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Our View: Cheating means failing not feelings

Posted: August 5, 2012 2:00 a.m.
Updated: August 5, 2012 2:00 a.m.

The recent revelation that a Hart district high school teacher had to deal harshly with a senior cheating on a final exam is troubling, but not surprising. According to one survey, nearly three-quarters of high school students admit cheating on at least one exam.

The reaction of the William S. Hart Union School District administration to that teacher’s justified discipline of the student is not just surprising; it’s appalling.

The issue came before the Hart district school board after Canyon High School government teacher Linda Storli caught a senior cheating on her final exam. For years, Storli has clearly posted her policy about the consequences of cheating on the final — failure in the class — on her website, on her classroom board in permanent ink, and on her syllabus. “It’s been there for nine years,” she said.

So she failed the student. Administrators said the penalty was too harsh.

When the issue came before the Hart board of education last month, the elected board members, to their credit, unanimously supported Storli.

But with administrators, the response was the double-talk and tortured reasoning that has become the hallmark of what passes as post-modern educational thinking.

Superintendent Rob Challinor said, “Cheating has been on a steady increase in high schools and colleges because there are no serious consequences for cheating.”

We couldn’t agree more. Canyon High graduate William Santiago spoke in Storli’s behalf saying he’s certain the teacher’s strict policies have reduced cheating in her classroom.

But Challinor wasn’t done with his comment. “In this instance,” he continued, “I find it hard to believe that we would fail a student for one course in which an infraction was made on one specific activity, whether it be an exam or a project, and yet, a student can bring a gun to school, and not fail.”

Bringing a gun to school and cheating on a final are hardly parallel violations. One is a police matter and a student safety matter; it’s a violation of the law. The other is academic theft on a felonious level and merits the harshest of academic penalties — a fail.

The administration’s flawed reasoning continued.

“I could not support using a grade as a penalty,” said Vicki Engbrecht, assistant superintendent of instruction, in response to a question from board member Steve Sturgeon. “Whether it works or not, it runs contrary to all the research and all of the training, over the last five years on grading practices, on reducing D and F grades, on making kids feel more successful.”

So our educational establishment is willing to cast aside effective discipline in favor of making kids feel successful. If they feel successful by cheating and receiving an unearned grade, the action of cheating is apparently of less consequence than ensuring they feel successful.

To that we say “Hogwash,” and we’re pleased the board agrees. Students go to school to gain knowledge and acquire skills to succeed in life. They are not there to feel successful, but to become successful.

Our publicly funded educational system entitles students to opportunity, not to outcome. And they certainly aren’t entitled to so-called success through cheating.

That brings us to Engbrecht’s other objection.

“Course grades, by (California Education Code), are supposed to be a reflection of a student’s mastery of content, not behavior,” Engbrecht said. “And this is clearly a behavior.”

In fact, teachers are teaching — and students are learning and being graded on — behaviors every day a class is in session.

If a student chooses never to study for tests and never to do his homework, and he (predictably) fails the course, does the teacher give him a passing grade because it was his behavior that prevented him from succeeding? Of course not.

Of one thing you can be absolutely certain: The teacher who gives a passing grade to a cheater is teaching a behavior — or reinforcing one already acquired by the cheating student. And you can also be sure that the lesson being taught — that cheating leads to success — is not lost on many of that student’s peers. Word travels quickly on high school campuses.

The debate in the Hart district board room was both enlightening and alarming. A point raised by both Engbrecht and board member Gloria Mercado-Fortine deserves serious consideration: Both the California Education Code and the district’s own policy on cheating are vague.

This needs to be addressed district wide. We would recommend using the Josephson Institute of Ethics’ materials as a framework to develop a policy on cheating that can be posted in every classroom and sent home to every parent.

Parents, instructors and students need a say in the policy. Few issues can be as important in this education-centric and family-centric community.

As Sturgeon said: “From a disciplinary standpoint, and from a moral standpoint, we need to build better kids, and we need to do it day after day after day.”

Holding students responsible for their actions is an important part of that construction project. Certainly their future employers and the court system will appreciate the effort.


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