Cheater Nation

It was a popular political science class at a prestigious university; there was standing room only for the final exam. I paused several times to rub my cramping hand and to nudge awake a friend who’d stayed up late to cram. As we neared the end of the three hours, students filtered out slowly, dropping their official “blue books” on the table in the front of the professor. As I felt my own anxiety rise because I was not yet done, I noticed the professor had asked several male students to wait. She dramatically flipped over the blue books one at a time and announced, “You cheated.” She’d marked each legitimate blue book with a small dot on the back. They’d brought in their own blue books—already filled with notes and outlines they could use for their essays. My indignation was quick and pure. I thought: And that’s why I’m transferring next semester.

I was a smug, sanctimonious 19-year-old who oddly believed that very intelligent, high-strung and competitive women aren’t tempted to cheat. But I was right about one thing. The culture of a place—whether it’s an entire institution or an individual class—sets the broader tone of etiquette and protocol. We conducted ourselves in the context of a very strict honor code at Smith College. Although we labored together in challenging classes, the work we completed was our own. I never—and knew of no one else who—wrote papers with others or discussed answers to take-home exams. Although I’m sure there were some cheaters at my college—after all, we were all under tremendous (albeit almost entirely self-imposed) pressure—it was not considered acceptable. Smith spelled out the academic rules clearly, emphatically, and often.

The recent Harvard University cheating scandal—in which over 100 students in a government course have been implicated—has brought public hand-wringing to the storied institution, but as Rebecca Harrington reveals in a recent New York Times Op Ed, there has always been “cheating along the Charles.” She references an 1881 Gilbert and Sullivan song parody in the Harvard newspaper: “I always wore a pony and told big fibs/And examination found me with a new set of cribs/I worked my cribs so carefullee/That now I am tutor in the old shantee.” H.M.S. Pinafore aside, in the absence of a well-defined, unambiguous honor code, a culture of cheating can flourish. In this recent incident, students routinely shared work; TAs disclosed essay answers; and groups of undergrads crafted similar answers to take-home exams. Their behavior was seemingly permissible within the mores in which they operated. Indeed, many expressed resentment at being accused of wrong-doing. As one student complained, “I was just someone who shared notes, and now I’m implicated in this.”

This absence of well-defined parameters is not unlike what happened in the massive Atlanta teacher cheating scandal. Certain teachers at 44 Atlanta-area schools routinely changed students’ answers on high-stakes standardized tests. These tests evaluate student achievement, individual teacher effectiveness, and a school’s academic health and rigor. Simply put, they are a really big deal. But what happens when a sweeping high-stakes test does not have a concomitant comprehensive system in place to uphold its integrity? People cheat.

An investigation by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution (AJC) has found that 196 American school districts exhibit patterns of suspicious test scores similar to those in Atlanta. As Michael Pell reports, most states allow districts to do their own internal investigation of suspected cheating and “make almost no attempt to screen test results for irregularities.” Pell asserts, “A computer analysis of erasures on test papers and statistical analysis of improbable gains on tests are proven ways to catch cheating,” but most states will not spend money to guarantee test result integrity. This is naïve. A survey of 3,000 Arizona teachers—that Phoenix-based educator Sharon Rideau completed for her 2008 doctoral thesis—indicated that 50% had either cheated themselves or knew a colleague who’d cheated on standardized tests.

Like the teachers who change answers for their students—and then start believing the hype about their school’s successes—most cheaters are unaware of the extent of their dishonesty. In multiple studies, Duke University researcher Dan Ariely and his colleagues found that students—given the opportunity to use materials seemingly inadvertently provided by test proctors—changed their answers without compunction. But when proctors stated a clear rule, the behavior changed. Explained doctoral student Zoe Chance who worked with Ariely, “If you specifically tell people in these studies not to use the answer key and just sign their name, they won’t look at it.”

But it is difficult to convince students of the importance of having honor and integrity when Lance Armstrong makes millions as a highly effective cheater, and successful art forger Ken Perenyi becomes a media darling. We’ve come to exalt success, regardless of how it’s obtained, and as a result our “ethical muscles have atrophied,” as Harvard professor Howard Gardner argues. The evidence shows that students—at all levels of achievement—cheat more frequently, and technological advances make cheating easier, as a recent study at Duquesne University found. The more online tools students are allowed to use on an assignment, the more likely they are to copy others’ work.

Numerous studies also indicate that this rampant problem can be mitigated by clear ethical guidelines from teachers, parents and institutions—if we are only willing to take a forceful, unequivocal stand.

