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September 18, 2012 6 min read
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Is the Culture of Achievement Undermining Student Morals?

Responding to a cheating scandal at Harvard, renowned developmental psychologist Howard Gardner worries that elite students’ relentless drive for success, fueled by what he refers to as “market ways of thinking,” has crippled their moral sense. In a Washington Post opinion piece, he reports on a study on career ambitions he and colleagues conducted through interviews with top students:

Over and over again, students told us that they admired good work and wanted to be good workers. But they also told us they wanted—ardently—to be successful. They feared that their peers were cutting corners and that if they themselves behaved ethically, they would be bested. And so, they told us in effect, "Let us cut corners now and one day, when we have achieved fame and fortune, we'll be good workers and set a good example." A classic case of the ends justify the means.

Relatedly, in a back-to-school article on the Time website, journalist Paul Tough says that parents’ all-consuming focus on their children’s grades and test scores has left little room for kids to develop character traits like “perseverance, grit, optimism, conscientiousness, and self-control.” He writes:

In fact, there's growing evidence that our anxiety about our children's school performance may actually be holding them back from learning some of these valuable skills. If you're concerned solely with a child's GPA, then you will likely choose to minimize the challenges that child faces in school. With real challenge comes the risk of real failure. And in an ultra-competitive academic environment, the idea of failure—even a small, temporary failure—can be very scary, to students and parents alike.

Scary enough, perhaps, to lead to cheating? It’s hard not to see Gardner’s and Tough’s apprehensions converging, in any case.

Tough, incidentally, is the author of the just-published How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character.

—Anthony Rebora


David Who? Young Adults Lack World Knowledge

British Prime Minister David Cameron seems to have an image problem in the United States. The problem is that most recent high school graduates have no idea who he is, a new survey suggests. Most also don’t know that Afghanistan is located in Central Asia, or that Mandarin is the most commonly spoken language on the planet. (Take one guess which language got the most votes.)

One reason for this apparent knowledge gap could well be that U.S. students typically don’t hear much about the rest of the world in school, as the survey report issued last week explains. At least, that’s what many recent high school graduates say.

A majority of respondents (62 percent) said world events were not “regularly discussed” in their high school classes. Only about half, 54 percent, agreed that their high school teachers “knew a lot about global events and incorporated a global perspective into their curriculums.”

Almost half disagreed somewhat or completely with the notion that their education in middle and high school helped them understand the “roots of global issues that affect my life today.”

Answers to other survey questions indicate that young adults do see the value of global understanding. Three-quarters said they wish their high school classes had taken a more global approach. Eighty-six percent agreed that developments abroad can have significant implications for the U.S. economy, and 80 percent say they are curious about world events.

Many would like to have spent more time studying foreign languages in secondary school. In fact, when presented with nine subjects (and able to choose more than one), the most popular to have been studied far and away was foreign languages, at 60 percent. When asked to pick just one topic, foreign languages again won out again, with 31 percent picking it over eight others.

The nationally representative sample of 502 high school graduates ages 18-24 was conducted by Colligan Market Research this summer. It was commissioned by the San Francisco-based nonprofit World Savvy with financial support from the International Baccalaureate organization.

Despite an apparent lack of knowledge about world affairs, most of those surveyed seem to believe they know a thing or two about the topic. A full 70 percent say they know more about the world and world events than their parents.

—Erik W. Robelen


Examining Push for 3-Year Bachelor’s Degrees

With the cost of college soaring, paying three years’ of tuition instead of four (or more) has its appeal. Who wouldn’t want to save time and money to enter the workforce sooner?

Not so fast, say the authors of a policy brief by the American Association of State Colleges and Universities. While a three-year bachelor’s degree sounds good, it’s not for everyone and shouldn’t be seen as the silver bullet that will solve the issue of college affordability.

Many states, including Indiana, Minnesota, and California, are exploring three-year bachelor’s degrees at public universities. In Ohio, the governor called for the state’s universities to offer three-year degrees in 10 percent of their degree programs by 2012 and 60 percent by 2014.

The AASCU paper, “The Three-Year Bachelor’s Degree: Reform Measure or Red Herring?” by Daniel Hurley and Thomas Harnisch, examines the various goals and models of three-year degrees, along with their potential benefits and pitfalls.

Just how do you finish in three years?

Students can rack up credits before they arrive on campus with Advanced Placement and dual-enrollment credits. And one advantage of a three-year program is that it can motivate students to make better use of high school, the authors note. Colleges can also reduce the number of courses required for a degree or use a competency-based model, which rewards student knowledge over seat time. However, the most common method is to compress time to degree with summer courses or heavier loads.

Aside from saving money, getting a degree in three years means students have better access to courses, a clear path to completion, and can start earning an income sooner, the paper explains. For institutions, it can be a recruitment tool, prompt innovations in curriculum, and result in higher productivity.

But on a large scale, Harley and Harnisch suggest the three-year approach is an ineffective and inequitable model.

First, it has limited student appeal. Not many participate in these fast-track programs. It’s not suited for many students who work, rely on Pell Grants (which are no longer available year-round), or lack the academic preparation for college, the report suggests.

Then there is the concern over rushing the college experience. Some may need four years or more to really develop critical-thinking skills, become engaged in campus life, and make full meaning of their new knowledge.

—Caralee Adams


Presidential Fitness Test Will Be Replaced

Gym class could become less traumatizing for some K-12 students under a new national initiative announced last week.

If you’re like me, you remember having to endure the Presidential Physical Fitness Test back in the day, which tested students in curl-ups, pull-ups, a timed shuttle run, an endurance run/walk, and the sit-and-reach.

If you’re like me, being faced with the prospect of 40 push-ups, 10 pull-ups, and a 6:30-mile run for a Presidential Physical Fitness Award as a 14-year-old was about as appealing as a daily trip to the principal’s office.

Starting next school year, the test will become a thing of the past. It’s being replaced by the Presidential Youth Fitness Program, a “health-related, criterion-based assessment” which resulted from a partnership between the President’s Council on Fitness, Sports, and Nutrition; the Amateur Athletic Union; the American Alliance for Health, Physical Education, Recreation, and Dance; the Cooper Institute; and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The departure from the test, part of the President’s Challenge, signals a move away from measuring students’ performance and puts more emphasis on assessing students’ health, according to the program’s website.

“To keep fitness in a positive mode, children’s individual fitness scores will not be used as a criteria for grading in physical education class and will be confidential between the teacher, student, and parent,” said Paul Roetert, chief executive officer of the AAHPERD, in a statement.

Under the new program, students’ fitness will be measured using the Cooper Institute’s FITNESSGRAM, which measures five areas of health-related fitness: aerobic capacity, body composition, flexibility, muscle strength, and muscular endurance.

The program’s website also includes a section devoted to professional development, which includes a free monthly webinar series on youth fitness and health. The first webinar in this series will take place on Sept. 25, at 1 p.m. Eastern, where the AAHPERD will walk through the basics of the new program.

It’s been a good run, Physical Fitness Test. I’ll always remember how few pull ups I could do back in my earlier years, thanks to you.

—Bryan Toporek

A version of this article appeared in the September 19, 2012 edition of Education Week as Blogs of the week


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