Promoting an Ethical School Culture

An academic-integrity expert talks about what went wrong in Atlanta and how schools can reduce cheating.


As Atlanta and other school districts across the U.S. deal with the aftermath of cheating scandals, many school officials are looking for ways to clean things up.

State standardized tests in many areas of the country are surfacing with a higher-than-normal amount of erasures, suggesting teachers altered answers after students had turned in the exams.

Jason Stephens and David Wangaard, executive director of the nonprofit School for Ethical Education, created a toolkit for administrators to help create a culture where cheating—by both students and teachers—isn't tolerated. I talked to Wangaard about his book, Creating a Culture of Academic Integrity, and what Atlanta can do to clean up its reputation.

His book is focused on preventing students from cheating on assignments and tests. According to a survey conducted by Wangaard, 95 percent of students at four New England-area high schools admitted to cheating in the past year.

[Learn why cheating students are likely to overestimate their intelligence.]

Wangaard says the first step schools should take is to implement an ethics committee that will devise a code of morals for the school. "It should be a standing committee that never goes away," he says. "We're not looking at how to police cheating more effectively. The main goal is to highlight and promote a life of academic rigor, integrity, and values that promote learning."

Still, Wangaard is realistic. "This problem will never be fixed completely," he says.

Do you think what's happened in Atlanta will change anything? Will cheating in schools become more of a focus?

Not any more than a crisis on Wall Street changes things for a short period of time. The education system is bigger and more diverse, and there isn't a [Security and Exchange Commission] for education. There's no real template of measurement [to track cheating], the federal government doesn't have a standardized measure, and education is pushed by what gets measured. People don't see it as a big issue.

Why not?

This is a cultural issue. We're not looking at immoral kids; this is part of the culture. The Atlanta incident and other incidents are reflecting the broader culture.

How can schools change the culture in their institutions?

This is a leadership issue, [and] it can't be done just top-down without getting everybody to buy in. First, schools need a vision to fix it; they have to put it in their mission statement. [Student] cheating is so low on the radar at public schools; there's so many other pressures that not a lot of energy is being put into it. We did a survey—close to 50 percent of responding administrators said that they just need to study the whole topic, [that] they didn't know enough about it.

Is it easier to cheat and plagiarize now because of the Internet? Or do anti-cheating sites like make it tougher?

There isn't clear literature that's proven it either way. It's obviously so much easier to do a lot of cut and pasting.

[Learn about the sites plagiarists turn to.]

Should teachers try to catch their students cheating?

Traditionally, English teachers are the most overworked people. They're up grading papers at 11 p.m. Unless they're using Turnitin or something like it, it's a lot to ask to have English teachers stop to copy and paste text into Google.

In Atlanta, no teachers seemed willing to speak up. Why is that?

You'd see identical things if you asked teachers as we see with kids. They say, 'If I nark on this problem, it would be social suicide.' They feel this pressure, but they also understand the great courage it would take to resist the current culture.

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