Let’s Be (Academically) Honest

August 21st, 2012 by Susan H. Greenberg

Sometimes, academic integrity is not a simple black-or-white issue.

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All parents want to help their children succeed in school. I, for one, have been drilling my 9-year-old on the New England capitols, and I run through the multiplication tables with her as often as she’ll tolerate. My middle-school son occasionally asks me to proofread something he’s written for English or history; luckily or unluckily for him, I – a journalist and English teacher – often find plenty to correct.

I consider helping my kids with homework a fundamental duty of parenthood. It’s just another way to ensure that they develop into fully realized, mostly literate adults. But might I, instead, be corrupting their academic integrity? According to Teddi Fishman, director of the International Center for Academic Integrity (ICAI) at Clemson University, it depends – not only on the teacher’s specific instructions for the assignment, but also on the way I deliver my help. Am I grabbing my son’s laptop and simply inserting the commas and relocating the misplaced modifiers? Or am I looking over his shoulder while explaining the rules of punctuation, and then letting him make the corrections himself? If I’m honest, I must admit it’s closer to the former than to the latter.

Academic integrity has become a major issue in schools at every level, and parents are hardly its worst enemy. The ICAI, a consortium of roughly 300 universities and secondary schools, educates students, faculty and administrators on the nuances of upholding integrity on campus, and offers an assessment guide so they might evaluate their current practices. Most universities, secondary schools and even middle schools articulate a clear policy and make students sign an honor code pledging their intellectual honesty “whether solving a math problem, writing a research or critical paper, or writing an exam,” as MIT’s elegant manual puts it. The manuals tend to do everything from teach proper footnote citation to detail the punishments for rules that are breached.

But having a well-articulated policy is certainly no guarantee of rectitude. The number of students who cheat is staggering; according to ICAI research, of roughly 40,000 students polled between 1990 and 2009 at 70 different high schools (21 public, 32 private and 17 parochial), 72 percent of public school students said they’d cheated on an exam or test and 59 percent said they’d plagiarized a paper. Among private school students, 49 percent admitted cheating and 47 percent confessed to plagiarism; for parochial students, the numbers were 68 and 63 percent, respectively. “The bad news,” says Fishman, “is that these are self-reported numbers so it’s probably a little higher.”

Surprisingly, the rise of the Internet is not the main culprit in these statistics. “It hasn’t changed as much as people think it has,” says Fishman, who maintains that the number of students admitting to plagiarism has held steady at around two-thirds since the Center was founded 20 years ago. “It used to be that if you were going to copy, you had to copy from your neighbor or the encyclopedia. Now, thanks to technology, you can copy from someone halfway around the world.”

The bigger problem, says Fishman, is the rapid rise of our hyper-competitive culture, in everything from sports to college admissions. “I would be very willing to speculate that it (the prevalence of cheating) reflects the increased importance of high-stakes testing.” When kids see only the grade or the score as the goal, the method of achieving it – even if it means lying or cheating – is irrelevant. Educators, on the other hand, are far more interested in the process. “We are looking for their development,” says Fishman. “We have to communicate that better in a culture that says, ‘The only thing that matters is results.’”

It doesn’t help that expectations vary wildly from class to class, even in the same department at the same school. “In one class, it might be perfectly all right for students to help each other, and the teacher encourages collaboration,” says Fishman. “In the next class, the teacher wants every student to work on his or her own. It would be okay if those differences were clearly articulated, and students heard. But they’re not.”

At my daughter’s high school, several students were recently reprimanded for letting their parents read their biology papers before they handed them in. Perhaps some corrected grammar or punctuation, or made suggestions on organizational structure. At least one, a scientist, proposed some information that hadn’t been learned in class. I don’t know whether the kid accepted the input, and whether the father was credited in the footnotes. But if the students were told not to seek any outside help – and there is some confusion as to whether they were or not – then they were being dishonest by turning to their parents.

Kids themselves have vastly different views of what’s permissible. “I did not know how great the range was in what students thought until I took this job,” says Fishman, who joined the ICAI four years ago. “I had one student who honestly thought that if something’s on Wikipedia, it counts as public knowledge. After all, there’s no author attribution, and it’s in the public domain. I don’t know how they came to think that but it’s important to teach them that that isn’t correct.”

What’s the best way to teach them? Most important, start when they’re young. “Students understand fairness very early,” says Fishman, “By third or fourth grade, it’s completely possible for them to understand what it feels like to have someone take their stuff and not credit them for it. If someone copies your drawing, you want them to say, ‘I got this idea from Sally.’” In addition, says Fishman, because students get panicky when they’re told they need to do original work, “It’s important to make clear that knowing how to incorporate and cite other people’s work is just as important as having your own ideas.”

As for homework, the ICAI encourages students to seek writing help but not let someone else take over. “As long as no one else controls the keyboard or the pencil, you’re getting the benefit of another tutor,” says Fishman. “I think reasonable people under almost any circumstance would want their students to be helped in that way.”
As a teacher, I wholeheartedly concur. As a parent, I’m steeling myself for the battles my son and I will have when I insist on teaching him how to use commas instead of just sticking them in for him. His integrity depends on it.

Susan H. Greenberg is a writer, editor, teacher and author of the blog Unvarnished Mom.