As the twig is bent …

Schoolteachers are assigning homework projects that kids can’t do. The parents do them instead. This teaches the kids to cheat. That’s a bad thing.

I’m not sure when it happened &#8212 it wasn’t true, at least in Baltimore, back in the Dark Ages when I was in grade school &#8212 but at some point schoolteachers started assigning homework projects &#8212 frequently mindless ones, such as making a map of California out of modeling clay &#8212 well beyond the skills of the kids themselves, and parents began “helping with” (i.e. doing) the projects. As a result, any kid who tries to do his or her own work can’t compete with the adults, and gets a bad grade.

This practice has many bad results: for example, it wastes parental time that could otherwise be usefully devoted to the child’s upbringing or to other tasks, and it deprives the children of whatever they might learn from doing, or trying and failing to do, the projects on their own, or from doing real, cognitively-demanding homework instead.

But one especially obvious and disastrous consequence hadn’t occurred to me until a friend (fresh from doing an art project for a nine-year-old niece) pointed it out: it teaches kids that passing off the work of others as your own is normal and appropriate. And then we wonder why it’s hard to convince college students that plagiarism is a no-no.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact:

11 thoughts on “As the twig is bent …”

  1. Obviously you are complaining about having to help with some school project, but where is your evidence that this is a widespread problem worthy of attributing to schools everywhere? Also, why do you think a child can't make a map out of modeling clay? Why isn't it that the parents can't stand the idea of letting a child do child's work and interfere, teaching their own children that passing off another's work is OK? Why blame the supposed difficulty of the assignment for parental cheating? The solution to this problem is obvious — don't help and if your child gets a bad grade on a map of California, don't be so worried that it will ruin his or her academic career. Maybe it is time for parents to learn that bad grades aren't the end of the world, even when awarded unfairly. Doesn't it bother you that you have swallowed a "win at any cost" philosophy with respect to school and don't want to examine the parents' contribution to that reification of grades=worth?

  2. Nancy's got it right… It isn't that the kids can't do the projects, it's that the parents (and possibly teachers) have unrealistic expectations about how the project will "look" when the child thinks it is done. It is about the low frustration tolerance PARENTS have regarding their childrens' frustrations.

  3. On the other hand, there are now unbelievably harsh rules regarding plagiarism in school. My son (8th grade) was failed on a paper in which he had appropriately given references for all quotes and sourced facts. Where he paraphrased, he did not use quotation marks. He was accused of plagiarism because some paraphrases (all sourced) were "too similar" to the original material.
    What this episode taught me is that I cannot allow my son to submit written work without me editing it. I don't trust the competence or good will of his teachers when it comes to accusations of plagiarism.
    And check this out, from the Amherst College Website,
    "Simply put, plagiarism is fraud…" the discussion begins. But then it has a long discussion of "unintentional plagiarism,"which concludes, "Unintentional plagiarism is still treated as plagiarism…"
    I have rarely seen anything quite as incoherent as this. If something is unintentional, it cannot be fraud- it can be wrong, but fraud requires intentionality.
    So if school and college administrators don't understand plagiarism, it's no surprise that students don't either.

  4. I have a 19 year old procrastinator for a first child. He is currently a freshman at college and still struggling to overcome an early tendency to put things off until the night before. I hold myself as partly to blame. It all goes back to that science project in the, was it the 5th or 6th grade?
    Seemed innocent enough when at 7pm the night before the project was due, our son said he needed some help. I was a little taken aback that what he meant was he hadn't even started the project to build some sort of gravity machine or some such that had been assigned a month before. Of course I helped. I took charge. He came to expect it. It was a long slippery slope that has enabled him to where he is today.
    What was my choice, let him go to school at age 12 and be humiliated and get an F? He was a bright kid but he was clueless. Other parents were certainly "helping" their kids. How else to explain the projects the next day that looked like they had been assembled in a machine shop. The school of course encourages all this absurdity.

  5. Martin makes my point better than I did. In a world of competitive pressure, where access to good educational opportunities at each level depends on good grades at the level below, saying to parents "Don't stress about grades" is futile. So it seems to me the responsibility lies more heavily on the teachers who give good grades for obviously adult work than on the parents who accommodate to a dishonest system.
    Nancy's speculation that my complaint is based on personal experience is natural, but wrong. I have no children (yet), but am open to offers of cooperation in changing that situation. Whether I'd be tough enough to let my kid flunk rather than helping him cheat can only be determined experimentally.

  6. My son's 3rd grade teacher gently encouraged parents to let their children do their own work, in their own hand. At a schoolwide poster presentation event, she feigned concern to us–"I don't know, our classroom's work doesn't quite measure up–it looks like it was done by bunch of third graders."

  7. That reminds me of the fourth grade unit about castles that both my eldest daughter and my son had back in their elementary school days. My daughter worked hard on her castle, but the winning student had an elaborate wooden castle that his father had obviously helped him with. When my son had the same project three years later, he waited until the last day and came up with a dilapidated cardboard ediface that he had great fun spray-painting on the driveway. The outline remained for many months. But lo and behold, that wooden castle showed up again- this time with the younger sister. This time it had been much improved- it even had a working drawbridge! Don't think that teacher was fooled for one second. My response to a plea for too much homework help was always "I already passed the fifth grade"- or whatever grade was relevant at the time.

  8. My 4th grade Girl Scout troop participated in a spring fair in which each troop was to have a booth that let other troops work on two activities from a badge they had earned. My girls built their own booth out of pvc and fabric panels, decorated them, made the activities to hand out. I was very proud of their effort, and what's more important, they were. What I heard through the grapevine afterwards was that several mothers were "mortified" that our booth didn't look as good as the kindergarten troop's booth next to ours. You guessed it…the moms had made that one. What message were those parents giving their children?

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