The work-ethic and knowledge gap

Most American students are lazy and lack basic knowledge, writes Kara Miller, a Babson College professor of rhetoric and history, in the Boston Globe.

My “C,’’ “D,’’ and “F’’ students this semester are almost exclusively American, while my students from India, China, and Latin America have – despite language barriers – generally written solid papers, excelled on exams, and become valuable class participants.

One girl from Shanghai became a fixture at office hours, embraced our college writing center, and incessantly e-mailed me questions about her evolving papers. Her English is still mediocre: she frequently puts “the’’ everywhere (as in “the leader supported the feminism and the environmentalism’’) and confuses “his’’ and “her.’’ But that didn’t stop her from doing rewrite after rewrite, tirelessly trying to improve both structure and grammar.

Undergrads from China have the strongest work ethic, Miller writes, but she’s also been impressed by students from India, Thailand, Brazil, and Venezuela. They struggle with English, but they’re carried forward by their respect for professors and for knowledge.

By contrast, many of her American students “appear tired and disengaged.”  While the best U.S. students are knowledgeable and innovative, too many lack the basics.   “We’ve got a knowledge gap, spurred by a work-ethic gap,” Miller writes.

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  1. It doesn’t take one until college to notice the difference. Almost all of my highest achievers three years running in middle school are students from Chinese, Indian, Korean, Pakistani, and North African families. And lest anyone accuse them of being robotic as students, they’re also lively, creative, and involved in music, art, and sports as well as academics.

  2. Could it be because American students have figured out that their teachers are under unbearable pressure to pass just about everyone? To fail a student in my school you must be able to document that you went through umpteen procedures before assigning a failing grade. This pressure from above has really intensified in the last couple of years and we have long faculty meetings about grades and what percent of students are failing each class. Many of the teachers I felt were the most demanding and did their best to prepare students for the next level have retired and have been replaced with brand new teachers who are afraid to fail a student for fear of losing their job.

    I have been really discouraged about this growing lack of effort among my students for some time. It seems they have learned to play the “do as little as possible and still pass” game and are graduating with a diploma, but no real skills. In the end, it is me, their teacher who will be blamed when they go to college and are unable to keep up with a demanding work load where no one coddles them and tries to build their self esteem by handing out inflated grades that they don’t deserve.

  3. I agree with Miss Eyre. Those kids (and their fabulously involved parents) keep me in the classroom.

    But I have to admit I’m confused. I thought teachers were the ones to blame for students’ lack of work ethic. At least that’s what most newspapers and politicians are saying right now. How can international students be learning so well when we teachers are the ones doing the horrible job?

  4. Andrew Bell says:

    It’s hard to be other than “tired and disengaged” when you’re hungover. I know, that’s cynical (but likely true). The more politically correct explanation would be that it is hard to put much into school when you are also working 40+ hours/week.

    P.S. – My daughter at a smallish, selective liberal arts college says that the students there don’t have this problem – plenty of studying going on – even amongst the Americans! But the students there aren’t working full-time jobs while going to school, either.

  5. teach? said..

    “I thought teachers were the ones to blame for students’ lack of work ethic.”

    Educational professionals in large part created the social reality that set the tone for the current state of student attitudes.

    The bastardization of the ideas of Rousseau and Dewy and the condescending racialists turned what used to be specific and meaningful instruction into useless education.

  6. Sorry, hit send to quickly.

    teach? Those foreign students for the most part didn’t attend primary school in the USA, or if they did their parent didn’t.

    They haven’t had a life time of free writing, group activities, field trips, word walls, differentiated instruction, and self constructed knowledge. They probably spent that time reading books, working math problems, taking notes, and getting as much face time with professional teachers as possible. Their foreign teachers probably cared very little about their self-esteem, socio-economic status, and their community involvement.

  7. Richard Aubrey says:

    There’s a self-selection here.
    You don’t upsticks and come to another country unless you are motivated and prepared to address challenges.
    I’ve worked with exchange students for almost thirty years (AFS), and the self-selection is obvious.
    Doesn’t mean the American kids can’t improve or haven’t been ill-served in their educational experience.
    But it’s hardly a useful comparison.
    The slackers from the foreign students’ home countries are still there, slacking away.

  8. This is the same point that James Fallows made twenty years ago in “More Like Us: Making America Great Again” (1989). The immigrant students have the same work ethic as the other waves of immigrants that made America.

  9. Deirdre Mundy says:

    I worked 30-40 hours a week in college AND still managed to graduate with honors from a top tier school.

    But I didn’t party—–and I thought studying was fun…

    It’s work ethic, not free time….

    (of course, if I hadn’t worked so much I might have had time for cool internships….)

  10. Roger Sweeny says:

    Some foreign students are great. But there are a large number of young people who are brought over here when they are 11 or 12 or l3 or more. More often than not, they weren’t great students at home and they aren’t great students here. In fact, they are often near the bottom of their middle or high school classes because they don’t speak English very well–and it takes a real effort to learn a new language after you’ve entered your teens.

    Most of them aren’t lazy but they put the majority of their effort into making money, making friends, and making connections with their gender of choice.

  11. Mr.Aubrey makes the key point here, and the only important point.

    By and large, immigrants work hard. They worked hard to get here, have a high sense of agency and were probably the elite of one sort or another to qualify to get here.

    Not all immigrants, of course. But certainly a rather high numbers of them. And certainly a enormous percentage of those coming here as students.

    This is not a condemdation of our culture or a function of superior foreign cultures. It’s just a function of how difficulty and costly it is to get here. My guess is that the American students at Babson College are not as elite (from their origiating context) as the foreign students are (from their originating context).

