Reward Less, Get Less

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Student performance gaps are easily explained


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Fall 2009 / Vol. 9, No. 4

Flunked & Two Million Minutes

As reviewed by Mark Bauerlein

Last spring, in Fairburn, Georgia, officials in two schools piloted a startling attendance program. If struggling 8th and 11th graders showed up for study hall, they could earn $8 an hour, and if their grades and test scores rose significantly, they would receive a bonus. An Associated Press story termed the policy a “bribe,” and a Georgia State University professor on National Public Radio declared it “morally bankrupt.” But Ben Chavis, then principal of American Indian Public Charter School in East Oakland, California, had started paying students for attendance years ago with steady results, doubling math scores in the school over time. “Poor people love money,” he explains, so why not let it motivate the kids? He even met with drug dealers off campus and offered them $5 for every truant they brought back. The cash came from creative budgeting, for instance, no computers for the kids. (“They can’t read,” he declares, “they don’t need a computer!”)

Chavis is one of a handful of school mavericks profiled in Flunked, a 45-minute documentary narrated by actor Joe Mantegna. The film reviews 50 years of public school investment, from Sputnik to No Child Left Behind, and derives a simple lesson: the claim “more money makes more success” is a myth, “the tallest tale of them all.” In spite of massive investment and however you measure it, one commenter says, academic achievement “looks like somebody just died—it’s just a flat line.” Success lies not in raising dollars but in changing the organization.

The “all-stars” in Flunked illustrate how it can happen. They are “entrepreneurial principals,” headstrong heroes who rescue failing schools, run charters, tighten discipline, and lower dropout rates. Steve Barr runs Green Dot Public Schools in Los Angeles, which divides dysfunctional high schools into small charter schools. His first principle: get every dollar into classrooms. He pays teachers well and grants them wide latitude in the classroom in exchange for a “dismissal-for-cause” condition in their contracts. Howard Lappin, who took on a high school in L.A.—“1,600 kids, out-of-control school, violent, terrible test scores”—recites his message for kids: “if you’re not in class you’re in trouble—your parents are gonna be in—we’re gonna talk to you—you’re not gonna be here—you got to do what you got to do because this is a school—this is not a playground.”

The ingredients are plain and they don’t include “Give us more money.”

  • Provide strict discipline, longer hours, high expectations
  • Give teachers high pay and discretion in the classroom, but hold them to professional standards
  • Reduce bureaucracy

A sound approach for these schools, but on the evidence of another recent school documentary, the lessons of Flunked may not apply as we move up the U.S. public school ladder. Two Million Minutes profiles two high schoolers in Bangalore, India, two in Shanghai, China, and two in Carmel High School outside Indianapolis. Ranked in the top 5 percent of U.S. public schools, Carmel has loads of money and top-notch facilities. No need to fire any teachers or collar truants. But, as the film unfolds, a striking deficiency among the American students emerges, one that no in-school policy can address—the drive to compete with their peers.

“Competitiveness,” of course, has become a touchstone of education debate. Two years ago in the Washington Post, Bill Gates warned that unless Americans hit the workplace with math and science skills, they will sink in the knowledge economy and take their nation with them. But American students appear unaffected by what one commenter after another says in Two Million Minutes: We are in a global competition, and we’re losing. From 1985 to 2004, the proportion of bachelor’s degrees awarded in math or science in this country fell from 21.7 to 15.8 percent. Engineering went from 9.8 to 6.2 percent, and the numbers won’t improve soon. On the 2006 American Freshman Survey, only 0.8 percent of entering college students intended to major in math, 0.5 percent in physics. These fields are a micro-niche.

For Asian students, though, math and science degrees are the way to prosperity. These students live with “economic uncertainty,” the film explains, and view math and science study as a form of “economic opportunism,” a “passport out of poverty.” The girl from India wants to be rich, and she terms engineering the “safest” field. She attends a two-hour math tutorial that starts at 7:45 each Saturday morning, and after a break, three more hours of class follow. The boy from India aims to be a physicist (as are his father and sister), and he spends 12 hours a week in evening sessions preparing for the Indian Institute of Technology entrance exam. A half million take the test and only 5,000 win admission. The Chinese boy took his first standardized test in 1st grade, and his regular school day lasts nine hours. He doesn’t claim to be number one, but he loves to win and is, in fact, the top math student in his school. It’s not all math and science. Though the Chinese girl wants a biology career, along with her full school schedule she studies ballet and violin.

