I busted two kids for cheating in my AP Computer Science class today. What I didn’t know last night, while researching and documenting the way they cheated, is how much I would learn from that experience.
Back in October 2009, we in San Francisco heard a lot about “Restorative Justice” when our school board (lead by then-president and now city supervisor Jane Kim) adopted a resolution creating a “Restorative Justice Framework” to be implemented in the current 2010-11 school year. Since the school where I work, Galileo, already has a very low rate of suspensions and expulsions, I didn’t expect to see much impact. I might be in the dean’s office once a year on a non-social basis. I think in my four years here I’ve written a total of two referrals. To me, “Restorative Justice” was just a catch phrase that didn’t really mean anything.
Then, today, I needed to figure out how to deal with these students who had cheated. Specifically, they copied solutions for an extra-credit assignment from a web site. Not only is there a problem with academic integrity here, but it screws up my data! I had seen some previous indications that completion of these additional exercises (provided on the wonderful CodingBat) was strongly correlated with exam performance. Then this year, I didn’t see the correlation. Now I’ll need to go back, remove these false data points, and redo my analysis.
Since I’m learning Python this year, I decided to put together a little Python script to parse the suspect student solutions from the CodingBat web site and spit out the student code into correctly named directories and text files so they’re easy to diff against the posted solutions. (Use DownThemAll to get all the individual HTML and text files.)
By the way, fellow teachers, let’s not pretend these solutions aren’t out there for all the assignments we give. We need to address the issue of academic integrity in a world of Google and Yahoo Answers head on, both by letting students know that we’re aware of this reality and by giving them clear guidelines on what constitutes academic dishonesty. I know my syllabus will have a new section on this next year.
As I ran my script and collected evidence, it was disappointing to see just how many verbatim, character-for-character matches had been entered. The completely identical answers combined with the timestamps in CodingBat confirmed for me that this was not original work. These students would copy and paste for 20-40 minutes at a time, getting as many as 70 solutions entered during a session. That’s kind of a long time time to sit and just copy-paste.
And still the question remained… what exactly should I do about it? Obviously they lose the credit for the assignments, but what else? What is an appropriate punishment? This is where Restorative Justice provided an interesting and useful answer. My understanding of the process, limited to just my experience using it today, is that it centers around a series of questions that the transgressor tries to answer:
“What were you thinking about at the time?”
“What have you thought about since?”
“Who has been affected by what you have done? In what way?”
“What do you think you need to do to make things right?
What I like about this approach is that it puts the work of figuring out the situation and facing its full complexity on the transgressor. Instead of the authority figure giving a lecture or handing down a punishment that the student endures, they are forced to grind through the whole thing themselves. Of course, as they work on it I can set the bar higher if an answer isn’t satisfactory, and I did have to do that several times today.
For example, one student started out equivocating on the very first question, “What happened?” And instead of getting into an argument about it, I just said, “Well, some of the evidence I have indicates that you’ve done more than just use the posted solutions for ideas or reference.” I put the results of my diff on the table and then I let him try again at answering the question. So this is not a way that people get off the hook for what they’ve done.
I think in some circles Restorative Justice (RJ) has been presented as or labeled a “soft” solution that avoids actual punishment. But what I saw today was a much more satisfying solution to a the problem than an arbitrary and possibly ineffective punishment. As the dean and I stepped the two students (individually) through the process of answering the set of questions, I decided to throw in my own: “Are there any other cases, in this or any other class, where you crossed the line from research into academic dishonesty or plagiarism?” Now I’m not sure if the answer would have come out via another process, but I want to give some credit to RJ for helping one student admit that, yes, there were other classes in which this happened.
Then we let the student try to answer the question about who had been affected. It’s easy to say “you” or “me” in that situation, but with some prompting it also came out that the classmates (facing an unfair advantage) and the school community (living with an atmosphere of fraud) are also negatively impacted by cheating. And what needs to happen to make it right? Well, their previous semester grades both dropped by one letter without the extra credit. These changes to their transcripts need to be sent to colleges where they’ve applied. Their parents need to know what happened. Other teachers who weren’t aware of cheating in their classes need to be told the truth and given apologies. But these answers didn’t come from me.
In many situations where the student has done or is doing the wrong thing — which can be discipline situations like this one, or ongoing low academic performance, or any number of other teenage problems — the adults in the room often dominate the conversation. The more adults, the worse it gets. I’ve been in Student Success Team (SST) meetings where the student hardly says a word. Everyone wants to help, but we don’t really know how.
Restorative Justice feels very different. We give space for the student to think and respond. We demand answers that are honest and satisfying to those who have been wronged. And, in the end, we actually resolve the problem.