  12. “You don’t upsticks and come to another country unless you are motivated and prepared to address challenges” Esp. when your country’s paying for your education, and you’d better produce.

    I think the Babson prof is confusing a combination of sucking-up and cultural traditions with genuine enthusiasm. Kids who’ve had helicopter parents aren’t looking for independence, they’re looking for a parent substitute.

    And sad to say, many US born students aren’t dazzled by their teachers any more. I’ll agree that plenty are lazy, ill-taught and all the rest, but I’m not so sure that her Shanghai student is the ideal.

  13. I can just see that being published if she’d complained about how lazy the Mexican or black students were. Or if she’d talked about how the Chinese kids were tough, but unimaginative and really not particularly good thinkers.

    If I’m reading US News right, Babson College is unranked. There are an enormous number of ambitious, hardworking Indians and Chinese eager for a degree from any US university. The white students forced to settle for Babson might not be as ambitious a crew. So not only selection in the immigrants, but selection in the white students as well. I mean, so long as she’s going to smear white students with a blatantly racist brush, let’s remember where she teaches.

  14. Cal,

    Babson is an school focused solely on business and is therefore unranked by US News. I am from Boston, and Babson has an incredibly strong regional reputation. In addition, you may have heard of Olin College of Engineering… they have teamed up with Babson to teach entrepreneurship. Babson MBA program is highly ranked, and in subspecialties like entrepreneurship, they are almost always ranked near the top.

    I have no affiliation with Babson… just wanted to correct your careless smearing of a strong school just because you didn’t find it US News World Report undergrad rankings.

  15. Cal…

    Here are some rankings for Babson:

  16. Jab, I don’t see why I could be said to have “smeared” Babson–particularly given that the teacher in question had just “smeared” all the American candidates. I’m not a huge fan of US News rankings, but if it’s a school that focuses solely on business, it’s not typical. That said, I went and looked again at US News, and I see that it mentions that it is a selective campus. The site says that students have an 1800-2090 SAT score, so I doubt many students are “settling”.

    Which again got me curious. So if it’s a good school, with all these excellent students, why is the teacher whining about white students and praising Asian students? If they’re so selective, why all the losers?

    I went and checked Babson’s demographics:

    Students come from 64 countries and 44 states and territories. 42 percent of Babson’s students are women – well above the national percentage of female business students. Roughly 13 percent of students are Asian, 9 percent are Latino, 4 percent are Black, and Native American and multicultural students represent approximately 1 percent of the overall population.

    Doing the math–and I am a math teacher–83% of the students are white. Probably more than that are American. Just 13% are Asian.

    Well, obviously Dr. Miller can’t do much math. Most of her C, D, and F students will be American (and white). Most of her A students will be American, too (and white). There will be a strong selection bias in the international students.

    I mean, whoopdeedoo. Does she even know the statistics of her school and how that will play out in her grade distribution?

    Look, I’m sorry if I’ve offended your honor by questioning Babson’s relative quality, and I acknowledge that I misread the US News article. However, the gravamen of my charge was not “Babson is a terrible school”, but “what a nasty shrew to write such unpleasant things about her students” and to point out the double standard involved in her being able to do so.

    The article is offensive, and an even cursory look at Babson’s demographics make the entire argument moot. She should drink a big cup of shut up and stop making prejudicial remarks about the majority of her students. She should definitely stop calling them lazy. I hope they hold her feet to the fire.

  17. Ack. I might be a math teacher, but I read too hastily! There were 13% Asian, 13% black and Hispanic (I missed the second 13%). 27% of the students are non-white, so 73% are white.

  18. I’m surprised by the number of folks here willing to excuse the poor performance of american students based on the ambitions of those foreigners.

    Look at the performace of immigrant students in k-12 from India and China. Those are not necessarily a self-selecting group. Our local Kumons center, in a white affluent suburb of NJ, is attended by primarily the children of Chinese and South East Asian parents.

    Why can’t we acknowledge that the cultural habits of some immigrants demand a strong work ethic?

  19. Professor Miller has written about the reaction to her Globe op-ed. It’s worth reading.

    “Of course, it may be, as many have said on the Globe’s website, that international students who come here represent their country’s best and brightest – and that comparing them to American students is comparing apples to oranges.

    There are, though, the facts. Studies show that American students know less about math, science, and geography than peers in many other industrialized countries.

    By rejecting criticism, we are doing a disservice to our students. It is not anti-American to point out flaws in our educational system; it is both patriotic and necessary.”

  20. I don’t see that the foreign students are necessarily immigrants–the female student is from Shanghai, and thus, is supported by her country’s funding, not her parents. That alone is a huge reason for her zeal. She’s under big pressure to produce good grades, or else she’s yanked back. That’s how Chinese students get to US schools.

  21. I think it’s interesting that she thought the lack of knowledge was spurred by the lack of work ethic.

    It seems likely it’s the other way around. If you learned nothing in k-12, why would you have any work ethic at all? Why would you believe going to college was suddenly about learning, when it hadn’t been in 13 years? Why would you suddenly try to master subjects when you’d been told mastery was unimportant, creativity was important; memorization was unnecessary to proper usage of grammatical structures; inquiry based learning was more authentic than taking notes from an expert?

    Work ethic comes from internal and external rewards. People work hard when they see that they receive external rewards like praise, awards, high marks, for the end result of their hard work. People work hard when they’ve gotten enough external rewards that they’ve bootstrapped internal ones: like enough success under their belt that they KNOW when they are going to get high marks, or know how to succeed at the assignment, etc. Rob students of learning things to mastery and the work ethic never crystallizes. Give them external rewards for things that don’t deserve it and it never crystallizes either.


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