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Learning at its Best

Principals Beware, Cheating is Rampant

This post originally appeared on NBC Education Nation’s The Learning Curve blog:

Nikhil Goyal is a 17-year-old author of One Size Does Not Fit All: A Student’s Assessment of School to be published in September 2012 by the Alternative Education Resource Organization. 

In June, a cheating scandal rocked Stuyvesant High School, one of New York City’s most prestigious public schools, when officials discovered that 71 students had used cellphones to text each other during state and citywide standardized tests. Soon after, the principal of 13 years abruptly retired.

The affair was shocking to many, but it shouldn’t be. Cheating is an epidemic in schools across the nation. A 2010 survey of 2,000 Stuyvesant students revealed that more than 72 percent of students copied their homework from others and about 90 percent of seniors cheated on tests.

The students involved in cheating incidents obviously should be punished. However, policymakers and school officials, as usual, have missed the underlying cause of cheating. They’ve devoted their entire energy to cracking down on technology in school. Cell phones are not allowed in New York City schools. Is Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott really that technophobic?

So, what is the underlying cause of cheating at Stuyvesant and other schools? The answer is a hyper-competitive and pressure-packed environment along with the horse-race to get good grades. Research has found competition to be a reliable predictor of cheating. In an era of high-stakes testing, it is ubiquitous.

Let’s examine two sources of cheating: the learning in schools and in society, as a whole.

First, the learning in schools breeds cheating. Research has found that cheating is more common when students find their academic tasks to be boring, irrelevant, or overwhelming. This “drill, kill, bubble fill” culture is dangerous and inappropriate.

“There’s the question of whether students are working hard as problem solvers, or working hard as robots who just follow orders but produce no original thought,” said Blake Elias, a recent graduate of Stuyvesant.

Interestingly, in progressive schools, where projects and real-world experiences often dominate learning, cheating is far less common. As educator John Dewey has noted, “School must represent present life.” If schools adopt this mantra, they probably will never witness a cheating incident on their grounds ever again.

Second, competition is ingrained into the veins of American society. For our entire academic careers, kids are forced to jump through pre-assigned scholastic hoops. After constant heckling from parents and guidance counselors, students come to understand there is only one path to success.

New York Times columnist David Brooks has hit the nail on the head, writing, “We live in a culture that nurtures competitive skills. And they are necessary: discipline, rigor and reliability. But it’s probably a good idea to try to supplement them with the skills of the creative monopolist: alertness, independence and the ability to reclaim forgotten traditions.”

Why do you think Stanford University students produce more innovation than Ivy League university students? Its all due to Stanford’s laid-back, collaborative atmosphere coupled with its focus on design thinking and engagement.

As 7Robot CEO Sarah Szalavitz once said, “Collaboration is the new competition.” Last year, Great Neck North High School’s reputation was ruined after a massive SAT scandal broke. Now, Stuyvesant’s is too. Who is next? Cheating scandals will continue to mar school districts if they decide to sit back and twiddle their thumbs.

As I’ve advocated before, let’s abolish grades. Let’s end high-stakes testing. And finally, let’s foster collaboration.

Will all cheating be eradicated? Maybe not, but these would be leaps in the right direction.

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About Nikhil Goyal

Nominated for the U.S. Secretary of Education by Diane Ravitch and lauded as an “emerging voice of his generation,” at age 17, Nikhil Goyal is the author of One Size Does Not Fit All: A Student’s Assessment of School by the Alternative Education Resource Organization. His work has appeared in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Fox and Friends, Fox Business: Varney & Co., NBC Nightly News, and Huffington Post. Nikhil has spoken to thousands at conferences and TEDx events around the world from Qatar to Spain and has guest lectured at Baruch College in New York. He is leading a Learning Revolution movement to transform the American school system. A senior at Syosset High School, Nikhil lives with his family in Woodbury, New York. To contact, email him at ngoyal2013 at


5 thoughts on “Principals Beware, Cheating is Rampant

  1. Excellent post. What are your thoughts on use of cell phones in school? Increase in academic dishonesty?

    Posted by Bob Coniglio | August 22, 2012, 3:42 pm
  2. Great piece. Mature beyond the years of the author, insightful, and humane. One objection: David Brooks seems to be a poor source for getting outside the competitive model: he just provides some buzz-words that are still, at heart, about competing, winning, and other “joys of capitalism,” on my view. Surely there are better people to quote in support of cooperative and progressive education and values.

    And if you’re for getting rid of grades, you can count on my support. They are a cancer on learning.

    Posted by Michael Paul Goldenberg | August 22, 2012, 4:07 pm
  3. Just a little pushback:

    You mention that they obviously should be punished, but why? If they don’t believe in the test and they never asked to take it, who is really at fault? If the test is an irrelevant hoop to jump through, can you blame them for rigging the hoop? And if education is ultimately about consumerism, should we be surprised when students take capitalism to its logical extreme?

    Posted by John T. Spencer | August 22, 2012, 10:58 pm
    • Great piece, Nikhil, but I think John’s questions here are important as well. There is a longer piece written by the editors of the Stuyvesant student newspaper which makes the point that students are “cheating” as a way of helping one another in the face of hostile evaluations that can hurt them or damage their future opportunities.

      “Cheating” is commonly understood as a form of personal dishonesty employed in the service of cutthroat competition — but for the teenagers I know, it is a way they help protect one another from harm. A very different motive and act. I think this is really a key point.

      You can read the Stuyvesant students’ editorial at this link:

      Posted by Carol Black | August 26, 2012, 4:46 pm


  1. Pingback: Pen and Paper…. That’s Soooooooooo Last Year… - MrsA's Blog - September 1, 2012

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