Education Opinion

Work hard, get smart

By Jessica Shyu — June 07, 2009 2 min read

”...success depends less on intellectual endowment than on perseverance and drive. As Professor Nisbett puts it, “Intelligence and academic achievement are very much under people’s control.”

I am tickled that Nicholas Kristof’s New York Times’ Op-Ed piece, “Rising Above I.Q.” ranked as the No. 1 article emailed on Sunday. That means thousands of people are reading and thinking about the fact that most of us in education already know: No single ethnicity or race is smarter than any other. Rather, almost anyone who’s willing to work really hard can be successful. As I learned in my initial Teach For America training, “Work Hard, Get Smart, Woo Woo!” For every person who doubts that kids can’t learn simply because of their ethnicity or family background, I (and my teaching colleagues) have a kid to prove you wrong.

What resonated the most, however, are the implications or policy lessons of this concept:

“It’s that the most decisive weapons in the war on poverty aren’t transfer payments but education, education, education. For at-risk households, that starts with social workers making visits to encourage such basic practices as talking to children. One study found that a child of professionals (disproportionately white) has heard about 30 million words spoken by age 3; a black child raised on welfare has heard only 10 million words, leaving that child at a disadvantage in school.
The next step is intensive early childhood programs, followed by improved elementary and high schools, and programs to defray college costs.”

While all this may be obvious to anyone working in education, it reminds us that the traditional school infrastructure is not designed to coach parenting skills, counsel students who are victims of abuse, or help students who don’t get to eat on the weekends. Most social workers I know are worked to the bone but can’t get to half of what they know must be done. Most high-needs districts don’t have free intensive early childhood programs in place yet, and there aren’t enough school psychologists to go around.

But these are the circumstances we and our children live in today, and serious student success can’t wait for programs and resources to be designed and distributed. Here’s a big thank you and take care to all the amazing educators who go way above and far beyond the job description to make sure students from all backgrounds have no excuses not to succeed, even if it means having Elroy’s mom on speed dial, bringing in peanut butter sandwiches and staying after to tutor until 8 each night.

The opinions expressed in New Terrain are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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