Can schools rekindle the American work ethic?

Sal Khan at Web 2.0 Summit
 

The front page of Sunday’s New York Times featured a pair of articles, each of which was
informative and alarming in its way but which, taken together, produced (in my
head at least) a winter storm—as did Tuesday evening’s State
of the Union message
by President Obama.

The longer, more informative, and more alarming, of the articles
was an extensive account of why Apple’s iPhones are now
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.”

Flexibility, diligence, and industrial skills. Hold that
thought.

Simply
put, although the President spoke of restoring millions of manufacturing jobs
to U.S. shores, it’s hard to picture Apple (or similar firms) responding.

The second article previewed the President’s 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, as
well as macro-economic policies, several of them noted in the speech itself.
But mostly what Mr. Obama did was trot out a bunch of government programs and
rattle on about ways by which Uncle Sam should enhance the “fairness” of the U.S. economy,
particularly its income distribution. (He used the words “fair,” “fairness,” or
“unfair” eight times.) He didn’t talk about its 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 Apple (or similar firms) responding, since
the steps he has in mind to attract them are federal spending and tax programs
and 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.”

He deserves some credit on the skills front—a word he used
five times. 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 two million people with usable, job-related
skills.

He addressed K-12 education, too, but only on the
“compulsory attendance” and “teacher quality” fronts—and while the latter
hinted at merit pay and nodded at schools having the flexibility to “replace”
instructors “who just aren't helping kids learn,” 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, for 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. Instead, 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. Here’s an excerpt. (You
can find the whole speech at the White
House website
.) 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.”

Then read Charles Murray’s fine essay in Saturday’s Wall Street Journal (derived from a forthcoming book): “The
New American Divide
.” Murray
contends that “the American way of life” has decayed and what he calls “the new
lower class” (pretty much what we used to call the “working class”) has lost
the value of “industriousness.”

Now put them together. Murray
says that core value has badly eroded. The President says it no longer “pays
off”—and the government must do something to foster “fairness.” And Apple says
it has moved production to China
because Americans lack “diligence.”

Could K-12 education contribute significantly to a
revival of industriousness in the U.S. population?

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, even if Mr.
Obama didn’t mention it, but to do this our teachers and policymakers will need
to reverse now-widespread practices and beliefs. They will, to begin, 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 own
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 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” cut scores. And in the name of self-esteem-building they
praise everybody all the time no matter whether the fruits of a student’s
efforts are worth praising or not.

Stanford’s Carol
Dweck and UVa’s Dan Willingham are leaders within a growing band of serious
education scholars who have determined that the opposite is closer to the
truth: unearned
praise
and unwarranted
self-esteem
are bad
for kids
. Instead, teachers should praise and reward students for genuine
accomplishment—and the harder kids work and the more they learn and accomplish
the more praise (and reward) they earn.

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.

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