Politics & Policy

The State of Education

Can schools rekindle the American work ethic?

Sunday’s New York Times featured an extensive account of why Apple has its iPhones made in China rather than the U.S. The short version is that “the flexibility, diligence and industrial skills of foreign workers have so outpaced their American counterparts that ‘Made in the U.S.A.’ is no longer a viable option for most Apple products.”

Key terms: flexibility, diligence, and industrial skills.

Two days later came the president’s State of the Union speech, which, as predicted, focused heavily on the U.S. economy and ways to boost it. His proposals do, in fact, include some education and job-training initiatives. But mostly, what Mr. Obama did was trot out a bunch of government programs and rattle on about ways in which Uncle Sam should enhance the “fairness” of the U.S. economy, particularly its income distribution. He used variations of the word “fair” eight times. He didn’t talk about the economy’s efficiency, productivity, or industriousness. And his only reference to “hard work” was historical. Simply put, although the president spoke of restoring millions of manufacturing jobs to U.S. shores, it’s hard to picture firms like Apple responding — the steps he plans to take have little to do with the “diligence” of American workers, only a bit to do with “flexibility,” and a bit more to do with “skills.”

Obama deserves some credit on the skills front. Instead of calling for everyone to complete college, for example, he called on community colleges and private firms — duly mustered and disciplined by Uncle Sam, of course — to equip 2 million people with usable, job-related skills.

He covered K–12 education, too, but only on the “compulsory attendance” and “teacher quality” fronts. In addressing the latter, he hinted at merit pay and nodded at schools’ having the flexibility to “replace” instructors “who just aren’t helping kids learn” — but mostly what he did was urge more money for schools-as-we-know-them and those who teach in their classrooms.

As for “flexibility” and “diligence,” qualities important to Apple and myriad other firms — and qualities they’re apparently finding abroad — you didn’t hear anything about those in the State of the Union. My ear heard the opposite, actually: All the talk about federal programs’ and tax policies’ enhancing “fairness” will exacerbate our nanny-state tendencies, our habit of assuming that government will provide and that we need not redouble our efforts to provide for ourselves. Indeed, the president signaled that we should resent those who are better provided-for — and look to Washington to tug the levers of “fairness.”

Tuesday’s address was, in this regard, a reprise of Mr. Obama’s widely noted remarks in Osawatomie, Kansas, last month. There he began by recalling the values of what Tom Brokaw termed “the greatest generation” before fast-forwarding to the present:

Today, we’re still home to the world’s most productive workers. We’re still home to the world’s most innovative companies. But for most Americans, the basic bargain that made this country great has eroded. Long before the recession hit, hard work stopped paying off for too many people.

Read that last sentence again: “Hard work stopped paying off for too many people.”

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.

Chester E. Finn Jr. — Mr. Finn is the president emeritus of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute and a senior fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution.


The Latest