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Day School World Gauging Fallout From SAT Scandal

Day School World Gauging Fallout From SAT Scandal

Schools worry about ‘guilt by proximity’ as Great Neck story unfolds; calls for more ethics lessons.

With two North Shore Hebrew Academy students and a graduate now charged in the expanding Nassau County investigation of SAT cheating, some observers in the Jewish day school world are expressing disappointment and embarrassment and wondering if Jewish day schools need to step up existing programs aimed at instilling ethics and preventing cheating.

Meanwhile, the scandal — in which 20 people, many of them Jewish and from Great Neck, have been charged with paying someone to take the SAT on their behalf or fraudulently taking the college entrance exam in exchange for payment of up to $3,600 — has students and parents at the Solomon Schechter Day School of Nassau County and High School of Long Island worrying about their own college application process “being damaged through ‘guilt by proximity.’”

In an e-mail interview, Cindy Dolgin, head of the Conservative-affiliated Schechter, whose high school recently moved to a new campus in Williston Park, said, “Believe me, it was not necessary for the administration to address the students about the cheating scandal because they have very vocally addressed us. Our students are appalled and sickened by the thought that students would cheat on the SAT’s, are embarrassed that students at other local high schools would stoop to that level, and are concerned that it may somehow negatively impact their own chances to gain acceptance to the schools of their choice.”

While most Jewish day schools contacted by The Jewish Week did not return calls or e-mails requesting an interview about their reactions to the cheating scandal, those that did, like Schechter, said that preventing cheating has long been a high priority.

Ellis Bloch, associate director of the Jewish Education Project’s day school department, said he is personally “disappointed” and that “we’re all embarrassed that this happened within the context of our own community.” However, he said he is “not surprised” and emphasized that yeshivas and day schools are hardly oblivious to academic cheating. Instead, it’s something they “take very seriously.”

Bloch wonders whether similar cheating cases will be uncovered in other affluent communities as well and if “this is something that is more problematic in schools in which the expectations for students and parents are very high in terms of what colleges they’re going to get into.” (Students at Great Neck North High School, Great Neck South High School and St. Mary’s have also been implicated in the cheating scandal.)

Indeed, some observers are wondering if the scandal is a natural consequence of the “hysterical quest for perfect grades, the Tiger mother goal of getting your kid into Harvard or Yale only,” that is pervasive in many pockets of the Jewish community, as well as the broader American society, as noted by Shira Dicker, a mother of an SAR High School student, on her “Bungalow Babe” blog.

“Obviously, it is false to claim that the kids arrested in the scandal were powerless to resist the urge to cheat, driven by overwhelming social or parental pressure to commit what amounts to hardcore criminal acts,” Dicker wrote, “but it is also foolish to pretend that there is not a harmful emphasis on academic super achievement and a short A-list of schools that many ambitious, high achieving parents consider acceptable for their own children.

“Add the affluence factor that enables mediocre students to pay up to $3,500 for stellar SAT or ACT scores — and perhaps a tacit message from parents that this kind of thing is not so bad, after all, what do standardized tests prove anyway? — and buying your way into a top university becomes a consumer sport, akin to buying a pair of shoes on,” she added.

Of course it’s hard these days to be shocked by Jewish involvement in major scandals. The past few years have seen Ponzi schemer Bernard Madoff, disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff and kosher slaughterhouse CEO Sholom Rubashkin (convicted on 86 counts of financial fraud), as well as countless sexual abuse cases with Jewish (sometimes rabbinic) perpetrators, and a wide range of corruption and sex abuse scandals involving Israeli politicians.

Nonetheless, the SAT case is new if only because of the age of the alleged scandal makers, and because it highlights the fact that undergoing an intensive Jewish education — and living a ritually observant life — does not necessarily lead to ethical behavior.

Adding to the embarrassment: Adam Justin, the North Shore grad (now enrolled at Indiana University) charged with taking the test for others, is from a relatively prominent family. His father is past president of the Young Israel of Great Neck, and a wing of that synagogue is named for the family.

Officials with North Shore Hebrew Academy declined to be interviewed for this article.

