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Mothers cheating for sons’ grades December 11, 2007

Posted by dorigo in internet, language, personal.

My wife teaches in a Liceo Classico – a high school where students learn latin and greek, and where the focus is on human sciences; her school is one which has a long, prestigious history – but despite of that, misdemeanor reigns. Through her tales, I sometimes get to know about common fraudolent practices and trends of teenager students in Italy.

One of the most important criteria for evaluation of a student’s knowledge in Latin and Greek is the written exam, where a short piece taken from the classics is translated into Italian. The students are not supposed to have seen the piece beforehand, but that is not a problem given the vast amount of literature from which the teacher can choose the subject of the exam. The teacher gives the text to the class at the beginning of the exam, and the students have typically two hours to complete the task.

Now, my wife reports that it is becoming common practice for some students to obtain outside help through their cell phones. Usually, before the exam starts the teacher collects all cell-phones from the students: unfortunately, many youngsters in Italy have a second cell-phone, and some use to conceal it somewhere. These rascals are thus able to paste the text to be translated into a message, send it to somebody outside the school, and wait until the text is fetched from the internet along with a perfect translation. They then copy the resulting translation received through an instant message into their translation. A high score is guaranteed. The teacher usually has no chance to discover the fraud, because students have become really skilled with typing on cell phones without looking at the keyboard.

I knew about this practice – it is not applied only in high school, but -even more annoying- in selections for new positions in public administration or other white collar jobs. But my wife tells me in some cases it is the very mothers of the students who stay home in front of a computer to do an internet search. I find the thought simply unbearable. A parent that teaches his son or daughter that the only important thing is the result – a good grade – and not the process, nor the capability to study, is sending a clear message: just be smarter than your peer and cheat if you need to. Quite in line with today’s world, in truth.



1. Amara - December 11, 2007

Such would be unbearable for me too. What bizarre reasoning could have been going through those parent’s minds? ‘Let’s cripple our kid so that he/she can’t think for him/her-self’ ?!

But maybe it is part of this overall trend: http://www.censis.it/

2. jacen - December 11, 2007

argh … reading such stories really hurt me.
How many students are there in your wife’s class? I mean if there are only 40 or so, text messaging should be visible quite clearly. Just have them have their hands at the desk at all times or they will fail the test.

Or am i missing something here?

3. dorigo - December 11, 2007

Hi Amara, Jacen,

true, it is disheartening. Jacen, high school classes are usually of about 20-25 students. The thing has not happened in my wife’s class: she has been told it by a colleague, who was not even too bothered by it. My wife, following my advice, usually sits in the back row when students work at their translations. This, I think, helps. But the issue here is not managing or not to prevent the cheat… You would have to be a true policeman to be sure that cheating does not occur, because students ask to go to the restrooms often, and you should then search them… The issue is the very fact that parents are the worst offenders.


4. Guess Who - December 11, 2007

Í have two words for you: phone jammers.


Or, as the Germans would say, “Vorsprung durch Technik”. 🙂

5. carlbrannen - December 12, 2007

Back when I was a grad student and taught various mathematics classes this would have bothered me a lot, but having spent a few decades in the real world, either my standards have lowered or perhaps my capacity for feeling morally superior has degraded. After all, what real use is there for being able to translate classics? It’s just a grade. It’s not like the typical students can even “cheat themselves” because they’ll likely have no use for this knowledge ever.

A slight improvment would be to give the students a text that does not exist on the internet, or maybe writing one up would require too much effort on the part of the instructor. But even with that, one could suppose that one’s mom would look up the odd word or two.

But in the context of the internet, it makes complete sense that the optimum method of translating a classical text is to look it up. Doing this without the benefit of modern conveniences smells of requiring students to multiply 5 digit numbers in the context of a society where calculators are ubiquitous.

6. Amara - December 12, 2007

What real use can there be for thinking for oneself? After all, our brains are just our silly tool we have human survival.

7. Andrea Giammanco - December 12, 2007

What is really amazing is that the grades obtained at this stage are almost irrelevant for the student’s future.
In particular in this case, since wer are talking about a “elite” school, whose pupils in vast majority will continue studying at the university. To subscribe at the university there is no requirement on previous records, and after university of course any job employer will care much more for the university marks than for the performance at school.
So, this cheating is completely pointless. Unless you are on the verge of completely failing, of course. But if this is a mass phenomenon, there is no justification.

8. dorigo - December 12, 2007

Hi GW,

I think it is a good idea, and I had it already too. But the school does not want to admit the problem.

