Parents and students didn't agree on much at Tuesday's school board meeting on what further reforms would improve the learning environment and emotional health for Palo Alto teens, but they did speak with a single voice on one issue: cheating.
Addressing the high rate of cheating by Palo Alto high school students surfaced because it is one of six areas being targeted by a grass-roots group calling itself "Save the 2,008," a reference to the number of staff and students at Gunn High School when a second teen died by suicide last November.
Save the 2,008 co-founder and former Gunn English teacher Marc Vincenti took advantage of a rarely used state law requiring that a school board place an item on its agenda when formally requested by a member of the public.
So Vincenti, who has persistently appeared before the board to promote the group's ideas for improving student health during limited public comment opportunities, presented a road map that includes reducing class size, homework, AP courses, cellphone use at school, the number of grade reports during each semester, and cheating.
Vincenti and his proposals -- particularly the one to ban the use of cellphones during the school day -- have not generally been well-received by Gunn students, a handful of whom complained Tuesday night, as they have previously, that their views are neither solicited nor considered by policy-makers.
The students are still upset about Superintendent Max McGee's poor handling of his decision to eliminate the so-called "zero" period, which he announced over spring break and only afterward reached out to students.
But past disagreements aside, Vincenti has clearly struck a chord among all stakeholders on academic integrity.
With the exception of board member Camille Townsend, who chose to question the data and the experience of the two high school principals, McGee and the rest of the board seized on the cheating topic as one of priority importance.
While anecdotal evidence of cheating at Paly and Gunn abounds, few students get caught and disciplined. Palo Alto High School Principal Kim Diorio described a school culture of secrecy around cheating, and said those who are caught often are high-achieving students who didn't prepare adequately for a test and felt a desperate need to achieve an 'A' at any cost.
An April story on cheating in Verde Magazine, a student publication at Paly, described a group of 20 high-performing seniors that had banned together to cheat since their sophomore year and were headed off to top colleges.
In 2014, in the most publicized incident, 112 Algebra 2 final exams at Paly were thrown out after it was discovered that pictures of the exam had been taken and circulated to students.
And a spring survey conducted of 1,500 Gunn students by Stanford University-based Challenge Success on a range of topics found that incidents of cheating increased during high school years and that 87 percent of students said they had engaged in at least one cheating behavior.
The most common reported cheating was working on an assignment with others when the instructor asked for individual work. A third of all students said they did this four or more times during the year.
A similar survey will be administered later this month at Paly, but the results at Gunn are consistent with national research conducted by the Educational Testing Service which shows between 75 and 98 percent of college students say they cheated in high school.
We are pleased to see McGee and board members elevate this issue to priority status, reflecting what appears to be a problem of epidemic proportions nationwide at high-achieving school districts and which then carries over to top-flight universities. This spring Stanford Provost John Etchemendy sounded an alarm over academic integrity after about 20 percent of the students in an introductory computer science class were suspected of cheating on an exam.
Perhaps the most insidious part of cheating, especially among teens, is the stress and anguish it creates for students who struggle with the dilemma of whether to cheat in order to achieve results comparable to others they know are cheating. If cheating has become normative behavior in our high schools, then urgent action is needed to expose it and to change expectations.
Many teachers are working hard to devise better ways to combat cheating, and we hope McGee and the board push ahead with ideas for a student-written honor code, education on academic honesty, an effective system for reporting, and changing the culture of secrecy so that students feel a responsibility for the academic integrity of their schools.