Thursday, June 5, 2008

Training Up the Next Generation of Plagiarists

Someone over on LJ posted a link to this news story, and I just had to shake my head.

To summarize, Christine Pelton was a science teacher at Piper High School in Kansas. Her sophomore biology class had a big project (called the "Leaf Project") to do, for fifty percent of their grade. Ms. Pelton was determined that no one in her classroom would get away with cheating, and before the project began, all the students and their parents had to sign a contract which included, among other things: "Cheating and plagiarism will result in the failure of the assignment. It is expected that all work turned in is completely their own." And as anyone who's made it to the sophomore level of high school (and certainly anyone who functions in the adult world, as all these students' parents theoretically do) should be able to figure out, if you fail a project that's fifty percent of your grade, then even if you ace everything else, you're gonna fail the class.

Simple, right?

Well, apparently this was a bit too complicated for some of the students and their parents to comprehend.

When the papers came in, Ms. Pelton noticed some lines which didn't sound like something her students would say. She turned to the internet, and discovered that twenty-eight of her students (almost a quarter of the sophomore class at Piper High) had committed plagiarism.

From one student: "I was kind of upset ‘cause I was pretty sure I did’t do it," he says, claiming he copied from the Internet but didn’t plagiarize.

"I put that as two different sentences," he says. "So it’s not like I copied it straight from the Web site. I changed it into two different sentences."

Oh, well, so long as he split the line he copied word-for-word into two sentences.... [eyeroll]

Bad enough that twenty-some percent of the sophomore class were cheaters. Just to compound the problem, when Ms. Pelton did as she had said she would from the beginning, and failed the projects of the cheating students, their parents -- rather than being outraged at the cheating and grounding their kids till they were thirty -- rose up in angry protest against Ms. Pelton and took the matter to the school board.

Then to pour gasoline onto the situation and set fire to it, the school board caved in to the parents' demands, and intervened. They declared that the Leaf Project was worth a much smaller percentage of the students' total grade, so even the students who'd cheated and failed the project would pass the class if they'd been doing well otherwise.

Wow, I'll bet those students will learn a huge lesson from that.

Seriously, just what the heck did those parents think? That they were doing their kids any favors? That they were teaching them anything positive? That they were helping their children? Really? Let's look at some statements from the parents:

"The problem in her classroom wasn’t with the students, but with the teacher," says one parent.

"Plagiarism is black on this side, white on this side, with a whole lotta gray in the middle," said another parent.


According to some of the parents of the students she failed, Pelton missed a "teachable moment."

"She’s uncovered plagiarism," says a parent. "That’s great, that’s wonderful, let’s give her an attaboy. Let’s stop, put on a seminar, teach these kids exactly what plagiarism is, how to avoid it, and then let them take their new knowledge, go back, and rework their projects and resubmit them. They missed their teachable moment; I truly believe that."


Any bets on how many of these students, or their siblings, or the students' kids later on, will be in the middle of a similar cheating/copying/plagiarism situation again some time, arguing indignantly that they did absolutely nothing wrong, that the people using the P-word are being harsh, being mean, that they're envious or hateful or just looking for attention? These students, and their parents, sound exactly like the people who were standing up in defense of the literary plagiarists over the last few months. And the people who were defending the plagiarist writers sound exactly like these parents. It all comes out of the same pot, it's all born of the same ignorance and the same sense of entitlement, the same belief that anything they do to get ahead must be just fine. And so long as parents are teaching their kids that they can cheat and they can plagiarize and they can get away with it, and that their parents will support them and help slay the evil accuser when they get caught, we're going to have more and more plagiarizing students. And plagiarizing writers.

This is the next generation. They're being trained right now. Some of them are going to end up in our field, and their life experience so far is going to have taught them that the smart people take the easy way and that cheaters win and that whistle-blowers get smacked down.

Lovely. I can't wait.


Epilogue: Christine Pelton resigned her teaching position when the school board interfered with her decision about how to handle proven cheaters. She's no longer teaching, but has opened a day care center in her home. The education establishment is much poorer for the loss. [sigh]


Charles Gramlich said...

I'll probably see some of these students in my classes where they'll plagiarize again. Yeah, I'm really looking forward to it.

FoxRafer said...

I feel like every college professor across the country should have on their wall the name and location of that high school and make sure to ask every student they get where they went to school, just so they can double check their work. The teachable moment that was lost was the one a parent sends to a child that if you cheat or break the law you will have to suffer the consequences but I will still love you. They better be prepared to be making multiple trips to their kids colleges because they will be caught plagiarizing again.

It made me so annoyed to read the quote from one of the kids who didn't cheat who said how unfair it was that the kids who followed the rules saw their grades go down while the ones who cheated had theirs go up. What a message that sends.

shegollum said...

Your comments add so much to the article, Angie. Thank you for all of it.

I want to meet these parents. I want to get them in a group and go toe-to-toe with them on this in a situation where they aren't playing to some audience they apparently built up.

And then I want to ask them about it one on one. And then when I see who are the followers and who are the leaders, I want to sit back and decide who failed first.

And I don't know exactly why I care to that level except to say that in the kind of work I do - any of us do, I am sure - I watch the same power struggles play out and it's the ones who crumple and never take a stand that I wouldn't even be able to find a way to discuss this with. They wouldn't know anything: they'd be following what he/she/their parents/the news guy said and their answers would float by based on nothing more than that.

But those who could yell and berate - or more effectively, speak softly - and spin this as something other than plagiarism are the ones to have the discussions with because they'll be the ones with a reason - a wrong reason that they'll hang onto and it'll be something black and white that you can shoot holes in and it will be vile and self-righteous and self-serving just like the children they're raising to lead the children of the followers.

