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Short cuts won't stop cheating

Two Views • It's not just students who take the easy way out on cheating - schools aren't off the hook, either
by: JAIME VALDEZ Nico Banks and Alex Bloch, sophomores in David Bailey's journalism class at Lincoln, say many students don't know what constitutes cheating anymore.

There's been conversation around Portland's educational community these past few weeks regarding the issue of student cheating in schools. Sparked by Jennifer Anderson's article 'Cheating is easy as A-B-C' (Feb. 24), readers have been left digesting some very troubling data pertaining to the levels of student cheating that can currently be found not just in Portland schools, but in schools around the country.

Reversing this trend will require difficult and uncomfortable conversations in school communities around the country - difficult not only because it requires schools to admit that they have a problem that needs to be addressed immediately, but also because it may reveal that cheating is a symptom of a larger problem. And it's a larger problem that could prove to be very difficult to correct.

Anderson's article focused on this point: 'Walk into high school nowadays - in Portland or elsewhere - and you may be surprised to find just how rampant cheating has become. And how blasé students are about the phenomenon.' Citing a variety of national surveys, Anderson states that anywhere from 59 percent to 80 percent of American high school students have engaged in some form of cheating. Locally, a recent survey at Lincoln High School has revealed that 80 percent of their students have engaged in some sort of academic dishonesty.

The question at the heart of the matter is this: Why do students cheat? Anderson's analysis focuses strongly on the very real presence of academic pressure in high school. That is, many students realize that the difference between an A and a B in a few classes may have a very real, very far-reaching effect. College choices are in play, as is potential scholarship money. The temptation for some students may be too much to ignore.

To make the temptation even stronger for the modern American teen, consider how current technology makes cheating so easy. Incidents of plagiarism have gone through the roof since the inception of the Internet and word processors. Additionally, consider the effect that the ubiquitous cell phone (equipped with camera and texting capability) now has on cheating.

Personally, I think the root cause of the problem goes way beyond academic pressure or available technology. I can see how academic pressure might be a powerful factor in the lives of students who have a strong desire to pursue a post-secondary education, but not every student has that ambition or goal. I've worked in high schools where relatively large portions of the student body did not traditionally go to college, yet I knew that cheating went on in those schools. If getting to the top of the class rankings wasn't a goal for many students, why were they cheating?

My not-so-revolutionary theory is that, for many students, education has no real meaning to them. Many are simply going through the motions because they are not connected to what they are learning, and cannot see how it connects to their immediate world. They were not (and many still aren't) invested in or in any other way connected to their own education.

For many students, school represents a series of hurdles or hoops that one must get over or through before they can get on with their life. In short, for many students the final destination is more important than what happens along the way. As a result, some students might consider speeding up a meaningless process by cutting a few corners.

Consider the tasks that we as adults must complete but abhor doing: tax preparation, house cleaning, paying bills, etc. In each of those examples, modern conveniences provide us shortcuts to speed up those chores. Many students approach their schooling in the same way.

While we could spend hours discussing the strategies schools are employing in order to reduce cheating (and believe me, the anti-cheating industry is truly beginning to hum), I believe the dialogue around cheating should be focused on bigger picture questions, like: 'What's so wrong with the American education system that so many students feel a need to shortcut their way through it?' Or, more productively, 'What adjustments and reforms can be made to America's education system so that students are so engaged in their learning that cheating would seem abhorrent to them?'

Until school communities begin to ask the right questions, many will continue to chase symptoms with canned remedies. I suggest we dig deeper, much deeper, and figure out why so many students are so disconnected from their own education.

Eric Bergmann is principal of daVinci Arts Middle School in Northeast Portland.