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Losing Our Moral Compass: The Negative Effects of Overstressing Academic Achievement

I look at the story headlines in various magazines and newspapers. “Gotta Start ‘em Young!” shouts one; “Test Scores Down” shouts another. Article after article talks about getting children into the best preschool in order to give them a strong academic foundation and increase chances to go to the best colleges. There are debates about the national test score-focused “No Child Left Behind,” where many believe teachers have to sacrifice control and creativity in order to “teach to the tests.” Others decry our nation’s weak scores in key areas of science and math as compared to other countries.

Meanwhile, there are the other stories, the ones that concern me more, to be honest. Depression and suicide rates are rising among teens and especially among pre-teens. Mental health problems are a virtual epidemic on college campuses. But the headline that really triggered this column was “School cheating scandal divides N.H. town.”

In Hanover, New Hampshire, where an Ivy League school, Dartmouth College, is located, nine students from the local high school were arrested on charges of breaking and entering. They allegedly carried out a plan that involved stealing keys from teachers, breaking into the school, stealing copies of finals, and distributing them to friends.

There are two interesting aspects to this story. One is that students would go to such great lengths and commit criminal acts to try to get better test scores. The other is how the parents of those accused are furious that the police were brought in and believe the matter should be handled “in house.” That’s another way of saying, please just give our children a little slap on the wrist and forgive their foolishness so their chance for greatness won’t be diminished.

It really does start with the parents, their values and beliefs, from preschool years and on. They are both victims and perpetrators. The former refers to parents being inundated with misleading information from the media and various “experts” that keeps claiming it is academic achievement that will determine your child’s chance for a successful life. Too many parents have bought this story line even though research and common sense make it clear to be a false set of values. Parents then behave in a way to hold their children to these standards and expectations, creating an unreal amount of stress in home after home.

It’s really a shame. Let’s start with preschool. What should children really be learning here? It is their introduction to the educational system. They need to learn to respect and trust teachers as important adults in their lives. Of course, for that to happen, the teachers need to make them feel safe by identifying their strengths and interests and building on them, by using play as the central learning mode because that is most age-appropriate, and by helping children to develop early social skills. If the neighborhood preschool does this satisfactorily, then I urge parents to choose it over the “better preschool” in another part of town that makes life more complicated and, usually, carries with it increased expense, higher expectations, and the start of making school performance a source of great stress for the entire family.

We chose the easy, neighborhood path with our two sons. They had wonderful experiences, walked there with their friends, and it was a relaxed time for all. Being in the Boston area, there were obviously choices that would have put more stress on beginning academic skills just as the option of private schooling was readily available over the rest of their public education. But the boys wanted to stay with their friends and we didn’t really believe private school was necessary for either child.

Please note I do believe that private school is a best fit for some children, whether it is due to the need for smaller classes, the need for a curriculum that emphasizes different strengths (especially the artistic, creative children), or a program better suited to a child with special needs. Beyond that, it’s just not essential to spend all that money and set all those higher expectations.

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Both of our sons have very successful careers despite ordinary preschool experiences and just “good colleges.” Their degree of personal happiness, as is the case with nearly everyone, is not determined by academically related factors. It is based on many psychological and social issues that schools never address: Marriage, family, friendships, self-awareness, and self-confidence. It is also impacted by chance events such as medical issues.

Most importantly, their happiness and success is influenced by what is now being called positive psychology. This refers to the ability to stay focused on the positive aspects of life and to feel that one has ways of making life better. This psychological trait, generally referred to as resilience, seems to be a mixture of genetic, family, and social factors. It’s not about where people went to school or what grades they achieved. Instead it is primarily about the lessons learned dealing with the inevitable challenges that life presents each of us.

This brings me back to the Hanover, N.H. story. There is so much to learn from what appears to be happening here. As best as I can tell from the comments of the parents of the nine accused students, these teens were achieving at a level that guaranteed at least being accepted into a very good college. So I would like you to close your eyes and try to imagine that you are a high school student who is academically smart and knows she is going to get into college.

What are you so afraid of that you would even consider the risk of a criminal act in order to try to get better grades on some of your final exams? This wasn’t an impulsive act; there is no sense that drugs or alcohol are involved. It was a complex plan that involved stealing keys from teachers and breaking into the school at night. It took place over a period of at least a couple of days — lots of time to reconsider the risks vs. the rewards. So, imaginary teenager, why are you doing this?

Clearly the fear of not getting the best possible grades was greater than the fear of getting caught. Equally clear is the lack of morality or, perhaps, better expressed as an unhealthy morality in which the rules are “anything is okay if the ends justify the means.” But, again I ask, why were the grades so important? I am assuming in each case it is some combination of the following factors: These students perceived themselves as potential failures if they didn’t get into one of the very best schools (growing up in the shadows of Dartmouth probably contributed to that); that they would be failures in the eyes of their peers in the intensely competitive group culture; that not getting the top grades in the class would disappoint their parents.

The latter is probably a particularly strong factor. Whether real or imagined, these students likely have believed for many years that they are valued by their parents for what they achieve as opposed to what kind of person they are. That is an enormous burden to carry and one that is expressed constantly in surveys, interviews, books, and movies.

Let’s keep in mind that the majority of the students were not involved in this criminal act even though the newspaper reports suggest as many as 50 students took advantage of seeing the stolen exams. However, I get very little relief from this because research has consistently indicated more than 50 percent of our students admit to cheating in school. It is, by any definition, an epidemic. Now, I would daresay that few of us could claim to have gone through school and never cheated on some test or project. But what might have been a few isolated incidents is apparently becoming much more the norm. It was not unusual for weaker students to pay a better student to write a paper for them in past generations. Now even the better students are going online and downloading finished reports.

Scary. But look at the world these young people are growing up in. Where are the heroes? Where are the role models? In every aspect of life, greed and dishonesty seem to dominate. America is a sports-obsessed culture and perhaps nowhere in our society is there more dishonesty. Well, I’ll take that back. Politics is way out in front. And the world of business is right behind. I mean you can’t even believe what you read in the New York Times anymore! Maybe we need to spend more time teaching ethics and philosophy and less time on science, math, and literature. Most young Americans who don’t grow up in poverty seem to be able to find a place for themselves in society. The crisis in our schools is more about leaving the poor further and further behind but also it is about the complete ignorance of important human values of social and personal responsibility.

Which brings me back to Hanover again. The parents, by insisting on a “slap on the wrist” response, are conveying a message that their children should not have to be responsible for committing a crime. I am sure that message of not being responsible for “bad behavior” is not a new one in those families and probably laid the groundwork for an increased lack of respect for what is right and honorable. Maybe you can’t change the world, but I urge all parents to take a very careful look at what kinds of moral and ethical messages you are giving to your children.

To value caring acts, to value taking responsibility, to be an important part of the community and not continuously place self ahead of others… if you can convey this as more important than grades, the college you attend, and how much money you earn… then you will have truly carried out your responsibility as a parent and your children will be much better off because of it.

Losing Our Moral Compass: The Negative Effects of Overstressing Academic Achievement

Kalman Heller, PhD

Dr. Kalman Heller is a retired psychologist who ran a successful private practice. He previously wrote a monthly column for a local newspaper, and later took his "ParenTalk" column online. This article is reprinted from his online column with his permission.

APA Reference
Heller, K. (2018). Losing Our Moral Compass: The Negative Effects of Overstressing Academic Achievement. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 1, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Oct 2018 (Originally: 17 May 2016)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Oct 2018
Published on Psych All rights reserved.