My Hometown

At the end of the summer I scored a ride on Eric Annis’ honey of a steamboat. You’ve likely heard the steamboat whistle banter with the 5:15 Amtrak’s own toot—even if you’ve not seen the boat itself. The steamboat winters in my neighborhood, and my family has often wished for a chance to hop on board. When we got our opportunity to take a short cruise on the Connecticut, I was thrilled to see such a handsome vessel up close. I didn’t anticipate that my brief voyage would also reveal a complicated view of my hometown.

On the drive down to the docks, we stopped at the Flat Street traffic light. I gazed up Main Street and noticed a sign announcing the arrival of a new platinum smith. By the time I reached the Commons, I’d done a quick tally of the high-end jewelry stores in Brattleboro. My own artist brother is a gold and silversmith; I know what it costs to produce—let alone purchase—exquisite jewelry. Simply put, he often can’t afford his own art.  I assume these businesses have done their homework. Clearly, there must be a market.  I marveled at the ability of our tiny town to support multiple high-end jewelry stores.

Eric popped wood into the steamboat’s belly as we chugged away from the view of the Retreat Meadows and headed towards the river; we were soon under Putney Road’s Vermont Veterans Memorial Bridge. Our captain pointed under the bridge to the debris left by an encampment of the homeless. He noted that this was one of many places in which homeless residents carved out shelter for themselves in our town.  Indeed, all afternoon he named points on the shore and showed us other places of refuge. These nooks and alcoves stood in stark contrast to the expansive wraparound balcony of the Whetstone Station holding its merry outdoor diners. Like in so many Vermont towns, poverty and wealth comingle here—they are kin. They live in such close proximity and yet exist in nearly palpable separate spheres.

To get from our neighborhood to the heart of the town, you careen past the Drop-In Center. Whether on foot, atop a bike or in a car, there is a constant flow of residents up the hill to the little blue headquarters tucked into the residential block. It is always busy, this lifeline for so many area residents. Like Brigid’s Kitchen and the First Baptist Church at the other end of town, it meets a critical need. This is a town in which over half our children take part in the free and reduced lunch program, and where I notice several men fishing—year round—not for mere pleasure but for sustenance. Gaunt cheeks and hollow eyes reveal the marks of poverty. It is a place in which the cultural capital of the middle class does not always translate into economic advantage. Some friends must nickel and dime their expenses each month—not knowing how they’ll pay for childcare or make housing payments.

In my travels all over the northeast, people know about our little treasure. “Oh, I love Brattleboro—what a neat town. So much art, so much great music—so much going on!” This is true.  Brattleboro’s thriving arts scene is remarkable. But there is also a lot of desperation here. There is grinding poverty on just about every block of the downtown neighborhoods. It isn’t relegated to certain neighborhoods—it’s house by house. A friend of mine from the Burlington area appreciates this about Brattleboro. He once told me, “Brattleboro is a real town. It isn’t a cleaned up, tidy version of a New England town. You see the struggles of your neighbors. It’s hard to live in a bubble here.” Although I can’t say I enjoy the town’s “grittiness” when people swipe my tulips, I do know what he’s getting at.

But it is possible to arrange your life so you don’t notice it—depending on where you shop, eat, or spend your time. You can also actively choose to ignore it, focusing on only the dynamic and vibrant aspects of our eccentric town.

As we returned to the Marina’s dock, I marveled at the tenacity of its owners, staff, and builders who resurrected the popular eatery so quickly after the all-consuming fire.  Upon its reopening, the staff likened the restaurant to a phoenix rising from the ashes, but it was their own deep affection for each other and the community that brought it back to life. According to an article in Vermont Today in July of 2011, 59 of 60 employees of the pre-fire staff returned to work when the Marina reopened. One long-time employee talked of her relief, “It felt like the whole town grieved with us when the fire happened last year…Being back here is like coming home again.” This was on my mind as we hauled our gear up from the docks, past jovial diners and bustling wait staff: Hope and promise.

This Thanksgiving week, I challenge myself to remember that hope and promise as I acknowledge the poverty and despair that also lives here. Whenever I walk past the steamboat, now up on a trailer for the winter, it reminds me of the view from the river.  It prompts me to nurture my gratitude like the fire in the belly of that steamboat. And from that thankfulness will come action.



