Cheating Our Children: Who Is Responsible? Part 1*

How the best intentions of teachers and parents have gone awry

Posted Mar 04, 2016

morguefile/used with permission
Source: morguefile/used with permission

As a college professor specializing in learning and motivation, once a semester I ask my undergraduate education students to evaluate a video titled “5 Dangerous Things You Should Let Your Children Do,” a Ted talk given by educator Gever Tully.  In the video, Tully challenges his audience to consider if it’s crazy to teach kids how to start a fire, use a pocket knife, throw a spear, or disassemble a toaster (unplugged).  While some of my students recognize the value of this type of practical education, invariably, some will passionately reject the idea of teaching anything that is not part of what is considered standard curriculum. Contrarians give a litany of reasons for their instructional reluctance claiming, “That’s the parents’ job,” “It’s against the rules,” “Someone may get set on fire,” or “That’s how my brother cut off his finger.” What these students fail to do is use critical thinking skills and consider how or why these life lessons should to be taught.

While I advocate safety, I am often puzzled by the disdain of pre-service teachers who object to teaching topics that conflict with their personal beliefs. Like a smack upside the head, it finally occurred to me that some educators (which includes parents) are inadvertently limiting the intellectual growth and development of our children and students.  Actually, upon deeper investigation, I identified five distinct practices of teachers, education administrators, and parents that may ultimately account for some of the highly disturbing trends endemic to the North American culture, including inflated GPAs, declining student competence, the inability of college graduates to get jobs, and the increased incidence of college-student mental health issues, all leading to the overall perception by some that the U.S. is becoming a nation of idiots.

Five ways growth and development stagnate

Problems begin with an educational reform agenda that conflates opportunity and ability.  Proponents operate under the critical assumption that regardless of effort, accomplishment, or motivation, human beings are entitled to a superior standard of living, a quality education, and good health, factors which when aggregated are related to well-being and happiness.  However, data trends over the past 30 years suggest that the reform agenda has fallen short. The quality of education has fallen, graduates lack the skills employers need, and many life satisfaction indices have plummeted. The overall prominence of the U.S. has shrunk based upon metrics in health care, child development, and work-force preparedness.  However, these woes are not solely grounded in political or educational policy, but can be linked to a number of the everyday practices of parents and teachers, who despite their best intentions, enable unproductive and motivationally debilitating behavior to not only develop, but to flourish!

Let’s take a closer look:

Problem #1– Rewarding mediocrity amidst declining standards

As the overall quality and effectiveness of global education declines, in the U.S. 19% of students do not even complete high school.  In global comparisons among 65 nations, the United States ranks #24 in reading, #36 in mathematics and #28 in science according to the Programme for International Student Assessment, with virtually no increase in competencies over a 30-year period.  A 2013 report from National Center on Education and the Economy suggested that community college students do not have mastery of basic middle-school math concepts, in part because high schools are not adequately preparing students for either college or the workforce. From a curriculum perspective, textbooks are a lagging indicator of declining instruction rigor.  Over the past few years, high school textbooks have been written at the 8th grade level, while many college level texts are written at the 12th grade level (Tucker, 2015). At the same time, more universities are dropping standardized admission tests like the GRE, SAT, and the LSAT, reliable placement tests that predict academic success.  Add to the mix that 40.8% of all students attending college will not graduate within six years (National Center for Education Statistics, 2014), while the standard hours of instruction needed to complete college degrees has on average decreased.

morguefile/used with permission
Source: morguefile/used with permission

How it happened: A combination of educational funding policies and methods of how expert teaching is evaluated have contributed to the erosion of learner competency. At the K-12 level, federal and state funding is predicated upon surpassing standardized test targets and graduation rates above state-mandated thresholds.  In other words, school districts have a financial incentive to get learners successfully through the “system.”  Many scholars have written volumes of material on the liabilities of incentive-based school assessment.  These liabilities include a strong motivation to achieve satisfactory ratings that do not impede funding, which may lead to adopting less rigorous instructional practices. In the most severe cases, highly unethical testing practices may develop as evidenced by the recent Atlanta school district cheating scandal, where teachers corrected wrong test answers in a feeble attempt to garner higher pass rates to avoid funding cuts. In addition, “teaching to the test” (Jennings & Bearak, 2014, p. 381) has become so commonplace that some school districts cumulatively devote over one month of instructional time to test preparation, reducing instructional time on subjects like science that are not directly related to test performance.  The emphasis on incentive funding is not a U.S. problem alone, as many European educational models are based on “output funding,” where schools are financially rewarded for graduating students, a strategy that often results in lower learner competency.

