Hard work seems to be last option

No learning occurs without work; no work occurs without learning.

- William Moloney

The fall semester is winding down here at the community college, and I'm feeling more anxiety than usual. I often teach developmental English (we used to call it "remedial"), and these days, 16 weeks isn't enough to review basic skills and get my students prepped for college-level work. It didn't used to be this way.

Over the past few years, the number of students needing remedial work has increased. According to the Nevada Policy Research Institute, last year, 10,000 of Nevada's high school graduates needed additional help before they were ready to take college classes. In other words, fewer than one in five of our high school students are fully prepared to enter a four-year college. Forty-one percent of recent graduates entering Nevada's community colleges alone need remediation.

And Nevada is not unique. The U.S. Department of Education's National Assessment of Educational Progress reports that only a minority of 12th-grade students nationwide reach the "proficient" or "advanced" levels of achievement. The most recent numbers are 40 percent in reading, 24 percent in writing and 17 percent in mathematics.

Some of these deficiencies stem from social, economic or cultural factors, yet generally students with these types of deficit are eager to get up to speed. Highly motivated, they attend class faithfully, ready to learn; they ask questions, engage in dialogue, and cultivate open-mindedness; they submit their homework on time and demonstrate sincere effort; they possess academic integrity; and as a result, they exceed my expectations. These aren't the ones I worry about.

I worry about the increasing number of students who not only need remedial help, but also are disengaged and unmotivated. Their first language is English, they come from middle-class families, and they are perfectly capable, yet they seriously underachieve.

Something's not right. The Bush administration blames our public school teachers and schools, burdening them with federal mandates and threatening them with punishment if any child is "left behind."

But educators are not leaving children behind. Many children don't get on board in the first place. They just don't care.

They don't care whether or not they can think and read critically, make inferences, gain insights into human behavior, or appreciate the elegance of math and logic. They don't care whether or not they can express complex ideas, accomplish original research, organize information, or communicate creatively.

That means they don't care whether or not they will discover cures for disease, ease suffering, influence the course of history, push the boundaries of science, work for social change, participate in the artistic process, or in any other way make a difference in our world.

I suspected that things were worse than I thought a few weeks ago, during the presidential campaign. I asked students in my developmental English class to choose three national issues, examine and evaluate the positions of both candidates, and then defend their own positions on the issues. One student complained that the assignment was too hard, and that politics wasn't something students should be required to write about anyway. That comment stunned me.

I remembered my ninth-grade civics class in a small northwestern Pennsylvania public school, where my interest in the American political process was sparked. It was further fueled by discussions around the dinner table when I listened to my grandparents, Italian immigrants, compare the political system they escaped in Europe and the shining opportunities America offered to anyone who worked hard.

And then I realized that the component missing in many of our students is the desire to work hard. This is reflected in a disturbing statistic reported by the Los Angeles-based Josephson Institute of Ethics: "Cheating and lying by high school students have continued their alarming, decade-long upward spiral. Seventy percent of students admit to cheating on an exam in the past year." Cheating is easy; working hard is not.

Temple University researcher Laurence Steinberg found the difference between low- and high-achieving students to be simply this: Successful students worked hard without complaint to exceed expectations, while unsuccessful students were bored and disengaged, met only minimal requirements, and had low expectations. The bottom line: We can remediate deficiencies in basic skills, but it's much harder to remediate deficiencies in character, and that's really the problem with many underachieving American students.

Perhaps a return to a teacher-directed, achievement-oriented educational philosophy would help, but I suspect that part of the solution can be effected in our own homes: We must do a better job teaching our children that success in all things, including school, requires commitment, integrity - and very, very hard work.

Marilee Swirczek has taught college English since 1971. She has been at Western Nevada Community College since 1989.


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