America's Cheating Problem, from Public Schools to Obama


“64 percent of all students engage in one of three of the most serious cheating behaviors — copying from another student's work, using cheat notes or helping someone else cheat.”  

I wonder how many people find the above statistic the least bit surprising. More importantly, I’m curious as to how it has come to this? Why do students cheat in such large numbers?  

I would guess that a substantial portion of these cheaters use “pre-conventional” thinking skills. According to Kohlberg’s Moral Stages of Development, cheaters see morality as something external to themselves, as something that people say they must do  -so when they break the rules, it is with the intention of not getting caught.  What is right to them is what meets their own interests. They haven’t internalized the values of the family or community. When they follow the law, it is only because they don’t want to get into trouble. Their behaviors as members of our society depend on external controls.   

The question then becomes, why aren’t more of our students operating at a “conventional” thinking level or higher? Conventional thinkers understand that if they do not follow rules made for the good of society that the whole social order could break down. As members of the society, they follow the rules set down by society –regardless of whether or not they agree or fully understand why. ibid

“Post-conventional” thinkers can fully grasp why a particular rule helps society as a whole. Would you want a doctor who cheated his way through medical school treating you? Would you want a lawyer representing you who cheated his way through law school? For that matter, would you want to eat at a restaurant that is not up to code?  Why bother going to school if not to challenge yourself and learn new ideas?  Furthermore, they question whether laws make sense or fit into their larger idea of basic rights, which laws are ultimately supposed to protect.  ibid

If we can speculate what level of thinking is being used by a person who breaks the rules, we can better understand how to address the situation, how to communicate on their level why this is a problem and why it cannot be allowed to happen.  

One way colleges have begun to address this problem is by implementing honor codes and fostering a culture of academic integrity. Schools in which students are guided by a moral code are successful because they take the time to explain to students why academic integrity is so important. They put into place measures to encourage a moral code. They reinforce the moral code.  

For conventional thinkers, it is important that schools “clearly communicate expectations (e.g., regarding behavior that constitutes appropriate conduct and behavior that constitutes cheating), establish and communicate cheating policies and encourage students to abide by those policies, and consider establishing a classroom honor code—one that places appropriate responsibilities and obligations on the student, not just the faculty member, to prevent cheating.”

For pre-conventional thinkers, more drastic solutions need to be implemented.  For some schools, this has meant using outside providers to help determine whether plagiarism is taking place. Unfortunately, one such provider, Turnitin, “is being challenged in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit for allegedly appropriating the copyrighted work of students without permission or compensation.”

It’s very hard for schools to address pre-conventional thinkers at their level of moral behavior when the law –written at a “conventional or post-conventional” level, is used to undermine the process.  

“In A.V. et al. v. iParadigms, LLC, four students charge that Turnitin violates their constitutional right to copyright. When the school requires students to submit papers to Turnitin—and does not allow students to opt out—the company gains literally millions of pieces of work without permission or compensation. The company claims that students consent by clicking a button agreeing to give the company rights to papers. But if students cannot opt out, that consent is no choice. Even if students could opt out, they would make themselves look suspect.”Ibid

It’s silly to employ such precedent in this particular case. Clearly, the company does not intend to use the intellectual property of a student to make money or distribute as their own work.   

Looking at this from a broader perspective, should the integrity of a school be compromised, then graduates of that school will not receive the same respect.  Countless examples abound. Businesses no longer trust that a high school or college diploma guarantees that a potential employee can communicate, compute, or think abstractly. The recent scandal at Duke has left a bad taste in many mouths; graduates of Duke might find themselves under more scrutiny than usual. (No fairy tale ending for Duke scandal) Schools must be able to protect the integrity of learning at their institutions so that their diplomas are meaningful.    

When schools do not foster academic integrity, they fail in graduating students with the dispositions necessary to being productive members of society. I don’t suppose to know all the answers but I can speak to some of the problems. Cooperative learning loses its value when there are no protocols to ensure that all students contribute to assigned tasks. Homework must be meaningful. Students need to understand how an assignment fits into the overall goals or objectives for a course.  