“At this point, due to the ongoing investigation of the Nassau County District Attorney the North Shore Hebrew Academy HS does not believe it would be appropriate to make any comment,” wrote Daniel Vitow, the headmaster, in an e-mail response.

But like most Jewish day schools and yeshivas, the school publicly touts its commitment to Jewish values and to creating future leaders.

“The values that emanate from the Talmud and Tanach classes must not remain static, trapped in the hallowed Hebrew texts,” says its mission statement. “They must guide and inspire our students…”

On North Shore’s website, a description of its Judaic studies program notes that the school “develops [a] desire to live a life led in accordance with the Torah and Jewish values,” and says “we have the responsibility to be an incubator for future leadership of both the local and world Jewish communities.”

Dolgin and other Jewish high school heads told The Jewish Week they try to prevent cheating through a combination of teaching, discussions — and strict penalties.

Everyone interviewed cited the law against gnivat da’at, literally “theft of someone’s mind,” as a key Jewish source in teaching why plagiarism and cheating is wrong.

“Often students don’t think of cheating as theft,” explained Rabbi Yonatan Yussman, head of the Jewish High School of Connecticut, a pluralistic school in Bridgeport that opened in 2010. “But thinking of it as stealing a thought, stealing someone’s work — often that’s a game-changer for kids” in recognizing the gravity of the transgression, he added.

Schechter’s Dolgin referred to the passage in Pirke Avot that states, “Torah is greater than Priesthood and Royalty. Royalty is acquired through 30 virtues, Priesthood through 24. Torah, however, is acquired through 48 virtues.”

In listing the 48 virtues for acquiring Torah, the text concludes with “by quoting one’s source,” Dolgin said, citing this as “the basis upon which plagiarism and assuming another's intellectual identity, for example, are categorized as academic dishonesty at Schechter.”

Administrators also emphasized the importance not only of punishing cheating offenses, but of proactively fostering ethical decision-making in teens and encouraging them to internalize values.

“Ultimately,” said Rabbi Jay Goldmintz, head of the upper school of Manhattan’s Ramaz, which is Modern Orthodox, “ethics are generally caught not taught. It’s about creating an atmosphere where integrity is held to be a primary value and adolescents learn by example from the adults around them both in school and at home.”

Schechter of Long Island addresses “academic honesty and integrity on an ongoing, even daily basis” and “by design, the culture of” the school “makes it less likely than in most schools that students will resort to cheating,” Dolgin said.

Cheating is discussed in both Judaic and general studies, as well as special programs, she said, citing a “student-initiated symposium on academic honesty, which dealt with issues such as plagiarism and cheating.”

Dolgin said her school also seeks to reduce the college admissions pressure that often spurs cheating by “not ‘ranking’ students or selecting a valedictorian and salutatorian. Our philosophy is based on students building real and legitimate self-esteem, where they compete with themselves to always strive to improve their personal best, and to push each other up the ladder of success, through study groups and peer tutoring.”

Instilling ethics and avoiding cheating is at the core of the Jewish High School of Connecticut’s founding mission, said Rabbi Yussman, who previously headed a k-12 Jewish day school in Nevada.

Like Bloch, Rabbi Yussman said the Great Neck scandal “unfortunately doesn’t surprise me.”

At his new school, which, with only ninth, 10th and 11th grades so far has yet to see students all the way through the college admissions pressure cooker, ethics and “ethical decision making” is “at the forefront of our curriculum.”

The goal is to “instill internal reasoning in the kids so they consciously choose the right decision, instead of just not doing something out of fear, which in my experience doesn’t work. Don’t cheat or you’ll be punished — then it’s like with speeding tickets, where you only slow down when see a cop. In high school, when kids are out of your sight, they are only going to do the right thing if they internalize the values, not because they fear the punishment.”

The school’s mission, he said, focuses on three things: pluralistic Judaism, critical thinking and being a responsible, ethical person.

“I tell the kids that to be a successful graduate, you need to be a responsible decision maker,” he said. “If you just get A-plusses, but are not a good person, you’re not a successful graduate. You need to be an A-plus student, but also an A-plus human being.”

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