PRINCE FREDERICK -- The dismal history results recently released by the National Assessment of Educational Progress are for 12th-graders arguably the worst achievement scores in any subject since reporting began 26 years ago.
When these results were published to members of the National Assessment Governing Board, we were astonished that high school seniors could do so badly on a test taken just after most had completed a full-year course in U.S. history. We imagined a headline proclaiming. "The More They Study the Less They Know."
So counterintuitive were these results that we probed various experts for possible explanations, and what we found was a vital but poorly understood reality that has been staring teachers in the face for years: the unmotivated student.
When questioned, those who administered the test told of students who put their heads on their desks during the exam or doodled on their papers or simply refused to finish the test. Those of us who have worked in high schools were not greatly surprised by such behaviors. Unlike younger students, high school kids often decline to do work for which they perceive no benefit.
'Don't expect work'
This critical issue of student motivation is well described by Albert Shanker, president of the American Federation of Teachers: "Kids are just like adults. They'll do whatever they have to to get what they want. If they can get what they want -- good grades, promotion, high school diplomas, college admission -- without work, then don't expect work."
Older students taking the National Assessment or similar tests know very well that they won't see the results nor will their parents or teachers or college-admissions officers or anyone else who matters. In my own school system, teachers report that the problem of the unmotivated student begins to reach critical mass in the middle-school years and then grows exponentially at the high school level.
This circumstance is clearly reflected in those international comparisons that match U.S. students against other industrial nations. Our fourth-graders run a reasonable competitive race with their foreign counterparts; by eighth grade a significant gap has opened, and by 12th grade it has become canyon-like.
A few years back we asked teachers in my school district: "What is the biggest problem we face in trying to improve schools." The answer, by decisive majority, was: "The erosion of the student work ethic." The corollary to this response was that if we didn't fix this problem, efforts in other areas wouldn't much matter.
An extraordinary confirmation of this teacher lament comes from students themselves, when we look at Metropolitan Life's annual survey of 20,000 entering college freshmen. When asked what is their severest criticism of the high school education they had just completed, the majority responded: "They didn't make us work hard enough."
If this situation is obvious to students, to teachers, in fact to anyone who looks closely, then what should we do about it?
Success comes from effort
In other industrial nations, the entire educational system is built around students' knowing with certainty that success depends on real effort, not the simple passage of time.
Students see clearly that placement in higher education or employment is a direct consequence of being able to demonstrate competency in the things they have studied over time. Be they aspiring street sweepers or brain surgeons, all students know they must pass a test that shows they know and can do the right stuff.
If U.S. schools are to change, then our educators must be as willing to emulate foreign competition as were our auto makers. If we are to redefine success from "time served" to "work done," then we must stop giving students assurances of prizes before the race is even run.
Maryland, with its proposed High School Exit Exams, would embark on this difficult but necessary course. By doing so it would be courageously betting that more than anything it is high expectations that drive student motivation and achievement.
The testimony of Al Shanker, the Met Life Study and much else suggest that is right. If we give our kids the motivation to work and achieve at higher levels, they will do so, and their critics will be surprised at how quickly they can move to the top of those international rankings.
William J. Moloney is superintendent of the Calvert County Public Schools.