The New Frontiers
Daniel Solomon, who has just graduated from Stuyvesant High School, will begin Harvard University in the fall. He is a regular contributor to The Wave and first published this op-ed in the New York Post.
June 25 was a day of contrast for Stuyvesant High School. To chords of “Pomp and Circumstance,” my classmates and I graduated, savoring our newly-minted alumni status. At the same time, news of wide-spread, cellphone aided cheating on Regents exams broke.
For the graduates, the scandal, which eventually led to the suspensions of six students and the cancelation of 65 others’ Regents scores, served as a reminder of behavior we would sooner forget. The brazen cheating that had occurred on the Regents was rare, to be sure. But lower-grades forms of academic dishonesty were common. And that’s not an assertion based only on anecdotal evidence, but also on statistics.
In March, The Spectator, Stuyvesant’s student newspaper, of which I was the Opinions editor, conducted a survey of 2,045 pupils to gain greater insight into the cheating phenomenon. At least 72 percent of students in each grade admitted to copying homework. Ninety percent of seniors said they had had advance knowledge of test questions at least once a year. Five percent of the student body confessed to cheating on the SAT and AP exams. In total, 80 percent of those polled acknowledged participating in some form of academic dishonesty.
During my time on The Spectator’s Editorial Board, I led and engaged in many agonized discussions about cheating at our school and at other places like it. It’s a problem that defies easy characterization and demands analysis, not demagoguery.
Few of my peers at Stuyvesant wanted to cheat, though there was a subset of students who did so their whole way through school simply because they got a thrill out of proving that they were smarter than the system. For the rest, academic dishonesty was the only way they could think of to get by. Stuyvesant can be a bleak, impersonal, and dispiriting place; I used to casually refer to it as “the destroyer of dreams.”
For those of us who harbored Ivy League ambitions, there were several strategies. I treated junior year like triage and spent most of it on five hours of sleep a night and a cup of coffee. Others turned to Adderall to help them concentrate, purchasing the medication on Stuyvesant’s vibrant drug scene. And yes, many students cheated.
There is no justification for how they behaved. However, I think academic dishonesty is rationalized and enabled by our school culture. Take for instance the petition to reinstate Nayeem Ahsan, the junior at the center of the cheating scandal, which has been signed by over 250 students. One line reads, “Nayeem does not deserve to have his future ripped out of his hands, simply so the administration can set an example.” I disagree with that statement, but it encapsulates one of the main reasons why students cheat – they see teachers and administrators not as educators but as enemies.
There is a basis for that ‘us versus them’ style of thinking. Stuyvesant has scores of sub-par instructors who saddle students with busywork. Feeling a sense of solidarity with one another, pupils form cheating networks like the one that Ahsan headed up. As one friend told me, “School is a team effort.”
To me, that is what is most interesting about academic dishonesty at our school. Contrary to Stuyvesant’s popular image as being a place full of cutthroats, the majority of cheating occurs in groups. Students pass down old tests from one grade to the next. One person robs an exam and shares it with a dozen other people who then pool their answers. Because Stuyvesant lacks any overall community, the cheating network, which is usually held together by ties of friendship or ethnicity, becomes the community, reinforcing negative behavior.
There is no silver bullet that will wipe out academic dishonesty at institutions of Stuyvesant’s ilk; it’s endemic in our society. Nonetheless, there are several steps that Stuyvesant and other schools should take to address the problem. The first is making students feel invested in their school. Studies have consistently shown that liberal arts colleges, with their tight-knit communities, are far less susceptible to the scourge of cheating than are more impersonal institutions. The second is stress reduction, an issue that at Stuyvesant has been forever discussed but never acted upon. The last is punishment, that is both predictable and proportional, for those who break the rules, because at our school we have seen the consequences of a culture of academic dishonesty.