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Growing Leaders Blog

on Leading the Next Generation


The Biggest Danger with Students and Schools

We hear folks lament our failing school systems every week. At least I do. My response is always the same—teachers are my biggest heroes but the system we’ve created over time is faltering. Let me unveil one of my biggest concerns which may just be the biggest danger we face in education.

Students are cheating to get ahead. This may not be anything new—but they are cheating in larger numbers than any generation measured before them. They will cheat in elementary school for the challenge; they’ll do it in middle school to get by; they will cheat in high school to get into their preferred college. Students at both public and Christian schools do it and many of them even admit to it.

The sad news is—a large number of states report a growing number of teachers who cheat as well. On March 7, 2011, USA Today ran a front page article reporting teachers who adjusted test scores to make their school fair better when compared to other districts and nations. They studied results from states such as Arizona, California, Colorado, Florida, Michigan and Ohio—and discovered a disparity between an entire class’ performance one year and their performance the next. In the end, teachers began admitting to adjusting the scores.

The danger? Education seems to be valuing the product more than the process, as time marches on. Instead of focusing on the art of learning to think well, we all just want to get the right score. Who cares if the kids learned how to solve problems or discovered how to think critically? We want to look good. We want to feel good as we compare our results to Japan or Denmark. We just want to get to the goal.

When I was a teenager, I ran long distance on the track team. Tom, one of my fellow runners, and I were qualifying in a heat to run in the regional competition the following week. Tom decided to do something strange and illegal. Halfway through the race, he ducked behind the bleachers, where no one could see him. He caught his breath, and on the last lap, rejoined the race. He obviously won and qualified to compete in the regional championship.  Can you guess what happened? He wasn’t ready for the harsh competition. He vomited twice and dropped out.


He’d cheated to get there. He valued the result more than the journey; the product more than the process. It always shows up in the end. In education, this will kill us, unless we get back to the basics and teach our students how to think, regardless of their test scores. If we care about the future, our economy, the global competition they will face and their readiness for adulthood—we will value the process.

Am I too old-fashioned?  Am I making too big a fuss about this?



  1. TK on March 15, 2011 at 6:57 am

    Last week at our youth group we talked about the temptations we face in life. I was leading an 8th grade guys small group and every one of the guys said they had cheated that very day. The sad part is that they didn’t see anything wrong with it. They didn’t look at it like a moral issue, but instead a way to get their work done. Like you said, they are more concerned with the result than the process.

  2. Guest on March 15, 2011 at 1:02 pm


    You are absolutely NOT making a big deal about this. It doesn’t really start in schools though. Parents today train children to focus more on results rather than effort.

    Think of a teenager winning a football game. We praise the result rather than the effort that the result took to achieve. What happens if the teenager lost the game but played their heart out and learned something new in the process instead of winning and it be easy.

    Do we still praise the result? I hope not.

    Keep this up Tim. Your voice is needed.

  3. Trey Finley on March 15, 2011 at 10:50 pm

    Define cheating.

    Cheating in our assembly line education system means that you’re measured strictly by what you produce (i.e., your test scores). In other words, you must work alone or it’s “cheating.” And if you don’t pass this test (whether or not it measures what you’ve learned), you’ll fail. I think we’ve created a system that teaches kids to fear failure and the consequences of failing. In addition, we’ve defined failure on our terms, rather than teaching them to try, fail, and try again.

    In essence, we’ve set them up to go through the motions. To me, that’s the bigger crime. If there is cheating going on, if our students are losing the opportunity to engage their imaginations in coming up with their own solutions, then we must ask if the system we’ve created encourages just that.

    But to play devil’s advocate: Is it possible that Millennials are simply more creative at learning new things than our education system is at teaching in new ways? What is “cheating” in one approach to learning is “creative” in another approach. I recommend Ken Robinson’s work at TED. He has very poignant thoughts on our failed education system.

  4. Guest on March 16, 2011 at 1:19 pm

    This article makes great points about teaching students how to think rather than how to get a score. However, it neglects to mention the factor of culture. Unless United States citizens become people who universally value teachers and education as much as examples like Norway and Japan do, the elected leaders will continue to enforce systems that focus on test scores and foster cheating. We can rave all day about how systems need to change, but there is no power for change unless parents and voters become invested in education. From where will the money for systemic change come? Training teachers better, mentoring them longer, and providing more specialized materials and personnel all require citizens to pony up more cash. People who call for systemic changes need to either accept this fact or at least elect leaders who will stop endorsing educational budget cuts.

  5. Chris on March 25, 2011 at 5:26 pm

    There is a significant problem trying to compare scores of schools across divergent cultures. In the United States we value educating as many as possible to the highest degree possible (that is the goal anyway), done by having as many as possible complete a core set of material – which they are then tested on. Statistics on these tests then reflect the largest possible cross section of the population tested. In Germany for instance this is different. The students who demonstrate aptitude for academic studies early on are the ones who are guided into the upper-level material and then tested (with statistics on the results only from that part of the population). Basically, direct comparisons of the scores of the U.S. and Germany or any other nation with a different educational philosophy are invalid because they are not comparing the same things.

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The Biggest Danger with Students and Schools