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Of Values, Paying it Forward and Why American Test Scores Are So Low

I am a Tom Friedman fan and have been for quite some time. The New York Times columnist and best-selling author is an ideas man with an ability to connect the dots.

His book The World Is Flat is a great example of his ability to see things in ways others do not. And his more recent, Hot, Flat, and Crowded, utilizes the most important word, the real pink elephant in my mind, when it comes to the future of our country and our world: crowded.

In contrast, Michael O’Hare has been and continues to be relatively unknown to me. But he too seems like an ideas man with that same ability.

I became aware of the professor of public policy at the University of California, Berkeley, only by virtue of a piece he recently published, A letter to my students.

He, along with several other professors, blog at The Reality-Based Community. The blog has a most provocative subheader, “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.”

More on Friedman

My infatuation with Friedman comes in great part from his books but it also comes from his occasional column on education. His essay entitled “One Great Teacher” remains one of my favorite educational stories because it serves as a reminder that the best educators have a sense of presence as well as an ability to set high expectations for students.

In his recent column We’re No. 1(1)!, Friedman weaves together a myriad of ideas as he tackles one of our continuing problems: poor student test scores despite spending gobs of money on school reform. Friedman begins by noting the recent Newsweek list of the best 100 countries in the world and the disappointing revelation that America is not even ranked in the top 10.

The New York Times columnist moves on to discuss another article, this one by the Washington Post economics columnist Robert Samuelson. In it Samuelson conjectures that the issue with schools might actually transcend the buildings, teachers and administrators. The idea of school failure could well reside with “shrunken student motivation.”

Friedman quotes Samuelson thus:

“Students, after all, have to do the work. If they aren’t motivated, even capable teachers may fail. Motivation comes from many sources: curiosity and ambition; parental expectations; the desire to get into a ‘good’ college; inspiring or intimidating teachers; peer pressure. The unstated assumption of much school ‘reform’ is that if students aren’t motivated, it’s mainly the fault of schools and teachers.

“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.’ ”

The words of Samuelson echoing, Friedman notes what may well be the biggest issue schools face today.

“We had a values breakdown — a national epidemic of get-rich-quickism and something-for-nothingism.”

America’s “Greatest Generation” is revered, notes Friedman, because they faced extraordinary problems (Depression, Nazism and Soviet Communism) and solved them. And they did so by asking people to also do hard things: to sacrifice, and pull together, for the good of the country.

“Contrast that with the Baby Boomer Generation,” writes Friedman. “Our big problems are unfolding incrementally — the decline in U.S. education, competitiveness and infrastructure, as well as oil addiction and climate change. Our generation’s leaders never dare utter the word ‘sacrifice.’ All solutions must be painless.”

Friedman further insists that he “would get excited about U.S. politics when our national debate is between Democrats and Republicans who start by acknowledging that we can’t cut deficits without both tax increases and spending cuts — and then debate which ones and when — who acknowledge that we can’t compete unless we demand more of our students — and then debate longer school days versus school years — who acknowledge that bad parents who don’t read to their kids and do indulge them with video games are as responsible for poor test scores as bad teachers — and debate what to do about that.”

More on O’Hare

The issue of our current generation’s failure to live up to the standards set forth by its predecessors is also the focus of O’Hare’s letter to his student. O’Hare begins:

“Welcome to Berkeley, probably still the best public university in the world. Meet your classmates, the best group of partners you can find anywhere. The percentages for grades on exams, papers, etc. in my courses always add up to 110% because that’s what I’ve learned to expect from you, over twenty years in the best job in the world.”

The positive spirit and upbeat persona end after this single opening paragraph.

“That’s the good news,” writes O’Hare. “The bad news is that you have been the victims of a terrible swindle, denied an inheritance you deserve by contract and by your merits. And you aren’t the only ones; victims of this ripoff include the students who were on your left and on your right in high school but didn’t get into Cal, a whole generation stiffed by mine.”

“… they agreed to invest money they could have spent on bigger houses, vacations, clothes, and cars into the world’s greatest educational system, and into building and operating water systems, roads, parks, and other public facilities, an infrastructure that was the envy of the world. They didn’t get everything right: too much highway and not enough public transportation. But they did a pretty good job.

“…this deal held until about thirty years ago, when for a variety of reasons, California voters realized that while they had done very well from the existing contract, they could do even better by walking away from their obligations and spending what they had inherited on themselves.”

After further taking the current leadership to task, O’Hare arrives at a similar conclusion to Friedman in relation to our political leadership.

“We can afford a government that actually works: the fact is that your parents have simply chosen not to have it.”

And that is not the only fault he finds with parents.

“Many of your parents took a hike as well, somehow getting the idea that the schools had taken over their duties to keep you learning,” writes O’Hare, “or so beat-up working two jobs each and commuting two hours a day to put food on the table that they couldn’t be there for you. A quarter of your classmates didn’t finish high school, discouraged and defeated; but they didn’t leave the planet, even if you don’t run into them in the gated community you will be tempted to hide out in. They have to eat just like you, and they aren’t equipped to do their share of the work, so you will have to support them.”

A Need for Values

While many will find fault with O’Hare for his support of greater educational spending (just throwing more money at the problem they say), it is difficult not to begin head nodding as you read. In essence, he is, in his own way, talking about the current generation in the same manner as Friedman.

But one of the reasons I enjoy reading Friedman is that he goes beyond characterizing and describing an issue to actually proposing some solutions. As he winds down, he gets right at the heart of why America may only be the 11th best country in the world.

Friedman notes that the countries on the rise have “values like our Greatest Generation” had. They have the ability and the “willingness to postpone gratification, invest for the future, work harder than the next guy and hold their kids to the highest expectations.’

No it is not about cheap labor or the chance at a free enterprise system alone. It is about what people have inside of them.

“In a flat world where everyone has access to everything,” writes Friedman, “values matter more than ever.”

Collectively these two men offer a similar vein – improving schools, and ultimately, restoring America’s place in the global order, will come only when we see a cosmic shift in societal attitudes and values.

Perhaps those low test scores are indeed a function of more than just what goes on within the walls of the schools themselves.


1 Joe { 09.22.10 at 1:58 pm }

great synthesis of two concurrent stories. I also like Friedman’s educational coverage. Thanks for sharing the link to “a letter to my students”

2 Angel Demirev { 09.28.10 at 9:18 pm }

I think the average student just isn’t putting enough effort into school work. Just look at general high school classes and you’ll see the low level at which they’re taught. The education system is basically teaching students to be lazy and stupid because it’s not challenging enough.

3 Grant { 11.24.10 at 3:59 am }

When my kids were little I was a PTA VP for several years at one school and on the site council for several years at another. I also taught evening classes at the local JC for a number of years.

I observed four factors in how well students did. Children of blue collar workers didn’t do as well as children of white collar workers. Children of single parents didn’t do as well as children with both a mother and a father at home. Children of parents who didn’t speak English didn’t do as well as other children – with the exception of Asians, whose children typically did better than average. And, at the risk of not being PC, children of “minorities” didn’t do as well as other children.

All the schools in my school district had the same curriculum and the same pool of teachers. The vast difference between the schools, in my opinion, hinged on the four factors I’ve mentioned above.

I agree that teachers need to be rewarded for their results in the classroom. I also agree that parents play a crucial role in the education of our children.

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