The Habit of Trying



A disheartening thing happened last year when economists tested 10th-graders in the United States and China.  No, it wasn’t the score gap between American students and kids in China, Singapore, Hong Kong, Japan, South Korea, and many other nations, which opens with every standardized test and embarrasses our school system year after year.  Those outcomes have held steady for so long that you can hardly blame observers who have given up on the national average and concluded that mediocrity is our permanent condition.

For example: on the 2012 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), “the United States performed below average in mathematics,” while “Performance in reading and science are both close to the OECD average.”  These rankings have remained steady over time.  Furthermore, “While the U.S. spends more per student than most countries, this does not translate into better performance.”  (Note that this judgment does not come from a conservative or libertarian group that opposes pouring more money into schools.  The source here is the OECD, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, headquartered in Paris.)  Money doesn’t help, not when funneled through the public school system.

At the same time, SAT verbal scores keep sliding downward along with math and writing scores.  (See Chart I-5a here.) And ACT’s measure of college readiness in English has actually dropped several percentage points in the last five years.  The overall picture of primary and secondary education is a depressing one.

It’s not all the schools’ fault, needless to say. Low achievement originates in the home, where academic values are or are not introduced and reinforced.  The current study in China and in the United States indicates as much.  For this time, the disappointment is not that the foreign students demolished the American students.  It is that the American scores jumped upward when the researchers did one thing: offered the test-takers money, in advance, for correct answers.

According to the Wall Street Journal story on the experiment (in the print version, entitled “Cash Incentives Lift Test Scores,” 28 November), the students who received the offer

left fewer questions blank and answered more correctly, compared with students who weren’t offered a reward, suggesting the cash was an incentive for greater effort resulting in higher scores.

 (See here for the study as published by the National Bureau for Economic Research.)

The methodology in the trial tied performance directly to the money.  There were no outside pressures on the students.  This was a low-stakes test, one that would not affect their lives (unlike the SAT and ACT exams).  On low-stakes tests, students put in the effort because people ask them to; they have no other external reason to work hard on it.  This one could have easily appeared to the 15-year-olds as another pointless exercise.  But this time, something unexpected happened.  Just before the test started, half of the subjects (447 high school sophomores in total) were handed an envelope packed with 25 one-dollar bills.  Students were told that they would lose one dollar per incorrect or blank answer.

That the paid American students tried harder is an unsurprising conclusion.  But here’s the disheartening part.  The researchers did the same trial with students in Shanghai.  Chinese students scored #1 in math on the 2012 PISA test, and the score gap showed up this time as well.  But the cash incentive played no role in their performance.  The bribe didn’t produce any change in Chinese performance.  In fact, both of the Chinese groups, the paid and the unpaid, got about twice as many answers correct as the American students did.

One of the researchers, Sally Sadoff, a behavioral economist at UC-San Diego, told U.S. News & World Report that the way in which the money was handled was crucial.   In earlier experiments, paying students to take low-stakes tests didn’t affect their final performance.  But in this study, researchers said they would take back one dollar for every error they made.  “It feels worse to lose something than it feels good to gain the same thing,” she explained.  “You work harder to hold onto something.”

The inference is that if you don’t penalize students by withdrawing some of the prize, they think they’ve earned it just by sitting for the test and making a middling effort.  Scores don’t matter, only the bare completion of the task.  The penalty changes that.  It turns the low-stakes (or no-stakes) test into a modest-stakes test.  Students acted accordingly.

But none of that made any difference to the Chinese students.  They tried their best with or without money.  The test itself was challenge enough.  Or, they brought with them an attitude of applying themselves no matter what the situation.  “Our hypothesis is that Shanghai students have a lot of intrinsic motivation,” Sadoff said.  “When they’re given a test, they try hard on it.  They’ve developed a habit.”

One might interpret the results this way.  Chinese students are driven from toddler days onward to compete, to perform, to achieve.  Education is, for many, the only pathway into prosperity, and there are more aspirants than there are slots.  If you don’t internalize the habit of exertion and success at an early age and practice it in every situation, you’re not going to cut it in high school.

American students, on the other hand, needn’t press so hard, at least not those who fall outside the top ten percent and don’t aim for the Ivies and the flagship public universities.  They have the freedom to pick and choose, to decide when and where to focus their energies.  Why try so hard on a test that doesn’t even matter?

If you’re a teacher, you know how exasperating that question is.  It isn’t that far from the sophomore who wants to enter the undergraduate business school and resents having to read “Song of Myself” in an American literature survey class.  He takes a wholly utilitarian attitude toward education, and he feels no shame in putting as little energy and time as possible into a course in order to earn a B.  He takes no pride in his work.  The meaning of what he does in school lies on the outside alone, that is, admission to the college of his first choice, an internship that might land a job . . .

The error he makes is that he thinks that he can turn his talents on and off and still perform well when he has to.  Instead of pushing vigorously with most every academic task before him, which is the sign of an inner motivation, he makes a determination each time, dividing things relevant to his future from things irrelevant.  He doesn’t know that a 17-year-old isn’t well equipped to make those discriminations.  The kid aiming to become a chemist doesn’t realize how important writing skills are to that field.  The business major sees no reason to learn anything about classical music or ancient architecture or Renaissance painting, not realizing that he will run into many personal and professional humiliations in his life if his cultural literacy extends no further than 21st-century cable series and classic rock.

American students shouldn’t have so much discretion.  They have too narrow a sense of their ambitions (which are bounded by images of the job, not based upon the varied kinds of learning that enabled someone to win that job and do it well).  The East Asian students don’t think that way, which is one reason why they outperform U.S. students so much on academic achievement.  They accept the significance of the material handed to them, and the voice inside them spurs them to strive.  That American students did so much better when handed a few bucks, even though the task was not an onerous one (there were only 25 questions–how hard is it to take a test like that and not leave any answers blank?) indicates how meaningless the bare activity of intellection is to most American teenagers.  If parents and teachers don’t work harder to get them to internalize the motivation factor, those current achievement gaps aren’t going to close.

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