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Maj. Sherri Tombarge
Director of News and Editorial Services
P: (540) 464-7207
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Lexington, VA 24450

VMI Conference on Cheating the Birth of a Movement

FullTextImage/img/@altDr. David Callahan, with Dr. Eric Anderman, opened the VMI Leadership Conference. -- VMI Photo by John Robertson.

The 500-seat Gillis Theater on the VMI post was filled to capacity with high school and college students and teachers from across the nation as VMI’s second biennial Leadership Conference, “Cheating, Lying and Honor in America’s High Schools, Colleges and Universities,” opened today. The conference will continue tomorrow when the current generation of students takes the lead in discussing and presenting strategies for encouraging academic and personal integrity.

LEXINGTON, Va., March 5, 2012 – Who cheats?  Anybody.  Everybody.

Cheating occurs among males and females, among all age groups, among low and high achievers, among students and corporate leaders, among major league athletes and ordinary taxpayers, among bankers, journalists, and employees in any workplace where there is something to steal.

So said opening session speakers Dr. Eric M. Anderman and Dr. David Callahan in VMI’s Leadership Conference, “Cheating, Lying and Honor in America’s High Schools, Colleges and Universities.”

“When I became a teacher, I was absolutely floored by how many of my students cheated,” said Anderman, looking back on his time as a middle and high school teacher, a graduate teaching assistant, and professor at The Ohio State University. “The amount of cheating we see at our university boggles the mind.”

“This conference could not be more timely, and it couldn’t be more important,” said Callahan, author of The Cheating Culture:  Why More Americans Are Doing Wrong to Get Ahead. “The epidemic of cheating in our high schools and our colleges is unacceptable.  It undermines the basic idea of meritocracy, of the level playing field.  

“Cheating doesn’t just undermine education,” he added. “It undermines America and what this country is all about.”

But though cheating is prevalent across American society and American schools, Anderman’s research has identified factors that influence cheating, making it more or less common in various environments.

“When people cheat, they make a decision,” he said, a decision based mainly on three issues:  their own goals, their confidence in their ability to do well without cheating, and the costs associated with cheating.

Studies show that males cheat more than females and that more cheating occurs in science, math, business, and engineering classes than in humanities and social science classes.  Studies show that older students cheat more than younger students and that low achievers cheat more than high achievers.

But more important than any of these factors, said Anderman, is whether or not cheaters are likely to get caught.  An estimated 90 percent of all cheaters don’t.

“This is a huge thing that figures into the decision-making process,” said Anderman.  That element of the cultural environment, whether or not cheating is tolerated, is key.

Also key is whether the teaching environment emphasizes mastery or grades.  For students, wherever grades are emphasized over mastery, cheating increases.  A similar emphasis exerts a similar influence in the work environment for teachers.

“High stakes testing is a tremendous force in teachers’ lives,” said Anderman, noting cheating scandals in Chicago and Georgia in which teachers were suspected of helping their students cheat.  The repercussions of failed standardized tests at the state and federal level are perceived by many school teachers to be dire.

While Anderman explained the particulars of who cheats and how and why, Callahan cast cheating in schools in the broader context of an overall ethics crisis.

“Here is what I know about the state of ethics in America:  We have problems, big problems.  It’s not just our college campuses where people cheat, not by a long shot,” he said, pointing up instances of unethical behavior by doctors, lawyers, accountants, athletes, and journalists that have made the news in the 10 years he has been studying the issue.

“Many Americans cheat on their taxes – tax evasion costs over $300 billion a year. … Theft at the workplace, embezzlement, is actually the most costly form of crime in the United States. … [And] a great many ordinary Americans engage in insurance fraud.”

At the same time, noted Callahan, crime rates, including murder, rape, and robbery, have been falling, as have teen homicide, drunk driving, and alcohol and cigarette use rates.

“In many ways, we are in a period of moral renewal,” said Callahan, adding that people seem to be using a different moral compass regarding money and economic security.  “We live in an era with pervasive economic anxiety. … There’s a lot of status anxiety and envy in America. … The rational incentives to cheat have never been greater than they are today.”

Callahan said that young people are internalizing anxieties about economic security and are able to rationalize cheating because they believe it’s common.  They watch the news too, after all.

“There’s a pretty remarkable level of cynicism among America’s young people,” said Callahan.  

Identifying these key elements that influence cheating can be a step toward a solution.  The conference itself, said Callahan, is another one.

“We are standing up, and we are saying enough, enough already,” he said.  “We’re not just part of a conference here, we’re part of a movement, a movement that may still be small, but a movement that with time and work can reduce cheating in our high schools and colleges.”

In addition to changing the environment of teaching to emphasize mastery, educators need to change the environment of learning to include enforcement.

“Academic integrity is simply not the highest priority in education today,” said Callahan.  “That has got to change. In every area where cheating has become epidemic, we find sleeping watchdogs.  It’s just rational.  People cheat more when they think they can get away with it.”

The movement starts with this conference.

“We can change that calculus,” concluded Callahan.  “We are stronger together, with more ideas and solutions. …We can have a huge impact.”

–Sherri Tombarge

–VMI–