Carl, indeed it is far too easy to find translations online.. But this is a widespread problem: the internet age has brought with it a decrease in human abilities. We will have to live with it, I guess. Overall we are winners…

Amara, in fact, that is the heart of the problem. How to keep educating our brains while leaving most “computing-intensive” or “memory-intensive” tasks to exogenous hardware.

Andrea, the worst thing is not the cheating to me, but the involvement of the mothers… And I agree, the cheating is indeed pointless, save that it is a training in cheating at a higher level at the university.

Cheers all,

9. Guess Who - December 12, 2007

I agree that these technological aids are an overall positive.

I’m old enough to remember when pocket calculators in the classroom were a topic of controversy. A little later, it was word processors and computer aided algebra. And now internet search engines, which are really like having a staff of superdedicated librarians working for you. Each of these steps diminished the importance of some essentially mechanical but time-consuming skill – arithmetic, algebraic manipulation, literature searches – freeing up more time for the essentially non-mechanical task of innovative, creative thinking. In the Real World (TM) you’d be nuts not to delegate mechanical tasks to such aids.

Unless of course you are a rote learner incapable of innovative, creative thinking, or a school with a curriculum centered on imparting such mechanical, hence increasingly irrelevant, skills…

10. rome - December 13, 2007

Cheating has always been part of the school years and as technology changes so do the cheating techniques. Unfortunately, and I say this because I am Italian, so I have seen and done it too, students are not stimulated to learn. I don’t tink it’s fair to say – oh it’s the teachers’ fault nor the students’ – although school programs have been the same for years and years without even trying an adaptation in favour of the changing and evolving world. Students are not included in the school world, if they were, they would feel more responsible and be a bit more interested to learn. Today, all they are interested in is a good grade, because that is what the school and society expect from them. Too bad because potentially we would have all the means and intelligence to form good people.

11. dorigo - December 13, 2007

GW, thinking about it from a distance, I cannot help seeing the slow evolution of mankind toward a synthesis with machines. I personally think it is a positive evolution, but of course anybody can have their own ideas.

Rome, true, cheating at some level is commonplace. But that does not mean it is morally acceptable…


12. Andrea Giammanco - December 13, 2007

> Andrea, the worst thing is not the cheating to me, but the involvement of the mothers…

Well, I was exactly saying that what I find unjustifiable is this mother’s desire to cheat for his beloved child.
It would be bad, but at least understandable, if a mother does that for actually giving an advantage to him.
But there is no advantage at all, in the long run: taking 7/10 (or even 10/10) instead of 6/10 in a latin translation will not have any influence on his future.
In Japan, as far as I heard, every mark in your path will have an influence on your future. It would be interesting to know if a japanese mother would take into consideration the idea of cheating, given the opportunity, to help his child have a better mark. I guess not.

13. chimpanzee - December 13, 2007

Cheating Scandal Divides Kansas Town


This is a story about a teacher who sacrificed her career when she took a moral stand against cheating; about the school board that overruled her; and about a town that was torn apart by that decision.

At the center of this storm is Christine Pelton, a teacher at Piper High School, in Piper, Kansas. She wouldn’t let her students get away with cheating.

“I hold my kids to high expectations. And I’m not lowering my expectations for these kids,” she says.

Pelton was so adamant about honesty that she made her students – and their parents – sign a contract.
[ this is probably what your wife needs to do ]

Rule number seven couldn’t be clearer: “Cheating and plagiarism will result in the failure of the assignment. It is expected that all work turned in is completely their own.”

What is plagiarism, to Pelton? “It is copying things word for word and using it as your own material.”
She turned to Turnitin.com, a new Web service that compares student papers to worldwide databases. The verdict: 28 of her students – nearly one quarter of the entire sophomore class – had plagiarized.
[ What!!!??? ]

The students won the backing of their parents. “The problem in her classroom wasn’t with the students, but with the teacher,” says one parent.
[ What!!!?? The cheating students weren’t the problem?? ]
The parents were so upset that they went to the school board and demanded the teacher be overruled. In an unprecedented move, the board agreed. It made the Leaf Project count for much less of the total grade. All the kids who failed the class for cheating, would now pass.

Pelton says her authority had been completely undermined, “taken away in a moment’s decision, it was just wiped away.” Her students now knew that her word was no longer law, as long as it could be reversed by the school board.

