Homeroom: My Kid’s School Is Full of Cheats

He works hard, but the system is working against him.

Illustration of a boy with a long, bendy neck peering over the shoulder of a girl doing work
Elena Xausa
squiggly pencil

Editor’s Note: Every Tuesday, Abby Freireich and Brian Platzer take questions from readers about their kids’ education. Have one? Email them at homeroom@theatlantic.com.


Dear Abby and Brian,

I’d like to ask you about cheating. My son is in high school, and he’s working incredibly hard to get the grades that will get him into the college of his choice. The problem is, the other kids at his school cheat. From what I’ve gleaned from discussions with other parents, cheating is a widespread problem, and we’re not the only frustrated family. I know that other parents have brought the issue to the attention of the school, and when the school confronted cheating students, it became a battle. One family even hired a lawyer! I get it—no one wants to think that their kid cheats (or they think it’s just part of high school), and no one wants that fact on their kid’s transcript. But where does that leave my son, who is working so hard for his grades, and is honest, and the system is working against him?

Anonymous


Dear Anonymous,

It’s infuriating that so many of your son’s peers are cheating—and benefiting from doing so—while your son and many of his classmates are diligently following the rules. You should take on this fight, even though it might be exhausting and you will probably make some enemies along the way. Encouraging your son’s school to uphold academic integrity will not only protect him and benefit the school; it will also serve the best interests of the students who are cheating.

Some schools have a culture of cheating, while others do not. We know of schools where students find any way possible to cheat. They look over their shoulders during exams, hide notes in bathroom toilet tanks, tuck answers in their baseball cap, or store illicit information on graphing calculators and cellphones. Students who take tests earlier in the day tell their peers what’s on the tests. They send signals across the room during multiple-choice quizzes. They write key information on their hands and arms. During online school, they text one another answers. They ask to use the bathroom and check their materials in the hall, or they leave their phone in the bathroom.

But we also know of schools where cheating is virtually nonexistent. Students are all better off at schools like these, even kids who think they would personally benefit from cheating. In the short term, students can receive improved grades from cheating, but they learn less, and the habit can lead to severe academic or professional penalties in the future. The good news is that a culture of cheating is neither inevitable nor irreversible. We’ve seen that schools can change by acknowledging the situation, implementing basic preventive measures, and establishing a disciplinary system to dissuade students from cheating in the first place.

Changing this culture is not your son’s responsibility. He shouldn’t be put in a position where he has to tell on a friend or a classmate, as doing so may have painful social repercussions. While we typically suggest that students advocate for themselves, in this case we think that you should communicate directly with your son’s teachers. Let them know that you want your family’s anonymity to be protected, so that your son will be spared from the possibility that what you say will be traced back to him. If you can share the specific ways in which children are cheating, you will help improve the situation not only for your son, but for all of the students, because teachers will be able to more easily spot similar behavior in the future.

In addition to helping teachers detect cheating, suggest ways that they can prevent it altogether. Your school would benefit from an anti-plagiarism resource, such as turnitin.com, that checks the originality of each assignment a student turns in against all of the assignments in the class, as well as previous student submissions and online sources. Students who are required to upload their assignments to this site are less likely to cheat, because they know they could be caught. Teachers in your school might also create multiple versions of their tests or insist that students go to the bathroom before taking them. Kids are keenly attuned to how closely they are being monitored, so teachers should walk around the classroom during tests rather than sitting at their desk doing work.

No matter how good teachers are at detecting and preventing cheating, some students will keep trying. So if your son’s school doesn’t already have a clear disciplinary system in place, insist that one be implemented. Ideally, this system should discourage kids from cheating, but when they do, it should give them the opportunity for reflection and change. Each consecutive infraction should come with progressively more serious consequences. For example, kids who cheat the first time would get an F and be required to redo the assignment or test. The second time they cheat, they would be suspended and would have to write a paper about why their cheating is detrimental to themselves and their peers. The third time, they would be expelled.

If cheating continues and speaking with individual teachers isn’t having enough of an effect, talk with the administration, preferably alongside other parents who share your concerns. No one wants a litigious headache, but the school is responsible for fostering an environment where academic integrity and honesty are paramount. Your sounding an alarm is ultimately in the best interest of all the students. Ignoring the problem, however, sends a message that cheating should be condoned, which will set students up to make detrimental decisions for years to come.


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