Saturday, September 08, 2012

More Stuy cheating news and a new sheriff principal in town

The follow-up investigation to the Spring semester Regents exam cheating scandal has revealed more Stuy kids cheating. The suspension count is up to 66. As to my earlier question about the point of recording test data for classmates taking the same test at the same time, the Daily News clarifies the Stuy kids were messaging each other during the tests; more on the mechanics of the scam from the Atlantic. The Stuyvesant Spectator reports Ahsan was caught because a student reported Ahsan to the principal. The cheating scandal is making headlines across local and national MSM, including the New York Times and Wall Street Journal.

Ex-principal Stanley Teitel, who taught at Stuyvesant when I was there, suddenly 'resigned' his post and retired in August. Lax enforcement of academic integrity, including ignoring a NYC DOE-wide ban on cellphones in schools, is cited as a factor in the scandal. Jie Zhang, an experienced NYC DOE teacher and administrator, including HS principal, and 2-time Stuy mom herself, has been brought in as interim principal. Fittingly, Zhang started her teaching career at Rikers Island. She has been charged with cleaning up not only the particular cheating scandal but the revealed endemic cheating culture at Stuy.

My take as a long-ago Stuyvesant graduate is the personal identities of teenagers in general are overwhelmingly formed within the social context and by the societal pressures of high school. Moreover, a Stuyvesant student has followed a rigorous childhood path just to reach the start line of Stuyvesant and his family typically values school first and above all. The school's exalted reputation among NYC teenagers only adds pressure on Stuyvesant teenagers to make the most of the envied opportunity. At home, with peers, and in school, the Stuyvesant identity is defined in the near term by academic achievement, measured primarily by GPAs and test scores, and in the long run by the be-all/end-all goal of admission to an Ivy or Ivy-peer college/university. Stuyvesant teenagers internalize all of it. In their minds, there are no alternative life paths. A Stuyvesant student typically has been branded since his earliest memory of school with the 'potential' label, verified again with the Stuy test. But potential is not substantial. Potential is nothing proven, nothing established. Potential is an overbearing burden of aspirations and expectations with a short shelf life. The Stuyvesant teenager's fear is that there is no room for error; any academic misstep at Stuyvesant will be a trip and fall off the only conceivable life path for a Stuyvesant student. In order to stay on the path, students are held accountable for their quantifiable academic achievement, not their honesty and integrity (unless they're caught and punished for cheating). Falling off the path means utter collapse of the Stuyvesant teenager's entire identity, ostracization by family, school, and peers, and an unforgivable waste of his potential. Even the few students who are cynical enough to recognize the game for what it is can't escape it. When weighing tainted success versus honest failure, a Stuyvesant student is smart enough to understand the bottom line and the life stakes. Academic success at Stuy is considered a matter of survival.

How strong is the formative pressure of the Stuyvesant identity? It's a major reason I attended Columbia after the Army despite having fallen off the Stuyvesant life path years earlier. I felt compelled by my Stuyvesant pedigree to check an Ivy League degree off my bucket list even if possessing one no longer made a difference to anyone but me.

New York magazine has a long expos√© on the Stuy cheating scandal, including an interview with Nayeem Ahsan. It sounds like he had 89 GPA smarts but wanted a 95+ GPA and needed to cheat in order to score better than his natural ceiling. For the Stuy entrance exam, he studied as hard as he could and only scored in the low 600s. My advice as a Stuy grad to Ahsan? The social networking skills he's developed are very useful. His confidence skills will take him far in the real world. But for the rest of it, work ethic and fundamentals will take him farther in the long run than short cuts and cheating. An Ivy League degree is not the be-all/end-all.

Left to their own 'state of nature', most people - including gifted and talented Stuy kids - will make cost/benefit choices that follow the path of least resistance to greatest reward and least burden (punishment). An environment that binds its members with higher standards and integrity, as Stuy aspires to, requires leaders who take it upon themselves to push back against human nature and create artificial incentives that alter the membership's natural cost/benefit choices. As social creatures, a 'cooperate and graduate' mentality comes naturally. A few exceptional people will adhere to internalized codes of honor regardless of their environment. Some people are inveterate 'if you ain't cheating you ain't trying' opportunists. Most people can recite an ethical code and prefer a fair arena but will, when responding to real incentives and pressure, adjust pragmatically to their environment. I learned that leadership lesson as a CC platoon sergeant at USMAPS who set his own standards and enforced them for his peers when the TACs, secure in the knowledge that the remaining CCs had passed the hurdles required for West Point admission, had become virtual absentee landlords in the 4th quarter and, in the absence of TAC oversight, my classmates were falling out.

On a social level, cheating at Stuyvesant and other elite educational institutions needs to be addressed. The cheat-to-eat mentality carries over from school into professional life. While the real social damage caused by cheating students is mostly contained and minimal, the damage caused by cheating graduates who continue to cheat in the real world can be catastrophic.


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