The new generation will just plagiarize the old in that. They've missed their 'teaching moment'.

Bernita said...

Angie, you're right.
Sadly right.

Precie said...

Sigh. One of the reasons I disliked teaching. Cheating. Entitlement. Shame on that school board for intervening and for not supporting Ms. Pelton.

Precie said...

Charles--you might see some of those studnts soon--the events occurred in 2002.

Angie said...

Charles -- do you have tenure? :/ Even if you don't, I can only hope that at the university level, teachers have more leeway in how they handle this sort of thing, without interference. Heck, don't a lot of universities have a school-wide policy about expelling -- not just failing -- proven cheaters?

And make sure you read the original article if you haven't already -- it talks about other "resources" available to students who want to cheat. Hint: don't let anyone have a drink on their desk during an exam. :P

Candice -- exactly! If I were on the admissions staff for a university, I'd have been scrutinizing the transcripts of students that came in, seeing whether they were in Ms. Pelton's biology class at Piper High during their sophomore year in 2002. If so, and if the kid made it to the interview level, my first question would've been, "So, how'd you do on your Leaf Project?" [wry smile]

Which is another thing to smack the parents for. Aside from the rightness of letting the kids deal with the consequences of their actions, if they'd just let them fail the class and made sure they retook it in summer school or whatever and not made a fuss, this wouldn't have made the news. If there were any university admissions staff particularly watching out for Piper High's students, and possibly rejecting them all out of hand, that is one hundred percent the fault of the parents who kicked up this fuss. Wow, way to look out for your kids' futures!

And yes, the quote from that one girl whose grade was lowered for the crime of doing all her own work just.... [sigh] Yet another piece of evidence to prove to all these kids that it doesn't pay to do it the hard way.

Shegollum -- yes, I'm sure there were a few leaders among the parents, people who talked to the others and persuaded them to kick this up to the school board, to make a fuss and make demands and "fix" things for their kids. Those are the people who get smacked first.

Bernita -- I really wish I weren't, in cases like this. :/

Precie -- I was thinking of teaching for a while too. I turned away from that path for various reasons, but I'll admit I'd never have guessed that I would ever have been forcibly prevented from failing cheaters. I can only guess what I would've felt about having something like that happen, but it wouldn't have been pretty.

I can absolutely understand why Ms. Pelton quit her job at Piper High, but I really wish she'd gone to another school and continued teaching. I'm sure any school worth working for would have been very happy to have her.

Angie, hoping very hard that that last statement wasn't too naive

Shauna Roberts said...

This story is outrageous. The school board set a very bad example for everyone, and I'm glad the teacher quit in protest. I bet she is teaching the little ones in her preschool about honesty and integrity.

And even though this school did not stand up for academic principles, I suspect, like most high schools, they strongly uphold their rules about student clothing and haircuts, possession of medicines, and other stuff nowhere near as important.

Angie said...

Shauna -- you're probably right. I wouldn't be surprised at all if this were one of the schools where a student could be suspended for several days for having a plastic knife in the cafeteria, IAW a "Zero Tolerance Policy" regarding weapons. [eyeroll] My opinion is the public schools should ignore the plastic knives and cold medicine and baggy pants, and crack down on the cheating. :/

Anonymous -- sorry, but I deleted your comment. The book you recced was on topic, but just a bare post like that, with no attempt to contribute anything significant to the topic, smells to me like purely marketing-motivated comment spam. You're welcome to join in if you have anything you want to say, but please include something besides an advertisement.


GirlGriot said...

When I first read about this, I just kept shaking my head in disbelief. I suppose I should be retroactively grateful that each time I failed a student's paper for cheating that I wasn't slapped down by the head of my department!

(For better or for worse, the kids I'm teaching just now don't do enough of their homework to bother with cheating, so I haven't had to worry about that.)

The missed teachable moment here was the one the school board should have taught he parents. The one the students would have learned if their failing grades had been allowed to stand. I'm so appalled. So offended.

Angie said...

GG -- it really says something when having a class full of kids who just aren't doing the work is the lesser of two evils. :P

And yes, exactly. The huge failure here is on the part of the parents, and the school board.


writtenwyrdd said...

Apalling. Truly apalling.

Ello - Ellen Oh said...

It's these parents that teach their kids that they can get away with anything! It's everywhere! Such a problem! The same parents will fight tooth and nail to save their kids from plagiarism now and burglary later. These kids learn that nothing is ever their fault or that there are any true consequences to their behavior.

Angie said...

WW -- yes, that's about it. :/

Ello -- exactly. [nod] I've known parents like this all my life, people who absolutely refuse to ever accept that their kids have done anything wrong, who take their kids' side in everything and think that makes them "supportive." They're usually the same people angrily shouting that anything their government does must be right and good and just, too, and that anyone who thinks differently is attacking and hating. It's a gross failure of custodianship either way.


Sarai said...

So here is something ironic this actually happened 20 minutes from where I live... Sad isn't it. I was so furious and in a way this is why I decided to not teach. Yeah I know silly right? Wrong if this happened in one school district and they got away with it imagine if a new teacher (myself) called foul. Do you think someone would have backed me up? No
Neither did I so I decided to pass and now work in the legal field. It's a sad day that those students were allowed to get away with it.

Angie said...

Sarai -- what's also sad is that you're probably not the only almost-teacher who felt that way. So the potential teachers who would have cracked down hard on cheaters are being discouraged from even entering the field, leaving it open for the people who'd be willing to shrug it off and treat it lightly. That's tragic, actually. [sigh] Although I do understand where you're coming from, absolutely. No reason to put yourself through the grief if you're just going to be overruled anyway. Which puts it right back on the school board. Pack of idiots. :(