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Pressurized Priorities Clash

With Character Education    



Last June at one of New York City’s most highly rated public schools, Stuyvesant High School in Manhattan, more than 80 students were charged with cheating on their state exams. This revelation, still being investigated, took me back a decade ago to my days as president of the Center for Academic Integrity at Duke University.

Our annual conference’s keynote speaker was Randy Cohen, who had launched “The Ethicist,” a weekly column in the Sunday magazine of The New York Times. In that role, which he filled until last year, Cohen routinely tackled thorny moral dilemmas submitted by readers and wrote regularly on issues of character, ethics, integrity and choice. The theme of his speech to our organization was that we won’t have ethical students until we have ethical educators — teachers, administrators and other stakeholders — leading the way.

Cohen told us how his daughter, then a junior at Stuyvesant, had come home one day and said, “Everybody cheats at this great school.” He admitted he was shocked by his daughter’s comment and so decided to investigate a bit on his own. He soon found that, yes, she was right — the vast majority of students at this top-flight public school claimed they cheated to get ahead.

The pressure on these students to get good grades and gain admission to Ivy League-caliber colleges, Cohen explained, was overwhelming. And the students’ presumed role models — faculty, staff and parents — all reinforced this notion that Ivy League-level grades were “expected.” Period. No excuses.

A Cheating Fixture
Ten years later, the situation apparently has not changed. In June, the Times interviewed several Stuyvesant students about the latest scandal and concluded that “cheating was a symptom of a broader and more widespread problem with priorities at Stuyvesant, where competition for top rankings is intense.” Referring to cheating, one 17-year-old junior there told the newspaper, “Unfortunately, it’s a strong part of the culture” at the school and that he wished “there was more of an emphasis on trying to learn.” A 15-year-old sophomore added: “I don’t cheat. My grades suffer because of that.”

Even Stuyvesant’s student newspaper, The Spectator, had called for more moral leadership from the adults. Two years ago, it argued in an editorial that “academic dishonesty is firmly entrenched” but rarely punished at the school. “If you walk down any hallway in the building, you are almost guaranteed to see students copying homework,” the editorial observed.

What is wrong with this picture?

The trouble at Stuyvesant and so many other schools is that, as a society, we tell students to do the right thing and not to cheat — even to follow institutional honor codes, where they exist. In fact, we venerate the motivational maxims of people like legendary football coach Vince Lombardi, who famously said, “Winning isn’t everything — it’s the only thing.” So should we really be surprised when we see that mentality manifest itself in locker rooms, board rooms and classrooms? We set up our students for failure because they’ll do whatever it takes to give us what we say we value, results, no matter what we tell them the rules are.

As school leaders, we are communicating values 24/7. The way we dress, the way we talk, the jokes we tell, the friends we choose. All convey who we are. And our students are watching. They see us both on and off the job. Not long ago, when I served as a superintendent in Colorado, I remember gathering elementary school students in a gymnasium one day for a lesson on character.

I spelled out what was expected of them:

  • Do the right thing, even when no one is watching;
  • Treat everyone with respect;
  • Keep your promises; and
  • Take responsibility for your actions.

I also encouraged the young students to say something when they see one of us doing something wrong. What we tolerate from each other is what we become, I explained.

Caught in the Act
Finally, I said they all had permission to tell me, respectfully, if they saw me doing something wrong. Sure enough, the next day I was walking through the school parking lot talking on my cell phone during student pickup time when I strayed outside the lines of the crosswalk. An alert 3rd grader called out: “Mr. Hyatt, you’re breaking the rules!” I quickly realized my mistake, said I was sorry and turned off my phone. Then I thanked the student for his help.

Later, I wondered what that student might have learned had I become angry, or ignored him or, even worse, punished him. It would have been a devastating and unforgettable experience. Understandably, the youngster would have felt betrayed. But isn’t that essentially what we are doing when we teach one value and reward another? Success with character is great, but success without it is fine, too. Is that really the lesson we want them to learn?

On the contrary, character demands consistency. We reap what we sow. So our priorities and our goals need to be consistent with our values. And the adults, especially school administrators, need to remember that the school of life is always in session.

Mark Hyatt is president and CEO of the Character Education Partnership in Washington, D.C. E-mail: mhyatt@character.org


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