In the wake of the local SAT cheating scandal, an editorial and several articles in this newspaper recommended penalizing cheaters and adopting various test-taking safeguards. A recent article here (May 5) discussed state Sen. LaValle’s proposed legislation to increase SAT and ACT security procedures and to create criminal penalties for students who cheat on these tests.
This is of course all well and good.
However, we may also want to think about what we, as parents, can do to raise children who would never dream of cheating on a test in the first place. This Mothers’ Day and Fathers’ Day season reminds me of the wonderful lessons taught by my parents.
One key concept that my parents imparted was that the purpose of education is the actual learning – the knowledge and skills that you acquire. My Dad – who had escaped from Nazi Germany in 1938 – used to say: “They can take material things away from you – your money, your house, your furniture – but you carry what you’ve learned within you wherever you go.”
A child who is taught to focus on real learning has no incentive or need to cheat.
Taking this a step further, a child taught to love and find satisfaction in learning has no incentive to cheat. My parents made learning about the world exciting and interesting. At the dinner table, we discussed and debated historical and current events. My parents took an interest in what we were learning in school, and taught us additional subjects ahead of the school timetable.
Another concept imparted was that while it is important to strive for top grades and for admission to the best schools, these aspirations are not the “be all and end all” of life. My parents frequently mentioned people who had received less-than-stellar grades and board scores and attended modestly ranked colleges, and had gone on to become very successful through sheer determination and hard work. One such example was a family friend who received a 500 (out of 800) on his SATs and went to a middling-ranked college. He volunteered in hospitals and worked extremely hard, and was accepted to medical school and became a respected physician.
Some of the most wildly successful people today demonstrate that hard work in a chosen field can trump attending an Ivy League college. Oprah Winfrey attended Tennessee State University. “Judge Judy” attended a law school that had a low ranking at that time. Self-made billionaire philanthropist Sheldon Adelson dropped out of City College.
Interestingly, during his “60 Minutes” interview, a Great Neck test-taker-for-hire stated that, by giving an “amazing score” to a kid who paid him to take the SAT, “I totally give him this like, a new lease on life. He’s gonna go to a totally new college, he’s gonna be bound for a totally new career and a totally new path in life.” This is the sort of thinking that parents can guard their children against. Parents can remind their children that there are many paths to success, and that not all of them depend on attending a particular type of college.
And, as my parents imparted, parents can also remind their children that there are other things – one’s good name, health, family and simply being alive – that are far more important than a grade on a test or attending a particular school.
My parents also let us know that if you tried your best, that was what counted – and they reassured us that they knew that we were trying our best and that they had confidence in our abilities.
While I was an undergraduate student at Cornell University, my parents and youngest sister wrote a beautiful joint letter to me (which I’ve saved to this day) after I received a disappointing score on an important test. They wrote:
“Please do not be upset about this, take care of yourself and we know that you do your best. That is all one can expect. . . . If you read the news, you read mainly about all kinds of serious crime, muggings and other calamities, sickness and death. So if you consider all that, I think your problems are minor. So be grateful for what you have, be satisfied and happy. . . . We realize you are working hard; you are under a strain but once this semester is over, it will be easier and you will have the satisfaction of a job well done. . . . Please don’t be upset. . . . You’ve got what it takes. Almost anything you want can be yours. Smile!”
This sort of encouragement and acceptance means the world to children. One of my Long Island Railroad buddies studied with the great violin teacher, Dorothy DeLay. I asked my train buddy what DeLay’s secret was, how she had transformed her students into the world’s most famous violinists. My train buddy said that Delay was warm and encouraging. She made practicing seem easy, instilled confidence, and had a “you can do it” attitude.
Self-confidence, a “you can do it” attitude, and the understanding that trying your best is what counts are all great antidotes to cheating.
Indeed, the kids caught up in the local cheating scandal believed the opposite. They believed that their own efforts were doomed to fail. During the “60 Minutes” interview, the test-taker-for-hire described his typical “customer” as a kid “who no matter how much he studies, is gonna totally bomb this test.”
In fact, someone who studies intensively will not inevitably “totally bomb the test.” A legal colleague told me that he raised his LSAT score from below 600 to a perfect 800 by repeatedly taking practice tests under simulated testing conditions, week after week after week. As Louis Pasteur said, “My strength lies solely in my tenacity.”
Parents can help make sure that their children have enough self confidence and self respect to know that studying and hard work can make a difference, and to understand that what counts in the end is what they’ve learned and that they honorably tried, not what they scored.
I hope that readers had a beautiful Mothers’ Day, and wish readers a very happy Fathers’ Day.
Elizabeth Berney, Esq.