Motivation is weak because more students (of all races and economic classes, let it be added) don’t like school, don’t work hard and don’t do well. In a 2008 survey of public high school teachers, 21 percent judged student absenteeism a serious problem; 29 percent cited “student apathy.” … 60 percent of incoming community college students and 30 percent of freshmen at four-year colleges need remedial reading and math courses.
Against these realities, school “reform” rhetoric is blissfully evasive. It is often an exercise in extravagant expectations…. Now Duncan routinely urges “a great teacher” in every classroom. That would be about 3.7 million “great” teachers — a feat akin to having every college football team composed of all-Americans. With this sort of intellectual rigor, what school “reform” promises is more disillusion.
As the United States slides down the student achievement ladder across the globe the administration steadfastly refuses to address reality and pursues extravagant facile faux solutions.
Let me repeat what Professor Samuelson tells us, Motivation is weak because more students (of all races and economic classes, let it be added) don’t like school, don’t work hard and don’t do well.
What is especially distressing is that “answers,” by which I mean policies are not shrouded in mystery.
James Heckman is the Henry Schultz Distinguished Service Professor of Economics at the University of Chicago, and shared the 2000 Nobel Prize in Economics and has studied pre-school and early childhood education extensively. In a Washington Post interview Heckman addresses the economic impact of pre-school and early childhood educaton,
…. the American family is in deep trouble, that a lot of kids are not getting the kind of environments that other kids get, and that that environment makes a big difference, and that the structure of the whole program of American society is oriented too much around support for remediation and much less around prevention. That’s true for health, and it’s true for education.
This kind of program has much broader implications. It’s a health program, and it is an education program. It’s also a crime program. If you recognize the multiple benefits that come from promoting both the cognitive and soft skills of these children, especially disadvantaged young children who are being produced at much greater numbers now, because the American family is more in shambles than probably ever before, at least in recent time, the last 40-50 years. (emphasis added)
So I think that there’s a strong economic productivity argument to be made. The societal impact is much, much greater than is typically viewed. People have to get out of these very narrow policy conceptions, out of the idea that this is the province of the Education Department or HHS. It’s a way to improve quality of life across a number of dimensions. It means people can live bigger lives, greater lives.
Heckman’s report, The Productivity Argument for Investing in Young Children, describes how individual productivity can be fostered by investments in young children, particularly children in poverty or other adverse circumstances.
The report’s findings are based on an analysis of the impact of current workforce conditions, workforce skills, the impact of baby boomer retirements, crime and family environments. For example, the report finds that America’s workforce is not gaining in quality or productivity, but rather seeing slower growth. He argues that if this trend continues, there will be fewer educated individuals in the workforce and lower productivity than in previous periods. Key findings of the report include:
- Cognitive and noncognitive abilities are important for a productive workforce, and gaps that emerge early are difficult to change.
- “Skill begets skill and learning begets more learning.” Because skills are accumulated, starting early and over time, investing in young children is an investment in future productivity and public safety.
- Family environments are important in determining education and skills. Growing numbers of children face adverse environments that restrict the development of these skills. Early education and other early interventions such as home visits can mitigate the effects of poor family environments. Key workforce skills such as motivation, persistence and self-control are developed early. Heckman concludes that K-12 schooling comes too late, and other remedies are prohibitively costly as well (e.g., job training programs and second-chance GED programs). (See Figure 1.)