The Smartest Kid in the Room

C.J. was a 7th grader who happened to be a computer whiz; he worshipped Bill Gates and all things Microsoft. This was 1995—before Gates and his company became part of every facet of American life—and when the internet was still referred to by the more cumbersome “World Wide Web.” When he was my student, I researched in the library—the bound Encyclopedias have always been a comfort to me—and then, reluctantly, with a clunky search engine called Dogpile. When C.J. spoke with me about computers—always with passion, animation and fascination—I rejoiced in his knowledge and enthusiasm, but could not truly nurture that significant aspect of his intelligence. I needed a specialist in gifted education. There were numerous experts in my building I could call on for assistance with my students’ learning disabilities or their emotional distress, but there was no one to help me meet C.J.’s needs.

Educators across the country struggle with this. There is no federal or state mandate for gifted education or enrichment opportunities. It’s true that Vermont state statutes acknowledge there are children “who, when compared to other of their age, experience, or environment exhibit capacity of high performance in intellectual, creative or artistic areas, possess unusual capacity for leadership or excel in specific academic areas.” But this statute later spells out the reality: there will be no specific money attached to the statute, and the recognition of these students does not “create an additional entitlement to educational or other services.” Lawmakers know that these students inherently need different things in order to reach their full potential, but it is a hollow acknowledgement; parents and teachers must make do.

In this country, we believe that gifted children will “figure it out” and “find their way”—even if their schools do not address their academic needs. The already small resources allocated for the education of gifted and talented (G/T) students have steadily eroded due to costs related to No Child Left Behind implementation. The year after NCLB was made law, Illinois cut $16 million from G/T education; Michigan’s support dropped from $5 million to $500,000. In the current recession, Congress has not funded the Jacob K. Javits Gifted and Talented Students Educational Program—the only Washington initiative to meet the needs of G/T students.

In a provocative 2007 article in Time magazine—Are We Failing Our Geniuses?—senior writer John Cloud argues that we should not spend 10 times as much trying “to bring low-achieving students to mere proficiency as we do to nurture those with the greatest potential.” He notes that gifted students drop out at the same rates as non-gifted students, and suffer from isolation and underachievement when they languish in classes that hold them back. Cloud also asserts that this “radical egalitarianism”—and its focus on identifying deficiencies instead of fostering gifts—ignores that “prodigious intellectual talents are a threatened resource.”  Our best and brightest math students, for example, significantly underperform when stacked up against math stars from other countries.

Teachers and parents both struggle with how best to educate gifted students.  Andrew Solomon—author of Far From the Tree and a recent New York Times magazine feature on raising prodigies—argues that the American push for the “well-rounded student” has produced a “cult of the average”, which has been a “disaster for gifted children.” He explains: “Like parents of children who are severely challenged, parents of exceptionally talented children are custodians of children beyond their comprehension.” They need resources and support to shepherd their children through an educational system that is not designed to meet their needs.

There are many reasons why we underfund enrichment and G/T programs. Susan Goodkin, an advocate for G/T education, argues in a Washington Post Op-Ed, “While administrators and teachers can lose their jobs for failing to improve the test scores of low-performing students, they face no penalties for failing to meet the needs of high-scoring students.” She highlights that there are no consequences for schools when students with “advanced” math scores early in elementary school regress to merely “proficient” several years later. Although Goodkin’s argument seems to have an unfair subtext of suspicion of public educators, her underlying point is a valid one; we must shift how we define a school’s success. Are schools successful when 20% of high school dropouts are the students with the most intellectual potential?

Advocating for enrichment opportunities for G/T students makes many people uncomfortable. We are a society keenly focused on issues of academic fairness, and—of course—parents do not want their children to miss out on valuable education opportunities. But we readily accept that there are athletic and musical prodigies, while steadfastly resisting the notion that really smart students need special educational opportunities. When Olympic champ Gabby Douglas won her gold medals, our collective conscience didn’t question what it took for her to achieve excellence. Columbia University education professor Abraham Tannenbaum encourages us to think similarly about gifted students: “Giftedness requires social context that enables it.” He likens raw intelligence to muscles that must be exercised in order to strengthen.

We absolutely have a moral duty to adequately educate all children. But we also have a comparable economic and cultural imperative to enrich and support gifted students like C.J.  The smartest kids in the room are a key component of our economic hopes for the future. And their creativity and ingenuity mirrors the intellectual dynamism that continues to draw students to our nation from all over the world. It is not elitist to foster their imagination; it’s cultural survival.

