The Puzzling 10% Drop in Cheating

The magnificent Josephson Institute released the results of its bi-annual survey on the ethics of high school students.  An exemplary study that has helped guide us since 1992, Josephson’s work has been tireless and helpful.  However, this year’s results are puzzling.  According to the data, the number of high schools students who self-report cheating,  a figure that has hovered at between 59% and 65% since 1992, has dropped to 49%. The Barometer hopes the figure accurately reflects what is happening and that, as Mr. Josephson notes, “this is the beginning of a downward trend.”  Indeed, the Barometer hopes that it is indeed the work of the “Character Counts” program that is brining these stunning results.  That ethics training helps is music to the Barometer’s ears. However, there are several questions that bring uneasiness:

1.  This past year we had criminal charges in New York involving high school students who hired a brainiac to take their college entrance exams for them.  The scandal came to light when the testing folks noted a significant difference between test scores and past records.  The brainiac did a little too well for the abilities of those who hired him.

2. There is the problem of self-definition that is rampant.  It all depends on the meaning of the word “cheating.”  Copying others’ homework to many students is not cheating.  It is team work, and very helpful. Working together to find answers for online questions, quizzes, and exams is not cheating — it is collaboration. Flat-out lie is different from total fabrication. And there are versions of the truth.

3. Finally, there are the puzzling incosistencies in the students’ survey answers.  49% of them confess to cheating, yet 93% are satisifed with their character and ethics.  81% believe that they are better than most people when it comes to character and ethics.  99% believe that it is important to be a person with good ethics and character, but 49% are cheating and 45% of the boys believe that you have to cheat sometimes to get ahead.  93% say their parents want them to be ethical, but 80% lied to their parents in the past year and 55% lied to their teachers. Oh, and one more, 30% of them lied on 1 to 10 of their responses to the questions.  That’s up from 25.7% in 2010.

The Josephson survey has always been well done and documented as valid.  As noted, the Barometer hopes ’tis all true.  Nonetheless, proceed with caution.  Thirty-five yeras of teaching experience, with the last few years being full of ethical lapses by college students, finds anecdotal evidence, something that measures conduct rather than self-perception, at odds with the data.


About mmjdiary

Professor Marianne Jennings is an emeritus professor of legal and ethical studies from the W.P. Carey School of Business at Arizona State University, retiring in 2011 after 35 years of teaching undergraduate and graduate courses in ethics and the legal environment of business. During her tenure at ASU, she served as director of the Joan and David Lincoln Center for Applied Ethics from 1995-1999. In 2006, she was appointed faculty director for the W.P. Carey Executive MBA Program. She has done consulting work for businesses and professional groups including AICPA, Boeing, Dial Corporation, Edward Jones, Mattel, Motorola, CFA Institute, Southern California Edison, the Institute of Internal Auditors, AIMR, DuPont, AES, Blue Cross Blue Shield, Motorola, Hy-Vee Foods, IBM, Bell Helicopter, Amgen, Raytheon, and VIAD. The sixth edition of her textbook, Case Studies in Business Ethics, was published in February 2011. The ninth edition of her textbook, Business: lts Legal, Ethical and Global Environment was published in January 2011. The 23rd edition of her book, Business Law: Principles and Cases, will be published in January 2013. The tenth edition of her book, Real Estate Law, will also be published in January 2013. Her book, A Business Tale: A Story of Ethics, Choices, Success, and a Very Large Rabbit, a fable about business ethics, was chosen by Library Journal in 2004 as its business book of the year. A Business Tale was also a finalist for two other literary awards for 2004. In 2000 her book on corporate governance was published by the New York Times MBA Pocket Series. Her book on long-term success, Building a Business Through Good Times and Bad: Lessons from Fifteen Companies, Each With a Century of Dividends, was published in October 2002 and has been used by Booz, Allen, Hamilton for its work on business longevity. Her latest book, The Seven Signs of Ethical Collapse was published by St. Martin’s Press in July 2006 and has been a finalist for two book awards. Her weekly columns are syndicated around the country, and her work has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, the Chicago Tribune, the New York Times, Washington Post, and the Reader's Digest. A collection of her essays, Nobody Fixes Real Carrot Sticks Anymore, first published in 1994 is still being published. She has been a commentator on business issues on All Things Considered for National Public Radio. She has served on four boards of directors, including Arizona Public Service (1987-2000), Zealous Capital Corporation, and the Center for Children with Chronic Illness and Disability at the University of Minnesota. She was appointed to the board of advisors for the Institute of Nuclear Power Operators in 2004 and served on the board of trustees for Think Arizona, a public policy think tank. She has appeared on CNBC, CBS This Morning, the Today Show, and CBS Evening News. In 2010 she was named one of the Top 100 Thought Leaders in Business Ethics by Trust Across America. Her books have been translated into four different languages. She received the British Emerald award for authoring one of their top 50 articles in management publications, chosen from over 15,000 articles. Personal: Married since 1976 to Terry H. Jennings, Maricopa County Attorney’s Office Deputy County Attorney; five children: Sarah, Sam, and John, and the late Claire and Hannah Jennings.
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