“I knew I couldn’t teach,” she says. “I left at noon and didn’t come back. I resigned. ”
[ This is what I did. I left Academia for good in ’84, left Caltech/JPL in ’88. I can’t work with cheaters ]

Pelton, has become something of a national hero for standing by her principles, but at Piper High, the scandal has tarnished guilty and innocent alike.
Not only are students using the Internet to cut, paste and plagiarize, Whitmore says, they also are visiting cheating sites and downloading high-tech tools like so-called magic labels.

On that site, students find 20-ounce Coke bottle labels with blank space where the ingredients usually are listed. Students can type test answers in this space, paste the label on their bottles and keep the bottles on their desks during an exam.
[ What!!??? Man, that is sick & twisted ]

“It probably sounds twisted, but I would say that in this day and age, cheating is almost not wrong. Because it’s any way that you can get an advantage,” says a 17-year-old high school senior who has an almost perfect grade-point average. He spoke only if his name was not used.

Ironically, he says cheating is most prevalent among the smartest students “because they have to get that four point whatever to get into your Ivy League school. I’ve always been told you have to go to the best college you can, you have to go to the Ivy League to succeed in life. If I can get the advantage by doing this, why not?”
[ What!!?? You mean some of those undergrads at Ivy League schools cheated? ]

Pelton sees it differently.

“No, I don’t think I missed a teachable moment. I think the Board of Education missed a teachable moment: Teaching that doing the right thing is the right thing to do.”

The scientific-term for the above is “Convergent Evolution”. The same environmental conditions (cellphone, Internet, high-school environment) will lead to similar evolved animals (cheaters-losers). A rascal is a rascal.

If the above is true, then your wife could possibly be looking at irate parents going to the school-board.. Pass the cheaters or get fired. Remember, politics overrules everything else.

Technology is a double-edged sword, it has exacerbated an age-old problem: “If you’re not cheatin’, you’re not trying hard enough”.

14. chimpanzee - December 13, 2007

“Seven Views of War” (War Heroes)

My father always taught me, you can’t be something you’re NOT that you must be what you ARE..
[ “Know Thyself” ]

& as he expressed it: Son… There’s no Right way to do Wrong
[ “Honesty is the Best Policy” ]

& uh..I have held that dear..uh..just those few little phrases all my life. Uh…at the time being a young man, I didn’t understand it then but I do now, but uh..it’s made a difference in my life too.
[ he used those principles to work hard, & won the Congressional Medal of Honor ]

It’s one of the greatest feelings I’ve ever had in my life..to look at me.. All right Botes, you’re in command..of a Man O’War. It might have been a small Man O’War..but it was a Man O’War.
To me, it was the same as if it was a battleship & uh,.. I grasped that opportunity & so did every man in the outfit with me
uh..to PROVE.. that we were GOOD people, that we could LEAD..
& that we could CONTRIBUTE.

[ your wife’s high-school has a rich tradition in academics (my high-school produced 3 Nobel-Laureates: English, Physics ’76, Economics ’82), producing the future leaders of tomorrow. Contribute to the world, etc ]

White House ceremony:
“On the Mekong river, Repulbic of Vietnam, 31 Oct 1966
Under the leadership of Bosens Mate Wiiliams who demonstrated
unusual professional skill & indominable courage throughout the 3 hr battle the patrol contributed to the destruction or loss of 65 enemy boats & inflicted numerous casualties on the enemy personnel.

Now, THAT’S a great example to teach kids..Leadership thru Example. It’s called “Old School”, something that’s desperately missing in our Orwellian “Brave New World”: Ethics has declined & Technology has exacerbated it.

“We do it the Old Fashioned Way..we EARN IT”
— investment commercial

“Discipline Creates Performance”
— commercial featuring Lance Armstrong (7-time Tour de France champ)

Human history becomes more and more a race between Education and Catastrophe… Yet, clumsily or smoothly, the world, it seems, progresses and will progress.:
— H.G. Welles

So, if “education is the key” (increasing science awareness, & therefore funding), & the education is now FAILING.. Catastrophe.

I was shocked to hear Amara describe a failing funding situation in her field, & that she’s eventually leaving her job?? I spoke with Melissa Franklin/Harvard (experimental particle physicist) in ’05, & she told me “it’s depressing” (funding situation). My “career” (I view it like “playing”, which is L. Motl’s attitude as well) is frought with funding issues & layoffs. Science as a whole (worldwide) is in trouble. Just heard that the UK is pulling out of the ILC.

