Here is an interesting editorial for your
By Patrick Welsh
Failure in the classroom is often tied to lack of
teachers or other ills. Here's a thought: Maybe
it's the failed work
ethic of todays kids. That's what I'm seeing in
my school. Until
reformers see this reality, little will change.
Last month, as I averaged the second-quarter
grades for my senior
English classes at T.C. Williams High School in
Alexandria, Va., the
same familiar pattern leapt out at me.
Kids who had emigrated from foreign countries
such as Shewit
Giovanni from Ethiopia, Farah Ali from Guyana and
Edgar Awumey from
Ghana often aced every test, while many of their
classmates from upper-class homes with highly
educated parents had a
string of C's and D's.
As one would expect, the middle-class American
kids usually had higher
SAT verbal scores than did their immigrant
classmates, many of whom
had only been speaking English for a few years.
What many of the American kids I taught did not
have was the
motivation, self-discipline or work ethic of the
Politicians and education bureaucrats can talk all
they want about
reform, but until the work ethic of U.S. students
changes, until they
are willing to put in the time and effort to
master their subjects,
little will change.
A study released in December by University of
Angela Duckworth and Martin Seligman suggests that
the reason so many
U.S. students are "falling short of their
intellectual potential" is
not "inadequate teachers, boring textbooks and
large class sizes" and
the rest of the usual litany cited by the
so-called reformers but
"their failure to exercise self-discipline."
The sad fact is that in the USA, hard work on the
part of students is
no longer seen as a key factor in academic
success. The groundbreaking
work of Harold Stevenson and a multinational team
at the University of
Michigan comparing attitudes of Asian and American
the alarm more than a decade ago.
Asian vs. U.S. students
When asked to identify the most important factors
in their performance
in math, the percentage of Japanese and Taiwanese
answered "studying hard" was twice that of
American students named native intelligence, and
some said the home
environment. But a clear majority of U.S. students
responsibility on their teachers. A good teacher,
they said, was the
determining factor in how well they did in math.
"Kids have convinced parents that it is the
teacher or the system that
is the problem, not their own lack of effort,"
says Dave Roscher, a
chemistry teacher at T.C. Williams in this
Washington suburb. "In my
day, parents didn't listen when kids complained
about teachers. We are supposed to miraculously make
kids learn even
though they are not
As my colleague Ed Cannon puts it: "Today, the
teacher is supposed to
be responsible for motivating the kid. If they
don't learn it is
supposed to be our problem, not theirs."
And, of course, busy parents guilt-ridden over the
little time they
spend with their kids are big subscribers to this
Maybe every generation of kids has wanted to take
it easy, but until
the past few decades students were not allowed to
get away with it.
"Nowadays, it's the kids who have the power. When
they don't do the
work and get lower grades, they scream and yell.
Parents side with the
kids who pressure teachers to lower standards,"
says Joel Kaplan,
another chemistry teacher at T.C. Williams.
Every year, I have had parents come in to argue
about the grades I
have given in my AP English classes. To me, my
grades are far too
generous; to middle-class parents, they are often
an affront to their
sense of entitlement. If their kids do a modicum
of work, many parents
expect them to get at least a B. When I have given
C's or D's to
bright middle-class kids who have done poor or
mediocre work, some
parents have accused me of destroying their
It is not only parents, however, who are siding
with students in their
attempts to get out of hard work.
Blame schools, too
"Schools play into it," says psychiatrist Lawrence
Brain, who counsels
affluent teenagers throughout the Washington
metropolitan area. "I've
been amazed to see how easy it is for kids in
public schools to
manipulate guidance counselors to get them out of
classes they don't
like. They have been sent a message that they
don't have to struggle
to achieve if things are not perfect."
Neither the high-stakes state exams, such as
Virginia's Standards of
Learning, nor the requirements of the No Child
Left Behind Act have
succeeded in changing that message; both have
minimum-competency requirements aimed at the
lowest in our school.
Colleges keep complaining that students are coming
to them unprepared.
Instead of raising admissions standards, however,
they keep accepting
mediocre students lest cuts have to be made in
As a teacher, I don't object to the heightened
standards required of
educators in the No Child Left Behind law. Who
among us would say we
couldn't do a little better? Nonetheless, teachers
have no control
over student motivation and ambition, which have
to come from the home and from within each student.
Perhaps the best lesson I can pass along to my
upper- and middle-class
students is to merely point them in the direction
foreign-born classmates, who can remind us all
that education in
America is still more a privilege than a right.
Patrick Welsh is an English teacher at T.C.
Williams High School in Alexandria, Va., and a member
of USA Todays board of contributors.
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