The State of Education
Can schools rekindle the American work ethic?

Assembling iPhones in China


Chester E. Finn Jr.

What lesson were his listeners supposed to draw? Seems pretty clear to me: Under the current rules, there’s no point in working hard. It doesn’t “pay off.” And as Charles Murray noted in a fine essay in Saturday’s Wall Street Journal (derived from a forthcoming book), “the new lower class” — pretty much what we used to call the “working class” — has in fact lost the value of “industriousness.”

What has any of this to do with our schools? Could K–12 education contribute significantly to a revival of industriousness in the U.S. population? Could it lead our young people to believe — and act on the belief — that hard work does pay off? I believe so, but to do this, our teachers and policymakers will need to reverse widespread practices and beliefs. To begin with, they will have to reward rather than discourage hard work and actual achievement. They will have to make kids work harder than most are accustomed to doing. They will even have to foster competition and honor winners — while helping others to boost their performance.

Today, as has been widely noted, U.S. schools and educators discourage competition in favor of “collaboration” (which has its place, albeit a limited one). They have short days and years and don’t assign much homework. They resist singling anyone out as better than the others; hence the animus toward valedictorians and such. They generally engage in social promotion lest youngsters “fall behind their peers.”(Observe what a big deal it is when a state insists that children must be able, say, to read by the end of third grade in order to move on to fourth.) They inflate grades. They lower “proficiency” cutoff scores. And in the name of self-esteem-building, they praise everybody all the time, no matter whether a student’s efforts truly deserve such praise or not.

Stanford’s Carol Dweck and the University of Virginia’s Dan Willingham are leaders of a growing band of serious education scholars who have determined that unearned praise and unwarranted self-esteem are bad for kids. The opposite is better education practice: Praise and reward students only for genuine accomplishment.

Will that make them more “diligent” and “industrious”? Maybe. It might also boost their knowledge and skills. It may even make the U.S. more competitive — and grow the economy by making firms likelier to locate jobs in this country. In the long run, it will boost opportunity and maybe even “fairness” within our economy. It won’t be enough to reverse what Charles Murray views as a vast deterioration of the civic culture in general. But I’ll wager that it would do more good than another federal program — or a war of resentment over income distribution.

— Chester E. Finn Jr. is president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.


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