Can Schools Rekindle the American Work Ethic?

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.

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.”

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.

-Chester E. Finn, Jr.

The post originally appeared on the Fordham Institute’s Flypaper blog.

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