Did the 'Melk Man' Learn to Cheat at Stuyvesant High School?

National League's Melky Cabrera, of the San Francisco Giants, shows off his MVP trophy after the MLB All-Star baseball game T
National League's Melky Cabrera, of the San Francisco Giants, shows off his MVP trophy after the MLB All-Star baseball game Tuesday, July 10, 2012, in Kansas City, Mo. The National League won 8-0. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)

Cheating scandals break in the media everyday. Finding a competitive edge, even if it involves bending or breaking rules you consider arbitrary in the first place, is endemic to American society. Most of us "cheat" when we drive above the posted speed limit. According to one study, seven out of ten motorists speed. Baseball players "cheat" using performance enhancing drugs. Cyclists "cheat" by blood doping. The wealthy, including Presidential candidates, "cheat" by finding loopholes that let them avoid paying their fair share of income taxes. The Republican Party "cheats" by trying to block voting in minority communities. Apparently, the crime is not cheating, only getting caught.

No, Melky "the Melk Man" Cabrera did not attend Stuyvesant High School in Manhattan, an elite institution renown for Nobel prize winners and students who cheat on standardized tests. He grew up in Santo Domingo Oeste in the Dominican Republic and starting playing professional baseball there at age seventeen.

Melky was born in a country where the vast majority of people living below the official poverty line, which is over 40 percent of the total population lack indoor plumbing and running water, twenty percent do not have electricity, and most people do not complete primary school. Two-dozen United States major league baseball teams have training and recruitment facilities in the Dominican Republic and the country supplies more major league baseball players than any other country outside the U.S., so it is not surprising that Melky and many of his contemporaries turned to baseball as a way of escaping conditions in the DR.

The story of Melky's downfall and the test scandal at Stuyvesant have painful similarities. In both cases, cheating offered a very high payback for relatively low risk and seemed consistent with the culture of the institution and society.

Cabrera, a former Yankee and current outfielder for the San Francisco Giants, was suspended for 50 games starting on August 15, 2012 following a positive test for the performance-enhancing steroid/hormone testosterone, which is banned by Major League Baseball. Cabrera, an average player who suddenly blossomed as a star, was the Most Valuable Player in the 2012 All-Star game. Cabrera issued a statement acknowledged his guilt and apologizing for using a banned substance.

Melky joins a long listed of baseball players who have been accused of using performance enhancing drugs. Alphabetically they include Barry Bonds, the all-time home run champion, Ken Caminiti, who died of a drug overdose in 2004, Jose Canseco who has admitted using banned drugs and testified against other players, Roger Clemens, who was twice tried for lying to Congress about drug use but never convicted, Jason and Jeremy Giambi, home run champion and former record holder Mark McGuire, David Ortiz, Rafael Palmeiro, Andy Petite, the twice suspended Manny Ramirez, Yankee third baseman Alex Rodriguez (a 12 time All-Star and three time most valuable player), and Sammy Sosa who hit 609 home runs, number eight on the all time baseball list.

Melky and these players "cheated" because apparently they believed all their competitors were, because the rewards for cheating are contracts worth tens of millions dollars (Alex Rodriguez has a 10-year, $275 million contract with the Yankees), and because even if you are caught, you still make mega-bucks. Melky Cabrera was scheduled to be paid $6 million in 2012 and even with the 50 game suspension from baseball he will collect over $4 million this year from the San Francisco Giants. If he had not been caught taking testosterone, Cabrera was in line to sign a multi-year $50 million contract that would have started next year

At Stuyvesant High School in June, a student was caught photographing a statewide Spanish exam using a cell phone and texting the images to approximately 80 other students. The incident led to the resignation of the school's principal. Cheating at Stuyvesant was probably widespread. In 2010, an editorial in the school's student newspaper, charged that "academic dishonesty" at Stuyvesant was "firmly entrenched" but rarely punished. Among other things, "If you walk down any hallway in the building you are almost guaranteed to see students copying homework."