Students should be graded on what they ultimately learn. Teachers could honestly help their students performances go up by only counting homework that is done well toward their GPA. Remember, homework is supposed to help a student master the material along the way. Incomplete or rushed homework shouldn’t deduct from a grade but at the end of the course, those who have accumulated points for meeting or exceeding expectations on assigned tasks should be rewarded by having it count as credit toward their final exam. When homework is mapped to the objectives, it is easy to measure which objectives have been met. A good performance on a final also shows mastery.  For those who do not test well, homework becomes essential if it can count toward the objectives measured in the final exam. Class participation in which student cites resources can be counted toward mastery, as well. Students should be rewarded on their understanding of how to use resources and apply information.  

Students who get away with cheating and graduate from high school or college still employing pre-conventional thinking skills bring a lack of morality to the workplace and into the larger society as a whole.  

"Kids are desensitized in a culture that values the bottom line…you see these scandals play out in the broader culture — Enron, Tyco and the journalists and politicians that continue to misrepresent themselves."  

Who has not read in the recent news about Bernie Madoff’s Ponzi scheme in which he swindled investors out of billions of dollars? (Lawmakers Blast SEC in Madoff Hearings)

"It's ubiquitous…we are also taught not to take responsibility and we look for someone else to sue. … We have a vast psychological mechanism that helps us exonerate ourselves." ibid

Research reveals that students who employ a moral code in an academic environment bring this culture of learning to the workplace.

“Dishonest behavior in the workplace was lowest for participants who had experienced an honor code environment in college and who currently worked in an organization that had a strongly implemented code of ethics. Overall, this work suggests that participation in multiple honor code communities can play a part in reducing dishonest behavior, particularly if the honor codes are well implemented and strongly embedded in the organizational culture.”

What does this teach us about the honor codes of those within our legal system; our professional society; the ethic codes of those representing us in our government?  Furthermore, what do Kohlberg’s moral stages reveal about each of the recent nominees for the Obama administration? Many would appear to employ pre-conventional thinking in regards to the law of our land, as revealed by their inability to pay their taxes.  Nancy Killefer, nominee for chief performance officer has withdrawn her nomination after it was revealed she did not pay her taxes.  She joins Secretary of Health and Human Services Nominee Tom Daschle, who also withdrew his nomination after it was revealed that he failed to disclose more than $300,000 in past income …as did Bill Richardson, nominee for Secretary of Commerce, who was questioned on his ethics in government. Why then was Tim Geithner, who failed to pay more than $40,000 in payroll taxes when he worked for the International Monetary Fund, confirmed as Treasury Secretary?

How can anyone employing pre-conventional thinking swear to uphold the Constitution of the United States, a document which was written to protect our basic rights? For that matter, how can anyone take an oath if they’ve broken the law? If a person doesn’t understand why the law must be followed or what to take into consideration when creating law, it should follow that this person has no place in the governing of our country. "Houston, we have a problem."



i Cheating Scandals Rock Three Top-Tier High Schools: National Survey Finds Two-Thirds of Students Admit Cheating

ii W.C. Crain. (1985). Theories of Development. Prentice-Hall. pp. 118-136"

iii, vi Cheating in Academic Institutions: A Decade of Research

iv Cheating 2.0

v Cheating Scandals Rock Three Top-Tier High Schools: National Survey Finds Two-Thirds of Students Admit Cheating

For Additional Information

Lawmakers Blast SEC in Madoff Hearings. (n.d.).
No Fairy Tale Ending for Duke Scandal. (n.d.).




st1\:*{behavior:url(#ieooui) }

/* Style Definitions */
{mso-style-name:"Table Normal";
mso-padding-alt:0in 5.4pt 0in 5.4pt;
mso-fareast-font-family:"Times New Roman";

© Nancy Salvato 2009


Popular Video