Measuring instructional effectiveness has seen a heavy shift toward assessing teacher quality based on student performance data. While teacher accountability measures are warranted, in many cases learner performance can directly impact future teacher employability, while not taking into account factors such as parental support and the availability of learning resources, which also contribute significant variation in student learning. Also, consider that the evaluation of many university instructors relies 100% on students’ “perceptions of instruction.”  However, evidence consistently shows that the subjective impression of teaching quality by learners is highly related to grades earned (Spooren, Brockx, & Mortelmans, 2013), with students earning higher grades providing more positive teaching evaluations. As such, teachers may become vulnerable to unscrupulous practices to inflate student competency in order to be evaluated favorably. I have experienced the dark side of evaluation personally, as I was recently involved in an investigation of an adjunct instructor who was recorded on tape coercing her students into completing course evaluations in her presence and providing positive feedback by offering extra credit to report “things I do well.”  Incredibly, this individual received only a discontinue warning, as the University did not find the incident serious enough to warrant termination, despite the short-term employment category of the instructor. While I would like to believe performance inflation is an isolated practice, it is often routine, as you will soon read in Part Two of this series.

morguefile/used with permission
Source: morguefile/used with permission

The consequences: At least two consequences are directly related to the educational standard decline: inaccurate calibration of individual ability and lack of workforce preparedness. Calibration involves the assessment of one’s personal skills, ability, and effort that are needed to successfully complete a task in relation to what is actually needed to complete a task.  When calibration is accurate, effort and skill are aligned with task challenges and individuals are motivated to complete the task. Poor calibration and over-estimating one’s abilities typically leads to the withholding of effort based on overconfidence, which ultimately may lead to task failure (Vancouver & Kendall, 2006). In practical terms, individuals accustomed to being rewarded for mediocre school performance will tend to form beliefs about themselves, which may not be grounded in reality, but instead are grounded in the contrived environment of low expectation schools, perpetuating the view that one is “above average.”  While this consequence of low expectations may appear to only result in a bloated psyche, data reveals that problems develop when the egotistical learner enters the workforce.

Poor calibration has led to an extraordinary workplace phenomena: college grads showing up for work thinking they can do the job, when in reality they are ill-prepared. Exacerbating the problem is the reality that ivory-tower academic advisers also have their heads buried in the sand, mired in false competency beliefs.  A recent Gallup poll survey found that only 11% of business leaders strongly agree that students have the appropriate skills and competencies for job success, while 96% of academic officers believed their students are highly qualified.  While these findings represent only one survey, the results are frightening and often corroborated by additional data.

Bobby Hoffman/based on AACU data
Source: Bobby Hoffman/based on AACU data

In another survey conducted by The Association of American Colleges and Universities (AACU), 400 employers were asked to rate the type of skills and the degree of preparedness of graduates on dimensions crucial for work success including application of knowledge, judgement, and critical thinking.  In most cases, student perceptions of their skills were twice as inflated in comparison to employer perceptions of the same skills.  Even in the areas where employers rated recent graduates high (technology and teamwork), less than two in five rated the graduates as well prepared for a successful career.  Despite these discouraging statistics, the good news from the same survey is that students and employers are closely aligned on what skills are important for job success.  However, alignment goes askew as many teachers are reluctant to tell learners what they need to hear, as evidenced by escalating global grade inflation and the inability of many learners to handle frank, constructive feedback.  The next segment in this series will address how and why grade inflation is an issue, and what happens when the average college student is told that their work is unacceptable or does not meet academic standards.

Read Part Two of this series here.  For more information on learning, motivation, teaching and performance follow Dr. Hoffman on Twitter @ifoundmo. His latest book "Motivation for Learning and Performance" outlines dozens of researched-based work improvement strategies.

*These views are my own and do not represent my employer. 



Jennings, J. L., & Bearak, J. M. (2014). “Teaching to the Test” in the NCLB Era how test predictability affects our understanding of student performance. Educational Researcher, 43(8), 381-389.

National Center for Education Statistics, (2014). Digest of Education Statistics, (Table 326.10) Retrieved on February 28, 2016 from

Spooren, P., Brockx, B., & Mortelmans, D. (2013). On the validity of student evaluation of teaching the state of the art. Review of Educational Research, 83(4), 598-642.

Tucker (2015). Are we just fooling ourselves? Is American education a colossal failure? Education Week. Retrieved on February 29, 2016 from

Vancouver, F. B. & Kendall, L. N. (2006). When self-efficacy negatively relates to motivation and performance in a learning context. Journal of Applied Psychology, 91, 1146-1153.