01/29/2014 11:22 am ET Updated Mar 31, 2014

When Cheating Goes Nuclear


What we can learn from an Air Force Cheating Scandal?

There are cheating scandals, there are cheating incidents, and then there are cheating crises. Call this the latter of the three.

Every day, 100 feet underground, Air Force "missileers" are responsible for wielding the awesome power of America's 450 long range, nuclear missiles. They are highly trained, rigorously screened for mental health and aptitude, and entrusted with immense responsibility.

So why, then, were over 60 missileers at Malmstrom Air Force Base caught up in a massive cheating ring? Why were the men and women who hold the keys to the kingdom, the nuclear launch codes, caught pants-down in such a dramatic breakdown of integrity?

It comes after a nasty year for the ICBM force. They've been caught sleeping at the job, some named suspects in a drug investigation, some relieved of duty -including their commanding general -- and some failing their inspections.

The cheating infractions weren't limited to the red-handed, either. Two former missileers reported that the monthly training tests, where Airmen train to push the Armageddon button, served as spawning pools for cheating.

The old Bob Dylan ballad comes to mind, "..when you cease to exist, then who will you blame?"

So how did such a massive breakdown in public trust occur? You can blame the missileers, certainly. But you can also blame their culture and the weird way that they train for Judgment Day.

It goes back to the tension of the Cold War. The U.S. and the USSR built tens of thousands of nuclear weapons, many ready to fly in seconds. The Strategic Air Command (SAC), the backbone of the Air Force's nuclear forces, instilled a "zero defect" mentality in its forces. They tolerated no error, accepted no mistake. The old SAC unofficial motto rang loud: "To err is human, to forgive is not SAC policy."

Though SAC has gone the way of the dodo, the ethos lives on. Nuclear missileers are expected to score no less than 90 percent on all of their training tests. "Miss more than 3-4 questions in a single year," a former Airman tells me, "and you might be able to squeeze your career prospects through the eye of a needle. If you're lucky."

It's no wonder that Dr. Bruce Blair, who worked in the underground silos decades ago, has a tough time remembering "anyone who didn't cheat."

The lesson is right in front us. Dump that much emphasis on rote, standardized testing, and you are creating fertile ground to grow a generation of cheaters. That lesson isn't reserved for educating our nuclear forces. The missileers are a useful example of a larger dynamic at play.

If we're interested in reforming education and improving the way our kids learn, we might start with integrity in the classroom. A controversial program proposed by the Department of Education encapsulates the Air Force's downward trend. "Common Core" is intended to be a standardized teaching regimen that all teachers must follow. Good intentions... but more is needed.

It has drawn loud criticism for its inflexibility, and it's dependence on cookie-cutter curriculum. It doesn't share the same lofty, 90% passing rate as the missile force, but it does mimic their overreaching with standardized tests and an inflexible training plan.

Instead of allowing teachers to adapt and adjust to their students' varying needs, Common Core -- in theory -- dumps an education-by-numbers structure on schools. Predictably, Common Core -- like the ICBM force -- also focuses on data driven outcomes rather than intellectually enriching "inputs".

Cheating in schools is already a tough enough problem. Imposing the same type of failed system, the one that led to a massive cheating ring in a purportedly honor-bound culture, in our schools is flirting with disaster. Consider the metrics here.

Back in the 1940s, Stanford University conducted a study. The study found that roughly 20 percent of their students admitted to cheating. Seventy years later, between 75-98 percent of college students admitted to researchers that they cheated in high school.

The problem may draw from the same well as the Airmen. In the nuclear culture, missileers advance only by their test scores. Their focus turns to outcome -- good grades -- rather than the inputs and information they should be receiving in training. Those "inputs" help them become better officers and, ultimately, experts who know every in and out of their job.

Understandably, Airmen look to protect their means of putting food on the table. Their hunger is for a healthy career as well as knowledge. And good grades always mean career advancement. Educational inputs are tougher to measure. Especially when one is not allowed to make mistakes.

Perhaps this gives us one lens on why, and how, cheating has grown to be so widespread and so accepted in our schools. Pressure to gain admission to elite colleges, pressure to get good grades that allow entrance to the best graduate, law, and business schools, pressure to have a productive career have seen students succumb to dishonor.

The tragic story of Madison Holleran highlights this dynamic. Madison was a gifted Ivy Leaguer, an attractive, gregarious track star with a loving family and wide pack of friends. Last month, Madison threw herself out a window and to her death. It was suggested later, by one of her friends, that Madison felt her GPA of 3.5 wasn't good enough. A 3.5 GPA is in the 90th percentile, an A average.

Modern culture, like the Air Force, has placed an unhealthy emphasis on metrics.

Whether in the military or society, the complicated art of learning plays second fiddle to test scores, GPAs, extracurricular activities, and other boxes on a long checklist that determines a child's trajectory in life.

Such as it is with the Air Force. Let's not miss the forest for the trees. If the goal of the Air Force's 100 percent pass rate on all his tests is to have superbly trained people, and trainees cheat to get there, then the Air Force isn't accomplishing its goal.

To its credit, the Air Force isn't tolerating what is clearly intolerable. Secretary Hagel is on the case, and has proposed fixes. I'm not an expert on what works there. But it's clear this environment simply isn't working. Not for the missileers, and not for the American people they are sworn to protect.

There is much to learn from the disheartening breakdown in our nuclear forces. The cheating sprung from a long, downward spiral in culture, values, and ethos. And it is inexcusable.

But Americans should think twice before pointing the finger. Because we're doing it too.