2010

9 June 2010: Don’t punish all because of a few

An earthshaking story made its way into the May 27 Denver Post: Six Golden High School students were caught high-tech cheating on their chemistry final exam, using their calculators to store solutions to problems garnered by an enterprising former student poised to do well in Corporate America.

Who would’ve thunk!?! Really? The news blew me away.

Not really, but what did blow me away was the need to report the obvious: Sometimes kids cheat, and they’re getting better at it. What causes the real head shaking, though, is the report that principal Mike Murphy required every student, regardless of guilt or innocence, to retake the test.

Now that’s a sense of justice: Since I’m part of the group, I get whacked despite doing the right thing. I recall old hair-in-bun Mrs. Miller commanding our entire class to get “On your knees!” because some got raucous when she stepped out. Third-grade memories can be seared.

It’s the Big Foot response to problems: Come down heavily on the whole for the offenses of a few.

The Post quotes professor Don McCabe of Rutgers Business School in New Jersey — apparently, no local experts were available — who claims cheating has been on the rise since he was a student. According to his survey of 24,000 students, 95 percent admitted to cheating in some form: tests, plagiarizing, copying another’s work.

So, perhaps when Murphy stated, “Most kids are good kids and are honest and do what they are supposed to do, but there are always a few,” he was gagging because statistics show 95 percent of the kids cheat. It must mean, therefore, the other 89 chemistry students in the ring managed to avoid being caught.

The fact that Murphy — if the Post report is accurate — meted out a draconian consequence for a limited problem is not unusual in 21st-century America: The Arizona and Colorado legislatures acted in like manner on two of their signature acts of the recent sessions.

In Arizona, it is the bill that mandates law enforcers approach anyone suspected of having entered the state illegally, so anyone with a brown skin or an accent. In Colorado, it is the 95 percent of teachers, an estimate offered by a four-decade-long administrator with whom I spoke, who do effective work.

I can go on about the injustice and stupidity of the acts, but what also challenges the mind is the purpose for them. By implementing harsh responses, casting a wide net that scoops up the vast majority who either follow the rules (students), who are who they are (multi-generational American citizens of Hispanic ancestry), or who consistently and effectively do their jobs (Colorado teachers), the institutions effectively deflect blame and attention from themselves and redirect both to those most unable to defend themselves

In the Post article, there is no mention of placing blame on the teacher’s easily sabotaged practice and the school’s policy that provide for giving the same test year after year. Nor is there mention of how this “scandal” has deeper implications, including how tests serve as inadequate measurements of learning.

In Arizona, it is likely those doing the accosting are mere pups in terms of time lived on that land when it comes to those being accosted, as their histories might be traced back to the first invaders and land grabbers: Spanish conquistadors and recipients of 16th-century Spanish land grants.

One can be empathetic to the law’s apologists’ arguments given the impacts caused by both good and bad people, immigrants seeking only a better life and drug cartels, pouring into their state. Empathy does not, however, imply approval or justification for blanket overreaching.

Living in a democracy — sorry, tea baggers, “republic” — means it will always be messy. It’s analogous to the First Amendment rights of free speech and press: Some nasty stuff gets said and printed, but that’s the price we pay for the rest of us to say and write what another might find offensive such as this column.

One can also be empathetic to Colorado legislators frustrated about “adequate yearly progress” declining on partially measurable standards — math, reading and writing — but raising a Damocles sword over the heads of those who work tirelessly day after day and year after year and narrowing the definition of true learning to a statistic demonstrates a lack of in-depth thinking and even the ability for such on their parts.

Big Foot might be legend, but his archetype is alive and well, and working its black magic in schools and legislatures across the land.

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