“If you want to pass, you got to cheat.”
When I told four or five separate upperclassmen that I was taking AP World, that was the first thing they said. More than other public high schools in Providence, Classical pushes its students as far as they can go—and then keeps pushing. From my first day at Classical, teachers set the bar very high. This is what makes Classical a good school, but could it also be what drives students to cheat?
To investigate this question, I sent out a survey. From that evidence, as well as from interviews I conducted, I came to the conclusion that Classical has been overworking and under-preparing students to the extent that they feel they have no other option but to cheat. If the administration wants to return to a school climate that does not include a culture of cheating, there must be reforms.
Society often sees academic dishonesty as a moral failure. By that logic, students who cheat must necessarily be morally corrupt. However, my survey showed that 91% of the 52 students who responded believe academic dishonesty is almost never moral, which shows that moral bankruptcy is not at issue. Of these students, 36% believe it depends on the scenario; the disparity occurs between cheating on homework and cheating on tests. No matter the situation, students are cheating. 66% of students responded that they know more than ten students who have been academically dishonest, and about 70% of students reported having cheated this year.
Classical’s unachievable expectations thrust students into situations they can barely handle. Among the students I interviewed, the stated reasons for cheating were consistent: students are overworked, inadequately taught, and repeatedly told they needed to perform at a seemingly impossible level. Students are forewarned again and again that every choice matters, with words from Dr. Shapiro echoing a common sentiment among teachers: “Every choice you make to study or not, to do homework or not, from here until senior year knocks a college off your list.” These words were reinforced by Mr. Toro’s proclamations of the success of previous classes, giving students the impression that everyone around is succeeding.
In many cases, cheating provides more than just a way to do better: it provides a path to passing. One sophomore, who reported cheating frequently on everything from homework to tests, said that, “I usually cheat because I have so much homework every night that I am unable to study for a test, even ones I know of days in advance.” This student also expressed that her tests were “ridiculously hard.” These are not issues that are specific only to certain students. In addition, every student I interviewed had at least one class they cheated in due to being under-taught. Had the issues ended with being overworked and under-taught, the solution might be a simpler one: better preparation.
Students, fundamentally, want to do well. Most students are not naturally apathetic about their education. However, in trying to instill great motivation in its students, Classical also discourages them with the same high standards and leads them to believe that their best is not good enough. The paradox is poignant: for whom do they feel they are not good enough? A senior I spoke to said that he was not passing classes for himself, or his own long-term success or well-being, but because, “the more I decline, the more I feel that [the guidance office, administration, and teaching staff] are not going to [want] to have me in the school, or the more I decline the less help I am going to receive.” This student, having gone to Classical for four years of high school, has come away not with confidence in those who are entrusted to support him through the troubles and trials of high school, but with the fear that one mistake would set him so diminish him in the eyes of the school that he could never recover. The final, though equally distressing, discovery I made was that teachers may even encourage cheating in their classrooms. The teacher (who will remain anonymous) told my class before our first quiz of the year, “Don’t let me catch you cheating. If you are going to cheat, be smart about it.” He followed this up with a routine statement about how he wasn’t encouraging us to cheat. He might have been just joking around, but the effect of this comment struck home with me.
Classical has built itself on its good reputation. We are ranked as the #1 school in the state. Our school’s motto is, “To Strive, to Seek, to Find, and Not to Yield.” How are we supposed to not yield when we find the striving and seeking too hard to live up to? How can anyone learn and grow if they are not allowed to fail, to mess up, to make mistakes and to be high-schoolers? It is with these questions in mind that I urge Classical to evaluate how it motivates, educates, and supports its students.