And the suburban American kids? The boy is senior class president and a National Merit semifinalist, and the girl ranks in the top 3 percent of her class. He admits, though, “Occasionally, I do homework,” and for a big class project due on Monday he starts preparing a day earlier. She claims to “set high expectations,” but adds, “I’m not that 9-to-5 kind of girl.” She favors medicine because “you get an awesome feeling, it’s really a rewarding experience, I think, being able to, um, save lives.” She’s “well-rounded,” which means doing homework with friends while watching Grey’s Anatomy. He doesn’t “ever want a cubicle,” so he works 20 hours a week in a pasta joint and does graphics for the school paper.

Teachers reflect the same laxity. When handing out an exam, the Carmel teacher assures his students that on one question, “I will accept three of the four answers.” In the Indian classroom, the teacher explains the steps in a calculation and concludes, “Nobody should say ‘I don’t know how to find the tangent.’” When the students pause, she blurts out, “Why are you simply standing there?” Nobody chides the American kids like that.

The American boy wins early admission and a full ride to Purdue, while the American girl gets into Indiana University. They are accepted into top universities, so why work any harder? The policies advocated in Flunked are not the answer here. More money in the classroom and less bureaucracy in the schools will make no difference, nor will stricter discipline or higher expectations as long as the college acceptances come through.

Not one of the Asian kids gets into the first-choice college. That outcome explains the relative efforts, and it puts the American high performers in a dismaying light. Asian kids don’t talk about their “awesome” feelings of helping people. They talk about how it feels to beat the kids sitting next to them. If the American boy and girl landed in an Asian classroom, they would sink to the bottom in a week. Call it classroom Darwinism with predictable results. It’s a survival-of-the-smartest world, with few survivors.

Mark Bauerlein is professor of English at Emory University.

Comment on this article
  • Corey says:

    Sounds like we’re doing something right if our students aspire to help others.

  • Mark bauerlein says:

    I think, Corey, that the primary task of school is not to teach benevolence, but to teach knowledge and skills.

  • Peter Meyer says:

    Mark, great piece. I once did some tutoring of 4th graders and often handed out dollar bills for work well-done. The kids, mostly poor, were extremely pleased — and were good students. One day, I reached into my pocket and came up with a $20. It was all I had, so I gave it the boy, who looked at it and burst into tears. Word of the gift must have spread rapidly, because I was called aside by the principal the following day and scolded for giving kids money to learn. “We don’t do that here,” he said. So, what do you do? I wanted to ask, but didn’t. My own sense of things is that American public schools — and American culture in general — have gotten fat and lazy and have given up on the notion of incentives and disincentives, with lifetime tenure being one of the most remarkable disincentivizing practices ever invented. “No pain, no gain,” the nuns used to say.

  • David Stuckel says:

    Yada, yada, yada. Another description of the problem, but no mention of the solution. Nice L.A. charter school. If you don’t study, you won’t be here. Where will they be? How do we get any closer to an overall answer by just removing underachievers? It makes the average look better, but doesn’t McDonald’s have enough workers now? Or should we just tell everyone to sink or swim. Swimmers get everything and sinkers get nothing?

  • Mark Bauerlein says:

    You seem to assume, David, that when kids and parents hear the message, “If you don’t study, you won’t be here,” then they will simply leave. I think the point of the film was that the firm message, in fact, makes for better students.

  • Gerald Bracey says:

    I think 2 Million Minutes is a great video that send precisely the opposite message of what Bob Compton intended. The Indian and Chinese kids have no options. The American kids do. And the kinds of extracurricular activities the American kids engage in build precisely the kinds of “soft skills” employers want. A McKenzie study of 9 occupations, including engineering, found that 9 of 10 Chinese college graduates would lack the skills to work for a multinational corporation.

    I’d like to see the long term consequences of the Chinese and Indian kids not getting the universities they suffered so much to get into. Must be horribly depressing and a terrible loss of “face.”

    Of course, any generalizations based on 6 people are absurd. I know of places in Northern India where there are so many educated people that thousands show up for even relatively low-level white collar jobs. This drives home the point that education in and of itself does not create jobs.

    The principal at Carmel tells me the kids are doing fine at Indiana andPurdue.

