The Moral Math of Cheating in School

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We've read a lot about cheating in the months since 71 students were suspended for sharing test answers at one of New York's top high schools, but some of the most illuminating reporting was The New York Times' coverage of students' "moral and academic math." That's the term reporter Vivian Yee used to describe the calculations students make about when it's more or less acceptable to cheat. The premise, of course, is that they're inevitably going to, but Yee's reporting helps us understand how they rationalize it.

By the time they graduate, many have internalized a moral and academic math: Copying homework is fine, but cheating on a test is less so; cheating to get by in a required class is more acceptable than cheating on an Advanced Placement Exam; anything less than a grade of 85 is "failing"; achieve anything more than a grade-point average of 95, and you might be bound for the Massachusetts Institute of Technology or Yale.

It all comes back to this sense of intense competition, but also of collaboration, which Robert Kolker explored in New York magazine last week. "Not everyone cheats, but it is ­collaborative," one former Stuyvesant student who's headed to Harvard told Kolker. "One of my friends told me, 'School is a team effort.' That’s sort of the ethos at Stuy." Stuy students kept talking to Yee about this balance between "integrity," which means not cheating, and the real sense that they had to cheat together to survive. "I’m sure everybody understood it was wrong to take other people’s work, but they had ways of rationalizing it," one student told Yee. "Everyone took it as a necessary evil to get through." In the moral and academic math Yee identified, one result is students who learn collaboration, creativity, and teamwork ... through cheating.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.