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Ethics Expert Addresses School Cheating, Parents' Role

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Recent revelations about educators changing student answers to show progress on standardized tests raises questions about how much cheating occurs daily among students in classrooms, and how parents are addressing the issue of cheating.

In its latest "Report Card on the Ethics of American Youth," released in November 2012, the Los Angeles-based Josephson Institute of Ethics indicated that—for the first time in a decade—students are cheating, lying, and stealing less than in previous years. More than 23,000 high school students across the U.S. participated in the latest study, which has been conducted every two years since 1992.

The overall reduction in unethical behaviors reported by students surveyed suggests "a major shift in parenting and school involvement in issues of honesty and character," said Michael Josephson, founder and president of the institute, in a statement at the time the survey was released. His organization oversees Character Counts!, a character education program used by schools across the nation.

On the topic of cheating in particular, 59 percent of students in 2010 admitted cheating on an exam in the past year; in 2012 that rate dropped to 51 percent. Encouraged by the improvement, Josephson is still troubled by the fact that "the majority of kids admits cheating with some regularity," he said in a phone interview.

The survey also showed that 93 percent of students said their parents or guardians always want them to do the ethically right thing, no matter the cost, and 85 percent said most adults in their life consistently set a good example in terms of ethics and character. Of that 8 percent gap, Josephson said parents sometimes send their children mixed messages about integrity.

"What if parents have a radar detector in their car? That sends the message, 'It only matters if you get caught.' Or, if a parent lies about their address to get a child into a better school, and tells the child to lie about it, too," it conveys that unethical behavior is justified for a desired outcome, Josephson said. "Our behavior shapes the morality of our children."

Many students seem to connect cheating with success. Two years ago, when the institute's study was conducted, 57 percent of high school students indicated that they agreed with this statement: "In the real world, successful people do what they have to do to win, even if others consider it cheating."

"We like to say the problem with the rat race is that, even if you win, you're still a rat," he said. "It's not whether other people are doing it or not. It's whether you've made the decision of absolute integrity."

While Josephson is appalled by the news reports of cheating among educators, he does not think that it will affect student behavior. "Student cheating has persisted for a very long time. Teacher cheating is a relatively new phenomenon, because teachers haven't had a reason to cheat. With high-stakes testing, more and more teachers find themselves in the position of executives like those who ran Enron," he said. Enron was an energy company that imploded in a series of accounting scandals, after high-level decisions were made to hide debt so the company would look profitable. Still, high stakes are no excuse, Josephson pointed out.

For parents wanting to reinforce the importance of integrity at school, Josephson advises using the "TEAM" approach—teach, enforce, advocate, and model:
Teach—Make absolutely clear what cheating is, to make sure your child understands what it means;
Enforce expectations—Let them know if they are accused of cheating, you would be enormously disappointed and there would be disciplinary consequences, like grounding them;
Advocate—Use the educator scandal as a teachable moment, asking your children to reflect about it, and reinforce that "I sure hope you would never do a thing like that;"
Model the behavior—If your child had a TV camera, and you were on a reality show every day, do you model the behavior you wish to see in your child?


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