Monday, July 28, 2014

Old School 101: Accountability, or If You Ain’t Cheatin’, You Ain’t Tryin’?

Academic dishonesty was a (if not “the”) pet peeve of this now retired public school teacher. My gripe was not merely about morality, but also about practicality. If “your” work is not showing the teacher the results of “your” thinking, how can said teacher be expected to guide “your” understanding?

Instructional innovation over time has clouded the distinction between collaborative effort and “cheating,” already and inherently a “gray area” in the teaching and learning process. Stir in some data-driven “accountability”; post school “rankings” in the newspaper right along with the major league standings. Little wonder “If you ain’t cheatin’, you ain’t tryin’!” has become a lifestyle rather than a ballplayer’s excuse.

Especially in a city where Enron Field can morph overnight into Minute Maid Park – and the team that plays there can lose 100 games while simultaneously being anointed its sport’s most profitable. Now there’s an Exit-Level Math problem for your state-mandated test.

But I digress.

The second half of my career was spent teaching English to the freshmen in a well-respected college-prep magnet program. The primary challenge to building an entry-level course for those students in that setting was finding and tweaking the appropriate level of difficulty (and maybe subtlety) in the work itself.

The issue of cheating was the furthest thing from my mind. My attitude pretty much was that any kid who needed to cheat to survive as a magnet-school freshman was unlikely to become a magnet-school junior. During a meeting of the magnet staff during my rookie year, I pointed out (only partly in jest) that there had been times in my middle-school teaching days when I’d consider a student’s caring enough to cheat a sign of progress. (I can still conjure up in my mind’s eye the expression on the face of one of my new colleagues to that little nugget of pedagogy.)

“What did you put for question such-and-such?”

If the inquiring mind simply writes the other student’s answer on his own paper? There’s no way to justify that – not in a competitive academic environment. However, if a student has thought through “question such-and-such” and wishes to compare with another student who has done the same? In a test setting, that would clearly be wrong … but not necessarily for an item on a homework assignment, huh? Such academic effort and curiosity in kids should be encouraged. Sometimes students’ curiosity and creativity are directed towards techniques by which to work smarter rather than harder. On occasion – e.g. “You do the even numbers, I’ll do the odd, then we swap answers.” – they “out-smart” themselves and end up crossing the line.

As time passed and I became more acclimated to the magnet program and its culture, I began to wonder whether my laid-back, often subtle approach to this matter was actually exacerbating what some peers perceived to be a problem. There was even a rumor afloat that some upper-classmen were promoting creative cheating as an academic survival skill.

Now, I have nothing against creativity – indeed I tried to discover ways to encourage and reward it.

But it requires little ingenuity to copy someone else’s homework … and to submit such “work” as one’s own opens a whole ‘nother can of worms, all of them slimy and distasteful.

Often enough, something would catch my eye and arouse my suspicion: multiple uses of an illogical answer, repeated and identical misspellings, journal entries that seem unusually familiar.

And then there was this little scenario –

Student: I had the same answer to #whatever as so-and-so. Why did you mark mine wrong?
Teacher: Why don’t you read #whatever on both papers.
Student: Oh, you mean there’s two versions of the worksheet?

How dare I, huh?

‘Twould seem my laissez-faire, law-of-natural-selection approach wasn’t working out so well. One colleague, both a PHD and superb teacher (not always a “given”), went so far as to stop assigning homework altogether.

My approach to these situations grew less subtle, my comments not always private. What was once a brief, moralistic digression was becoming a sermon, then a diatribe, and ultimately a downright hissy-fit, replete with parental as well as administrative involvement.

A hissy-fit was indeed a sight to behold, typically lasting for several days. I’d minimize my classroom interaction with the students, opting for “pop” quizzes and other types of independent classwork. Anger and irritation would ooze from every pore. Sometimes a little embellishment can induce the right kind of peer pressure.

A little pressure from home wouldn’t hurt, either. Thus, for the students whose “academic dishonesty” had caused my distemper, a parent signature verifying authenticity would be required for all work completed outside of class. I figured I’d give the parental units a little incentive for issuing a stern “Never Again!” Over a couple of weeks or so, a student or two at a time, I’d rescind this policy.

This grand display of mine did engender a little inconvenience – some additional paperwork, several parent conferences. One parent was unwise enough to actually say “How dare you” and defend her child, even when presented with the evidence. Our little chat was soon joined by a counselor and assistant principal.

It would be untruthful to claim that I’d foreseen and planned the whole thing. Once I got going, I just trusted my instincts. The objective was to generate a sense of “Don’t make him do THAT again!” in the students.

Did the tactic work?

Not in perpetuity, since I felt compelled to deliver an encore performance of sorts every three or four years. A benefit to the repetition was that there were always kids on campus who could vouch first hand for my attitude on the issue. Predictably, few of the participants in the shenanigans survived in the program for very long. (Overall, our retention rate from freshman to sophomore year was always about 85 percent.)

Like the old folk (including, in my case, numerous nuns) used to tell us, when you cheat, you’re only cheating yourself.