Teacher response to cheating scandal: “I can’t process that we are allowing this to happen!”

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“I can’t process that we are allowing this to happen!”

Words. The recorded minutes of a faculty meeting at Watchung Hills Regional High School contain a jumble of words and not all of them made sense, printed on pages of paper. Yet something was clear:

Teachers were angry about the widespread cheating at the prestigious Somerset County high school. Teachers were frustrated. Teachers wanted to do something.

“We have to try to change the culture,” said one of the instructors. “The culture of cheating.”

The document was obtained through a request for records filed by this website, Bob Braun’s Ledger, under the Open Public Records Act (OPRA).  This website filed the request after Elizabeth Jewett, the district superintendent, flatly refused to provide key details of what apparently was a cheating scandal that involved hundreds of students.

The faculty meeting minutes provide some of the details but, more important, the document dramatically portrays what a culture of cheating at an affluent high school looks like:

Some students are eager to game the system–maybe even make some money selling tests to classmates. Teachers feel powerless to stop it and blame the administration for failing to follow through on their complaints. The administration and elected school board seem more concerned about containing the damage to the school’s reputation than getting the truth out.

“It’s sensitive”–that’s what Jewett said in an email to an official of the state education department.

Sure is.

Many Watchung Hills seniors are hoping to be admitted to Ivy League and other highly selective colleges and universities. If word of a massive cheating scandal gets out to those admissions officers, questions will be asked. About both students who cheated–and those who didn’t. How can anyone distinguish between them?

And these will be questions that can’t be ducked by an administration eager to avoid bad publicity.

But at least the teachers–in the sentiments expressed at their meeting–show concern. They talked about how they tried to enforce the rules against cheating, only to become objects of animosity from students. Here are some excerpts from the minutes:

Teachers seen as enemy of students–animosity towards the teachers–need backing of administration and departments need to talk to each other—

And:

It makes us a target–we don’t have the tools to prevent it, information has to be shared, teachers can tell their peers if student is caught cheating

And:

Teachers look like bad guys for following the policy.

And

We look like the bad guys, not make exceptions. VPs then don’t follow through—-

VPs, of course, are vice principals. The disciplinarians in the school. The men and women who are supposed to follow up when a teacher reports a student for cheating.

In the latest case of cheating, however, the apparent student ringleader was suspended for 10 days but allowed to make up the work.  Although she already had been admitted to an Ivy League school, Watchung Hills apparently did not notify the university’s admissions officials of the cheating charges.

According to the minutes of the faculty meeting, she obtained tests and sold copies to her classmates. To “100s” of classmates.

What the teachers saw as a “slap on the wrist” angered them:

It was calculated and she made money off of it…. I can’t process that we are allowing this to happen. we are not teaching that giving tests is morally reprehensible. She sent an email asking for work but not remorse. it was very calculated. all she gets is a EXC in the drop box in Genesis.

An EXC is an excused absence. Genesis is the automated attendance record collection.

The teachers recognized that getting into the best colleges is of prime importance to the students and, of course, their parents. But there are other issues–like integrity and values.

This is not about getting into a good school. this is about integrity–we are more concerned that they will get into Cornell.  Teachers have to take the lead on this–

If no one else did , at least the teachers see there are more important issues at stake than getting into an Ivy League school:

I care that my students develop as citizens.

Indeed. What a thought.

The teachers also recognize that students are victims as well as perpetrators.

Maybe we don’t allow them to take so many AP courses–they are overloaded and have too much work–don’t give as much homework–less likely to cheat–don’t give a 0 (zero)  if homework is 2 days late–a lot of students are mad because they don’t cheat.

What do students learn when they see their peers skate free from punishment when they are caught cheating? That should be obvious. They learn it’s dumb not to cheat.

What is our school value? We care about our rankings. We just can’t give a slap on the wrist.

Teachers will get blamed for what happened–because teachers always get blamed for what happens. But, clearly, this was a failure of leadership, of accountability. Teachers know that:

Administration has to be held accountable for students cheating; concern of the implications this will have on the school. this can be damaging to other students from Watchung Hills.

And

We have evidence on one kid, the 100s who were involved have not been held accountable. the kids are smart enough to do it. what is the administration planning in order to lead us?

What, indeed?

One teacher whose comments were recorded in the minutes said something about cheating that applies, perhaps even more directly, to the failure of the school district to take decisive action against cheating. The teacher’s words speak directly to what the administration’s response should have been–not what it has been:

No consequences, no fear.

 

 

 

4 comments

  1. Abigail Shure

    There is a New Jersey Department of Education in Trenton that employs multiple investigators to look into alleged cheating scandals. They are more than happy to travel to Newark. Why are they taking cover now? Where is the Commissioner of Education? Has anybody heard from Senator Ruiz? She now heads the Senate Education Committee.

  2. Dawn D.

    I can certainly understand how the teachers are frustrated with this administration. Have you considered that the blame potentially starts with Parents? I am speaking from the parent perspective (my kids attended whrhs). Many parents in our town put pressure on their children to take the most AP courses that they can. Parents over-schedule their kids in extra-curricular and sports. There is not enough hours in the day for these kids to fulfill all of the expectations that their parents are placing on them. I have seen cases where students are placed in a “lower level” class, and the parents call the school fighting until their kid is placed in a higher level class that will probably be a struggle for them. There is also a sub-culture where kids are expected to get all A’s, and if they bring home a B, they are led to believe that they have dishonored their family. Parents push their own college choices on their kids — if the kids go to a prestigious school, the parents also attain prestige. Even career choices are pushed onto the kids. Is it any wonder that these kids are cheating? How are they supposed to meet their parents’ unrealistic expectations? What happened to letting kids be kids? The college with the most prestige, is not necessarily the best fit for the kid.

    In addition, I think that some high-ranking high schools are teaching our kids how to excel in standardized tests, but not how to be critical thinkers, or a “good people”, with moral standards and high-integrity. Parents are adding to that culture, by pressuring the schools when high standardized test scores are not attained.

    If we want to see change, it must start in the home, with the parents.

  3. Saflow

    There’s gotta be a lesson in here somewhere.
    WHRHS is blessed with so many professor-level teachers, and dozens of serious, hard-working and ambitious students — Admins: *HERE* is your treasure to protect!
    “It’s Not the Crime, It’s the Cover Up”
    “Sunlight is the Best Disinfectant”
    God Bless America. And God Bless Bob Braun, at the top of his game.

  4. booklady

    I’ll second Saflow: “God bless Bob Braun, at the top of his game.”

    Wondering if you are on winter break, Bob, or like many of us dumbstruck by shooting at MSD HS in Florida.
    Although young Emma Gonzalez said it quite well.

    Network for Public Education has set April 20 (Columbine anniversary) as day of national action re gun violence in schools. Hope your readers get engaged. If your Congressional rep gets NRA $, send them an orange armband.

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