the world did they do with it?  Is it stuffed in the back of some locker behind the sweaty socks and dirty sneakers?

Once upon a time, America had the world’s top high school graduation rate. In 2008, the New York Times noted in an editorial last week, we’ve fallen to 13th place, behind countries like South Korea, the Czech Republic and Slovenia. “Worse still, a new study from the Education Trust, a non-partisan foundation, finds that this is the only country in the industrial world where young people are less likely than their parents to graduate from high school.”

And it’s not just this year, or last. Ten years ago, the results of an international exam in math and science for high school students were deeply disappointing. The Washington Post reported at the time:  “Even the scores of academically elite American students – those who take either physics or advanced math courses in high school – were a disappointment. They also finished below the international average and lagged behind many other nations on the latest test.”

At the time, Education Secretary Richard W. Riley pronounced the American scores “unacceptable.” President Clinton said, “There is something wrong with the system… I do not believe these kids cannot learn. I am tired of seeing children patronized because they happen to be poor or from different cultural backgrounds than the majority…” In the intervening ten years, do you think we’ve made any improvements?

Until now, has no one seen a correlation between an honor code as doctrine in schools and academic excellence?

What in the world do our children spend all day in school doing? The arts and sports were cut from curricula in financially pressured districts, so that our children don’t learn to appreciate the world around them or the rules of fair play. They don’t even learn how to play games that generate social skills; they never learn how to line up and wait their turn.

But how much does it cost to teach our students to be honorable citizens? How much has it cost us NOT to teach these skills to our students? And isn’t this a value most worthy of our resources?

We’re going to line up tomorrow to vote for change. I sure hope the winner in the presidential election dedicates himself to rejuvenating our education system. I sure hope that we make it our business to see that he rehabilitates honor — both as a doctrine and as a fundamental component of being a citizen of the United States of America.

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