“Is this any way to run a country? [ or high school, university, etc ]”

“Suppose there was a War [ “war against ignorance..increasing knowledge”, what Science is about ], & NOBODY showed up [ all the students were cheaters/slackers ]”

15. dorigo - December 13, 2007

Hi Bob,

alas, you put the finger on the soft spot. Indeed, my wife understood that in her school these things are tolerated, for political reasons (the prestige of the school, the influence of some parents, etc.).

Thank you for the story of ms. Pelton. I did not know it, and I found it very enlightening. I will have my wife read it too.

Funny thing you mention Melissa, she is a good friend of mine…

And I unfortunately have to agree, education is the key, and it is indeed failing. I am torn between a fatalist point of view, in the hope that humanity will overcome its shortcomings once again, and a more cynically rational one, that sees it perish in its own decadence.


16. dorigo - December 13, 2007

Andrea, I know too little of Japanese society to try guessing. It seems to me a culture where cheating is not allowed, and considered a real crime. But maybe I am biased. For sure, I think Japan will get more and more relaxed with whatever strict rules they now have – it’s in the cards worldwide.


17. Vera - December 13, 2007

I am a student of thi fifth year of Liceo Classico, and very luckily nothing like this has ever happened in my school classes. But I know this things use to happen sometimes. The problem is that many teen-agers see school as an unuseful enemy and they are supported in this idea by their parents, who think that school is important only when it permits you to gain a better-paid work, and no more. I think that the simple cheating, for esample putting a written paper into your vocabulary before the test, is something completely unbearable. Many students I know accuse me of being a nerd who only cares about the marks: what should I say of someone who, only in the hope of getting a better mark but without really understanding anything, cheats?

18. Amara - December 13, 2007

Dear chimpanzee,
(don’t worry) I didn’t leave my field.
If you’ve been reading Tommaso’s blog for a while, then you are aware of the low scientific salaries in Italy. Even though I didn’t move in 2003 to Italy for the job (I was in love), I thought I could make the salary work somehow, but foreigners can’t really unless they have financial support from somewhere because housing is so expensive. All of my Italian colleagues in Rome have property that their families gave them or gave them substantial help to buy or they had other lucky financial circumstances. In my old institute also, resources such as computers are not automatic and travel is irregularly funded and reimbursed 4+ months later. To help me with my perpetual financial difficulties, I taught astronomy for two years at a private university at night, until Italian taxes seemed to take that money too. The eighty hour work weeks for years at a time was too much for me though especially on top of the immigration stuff (always problems) and broken infrastructure, and at the end, I looked for ways to escape Italy. I spent 9 months writing grant proposals and won my 4th grant, but it came too late to help (I carried it with me though). Last fall, one of my plans, my ‘Plan C’ worked, and I left Italy, ironically while my old institute was offering me a permanent position (I politely said no). Now I’m in Boulder Colorado at the Southwest Research Institute as of a few weeks ago. It was sort of a ‘crash landing’ : in late October and November, I had a concentration of what I experienced in the previous years (thefts, complications, mistakes, problems, a desperate money situation). It was a difficult way to arrive at my new job, but the shock and numbness has worn off now, and I consider my position to be like making a fresh start in a great research institute that has excellent resources and support and in a great town in a beautiful location, so I’ll be fine. I have ways possible to me to return to Europe some day, but for now this is an excellent place to recover.

19. chimpanzee - December 17, 2007


Thanks for your heroic story of “struggle”.

“Then the father explains: “People call this ECHO, but really this is LIFE.
It gives you back everything you say or do. Our life is simply a reflection of our actions. If you want more love in the world, create more love in your heart.
If you want more competence in your team, improve your competence.
This relationship applies to everything, in all aspects of life;
Life will give you back everything you have given to it.
Echo of Life

Crazy coincidence. (I interviewed with SWRI after graduating in ’84)

Are you aware of the Space Science Institute? (in Boulder/CO). The SSI is an “alternative-model” to science research, they let researchers work *remotely*. This could be a good match for you (might let you work from Europe). Part of their program is public outreach, so this is a good fit (being friends with F. Terenzi. BTW, she gave a talk at my local astronomy club yrs ago.)

I’ve had some contact with both

– Carolyn Porco (formerly U of Arizona), Director/Mission Operations/Cassini Imaging Team Leader
spoke to her 2 yrs ago, about my Interdisciplinary Initiative. Involves fancy new numerical methods for data-reduction (Genetic Algorithms, MRM/Multiresolution Modeling, etc)

– Heidi Hammel (formerly MIT). Co-Director/Research & Planetary Sciences
contacted her in ’96, referred a NPR (?) reporter to her Re: Carl Sagan’s death. The NPR reporter wanted to interview me (saw my post on sci.astro.amateur).

