Welcome to another year at Stuyvesant, home of Intel finalists and cheaters. As we enter this new year, we must confront and combat the culture of cheating that has become a central part of Stuyvesant, and its public image.
At the close of last year’s Regents week, 71 students were found to have exchanged answers to four state exams via text message. The news came less than five months after The Spectator published a survey that found only 8 percent of students had ever been caught cheating, even though roughly 80 percent of students reported cheating at least once in their Stuyvesant careers. The cheating scheme, which has embarrassed students, administrators and parents alike, was one manifestation of a long-entrenched culture of academic dishonesty within the school.
The media has since taken advantage of the situation to create a scandal that has portrayed the once-elite student body as a massive cheating unit. The media’s continued badgering of the school stems partly from a desire to sell papers, partly from incomplete or wrong information, and partly from very real truths that are hard to accept. Though reports of cheating have been grossly exaggerated in many outlets, they all capture an undeniable problem within the school.
The school’s new cheating stigma was, unlike many students’ grades, earned. For years, cheating has gone unchecked, creating a perverse set of incentives in which the benefits of cheating outweighed both the probability and magnitude of punishment. With the administration turning a blind eye toward cheating, and students continually overlooking the morality of their actions, even the publication of this paper’s survey failed to spark any action.
But finally, we have been forced to acknowledge the problem (though far more humiliatingly than any of us would have hoped). It seems that only a public scandal can engender action in such a bureaucratic school. This is our rock bottom—but from here we have the opportunity to come together to develop new policies and dramatically change the way we view academic integrity.
The cheating scandal has implications beyond the walls of our school—it is a culture present in competitive schools everywhere. Former Principal Stanley Teitel, though not successful in combating cheating, was not responsible for it. Still, the Department of Education (DOE) has used him as a convenient scapegoat. After more than a decade of serving as Stuyvesant’s principal, there is an all but direct link suggesting he was forced to retire this August. Sources within the school have suggested that the media distorted the reality of events. Teitel may have in fact correctly followed DOE protocol after catching the cheating, though various publications have reported otherwise.
Even if we never find out exactly what happened between Teitel and the DOE, however, we should see our new administration as an opportunity to move forward. Instead of focusing on those who got caught (especially given a lack of conclusive evidence incriminating some of them), we need to fight the culture in which this cheating bred.
We need to develop a student body truly aware of the importance of having “the intellectual, moral and humanistic values” inscribed in our school’s mission statement, and not on emphasizing PR-style damage control. If we effectively deal with cheating at Stuyvesant, our image will clear itself over time. But if we work instead on creating the appearance of academic honesty to the public, another scandal is waiting for us.
The first step is directing our attention to the real problem—not beginning an unreasonable war against cheating that will ultimately antagonize innocent students. It should be the students who cheated who face punishments, not the remaining ones. This is no time for administrators to focus on non-issues with the excuse that they’re implementing disciplinary policies, hoping those will carry into the classroom. The real problem is that cheating is easy, goes mostly unnoticed, and even when caught, no substantial punishment is given.
In response to the issue, the administration has created an Academic Honesty contract, which students will have to sign in the upcoming weeks. The new Academic Honesty policy requires faculty members to report any and every case of cheating to their department’s assistant principal, and bans both the offering and acceptance of test questions. The administration’s letter clearly outlines the new policy, which includes stricter punishments for cheating.
But these new measures have noticeably separated the student body and the administration. During the first days of class, teachers have repeatedly mentioned a stricter ban on cell phones and more serious punishments. Students, the majority of whom were not involved in the scandal, feel targeted by the administration.
So ultimately, the question becomes: How do we work together to create a constructive environment that stigmatizes cheating while respecting honest and hard-working students?
Fortunately, both the Student Union (SU) and Interim Acting Principal Jie Zhang have decided to work together to answer this question.
“This upcoming year looks to be very promising because of Ms. Zhang’s welcoming and open approach,” SU Vice President Tahia Islam said.
Zhang has also been clear in saying that she wishes to maintain an open door policy, and seems very open and responsive to students’ ideas. “I am definitely student-centered, very much a listener,” she said. “Students should feel very, very comfortable to talk to me.”
We are hopeful that Zhang’s administration, with the input of students and the SU, will be able to tackle the problem at hand. Tackling the problem begins by punishing the students who were proven to have cheated, without making life unnecessarily hard for the rest of the student body.
That means no zero-tolerance policies that ensnare innocent students. Many students are willing to help the administration crack down on real cheaters, as long they are protected from irrational policies that are built for good press, but not for a good school environment. That means not taking away cell phones unless they are being used—most cheating does not occur with phones anyway.
Instead, we could combat cheating with a student-based ethics committee, already established in many universities. Studies on peer leadership conclusively show that allowing students to take a substantial role in discipline and mediation can be constructive and effective. More importantly, it can help shift Stuyvesant from an environment in which students largely respect cheating to one in which it is looked down upon, not only by the administration, but by fellow students as well. In the past, students have reinforced the cheating culture by creating a sense of camaraderie around it. But an ethics committee would finally use peer pressure in a more positive way—while it is embarrassing to be condemned by your principal for cheating, it is a lot worse to face condemnation by your peers.
An ethics committee would give students an opportunity to present their case to an impartial board of faculty and fellow students. The committee could be organized as a new department of the National Honor Society (ARISTA) whose students are selected on the basis of academic achievement and contribution to their community. Not only would this allow for far more transparency than in current proceedings, but it would also serve as a much more effective deterrent to cheating.
Teachers should also go out of their way not only to catch cheating, but to make it tougher to cheat. Teachers will need to make an extra effort too—using different test versions, not giving the same tests out every year, not using books or test generators for exams, and not letting students talk once they have the tests in their hands.
An end to Stuyvesant’s cheating culture will take time and effort from everyone within the Stuyvesant community. But to move forward, we must view this cheating scandal as an opportunity to improve our school: to understand why students cheat and to develop ways to fight them. Sometimes failure is necessary for success, and we are hopeful that with enough effort and cooperation, we have the ability to turn an awful mistake into a chance for improvement.