How Can Schools Teach Students Not to Cheat?

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Last week, Paul Barnwell worried that academics are crowding out character education in schools. Some readers pointed out how lessons in ethics and morality could be integrated with academics. But meanwhile, according to Barnwell, the pressure seems to have given students a worrying obsession with getting ahead:

The 2012 Josephson Report Card on the Ethics of American Youth reveals a pressing need to integrate elements of character education into the country’s public-school curriculums. According to the study, 57 percent of teens stated that successful people do what they have to do to win, even if it involves cheating. Twenty-four percent believe it is okay to threaten or hit someone when angry. Thirty-one percent believe physical violence is a big problem in their schools. Fifty-two percent reported cheating at least once on an exam. Forty-nine percent of students reported being bullied or harassed in a manner that seriously upset them.

And it’s not just students who are part of the problem, says Bob, a reader from Dallas: “In our good public high school, when our daughter and her classmates complained of others cheating, the teacher replied, ‘You could cheat too,’ as if that were some kind of solution to the competitive imbalance.”

Marvin, a teacher in California, would never say something like that:

Just talking or teaching about character and ethics won’t accomplish much, if anything. It has to be ingrained and enforced. I graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy, where there is zero tolerance for cheating. Anyone caught was immediately expelled, including half the football team one year. I never saw any cheating.

At first, I warned my MBA students that cheating was unfair to their classmates and would not be tolerated. When I caught a student cheating, I flunked him from my course. It would have delayed his program completion date. The administration forgave him. It gave everyone there that knew about it, including me, a different attitude and expectation about student cheating there.

Back in 1883, Atlantic contributor Oliver Johnson warned that a failure to address problems like student cheating—or more to the point, train them not to do it in the first place—could have dire consequences:

If, as people of every variety of belief in respect to religion confess, a sound moral character is indispensable to good citizenship, it behooves the state, if possible, to find a way of so training the youth of the country that they will be reasonably certain to form such a character. It must not content itself with imparting secular and scientific instruction alone. The consciences and the affections, or, as [philosopher Herbert] Spencer says, the moral sentiments, of children must be cultivated, or the quality of citizenship will so deteriorate as to endanger the republic.

Reading Johnson’s words on citizenship in the midst of a deeply divisive election, I can’t help but worry that the republic is already in danger—not only from a lack of good citizenship, but also because people on both ends of the political spectrum feel they can’t take a fair system for granted. The Democratic nominee is embroiled in a scandal that suggests either she or her party’s officials cheated in the primaries. The Republican nominee is regularly called a con man and a pathological liar, and no one who’s seen him debate can doubt he’s a bully. As one reader puts it: “Well, when you have a presidential candidate who defrauds investors and clients, lies every time he opens his mouth, then calls everyone he doesn’t like names, how do you expect kids to act?”

Reader Linda, an educator who has facilitated a character education program, has one suggestion for how to discourage bullying:

I believe resiliency training is the key to a school atmosphere that controls bullies at the source—within each child of the school. A child possessed of a strong, resilient attitude is less likely to be bullied. Bullies readily identify the vulnerable in any school group. A bully requires an audience and emotionally weak children to intimidate. A child that can simply walk away, and bystanders who stand up to those bullies, reduce the incidence of bullying. Children possessed of resilient character attributes are capable of such self-determination.

Programming has to be grade-specific and consistent, delivered on a weekly basis. A complete buy-in by the staff throughout the school is essential.

Have you got ideas or experience with character education? Please share them. Update from a reader who disagrees with Linda’s approach:

I have a problem with her advocating resiliency training. There’s nothing inherently wrong with such training, but it won’t stop certain forms of bullying. If a bully hits another kid, it hurts. If a bully takes another kid’s food or money, those things are gone. If a bully dumps your books in a puddle, your books are messed up. Linda apparently doesn’t realize how bullying can be violent—and escalate. Telling the authorities often involves further abuse. She’s blaming victims here.

Another reader weighs in:

Linda’s wording implies that if only children were resilient, they wouldn't be bullied. I learned to be assertive as a kid by standing up to bullies, and since then I have had many opportunities to be glad of the lesson. Sometimes people will indeed stop bothering you if you ask them once, firmly, to stop, and then refuse to be affected by it if they try to persist. But sometimes all that resiliency will get you is many years of sexual harassment that your teachers conveniently never have to deal with on account of you being so resilient.

Parents, educators, students: Have you found ways to successfully discourage bullying at your school? Let us know.