I thank Jack Clark for renewing my anger regarding the cheating scandal involving the academic decathlon team at Steinmetz High School a few years ago [May 19]. Having worked in college admissions for the better part of the last decade, and having visited both Whitney Young and Steinmetz High School on numerous occasions, I was particularly interested in seeing how HBO would deal with the scandal in the movie Cheaters. I was appalled then to see that Cheaters turned the scandal into yet another story of a ragtag group of goofball “rebels” who take on the privileged elite and are supposed to gain our sympathies despite the fact that instead of fighting the good fight, they steal, cheat, and lie to overcome the odds. Coach Plecki’s subsequent justification that cheating is simply a normal part of life is succeeded in stupidity and venality only by HBO’s attempt to give this concept validation by turning this group of pathetic liars into heroes.
The big lie in Cheaters is that Whitney Young is somehow a haven of the privileged white middle class, and that it is the school’s superior facilities and budget that somehow make these students stand out above all others. African-Americans make up the dominant minority group among Whitney Young’s students, and the majority of these students come out of the same neighborhoods as the students at other city public schools. The school is strong because of the students who attend the school: they earned the right to attend Young by making homework and studying a priority at a young age. Unfortunately, homework doesn’t provide good fodder for the movie of the week.
Clark’s article does a good job of exposing the perverse nature of Jerry Plecki’s attempt to rehabilitate his image by selling his story to HBO. Unfortunately, Clark implies at the end of the article that the students who do not attend the Whitney Youngs and Lane Techs of the Chicago public school system are left “twisting in the wind.” Because of our mania for accountability, statistics, and rankings in education we have an inability to grasp the concept that a student achieving under the “state norms” is not necessarily a miserable failure. There are a lot of fine nonmagnet public schools in Chicago, Steinmetz being among them, producing a lot of bright, productive students. Measuring the achievements of nonmagnet schools against magnets is as pointless as comparing magnet schools to college prep boarding schools. Educational miracles don’t happen overnight, as the Steinmetz scandal proved, but in baby steps. The true message that we get from watching Cheaters is that Hollywood, HBO, network television, and the like know that teenage rebellion is an infinitely marketable commodity, and that twisting the truth is OK as long as people watch.