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Teacher to Parent: Students who cheat don't value integrity

Jody Stallings

Jody Stallings

My son was caught cheating on a test. I support the school’s punishment (he got detention and a zero). He admitted to me that he’s cheated a lot but never gets caught. He says everyone cheats. I wonder if schools are partly to blame for this. I saw a quote from Neil deGrasse Tyson that said, “When students cheat on exams, it’s because our school system values grades more than students value learning.” What do you think?

Tyson seems to imply that students undervalue learning because schools overvalue grades. He’s right on the first half of his equation. I once spent a month tallying the questions students asked me. The ratio of non-educational questions (“When is this due? Can we type this?”) to educational questions (“Can you explain what a comma splice is?”) was a jaw-dropping 88:1.

Maybe students are excited about learning when they’re very young and the world is a brand-new place, but when they get old and jaded (like 9 or 10), the enthusiasm wears off.

Who’s fault is that? I suspect it’s a mix of misguided teachers (there are many), misguided parents (there are more) and human nature (there are all of us).

Some misguided teachers do emphasize grades, products and procedures more than learning. In this way, they make “a straight cut ditch out of a free, meandering brook” as Thoreau said.

The misguided parents simply hand over the role of education to schools and then check the receipts (i.e. grades) to make sure the goods have been delivered. Wise parents help their kids pursue learning beyond school by making them read and experience things with educational value.

And as for human nature? Well, learning is hard when the material doesn’t interest you. Focus and study require exertion. How often do you wake up on a Saturday morning, smile at the sunshine, and say, “What a great day to LEARN!”?

So, yes, kids often do undervalue learning. However, Tyson’s suggestion that the school system overvalues grades is laughably off base.

Many parents overvalue grades, surely. They want to know what’s going wrong when their kids don’t get A’s. Students tell me all the time about the pressure their parents put them under to make high marks. Kids don’t cheat to satisfy the school system, which they don’t care about; they cheat to please their parents whom they love and fear disappointing.

The contemporary school system, for its part, doesn’t value grades enough. Sure, they might throw some certificates at kids who make the honor roll, but that’s just a token. When kids fail in our system — something that requires sustained apathy or inability — they get passed onto the next grade with everyone else. As I’ve noted before, in today’s system, the consequence for failing is identical to the reward for passing. That doesn’t look like “overvaluing” to me.

Of course, in the end, none of this is particularly relevant to the question of why students cheat. But maybe the woods of that problem are too obscured by its trees for even a celebrated scientist to see:

Students cheat because they do not value integrity.

We may debate why. Perhaps they witness little evidence of it in the lives of the adults around them. Maybe they see only flagging endorsement of it in the movies, music, and media we allow them to consume. Possibly we do not value it ourselves. Whatever the reason, its value has diminished.

Tyson may have succumbed to the contemporary habit of making excuses for every shortcoming our children exhibit. Either place responsibility on the child for performing a dishonest action or cite parents and teachers for failing to instill good character, but enough with this blaming of “systems” and “institutions” for our own fatal flaws.

Integrity begins in the heart. Once it takes root, no system could force it into the devastating compromises that cheating demands. With all due respect to Mr. Tyson, if your child lacks it, your concern must be for the child alone, not the systems of which he is a part.

Kenna Coe is the editor for the Moultrie News. Send her an email at