    Two Million Minutes is as full of stuff as a Christmas turkey. Fortunately, Roy Romer’s attempt to use it in the EdinO8 campaign (another attempt to create fear about schools) failed.

  • Mark Bauerlein says:

    Yes, it would be good to follow the Asian students, Gerald, and see how they fare in later years. I think, though, that the citation of “soft skills” is overdone. What I see in surveys of workplaces by National Association of Manufacturers, College Board, and Achieve is that businesses are deeply dissatisfied with the hard-skills levels of recent grads. The College Board estimates that corporate America now spends $3.1 billion on remedial writing training for its own workers. And let’s remember that the most popular activity in out of school time for American teens is still TV.

  • karlwheatley says:

    There is no question that if we follow dull curriculum models, paying kids will seem necessary, and even appear effective compared to the alternatives.However, if we use more effective, more interest-based models, kids will learn more long-term and there won’t be any perceived need to pay kids to learn. If it seems necessary to pay kids to learn, the curriculum, methods or culture are broken.

    We need to solve poverty in a serious way that gives dignity to the adults in the household.

  • Timothy Underwood says:

    I really don’t think you have a sense for the level of competitiveness involved in getting into a really good US college, students whose aim is to get into a top 25 school in the US are not that much less competitive or obsessed with the tests. However in the US there are other schools, and that no matter how poorly someone does in high school there will be college options available.

    Additionally, as someone with solid technical skills (I just graduated from Berkeley with a degree in applied math) I am extremely aware of the emphasis companies put on having ‘soft skills’. For a good position, in a good field, where you are going to be playing with numbers most of the day, companies view it as absolutely essential that you can work well in a team. It is vital that you can write, and communicate, and are able to avoid stepping on peoples toes, etc. Read job postings for entry level positions if you want to see what companies actually care about.

    I’m not aware of any real discussion about how these lacks are actually harming US business. And no matter how good our education system is for natives, so long as we allow open borders there would be lots of foreigners working in the US. For two reasons, there are far more opportunities here, and no matter how good our education system is, the top quantile Indian grads are going to be better than the fourth quantile of American grads. So no matter how competitive, or skilled Americans are, there will be smart foreigners who are better than most Americans.

    The thing is, this isn’t bad for those Americans who aren’t as smart as them. It’s a good thing. The real world is a place where people collaborating creates opportunities for everyone, and bigger pies. A Darwinian survival of the fittest metaphor just doesn’t fit (of course Darwinian metaphors don’t fit actual evolution either…). Other people doing better is usually better for you unless (and sometimes even if) you are directly competing with them. Those smart foreign workers are driving employment, economic growth, and most importantly new technologies which are benefiting everyone, people who grew up in America, people in China and India, people in Europe, everyone.

    The American education system fails those who are looking for social mobility, but as far as I know its not really failing smart young Americans or American businesses (what is the top major today, the one which has sucked all of those students away from Math, Science and Engineering? Business. Ie, students are trying to get the jobs which companies actually are paying for, instead of the ones which pundits say they want). This actually brings up my first instinctive reaction to ideas for making sure students are actually in lectures. For most smart students, much of the time spent in lecture and many of their assignments, are also wasted time. Figuring out how to make sure they waste their precious and limited time on earth doing pointless busy work hardly seems like an improvement.

  • Joyce Yang says:

    what is knowledge and skills without concern for others? if the primary task of the school is to teach knowledge and skills, who will teach care and concern for others?

  • Karl Wheatley says:

    Test scores are poor predictors of real-world success and only have inflated predictive power in school settings where folks haven’t caught on that most of what matters isn’t on the test.

    China, Korea, Singapore and Korea are all moving away from standardized, narrowly-academic, test-driven schooling because they have discovered the profound limitations of this approach.

    Meanwhile, what “works” depends partly on culture, and if American kids don’t have the study-till-I-drop-to-survive motivation found in some countries, then tap into what they do have–which includes that it is awesome to help others. What better reasons to study science than to cure cancer, design cleaner fuels, reverse global warming etc. Morality isn’t a distraction-it’s the most powerful force for learning there is.

    The last thing we want to do on this small planet is raise children who believe the future is/must be an endless contest to beat others. Never mind that competition backfires strikingly to improve overall learning, We owe to our children to develop a more humane and moral world than that. The deepest goals of education are to figure out how we can ensure that everyone on the planet can live a healthy, productive, meaningful life.

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