An Imperfect Union

In the midst of my obsessive poll tracking and pundit checking over the presidential election—a habit which reappears every 4 years like a bad rash—it was a welcome relief when the folks in Oslo quixotically handed the Nobel Peace Prize to the European Union; it gave me something else to ponder. Their singular choice of the EU was more than an acknowledgement of the 60 years of reconciliation and political and economic ties between former enemies. The Nobel committee undoubtedly wanted to send a strong, clear message to the 27 EU partners: Don’t jump ship.

It’s been a rocky year for the EU. Multiple member states have sought economic bailouts; Greece is still mired in terrible—seemingly intractable—economic woes; and Spain’s unemployment rate just hit a whopping 26 percent. Meanwhile, German Chancellor Angela Merkel continues to push a conservative austerity agenda for struggling states, while Christine Legarde—the French head of the International Monetary Fund—asserts that Greece deserves more time in which to wrestle with their deficits. The Merkel/Legarde tension reflects a rich history of distrust and animosity between France and Germany.  The EU is anything but “at peace” right now.

Many southern Europeans claim they’re at war—albeit economic—with the northern states. Certainly the tear gas residue hovering over Syntagma Square in Athens (during a visit from Merkel mid-October) lent an air of battle to the current situation. But Merkel, despite critiques that she is single-minded and not expansive in her thinking about the EU, recently acknowledged that she views the award as “an inducement and obligation at the same time.” There’s been a palpable shift in attitude in the Bundestag, the lower house of Germany’s parliament. As Mary Lane reports in the Wall Street Journal, German lawmakers finally seem resigned to the need for extra loans to Greece. They fear Greek bankruptcy—and its subsequent exit from the euro—would wreak havoc in the currency zone at the very time that the EU appears to be taming its massive debt crisis.  Perhaps they’ll turn that wagging finger into a helping hand for the good of the financial union—regardless of how it smarts to do so.

Despite widespread European incredulity, it’s not as if the Nobel committee had few candidates to consider for this year’s prize. New York Times reporters Alan Cowell and Nicholas Kulish highlight that the Norwegian committee weighed 231 nominations before they settled on their winner. The Peace Prize has often been awarded to heads of state, diplomats or activists who have worked to end wars or fight economic injustice. But sometimes, as Cowell and Kulish write, its selection “reflects hope as much as achievement, seeking to bolster good intentions with a prestigious accolade that provides an unparalleled , if often contentious, global imprimatur.” This was the case when President Barrack Obama earned the prize less than a year into his term. The overt message? Here’s the prize, now do something with it. Thorbjørn Jagland, the prize panel’s chairman, said as much about the EU choice. They wanted to send “a message to the European public of how important it is to secure what they have achieved on this continent.” It is an exhortation to both remember the bitter past and reshape a more promising future.

Spain’s astonishing new unemployment rate was the topic of a recent lunch conversation I had with some European friends. The discussion soon swung to what to do about Greece. One woman—sympathetic to the French position—thought Germany’s austerity plans for Greece stymied any economic improvement. She pointed to the U.K.’s spending: “They didn’t adopt austerity when things got really tough. They’re in good shape now.” Another, clearly supportive of Merkel’s austerity position, disagreed: “We should cut Greece loose from the EU. We’d rebound faster without them. What are they doing in the EU, anyway?” With its strains and disagreements—nested in cultural and regional differences—the EU’s imperfect alliance is not unlike our own awkward union.

Our peculiar, imperfect coalition is revealed in all its splendor and foulness each Election Day. The hostility and ideological frictions—between North and South, rich and poor, urban and rural—splash across our Electoral College maps in crimson and cobalt. And our unresolved issues of race, class, and gender bubble up into simultaneous accusations of voter disenfranchisement and voter fraud. When friends and family members lose sleep due to concern about the election’s outcome, and each side voices worry in ominous tones, I take solace in the endurance of our Constitution and the regularity of our electoral process. Like Guardian reporters Luke Harding and Ian Traynor, who recently wrote of EU leaders reaction to the Nobel Prize and their “rapturously welcoming a boost to the bloc’s sagging self-esteem,” I find Election Day an exciting reminder of survival and durability.

A friend recently asked if perhaps I had rose-colored glasses about the election. It’s not that. I am simply the product of two parents with very different—but useful—overarching worldviews. From my dad: There will never be a shortage of jerks in the world. From my mom: Everyone—and I do mean everyone—is a potential friend. Although I am too prone to hyperbole and anxiety at election time, I was raised by both my parents to respect the peaceful transfer of power and to value voting as a near sacred act. I hold our Constitution’s aspirations and ideals in my heart and head, and they will temper my bitter disappoint—somewhat—if the Other Guy gets to nominate the next Supreme Court Justices.