Part of the problem is that it may be difficult for Stuyvesant students to distinguish between legal and illegal forms of cheating. Few would consider it cheating to study for the New York City Specialized High School Admissions Test using a Barron's Review book (list price $16.99) even though it contains three full-length practice tests based on past exams.

But is it cheating when families pay thousands of dollars for private tutors to prepare children for the test by having them review old tests over and over again? Admission to Stuyvesant is so competitive because it is seen as an avenue to Ivy League colleges and high paying careers that thousands of families pay astronomical sums for the tutoring every year. Prices range widely. Based on online advertising, New York Academics offers one-on-one instruction at fees ranging from $100 to $120 per hour. The Kaplan company offers individual SHSAT Premier Tutoring starting at $2,599 and class at $849. The Princeton Review also has multiple levels of preparation. Its Premier Level cost $6,300, its Master Level cost $3,879, and its low-cost online offering is a bargain at only $1,500. The Kuei Luck Enrichment Center in Fresh Meadows, Queens targets Chinese-American students and offers tutoring for only $2,200.

Why is it cheating to copy homework or send your friends a text of the test, but not cheating to review the test questions over and over again with a paid tutor in advance?

Of course Stuyvesant students are not the only ones who are cheating on tests and homework. In fact, it seems almost everyone is. In 2009, the Atlanta Constitution discovered that teachers and principals at 44 out of 56 schools had changed student answers on state standardized exams. In 2004, 23 Houston, Texas schools were investigated for possible cheating on the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills. The Dallas Morning News found "unusual test score patterns" in nearly 400 schools statewide. The San Francisco Chronicle revealed actions that compromised the validity of California's high stakes achievement tests in at least 123 public schools between 2004 and 2006. In the affluent Great Neck school district in suburban New York City, students from well-off families paid as much as $3,600 for other students to take their college admissions exams. As many as forty students were implicated in the scam.

Alfie Kohn, who writes and speaks widely on educational issues, offers interesting insights into the phenomenon of cheating in schools. In an article published in the October 2007 issue of Phi Delta Kappan, "Who's Cheating Whom?," Kohn identies the conditions that promote a culture of cheating.

1. Teachers in the school have no real connection to students and do not seem to take it seriously when they cheat on exams.

2. Cheating is more common when students experience academic tasks as "boring, irrelevant, or overwhelming."

3. Students cheat when the ultimate goal of education is presented to them as getting good grades rather than learning.

4. Students feel pressured to improve their performance on standardized tests by any means necessary, even if they regard the methods as unethical.

5. Students are forced to compete with each other for school rewards and admission to prestigious colleges.

Kohn believes, "Competition is perhaps the single most toxic ingredient to be found in a classroom, and it is also a reliable predictor of cheating... a competitive school is to cheating as a warm, moist environment is to mold." I believe Kohn is right. As long as schools promote competition between students, they are establishing the conditions, promoting, even requiring that students cheat.

Melky did not want to take a chance on returning to poverty in the Dominican Republic when with a little bit of illicit help he could be on top of the baseball world and very rich. The students at Stuyvesant did not want to go to second tier colleges when with a little bit of illicit help they could go Ivy League and be on the road to wealth, power and success. In a competitive society where some people amass great wealth and others are forced to struggle with very little, where the gap between rich and poor is increasing, everybody is looking for an edge. Melky and the Stuyvesant students felt like they would be fools not to get their edge by any means necessary.

I am not sure I want baseball players to stop competing. I love the game. But clearly money has undermined everything that is taking place in the national pastime. But even if baseball players and teams must compete against each other, schools do not have to be this way -- unless our goal is to promote cheating as a positive value unless you are dumb enough to get caught.

For the record, I always copied homework as a high school student, most of which was busy work that was not worth doing. I also discussed test questions with friends who had taken exams earlier in the day. We considered this "research," not cheating because teachers, if they cared, could always just give us different versions of the test. And last, I checked my answers on a neighboring students exam during the French regents in June 1966. I was worried because I was weak in French and had a summer job so I could not afford go to summer school.

But to borrow a phrase from Bill Clinton when he was asked if he had ever smoked marijuana, I didn't "inhale."