Will Fitzhugh, via email:
“…Within a system that fails very few students, then, only those student who have high standards of their own–who have more stringent criteria for success and failure–will strive to do better than merely to pass their courses and graduate.”
“…Third, there are important differences in how students view the causes of their successes and failures, and these differences in students’ beliefs have important implications for how they actually perform in school. Successful students believe that their accomplishments are the result of hard work, and their failures the consequence of insufficient effort.”
“Beyond the Classroom,” Laurence Steinberg
Beyond the Classroom, New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996, pp. 183-187
For nearly fifteen years now, educators and policy-makers have been engaged in a nationwide effort to solve the problem of low student achievement in America. In one blue-ribbon bipartisan commission report after another, the American public has been told that if we change how we organize our schools, how and what we teach in the classrooms, and how we select, train, and compensate our teachers, we will see improvements in our children’s educational performance. In response to these reports, government agencies and private foundations have spent massive amounts of money on research designed to transform America’s schools. Although we hear occasional success stories about a school here or a program there that has turned students’ performance around, the competence of American students has not improved.
It is time we faced the music: fifteen years of school reform has not really accomplished anything. Today’s students know less, and can do less, than their counterparts could twenty-five years ago. Our high school graduates are among the least intellectually competent in the industrialized world. Contrary to widespread claims that the low achievement of American students is not real–that it is merely a “statistical artifact”–systematic scientific evidence indicates quite compellingly that the problem of poor student achievement is genuine, substantial, and pervasive across ethnic, socioeconomic, and age groups.
The achievement problem we face in this country is due not to a drop in the intelligence or basic intellectual capability of our children, but to a widespread decline in children’s interest in education and in their motivation to achieve in the classroom; it is a problem of attitude and effort, not ability. Two decades ago, a teacher in an average high school in this country could expect to have three or four “difficult” students in a class of thirty. Today, teachers in these same schools are expected to teach to classrooms in which nearly half of the students are uninterested. And only a very small proportion of the remaining half strives for excellence.
Given the findings of our study, it is not difficult to understand why so many students coast through school without devoting very much energy to schoolwork. As things stand, there is little reason for the majority of students to exert themselves any more than is necessary to avoid failing, being held back, or not graduating. Within an educational system in which all that counts is promotion to the next level–in which earning good grades is seen as equivalent to earning mediocre ones, and worse yet, in which actually learning something from school is seen as equivalent to not learning anything at all–students choose the path of least resistance. Getting by, rather than striving to succeed, has become the organizing principle behind student behavior in our schools. It is easy to point the finger at schools for creating this situation, but parents, employers, and the mass media have been significant participants in this process as well.
Our findings suggest that the sorry state of American student achievement is due more to the conditions of students’ lives outside of school than it is to what takes place within school walls. In my view, the failure of the school reform movement to reverse the decline in achievement is due to its emphasis on reforming schools and classrooms, and its general disregard of the contributing factors that, while outside the boundaries of the school, are probably more influential. In this final chapter, I want to go beyond the findings of our study and discuss a series of steps America needs to take if we are to successfully address [solve] the problem of declining student achievement.
Although we did not intend our study to be a study of ethnicity and achievement, the striking and consistent ethnic differences in performance and behavior that we observed demand careful consideration, if only because they demonstrate that some students are able to achieve at high levels within American schools, whatever our schools’ shortcomings may be. This does not mean, of course that our schools are free of problems, or that all students would be performing at high levels “if only” they behaved like their successful counterparts from other ethnic groups. Nevertheless, our findings do suggest that there may be something important to be learned by examining the behaviors and attitudes of students who are able to succeed within American schools as they currently exist, and that something other than deficiencies in our schools is contributing to America’s achievement problem.
By identifying some of the factors that appear to contribute to the remarkable success of Asian students (and Asian immigrants in particular), or that impede success among African-American and Latino students (and especially among Latinos whose families have been living in the United States for some time), we were able to ask whether these same factors contribute to student achievement in all groups. That is, we asked whether the factors that seem to give an advantage to Asian students as a group are the same factors that facilitate student achievement in general, regardless of a youngster’s ethnic background. The answer, for the most part, is yes.
Across all ethnic groups, working hard in school is a strong predictor of academic accomplishment. One clear reason for the relative levels of performance of the various ethnic groups is that Asian students devote relatively more effort to their studies, and Black and Latino youngsters relatively less. Compared with their peers, Asian youngsters spend twice as much time each week on homework and are significantly more engaged in the classroom. Students from other ethnic groups are more likely to cut class, less likely to pay attention, and less likely to value doing well in school. Black and Latino students are less likely to do the homework they are assigned than are White or Asian students.
Second, successful students are more likely than their peers to worry about the potential negative consequences of not getting a good education. Students need to believe that their performance in school genuinely matters in order to do well in the classroom, but students appear to be more strongly motivated by the desire to avoid failure than by actually striving for success. Because schools expect so little from students, however, it is easy for most of them to avoid failing without exerting much effort or expending much energy. Within a system that fails very few students, then, only those student who have high standards of their own–who have more stringent criteria for success and failure–will strive to do better than merely to pass their courses and graduate.
Asian students are far more likely to be worried about the possibility of not doing well in school and the implications of this for their future; this, then, is the second reason for their superior performance relative to other youngsters. Contrary to popular stereotype, African-American and Latino students are not especially pessimistic or cynical about the value of schooling, but, rather are unwisely optimistic about the repercussions of doing poorly in school. Either these students believe they can succeed without getting a good education or they have adopted this view as a way of compensating psychologically for their relatively weaker performance. In either case, though, their cavalier appraisal of the consequences of doing poorly in school is a serious liability.
Third, there are important differences in how students view the causes of their successes and failures, and these differences in students’ beliefs have important implications for how they actually perform in school. Successful students believe that their accomplishments are the result of hard work, and their failures the consequence of insufficient effort. Unsuccessful students, in contrast, attribute success and failure to factors outside their own control, such as luck, innate ability, or the biases of teachers. The greater prevalence of the healthful attributional style we see among Asian students in this country is consistent with what other researchers have found in cross-cultural comparisons of individuals’ beliefs about the origins of success. Americans, in general, place too much emphasis on the importance of native ability, and too little emphasis on the necessity of hard work. This set of views is hurting our children’s achievement in school.
Regardless of ethnic background, success in school is highly correlated with being strongly engaged in school emotionally. The factors that contribute to the relative success of Asian students–hard work, high personal standards, anxiety about doing poorly, and the belief that success and failure are closely linked to the amount of effort one exerts–are keys to academic success in all groups of students. The superior performance of Asian students in American schools, then, is not mysterious, but explainable on the basis of their attitudes, values, and behavior.