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Date: Summer 2018
From: Education Next(Vol. 18, Issue 3)
Publisher: Hoover Institution Press
Document Type: Essay
Length: 3,065 words
Lexile Measure: 1520L

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SOMETIMES IT SEEMS as if we've tried everything in our efforts to reform public education, yet nothing has worked to boost student achievement at scale. And despite all of our reform attempts, we have ignored one of the most promising catalysts for student success.

What is this magical, elusive factor?

Student effort.

As education economists John H. Bishop and Ludger Woessmann have put it, "Student effort is probably the most important input in the education process."

The principle is simple: when students work harder, they learn more. In the United States, though, we don't expect most kids to work very hard, and they don't. For all of the talk about "raising standards" and implementing "high stakes testing," the United States is an outlier among developed nations when it comes to holding students themselves to account, and linking real-world consequences to academic achievement or the lack thereof.

In this article, we look at the evidence that external motivation can encourage middle-school and high-school students to work harder and learn more. We then identify a number of state and local policies that could put constructive pressure on students to exert effort in their academics. Such policies include instituting external, curriculum-based exams linked to real-world consequences for kids; maintaining high Standards for earning good grades; and experimenting with well-designed cash-incentive programs. We conclude by considering how student accountability and student agency might combine for an even more effective approach in the future.

Students as Stakeholders

It might seem obvious that students have the biggest stake in their academic success. Education is correlated with future income and important measures of quality of life, and it is the students themselves who will eventually reap the benefits of their efforts in school--or the costs of their indifference. But the operative word here is eventually. To many adolescents, the adult future feels far away, uncertain, and generally unrelated to mastering algebra, understanding the stages of mitosis, or identifying dangling participles.

When even adults debate the payoffs of academic learning, it should be no surprise that many students do not see the "real world" relevance of their schoolwork. But even when they believe in the value of academics, teenagers may still prefer to spend their energy on the more-compelling activities competing for their attention--friends, sports, afterschool jobs, Snapchat, video games, not to mention less-wholesome pursuits. Delaying gratification is hard for most anyone, but researchers have shown that young people are especially present-focused, averse to planning for the longer term and struggling to overcome the impulse to procrastinate. The education system puts students in a position where, as Alexandra Usher and Nancy Kober of the Center on Education Policy expressed it, the "costs are up-front... while the benefits are delayed and sometimes difficult to grasp."

The question is, what might be done to motivate adolescent students to work harder? The optimistic--one might say unrealistic--answer is to make schools so engaging, and the student-teacher relationship so supportive, that adolescents will be intrinsically motivated to work hard, despite the other demands...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|A544779958