HH has gone thru JPL, CP visits JPL for Cassini (Image Processing Lab, where I used to work), your career path has also intersected JPL. Seems like a lot of “common ground”, ex JPL’ers (FOUR of them, me & you 3) looking for an “alternative path” to do Science. Your story just reeks of struggle against the Establishment (like mine). I think you should contact them, & explore ideas.

So, keep on working & networking. I’m working on some plans (Funding, Science Outreach, Research Program), & lately some REALLY EXCITING stuff is developing.

Just to stay on topic, the above is an example of how to BEAT cheating. Need role models like Amara: “Class always figures out a way to win”, “Winners Never Quit, Quitters [ Cheaters ] Never Win”. Working hard, & interacting with fellow scientists.

“Facts Tell [ what Scientists do ], Stories Sell [ Scientific Outreach to public ]”
— Auto Racing maxim
[ the niche-market I’ve been exploring, using photos/videos/QTVR panoramas to give a “face” to Science ]

[ I really like how they use posters of women scientists. Check out “I am a Computer Scientist” (I know Eve Schooler/Caltech when she was here). Stories need to be complimented with “visuals”. ]

“Why are informal discussions so important? The obvious reason is that it’s easier to understand what other people are doing when they explain it in person than when you read about it in dry scientific prose. But for me, it’s even more important that you can ask questions and understand context. Sometimes you can make connections and get started in new directions that weren’t obvious until you really understood how the other person is thinking.”
-Sue Coppersmith/Physicist (Dept Head/Univ of Wisconsin)
“Informal discussions”. Funny thing. A seemingly innocent thread on Cheating, my random reference to Amara, has blossomed into solutions (possible future opportunities for AG). All because, T. Dorigo’s blog is “open architecture”.

Here are links to C. Porco & H. Hammel

Good read from HH:

Personal: Have you had this career your entire life or has it been difficult to find a steady job?

These are two different questions. The answer to the first is yes and the answer to the second is yes. In the field of “traditional” astronomy, most people expect to end up working as professors at colleges or universities. Since the number of astronomers has gone up while the number of faculty positions has gone down, it’s not a sure bet that a young person will find a stable job.
[ what happened to R. Knopp ]

Most are spending years in multiple post-doctoral positions or can only find “soft-money” non-tenure-track jobs (this is what I have: it means my job is never secure, and I have to spend most of my time writing proposals to NASA or the National Science Foundation to bring in enough funding to pay my salary). Nevertheless, there are still a few jobs here and there scattered around the world, and with hard work and luck and a willingness to travel, a motivated young person can succeed in that traditional path. Because the “traditional” path is becoming less practical, many young astronomers are looking into alternative careers. Since astronomers are strongly skilled in computing programming and internet skills, they have market potential in e-business, in the financial world, as programmers, and other types of computer-related jobs.

General: What are some advantages and disadvantages of having a career in this field?

The good things about astronomy are too numerous to count. For many of us, it is a pleasure to be studying the universe. The pluses are that you actually get to do this as a JOB!!! You are actually paid — by your college or by a government contract or grant — to investigate some very exciting aspects of the universe and the objects in it. You are doing work that is truly fundamental, and contributes to the sum total of human knowledge.

The down side is that the quality of jobs in astronomy is decreasing as more temporary positions lasting 1-2 years, at low salary, are offsetting the traditional secure, tenured or civil service, positions. Most of us are constantly under stress to find funding. Many young astronomers may get a ‘post-doc’ after a long hard battle to get a Phd, and then find their careers terminated because there were no openings for them. Even us ‘middle-agers’ have these stresses, because after 10 or 15 years as active researchers, some of us may find ourselves too expensive for what we do than younger astronomers willing to do nearly the same work at 20 – 30 percent lower salaries, and with less experience. The other stress is the repeated forecasts that the NASA space research budget will be declining by over 30 percent in the next 7 years. For many astronomers, NASA grants are the difference between astronomy as a career and a hobby!

20. dorigo - December 17, 2007

Hi Chimpanzee,

well, you are a sure source of funny quotes. I think we should all be thankful that we are able to work on something which is our main interest in our life (or nearly so). However, once one has thanked for a while, one gets bored with it and just starts wondering why one has to live a life of shortages when what he or she does is important for everybody…


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